Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 09/30/09

Personal Experiences from Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea 09/30/09

Background:

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

No. I lived in Caen, France

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2. How long have you lived here?

2 years from 2002-2004 and 16 months from 2008-2009.

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

US Embassy.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

13-hour direct flight from Washington D.C.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

The US Embassy housing compound is typical government block compound units built about fifty years ago. While they aren't that dynamic architecturally, they are comfortable with reasonable amenities and nice yards, typically. GSO is VERY responsive and friendly here. Expats in Seoul working for multinationals live close to the military base and, if there housing allowance allows it, may find very upscale housing with nicely designed interiors with yards. Most Seoulites live in the literally thousands of high rises around the metropolitan area. Some are made for the pages of Architectural Digest while some, at least on the outside, could be a slum in any rundown neighborhood in the world. Design is better here as Seoul will be designated the Design Capital of the World in 2010.Developers have their work cut outfor them to undo the aesthetic misfortune created by their predecessors in the 1970s and 80s.

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

Plentiful. Groceries are not cheap here if you can't step outside of your comfort zone. If you have access to the US Commissary on base, then you can find virtually anything you need; however, if you are an expat that lives on the economy there are still affordable options. There is a Costco with both western and Korean items; E-Mart is a hypermarket that has excellent selection of produce, fresh meats and fish, and western items albeit expensive.

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

As a US Gov't. employee with base and commissary access, you needn't worry about availability of items. That is the case if you don't have access too although be prepared to pay higher.

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

There are many decent to excellent restaurants in Seoul. If you like Korean food, you can get a feast for a very reasonable price, typically four to five US dollars. Most Korean restaurants are good as they know that with so many restaurants, they'll go out of business with substandard service. Seoul has more non-Korean restaurants opening all of the time from the moderately priced to the over-the-top ultimate epicurean experience and the expense to boot.

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

After the rainy season, the mosquitoes incubate and come out in September and can last into early November. They are small, quick, and aggressive. Many people use mosquito nets and have the tennis racket zappers, which can be a lot of fun.

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Daily Life:

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

US Government employees have use of an APO for US Mail. Fed Ex is available also. Other expats may use the Korean mail service and the usual courier services: Fed Ex, DHL, and UPS.

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

Most full-time (40 hours per week- weekdays) cost anywhere from $650 to $800 depending on what other benefits you provide (airfare back to their country, etc.).It's more expensive than most places in the world as the cost of living for them in the economy can be quite high.

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

Gyms are available and some are similar to US-style gyms. The military base has a nice gym that is free and a nicer one that has a monthly fee. Many parks in Korea have outdoor workout equipment next to hiking and biking trails.

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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?

Credit cards are easy to use at most businesses. If you're doing business with street vendors, they prefer cash. ATMs in Seoul are primarily for Korean banks although you can get a cash advance at some ATMs affiliated with international banks.

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

On the base there are English-language services as in areas around Seoul where expats predominantly live- it's not an issue.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

The Korea Herald and the International-Herald Tribune (partly owned by the New York Times) are available.

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

Koreans have come a long way with English, but without some basic Korean you will have a very frustrating experience. To know the language is to know the culture. Take at least an introductory course in order to learn the very user friendly and logical Korean alphabet.

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

Although the infrastructure is excellent here, not all areas are accessible by wheelchair for example; and, anyone with mobility issues will find it difficult at times navigating the city as many facilities, usually low rise, do not have elevators leading to multiple floors.

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Transportation:

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

Yes. Trains/ subway cost about one US dollar for an average in-town jaunt- buses the same. Taxis cost typically four to five dollars for a ten to fifteen minute ride. Clearly, when traffic is heavier and the ride longer, one will pay more.

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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?

There are no carjackings in Seoul. If you plan to buy a car in Seoul, get a Korean make as the repairs and parts are much cheaper than having a non-Korean make serviced; however, if you bring a car, you can get parts and service. NOTE: when driving in Seoul, it can be treacherous. While Korea has top-notch infrastructure, people still drive like they are in the developing world as they do not really stay in the lines, don't come to complete stops at intersections if they stop at all, and will cut you off in an instant to get an edge in the flow of traffic. It's L.A., Atlanta, or D.C. type of traffic. If you are in an accident, you will pay60 percent if you are at fault and the other party will pay the rest even if they were not responsible for the accident whatsoever. It's considered a vehicle operator user fee essentially.

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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?

Korea is considered the "most wired" country per capita in the world. Internet speed is superfast as Koreans would not tolerate slow connection speed. It's reasonably priced, typically $US40.

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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?

Cell phones are great here as this is the land of Samsung and LG; however, for expats the rules of acquisition and service plans are restrictive and quite expensive. In most cases, non-Koreans have prepay plans although there are some contract/ monthly bill scenarios available depending on status.

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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?

Very briefly. The US Embassy has a customs and procurement specialist that will facilitate the entry of pets upon arrival. Be prepared to pay a cash fee and have paperwork ready prior to arrival. If you're with the US Embassy, this could not be any more efficient.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Pet care is good here although if your cat or dog is ill and needs blood, you may have to source it from a blood bank in the States or elsewhere as it is scare or non-existent in Korea.

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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?

Most jobs for people that don't already have one here are based in the English teaching profession. It is very difficult to come to Korea and find work in a corporate environment without prior connections or a solid network.

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

Formal business attire. Korean dress to the nines. If you're socializing, it can be come as you are, but not necessarily like Jeff Lebowski.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Unhealthy, but Seoul is rapidly becoming a green city. Most, if not all of the buses run on LPG.

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2. What immunizations are required each year?

Not sure. I got Hep A and B, dengue. There is no need for malaria treatment in spite of the pesky mosquitoes.

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

Other than one particular issue to the north, Seoul is perhaps the safest place that I've ever been in my life. There are petty crimes, but it is rare and isolated. There are poorer parts of town, but there are no safety correlations.

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

Medical care is excellent. This used to be a post without an RMO, but that has changed. The base has a military hospital which provides limited services to non-military government personnel. The medical office through the embassy provides referral services for local practitioners at state of the art medical facilities in Seoul. Doctors here are excellent, well-trained, and often speak English very well; however, they do not like to be questioned about philosophy. It's a "my way or the highway" type of attitude.

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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?

Four seasons- fall and spring are beautiful. Winter is a damp cold, but rarely does it snow with any precipitation. Summer is similar in temperature to the mid-Atlantic US with a rainy season that lasts about four to five weeks from July to August. When the rainy season is over you can see the steam coming out of the ground the last week of peak summer heat.

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Schools & Children:

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

There are a few international schools to choose from in Seoul from pre-school to high school. Most of the schools consist of expats, but many are populated by permanent ethnic Korean residents whose children have foreign passports, a requirement to attend such schools, in order to get a hand up on other Korean children since these schools are typically English speaking. Many expat kids can be chastised by the cliques of Korean students that know one another since they have grown up and gone to school together for a long time. Korean is spoken on the playground of these schools.

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

The local schools often shun children with special needs. I knew of one parent whose kids went to private school; however, there special needs child attended the US Military school that catered to children with such needs. Many parents end up homeschooling these children due to lack of services. Attitudes in Korea are changing, however. It will require a network and infrastructure to facilitate.

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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?

Preschools include: Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC); Preschool Academy (PSA); Franciscan School; Namsan School; Rainbow Preschool. Preschools are very expensive in Seoul with many of them costing over $10,000 US and up to $20,000.The military base has a part time preschool for eligible government personnel and there is a daycare facility as well that follows rules and regulations outlined by base command and is quite good.

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

Yes- there are tae kwon do clubs and other martial arts programs. Most sports are offered at schools; however, the military base has a number of sports offered throughout the year.

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Expat Life:

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

Not real sure, but korea4expats.com and globalseoul.co.kr probably have that information. It has grown considerably since we were here in 2002.

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2. Morale among expats:

It wavers. If you come here and try to compare things to your own norm, you're going to be disappointed at times. If you come here with an open mind and explore Seoul and immerse yourself in the culture, you're going to have a great time.

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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?

For US Embassy personnel, it can be quite enjoyable depending on the attitude of colleagues. There are some established events and traditions on post that are really a great deal of fun. Of course, there are official functions as well as the Marine Ball and the number of activities and special events offered on the US Military Garrison where most US government personnel live.

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

Yes to all of the above. Seoul and Korea as a whole is waiting to bust out of its shell. There are so many interesting things to do in Seoul and Korea. The problem is that things truly get lost in translation. I've been here for three years now and feel like I've just scratched the surface because so many things that I'd like to see and understand are not articulated in a way to appreciate them completely.

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

There seems to be pockets in Seoul where homosexuality is prevalent and tolerated. However, your typical Korean is not really warm and fuzzy about the subject.

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

Koreans are very much about outward appearances and will discuss one's appearance very candidly, which can be refreshing. However, xenophobia, while diminishing as Seoul becomes more transient, is still pervasive. Non-Koreans are often addressed as "foreign person".

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

Seeing the DMZ is a must; it is a fascinating yet chilling experience to come face to face- literally- with someone that could spark an international incident with the slightest shows of disrespect. Hiking is the national pastime in this country as you'll see Koreans and expats alike heading to local mountains routinely for sometimes grueling hikes straight uphill- no switchbacks. There are many palaces dating back 500+ years. There are theme parks for kids and families. Spas/ saunas are prevalent and can range in price for entry from ten to thirty US dollars for entry. At these places you can soak in multiple mineral baths of varying temperature, get a massage, sleep, and eat a reasonably priced meal. The best thing to do is befriend Koreans and do what they do if you want the best Korean experience.

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

Celadon pottery and other earthenware; custom-made clothing; Korean art and supplies; handcrafted households items made from silk, rice, and other materials.

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9. Can you save money?

Seoul is not cheap, but if you live like a Seoulite and take advantageof some of the things that are value-added, it's not too bad.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

In a second.

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

Attitude.

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3. But don't forget your:

Korean-English dictionary

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

I don't know of any.

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

I don't know of any.

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

JSA; Shiri; Old Boy (very disturbing but avant-garde); My Sassy Girl; The Way Home; Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, and Spring (something like that)

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Like any new place, Seoul depends upon the attitude of the expat. This can be a great post or it can be one where you're totally isolated. The best thing to do is learn some of the language, get out into Seoul and the rest of Korea (GPS recommended), eat the food, and make Korean friends (FSNs are great about sharing their culture).You will have a great time here.

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