Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 01/23/14

Personal Experiences from Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea 01/23/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Yes, with family, but I'd previously lived in Russia as a college student.

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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?

Utah, about a 24-hour trip with layovers (generally in Seattle and Japan). There are direct flights from San Francisco that are shorter.

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3. How long have you lived here?

3 years from 2010 to 2013.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Military.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Apartment living off-post (Embassy housing at Yongsan is a community of houses with yards on the Army post in its own section). Apartments are small near Yongsan Army base but very modern and generally nice. They are more spacious further away. We stayed in Park Towers and loved it.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Veggies in season are super cheap, especially from sidewalk farmer's markets. Fruits and meats are expensive. The commissary on post is fairly well-stocked.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Between the commissary and PX and APO, we could get pretty much anything. If you need specialty items for allergies, gluten-free, etc. that Amazon doesn't ship, stock up on that.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Everything, just more than in the U.S. off post, and same as in the States on post.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes in some areas, but not too bad generally.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Army APO.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

About US$10 an hour. We had to let ours go when she kept asking us to buy stuff at the PX for her, asked for advances, stopped answering the phone when we called to schedule her, etc. Most people have good experiences.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Available, free on post, not sure how much off post.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Most places accept credit cards, except the outdoor markets.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Protestant, Latter-day Saint (Mormon), and others.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

We got by with just the basics (hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and a few other things). Lots of Koreans speak English, the signs are all in Hangul and English, and everything on post is English. I wish we would have learned more Korean, but it was really easy to get by without it, so we did.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Not too bad--there are generally accommodations, although not all subways have elevators or ramps.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Yes, they are all safe and affordable.

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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?

Anything. Smaller would be better for parking. If you buy a 9-passenger minivan here, you can drive in the bus lane, making trips out of the city SO much better traffic-wise.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, excellent service off post (I've heard on post is slower/more expensive). We paid about US$25 and had screaming high-speed Internet. You have to use a VPN for many U.S. sites to work.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

If you have on-post access, the One-Stop on post by the Embassy Club/Jamba Juice has the best deals. But it's the home of Samsung. There are awesome phones, awesome service everywhere.

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Pets:

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?

Not sure.

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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?

This is a big complaint for many spouses. There are limited options on post but the SOFA agreement doesn't allow spouses to work off post.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are orphanages, volunteer opportunities with the schools and sports on post, and through local church groups.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Very formal. Koreans dress up even for recreation, with sporty, matching outfits. Couples often match. Regular day dress is much nicer than most Westerners. Women wear heals and skirts most of the time. Also, very modest tops even if shorts and skirts are very short.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

No, it is SO safe. A friend lost a wallet down along the river trail. It was returned with all cash and everything still in it!

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical is generally very good. The post has an American hospital and dentist, but off-post care seems very good also. Orthodontics off post was great.

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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?

Air is OK with some really bad days when winds bring pollution over from China. Some seasons, it seems like every day is red (dangerous for outdoor activities), but other times it's barely noticeable. There are lots of trees and parks to help mitigate the haze.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot, humid summers with monsoon rains in July (sometimes very, very wet, other years just really humid); amazing, long fall with wonderful weather (although sometimes windy); cold winters; unpredictable springs (some great days, some rain, lots of wind).

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Our kids went to the DOD schools on post and they had great experiences. Teachers are kind of hit and miss and we heard bad things about the high school, but had incredible teachers for KG and 6 between our three kids. Only one really bad experience with a Kindergartner teacher. There are several wonderful international schools in the area, including YISS, SIS, and more.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Same as in U.S. for the DOD schools. Can't say for the international schools.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Yes, most of the Korean options are full-day, every day It was hard to find a half-day option. There is a Christian program called Mustard Seed that has more options.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, through Yongsan Army post or schools or community. KORAM is a great year-round soccer club on post for U9 to U15.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large and generally very good.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Lots of great restaurants, Itaewon is famous for restaurants from most countries around the world, there are also tons of bars, and Karaoke is huge.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Yes, great for everyone. There is SO much to do. It's family-friendly but there's plenty for couples and singles too.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Not sure.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

I've heard that there are issues with Koreans being very prejudiced, but did not see this personally.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Visiting Seoraksan National Park and Sokcho beaches was so fun. Chinhae cherry blossoms are incredible. Yongin recreational forest has great paragliding and a fun hiking/camping area. Favorites in the city were Dongdaemun, Myeongdong, and Namdaemun markets, hiking Seoul Tower, the Seoul zoo is great, tons of amusement parks, DMZ tour, museums, etc. There are just so many things to do here.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

If you're into amusement parks there are Lotte World, Seoul land, Everland, and others. If you want culture and history, there are tons of museums and historical sites, Buddhist temples (Seongmodo island is awesome off the west coast). The folk village in Suwon is wonderful. The national and war museums are free and huge. Butterfinger Pancakes has the world's greatest pancakes (the mozzarella cheese pancakes, seriously, try them). There are movie theaters, silly museums (ice museums open all year, trick eye museum, hands-on reptile/bug museums, rolling ball museums, kids museums, etc.). The Children's Grand Park zoo is free and great. You can do stuff every single weekend and not run out of stuff to do here.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Purses, Korean souvenirs (fans, carvings, etc.).

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

It is very safe, there are lots of things to do both in and out of the city, the U.S. expat community is fantastic, public transportation is great, the people are very kid-friendly, the shopping is fun. LASIK/LASEK surgeries are exceptional quality and very low cost compared to in the States. I had LASEK done in Myeongdong at Dream Eye Center and highly recommend it to anyone.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes, but only if you're careful. Cost of living is high if you do everything there is to do and use taxis a lot. Also, there are lots of great travel opportunities but they are more expensive than you'd expect so many people use all their extra money on travel.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Despite the culture shock of being surrounded by a HUGE city, hangul, and millions of people who all look the same, Seoul is a great place to live. We loved our time there and it was a favorite for our kids.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

I would go there again in a heartbeat. Our kids would be so excited to hear we were going back.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Wall hangings (you have to have a special wall-track to hang any pictures in the apartments here and most walls don't have them).

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4. But don't forget your:

Sense of adventure and shoes!!! (if you are bigger than a women's size 8, it is VERY hard to find shoes here).

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Although Seoul is a HUGE city, you don't have to go very far out of the city to find outdoor recreational opportunities for hiking and camping. It is prettier than we expected and while never far from the city, there are chances to get away from the city. Our kids loved the views from our apartment on the 29th and 22nd floors.

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