Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 09/11/13
Personal Experiences from Seoul, South Korea
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Tokyo, Taipei, Malaysia.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Los Angeles - Flight is about 10 hours with many major airports in the U.S. that should offer direct flights to Incheon Airport, which is a major Asian hub.
3. How long have you lived here?
Been living here on and off, total of 7 years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Apartment in Kangnam. It was a 1 bedroom with laundry equipped. Commuting takes about half an hour from here to the Embassy.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you shop at E-Mart, Korea's equivalent of WalMart/Costco, it's about 20% more expensive than comparable American pricing.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Hot sauce, Mexican food condiments, ziploc bags.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
You will find most American chains here, with the exception of Mexican. Prices are similar to the U.S., but in the summers McDonald's used to have 3000 won (A little under 3 bucks) Big Mac combos which I ended up indulging more often than I should because it was such a cheap meal. Also, fast food made here tends to look remarkably like they do in photos because Korean entry-level workers here take extreme pride in quality and workmanship, even for the lowly burger.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitos are easily mitigated with the number of ingenious repellents they sell here. I know it's not good for you, but I fell in love with the scent of mosquito coil incense.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Korean Post works just as fine as DPO/APO.
2. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gym memberships are ridiculously expensive here.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Electronic and card payment are used virtually everywhere here, even in the boonies. I had absolute confidence using my credit card everywhere.
4. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
AFN is available and there are several English newspapers here.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None to just get by, but being able to read the language will open quite a few doors for you. Koreans love it when you try to speak the language, will doubly respect you for knowing how to read it, and it might be the ticket to open some doors you never would've imagined.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It's not like the ADA laws here in the U.S., but people with physical disabilities are accomodated well and treated with respect in the S. Korean infrastructure.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Extremely safe and affordably. Fun trick, every subway fare you take (either via outdated ticket or RFID card) also entitles you to one free bus ride connection right after. Taking the time to learn the extremely well sorted public transit system in Seoul will allow you to make appointments and meet people with surgical precision. It's a reason why Koreans take punctuality as seriously as the Japanese.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Any car will work here, but buying local Korean cars are best to mitigate costs.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Fast and extremely cheap. I download at 10 megabytes a second (100Mbs internet speed) for about US$70 a month. With a VPN, you can get all the Hulu and Netflix you want.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
A wide array are available here, often on the cutting edge of new.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Yes! You must take care of this in the U.S., whether its a cat or dog. You'll need a minimum 3 month lead time to get all the tests, records, and results that the S. Korean gov't wants.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Yes, Koreans treat some of their pets like their own children.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Here's a secret tip I used when I first arrived here many many years ago. Go to local Korean colleges and see bulletins or ask if any students need help with their English essays/HW/etc. Korean's pay big bucks when it comes to their education and despite the significantly easier pace they take in universities compared to high schools, there are still many eager to further themselves and pay for it.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
If you're an American, this is an extremely safe country. There are security cameras EVERYWHERE. Big brother is always watching, and the people in the country know this. I've walked through subways filled with homeless people sleeping and they keep to themselves.
If you're the type of guy who enjoys the nightlife and likes to go out and party, it's always a good idea to exercise caution in the wee hours of the morning as it's still common to see people acting like a fool at 4am.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Healthcare here is 1st world with the latest in advancements.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
It's dirty and the smell of burnt sweet diesel mixed with gasoline is one of the characteristic scents of Seoul.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Humid and rainy summers, frigid cold winters. Last winter I spent here, it reached -25C regularly and I nearly panicked from being too darn cold when I under-dressed like a fool.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge. There will be tons of people and gatherings for you to find here.
2. Morale among expats:
Excellent. Sour pusses among expats are those who refuse to learn basics of the Korean culture.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Endless. This is a city where it's too easy to meet new friends to hang out with if you learn some basic Korean. If you like drinking, Seoul will turn you into a happy, functioning alcoholic when it's not work hours.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Absolutely! There's something for everyone here in abundance.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
They are tolerated and expat LGBT will have no problems here, but despite what you see on TV and Korean pop culture, homosexuals among the Koreans here are still treated like a mental disease.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Only if you're Korean yourself. Otherwise, no issues.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Touring the entire country with easy access to public transportation about 95% of the time, knowing how to beat the endless number of big brother cameras that completely cover this country when you speed on roads, being able to eat something and find it open at virtually ever hour of the day, all days, everyday. No exception. Seoul does not sleep ever.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Korea has plenty of beautiful natural traits to it that will make it friendly for outdoorsy hikers. Hiking is a national pastime here. Make sure to visit (and please, do so with respect) some of the gorgeous Buddhist Temples which are considered treasures.
If you're a bachelor and like drinking and partying till the sun comes up, take the KTX to Busan in the end of July/beginning of August and go to Haeundae Beach. They regularly have a million people there on a small strip of land. I've never seen so many beautiful women at any one place in my life, and fun loving Koreans down here on the Southern tip are used to seeing tourists from Western countries here and it's safe to even sleep at the beach.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Beautiful handmade Korean household goods, ceramics, pottery, utensils, fans. Again, try making some friends and embed yourself into the local culture instead of going to the easiest major tourist site where you'll get ripped off with Chinese made goods listed above. There is still an extremely proud and cultivated world of classic Korean goods that is popular here.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
A 24/7 city that is safe to roam 24/7, wonderful native cuisine, clean streets, and amazing public order.
11. Can you save money?
It's very possible if you will eat the local cuisine and limit your night outings.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely! Seoul is called the Miracle on the Han River for a reason.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Perceptions of conservative Asians, inflexible eating habits, bad manners, claustrophobia of being surrounded by crowds.
3. But don't forget your:
Winter clothing, American sized clothing in general, appetite for eating beef for cheaper prices.
4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Korean TV and film you can see on Netflix will never ever be an objective view of daily life here, same way U.S. reality TV can't substitute either. But they will give you a glimpse of how things look and sound.
5. Do you have any other comments?
Seoul is a very intense city and moves very fast. Subway commuters here will take some time to get used to (if you ever do) being rudely bumped by unapologetic people of all ages and gender rushing their way around without ever apologizing. It's a high paced city with tons of things to do. Only a handful of mega cities in all of Asia are as safe and comforting to travel around as Seoul.