If you’ve just discovered Chris in South Korea or you’re new to Korea, welcome. ‘Life in Korea’ posts are aimed squarely at you – to my more experienced expat readers, comments are open for your wisdom and ideas.
Living in a foreign country is no piece of cake. There seems to be an endless number of things to learn or take care of, and there never seems to be enough time. When it comes to mastering the life and culture of Korea, there are 10 things that will make your life in Korea a lot easier. While these are in no particular order, all are certainly important – without further ado…
1. Hangeul – I feel a little silly in mentioning the basic Korean alphabet as being a thing to master, but it’s practically a pre-requisite for getting by and getting around. If reading Korean is still giving you trouble, the Korean Wiki Project has an excellent tutorial. It really can be learned in a few hours – and it opens up a lot of doors.
2. Diplomacy – if you haven’t figured out the Confucian totem pole that tells you where you fit in, know that almost everyone is ‘above’ you. Respect the chain of command, or ignore it at your own risk. Part of diplomacy is knowing when to be gracious (even when you’re crabby) and knowing when to pitch a fit. Remember that saving face is usually more important than telling the complete truth.
3. Maneuvering through a crowd, ajumma style. Whether trying to transfer from one subway line to another or just walking down a busy sidewalk, your arms and elbows can become your best friends. Simply swinging away is bad form, but gently pushing or deflecting people in your path often works better in crowds than 잠깐만요 (jam-ggan-man-yo, or ‘excuse me’).
4. Getting help / attention – whether you need a waiter or help finding your size, a quick 여기요! (literally ‘here!’) will get the right person’s attention. If in a nicer restaurant, making eye contact and smiling works well too.
5. The online shopping game. Although most things you’ll want or need can be found in Seoul, finding English-language books or some foreign items can be more difficult outside of a large city. GMarket is the biggest local website and has an English-language page, although quite a few suppliers from eBay and Amazon will also ship to South Korea. The craigslist for Seoul / Korea is a decent size and growing every month. It’s also the place to find fellow foreigners having their ‘leaving Korea – MUST SELL!’ sales.
6. Handling spicy food – for some people this isn’t a challenge; for others, kimchi and sundae are just too spicy to handle. Remember there is a balance between spicy and bland, then alternate between them. Your taste buds do get used to the spiciness after awhile. Remember to challenge your tastebuds before returning to the rice or milder dishes.
7. Handling alcohol – the locals might put back five soju shots in 15 minutes, but that doesn’t mean you have to. As early as your first week in Korea you’ll be asked if you like to drink or whether you like soju. Unless you’re not a lightweight in the alcohol department, pace yourself – or convince the asker that you don’t drink. They may not understand, but they’ll usually respect your wish if conveyed through the ubiquitous ‘X’ with your hands.
8. Public transportation – the Seoul subway system continually grows, and it’s easier to reach more destinations than ever before. The city bus system might still be confusing to some, but it’s getting more manageable than before thanks to a larger supply of English-language route maps. The best way to master public transportation is to take it as often as possible – learning the geography of your city or area will help a lot as well. Meander, when you have the time. If traveling across the country, learning some basics about expressways and train lines will help you understand how long it’ll take to reach your destination.
9. ‘One more thing’. In many professional situations, it seems there’s usually ‘something else’ that needs to be done – can you do it? It’s hard to say no, and it’s probably not the sort of thing you’re particularly excited about doing. Whether it’s last-minute planning, changed expectations, expect (but don’t necessarily volunteer for!) that ‘one more thing’.
10. Konglish – for better or worse, word order and correct word choice sometimes flies out your mouth – even while conversing with other native English speakers. While it may not be bad as these photographic examples, it’s alright for the most part. Don’t try mastering it yourself – instead, be patient when trying to figure out what they’re saying.
You’ve read 10, and you get the last one free of charge:
11. Relaxing / having fun. Even for the most experienced expats, life in Korea can still be stressful. Find a way to release the tension outside of work. This writer finds travel to be a great relaxer; others find jimjilbang (read this article on a jimjilbang if you don’t know what it is) to be great. Still others join a dart league or other community to let off steam. While drinking and bar-hopping might be fun occasionally, please don’t let that be the main source of your relaxing.
Experienced readers: any additions to the list? What really needs to be mastered to enjoy life in Korea?