To live in Seoul, South Korea
9,5 years ago I moved to Seoul, South Korea as a part of the exchange program at my university. I remember the day in February when I for the first time in my life put my foot in South Korea like it was yesterday. It was really, really cold, dark, I was so tired after a long flight with transfer in Doha and a stop in Osaka and on top of that I didn’t understood anything when I arrived at the airport and the airport officer stamped my student visa and talked to me in Korean. The only thing I knew about Seoul was the directions to the airport bus and the stop I had to get off at. Luckily I had the name printed in Korean and I was freezing so much the hour it took to reach my destination where the one and only person knowing that I was arriving in Seoul was meeting up with me. Ara. She was my buddy from the Uni I was going to study at and without her I wouldn’t survived the first days. She was my guide and translator. Because in Korea, people speak Korean. It is not like Japan or China. In Korea people stick to Korean. Not like the Asia light that I just had experienced during my first exchange semester in Singapore (you can read more about that here).
Living in Seoul
To live in Seoul without speaking Korean was a big challenge. We were just four exchange students at my uni and we didn’t really hanged out together since we had different interests. After some days I found some people that shared my interest of going to nightclubs and soju bars so that scene I of Seoul I explored with them. But I had a lot of time when I had no one to hang out with aswell. That was the first time in my life that happened but it was here in Seoul I learnt how to appreciate spending time on my own. Of course I had my running also back then so I was running four or five times a week along the river. But I also explored the city of Seoul. I got a guidebook and went to all major places of interest. It was really easy to navigate around, but you needed to take the subway. Forget about signs in English, you had to compare the letters with the ones in the guide book to get to the right station and finding someone who spoke English to ask about directions was not going to happen.
Seoul is a city filled with ancient places to explore. It has a lot of green space. There are mountains to hike in and there are tons of places to go for markets and do shopping. There are loads of clubs, bars and karaoke places. It is a lively city and if you travel there as a tourist I am sure you will fill your days with fun. But it is difficult to live there without knowing Korean. The culture is not like South East Asia. It is Korean. I remember when I traveled to Tokyo for the first time (after being in Korea for two months) the first thing I thought was “wow, this feels like coming home to Europe” and that feeling I still have when I go to Japan. That is how big the difference between Korea and Japan is.
Culture – never say no!
Seoul was a 12 million inhabitant city when I moved there. It could be a week or two between the times you met another one with white skin if you didn’t went to the American part Itaewon where the US army people lives. My university Chung Ang was located in the neighborhood of Heukseok-dong on the opposite side of Ichon-Dong river. It was a real authentic area with small houses, apartment buildings that all looked the same, some chines outdoor gyms, no fast food places, no supermarkets, streetfood vendors selling fried foods and the top university that I was admitted to. It was 20 000 students there and I was the one and only blonde one. Guess how many pictures I got asked to attend? imagine that every time you went to a class people want to have your autograph? others want to touch your skin when you buy fruit at the market and people are running after you just to get a picture when you are out running. Being a blond swede in this part of Seoul made you feel like a rockstar. If you wanted. I didn’t. I said no to taking pictures and writing autographs. In Asian cultures you don’t say no.
I took five classes that semester. In two out of the five classes the professors was really rude and not used to Europeans. They were always picking me to answer questions and sometimes and one of them that I had in one management course after every lecture he asked me to stand up infront of the class and sum up what he had been talking about at the four hour lecture. It was me, every time and no one else had to do that. Half way into the semester when I had more courage I said no. I am not doing the sum up this weeks lecture and I can tell that he got so mad and after that he was treating me even worse. So lesson learned, in Korea you don’t say no. You better say yes (and not do it).
Housing and daily life
The place I was staying at when I was a student was also very, very Korean. It was a student dorm where girls and boys were separated. It was not allowed to enter each others buildings. On weekdays the gate closed at 11 pm and weekends 12 pm. Something you learnt how to come around (i.e become a friend with the security guys or crawl under the gate). I shared my room with a student from Korea that didn’t know a single word of English. The place was an all inclusive place so at the dormitory breakfast, lunch and dinner was served in the canteen. I went there one time and never again. You got a tray made of steel with one hole for rice, one for kimchi, one for beef/chicken/fish stew and one for desert. This you had to enjoy with chopsticks made out of steel and a cup of tea. Very glamourous. Since I cannot eat Korean food my diet consisted of sandwiches from 7-eleven, vanilla ice cream, sugar cookies and when I occasionally found some apples I had that. It is a great diet if you wanna be skinny.
I visited some Korean friends of mine and don’t always count to come to a house where you find IKEA furniture. They sleep at the floor (which is very comfortable though), the most important things in the home is the electronics which are of the latest model. Every home I went to was very clean. I also slept over at some study friends places and I never experienced such hospitality when going to someone else place. As a Swede I almost feel guilty for coming although I know it is a status symbol to have visitors from abroad, when the parents of my friends take a half day off from work to arrange a brunch just for me.
Korea, the return?
I have to say that I haven’t been back to Seoul since I moved from there two days before Midsummer in 2008. Until two years back in time I didn’t wanted to go there but now I really feel for a trip there to explore Seoul again. I really hope to get back before 2017 is over preferably also run a race there. To go to Korea is really an experience out of the ordinary, I guess also to go there as a tourist. I would definitely recommend to got there. There are loads of things to see and do. I traveled around a lot in the country and saw all major parts like Busan, Jeju island, Incheon, Suwon and visited several national parks and way more temples that I can remember. I also got the opportunity to go to Kaoseong in North Korea but that you can read about in my old travel archive at Resedagboken (user: pillab).
Any more questions about Korea?
If you want to read my other stories about living abroad you find them here:
Living abroad – general
Living abroad – Boca Raton, USA
Living abroad – Singapore
/ Pernilla that want to go to Korea again
Wow, cool “trip”! I’m amazed that you thought Tokyo felt like Europe. I was there last fall and thought it was very hard to get around just in Tokyo! Seol must really have been a challenge!
Yepp, but I think Seoul is more tourist friendly toady. But have to look it up.