Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 02/27/15

Personal Experiences from Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea 02/27/15

Background:

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

This is our third expat experience but first in Asia.

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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?

Washington, DC. There is a nonstop from Dulles but generally you connect through Detroit, Dallas or San Francisco.

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3. How long have you lived here?

7 months.

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

I am an EFM. My husband is here with the Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Embassy compound on the base. Houses are okay. Nothing special. It is great to have a yard for the kids and access to the base sports programs for the kids. Of the three places we have lived, this is the smallest house we have been in.

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

Commissary prices are comparable to DC. You can find most everything you can in the States. Speciality and organic items are limited. Usually you can find fresher and better prices on produce on the local economy.

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

Everything is available here.

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

More fast food than you could ever want on base and delicious food from around the world in Seoul. It is a foodie's dream. Seoul is expensive though!

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

Mosquitoes.

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Daily Life:

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

DPO through the Embassy. It is also nice to have the post office on base to mail packages so you don't have to take everything to the Embassy to send out.

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

I pay US$10 an hour for a part-time housekeeper.

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

Free gyms on base.

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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?

Safe to use on the economy but our U.S. ATMS can only access the ATMs on base.

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

I know just enough to get a taxi home and can function fine. Of course the more you know, the better off you are.

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

Lots of stairs to the metro but it is a very developed city with good sidewalks. Every sidewalk has raised markers to help the blind find their way.

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Transportation:

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

safe, affordable and you can pretty much go anywhere.

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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?

Any but if you get a Korean made 9 seater it is a huge advantage to be able to drive in the HOV lanes.

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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?

It is available but surprisingly slow. Supposedly they are working on making improvements to the lines in the housing area.

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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?

One Stop near the Starbucks on base is the best deal. Cell phones plans run about US$90 a month for unlimited data and talk.

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Health & Safety:

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

None.

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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?

First-rate medical care. U.S. or London-trained doctors. Their hospitals are huge and are run very efficiently. The med unit here doesn't do a lot of hand holding to help guide you through the process like I have had at other posts but once you get to know the system, the medical care itself is great. Every hospital has an International Patient check-in desk and they help you.

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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?

Generally okay except for the yellow dust in the spring and when the pollution from China comes in.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

pollen, pollution, dust - also they eat pretty exotic food here with very little labeling on the packaging.

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

Very much like Washington, DC. Four distinct seasons- hazy, hot and humid summer. Short but very nice spring and fall. Our winter was mild but I understand they can be very cold too.

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Schools & Children:

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

Schools are one of the biggest drawbacks to living here. It is difficult for embassy kids to get into the DOD school. While YISS, the school closest to housing, is a beautiful facility, we transferred out. In my opinion, the teachers are not qualified, the rules are unbelievably rigid and strict (no talking in the lunchroom), and it has an evangelical Christian philosophy that affects education (e.g., my kids learned that kids dinosaurs did not exist, no discussion of evolution). SFS is the oldest international school in Seoul and while it is more established and a bit more diverse than the other schools, it is also quite religious. KIS, is a great school, but it is far from housing and is still struggling with bringing more expat kids into the school. We have chosen KIS and are happy with it, but there is no clear and obvious school choice. It has made our transition to Seoul particularly difficult.

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

KIS has a very good program to help kids with learning needs. Not sure about other needs or 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?

I know there are a lot of options here and people seem happy.

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

Yes, great programs through the base. The schools have programs as well.

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Expat Life:

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

Huge. There are two big women's groups - SIWA and AWC - which offer a lot of activities and ways to meet others and to get to know Seoul better. The Embassy community is different than the "usual" make up of embassy cones. It makes it harder to get to know others as people generally stick to socializing with their office groups. The CLO here is great and has worked hard to plan fun outings and good community building activities.

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

I would say yes to all. Our housing is near Itaweon, so a great spot for singles or couples. We came here because we wanted the family life the base offered.

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

The base has a great library which we can use. After being away from public libraries for many years, it is nice to check out books again! Lots of other interesting things to do depending on your interests- hiking clubs, cooking clubs, language groups, book clubs. Skiing is nearby in the winter. We have been white water rafting and pear picking. Lots of ways to get out and explore nature here even though you are in a megacity.

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

It is easy living on the base. You have a the PX and commissary so you have access to U.S. goods and the prices are dramatically better than on the local market. There are places to tour and see throughout Seoul and Korea which are great too.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

I am honestly not sure. Seoul has some major positives (U.S. conveniences on base, beauty of Korea, great sites/food in Seoul) but some major negatives (isolation on base and not getting immersed in Seoul, expensive to travel out of Korea, drawbacks of schools, odd mix of embassy community) that make it difficult to decide. There isn't much in the "middle" here.

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

Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel (Weatherhead Books on Asia),

I'll Be Right There,

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

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