AUTHOR’S note: ‘Coming to Korea’ posts are aimed at folks still new to Korea. If you’ve been in Korea for awhile, consider this a review =)
COMING to Korea means a new lifestyle – resolved. That lifestyle often comes with a few trial-and-error bumps along the way – mistakes you don’t have to make. While most of these can become habit in a couple weeks (or maybe a few months), at least a couple of these take a special effort for most.
- Accepting a quoted taxi fare. These come from the more unscrupulous taxi drivers out to make a few thousand won from the person in need of a ride. If you’re of the non-confrontational type, you could just let it go – the difference is rarely more than a few bucks. Simply say no thanks, and walk to the taxi stand or wait for the next one. Calling a taxi can also work, as does walking to a less touristy area.
- Drinking too much soju. While the taste is off-putting enough to some, others enjoy the quasi-sweetness of Korea’s firewater. Paired with Coke or mixed into a soju cocktail, it can actually go down quite easily. It’s also cheaper than some brands of bottled water, and all too easy to jump past your limit into stumbling-drunk territory. The solution: sip, don’t shoot. Alternate with water if you’re drinking to be sociable, and take some aspirin before crashing. Your head will thank you in the morning.
- Not turning off your heat in the summer. Assuming your apartment has the ondol heating, unplug it or turn it off when the warm part of spring arrives. On almost all control panels, there is a way to heat the water without turning on the under-floor heater. It sounds simple, but perhaps 1 out of 10 expats I’ve asked eventually admitted to forgetting.
- Putting recycled stuff in trash bags. In some neighborhoods the local ajummas will give you hell about this, while in others there are receptacles to throw your recycled stuff. Either way, you’re paying for the trash bags to throw away your trash – let the locals fuss over what to do with your orange juice bottles and cardboard boxes.
- Being oblivious while on the subway. A few things to note here:
- Seoul’s line 1 forks multiple times, with the biggest fork happening at Guro station in western Seoul. Be sure you’re on the correct part of the line, and know when to transfer if needed.
- Trying to catch the last subway home can be tricky – depending on how far you’re going and whether you have to transfer, aim to be on the platform by 11pm on weekdays and 10:30pm on the weekends.
- Sitting in the end seats is a big no-no – unless you happen to be old, disabled, or pregnant, don’t even bother. The buses lump those sorts of seats toward the front, but as long as the bus isn’t full it’s usually fine to sit there.
- Speaking of buses, not hanging on tightly can be a recipe for disaster. Drivers rarely wait until you’re seated before taking off, and even cross-country buses aren’t necessarily a smooth ride. If you’re standing, grab the bar, not the handle, and tuck your bag between your feet.
- Not making Korean friends – something that can be surprisingly difficult for even experienced expats. The language barrier can present an issue, as can the cultural differences. The solution is less straightforward, but it involves patience and an open mind. Getting out of your house and trying to make friends can be a little nerve-wracking, but it’s usually the same thing for Koreans as well. Start with people reading English-language books, or perhaps at the local bookstore or bar. Sometimes Koreans will approach you – again, patience and an open mind.
- Always eating Western food – it’s comfortable and well-known, but can also be more expensive and harder to find. While a few franchises offer Korean versions of hamburgers and pizzas, make Western food a special occasion instead of your standard fare. See this post for five Westerner-approved Korean dishes.
- Spacing out while on the sidewalk – between motorcycles, oblivious twentysomethings on cell phones, ajumma using forearms to clear themselves a path, and teenagers babbling to each other, the concept of watching where you walk is more critical than ever. While you can expect to be bumped / jostled on busier sidewalks, it can happen virtually anywhere you’re walking in public.