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City Profile: Seoul, South Korea

By ExpatExchange.com Member

How long have you lived there?

10 Months, but visited over the last 3-4 years

What activities, clubs and organizations would you recommend to newcomers to help them meet others?

There are quite a few clubs now that bring together expats and Koreans. Both give the other what they want most: for expats it's comraderie and a chance to see the sights of Korea/Seoul and learn a little bit about Korean people, culture, language and food; for the Koreans it's much the same...but with an emphasis on friendship and language. Some I've found, but could not really take full advantage of, are: www.seoulclub.org (a language/events club), www.adventurekorea.com (an event/language club) and www.ccck.org (Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Korea). Bar-hopping in Itaewon (especially during a Rugby or Football/Soccer game) is sure to turn up many, many expats from all over the globe.

For those who prefer more Godly gatherings there is the (reputed) largest church in the world in Yeoido, where I live, that has a congregation of something like 700,000 as of a couple of years ago--traffic is pretty brutal on Sunday as many are bussed in for the SIX packed services throughout the day.

In general, what are peoples' priorities in this city? For example, do lives revolve around work, family, socializing, sports, etc.?

For men the priority is WORK...bar none...well, after work they like to go to the bar too. That doesn't mean that Koreans are all fuddy-duddies, but they are definately less laid-back than, say, Canadians or Americans--especially Canadians. This focus means that most of their friends are from work, from previous work or (if they are upwardly mobile) future working groups.

For women the Job One is clear: family. Get a good husband, raise a good family and have a good life. Keep everyone well fed, warm, healthy and happy (hubby is in charge of keeping everyone wealthy, but wife usually controls the purse-strings).

For all Koreans family is first...maybe before work for some guys (but, admittedly, not that many). All Koreans have a strong bond to past, present, and (somewhat) future family members--especially children and elders. Children are like gold and elders are treated with respect--not in all cases, but in many.

Every social event will have a few key articles: (i) picnic basket or delivered food...Koreans like to eat; (ii) soju, beer or some other drink...even the ladies may have a beer or so, you'd be surprised; (iii) blankets and such...as even with the alcohol Koreans like to always keep warm.

Koreans have many sport interests. Some play street and arena basketball, many rollerblade (or, as they say, inline skating), but the big sport is soccer. Tears flow whether they are winning or losing or even watching 2 visiting teams play. Everyone, in their words, goes crazy for it.

In terms of religious, racial, economic and cultural diversity, are the people of this city or town diverse? Are they accepting of differences? Describe.

Koreans are the best and the worst. An outsider may think they are cold, stoic, uncaring and a bit rude....but this is just not true, in my mind. Here's a story: in my building the older security guard would just look at me as I came in the door. I thought it was kind of rude...no wave or smile or word...but later I heard from a Korean friend that that is just how he should react to me, a foreigner. How can he say anything? If he made a gesture he might offend (we all know how some movements are respectful in some countries but an insult in other parts of the world). So, he did his best to be respectful by doing nothing. Later he started to salute me as I came in, which was fine...I did a little bow back and within a few months he actually cracked a smile.

That anecdote aside, most Koreans are fairly outgoing, when they need to be. Most are deathly afraid of trying out 'their poor Engrish' and usually take a backseat in conversations. They are not prone to dispute things with a foreigner (we are usually larger and have an incredible grasp of English and usually no knowledge of Korean, which gives us a huge advantage....or disadvantage depending on your viewpoint).

Koreans think a few things about foreigners (Westerners in particular, especially from the US). They are dirty (Koreans are some of the cleanest people around), they smell even though Koreans sweat it rarely smells...which is odd given their daily intake of garlic), they are unfaithful (Westerners divorce...but many Koreans, according to a study cheat on their spouses as well, but they don't divorce), and they will be gone soon (many foreigners are in Korea for a few days or months or years, and then go home. So don't be too surprised if you feel like a new guy in a Vietnam platoon--where no one recognized your existance until you are around for a couple of weeks--it'll pass and they will warm up to you: or you'll go home...

Koreans are, on the face of it, homogeneous. They have similar fashions, only a few deviants (unlike, say, Seattle) and with the clear-cut emphasis on family and work for the sexes it is not odd even to see same-sex parties, gatherings and (where they are mixed parties) mini-cliques. Under the surface, and after some time, many find that Koreans can be very, very different from one another--and why not? they are just like people anywhere: they want to fit in and be themselves as well.

Religiously, Korea is basically Protestant/Presbyterian (that big church I mentioned is Presbyterian). A few Roman Catholics and many more Bhuddists (especially in the South city of Pusan). Korean church-goers can be pretty aggressive (read: fervent) in their beliefs, but all, I believe, respect your beliefs. No problems here.

What are the main industries in this city? What types of career opportunities commonly exist? How do most people find new jobs?

Seoul has everything that any big city has: finance, education, marketing, construction, real estate and pretty much everything else you'd expect to see in a city larger than New York.

The one thing that may be different from cities in the West is the emphasis on connections in getting jobs, positions and titles. It was said that you need a connection even to get a job in a toll-booth...and this may be true. Friends do business with friends here and they hire their friends and relatives of friends and friends of relatives and friends of friends. Once you're in you're golden, but to be an outsider is tougher.

If a friend of yours was thinking of moving to this city or town from far away, what other advice would you give them.

Come here first for a couple of weeks. Take a look around. Check out the sights (once you start working you'll hardly ever get out). Come again for another stay. Meet people. Visit again 2 or 3 times to build connections and solidify relationships (as well as you can)...but if the right offer comes along don't be backward about accepting. Plan on being here for 2-5-7 years....Koreans like to see a long term mindset. You have to mean it, though, as you may be presented with a long term contract and be expected to sign it.

Learn as much hangul (Korean alphabet) as you can. Even if you can't understand very much, knowing the written language makes things a lot easier.

Meet people here as much as you can. Many meetings and meals and drinking nights are needed to get things on track.

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Expats in Korea agree that traffic is terrible and should be taken into serious consideration when deciding how far from work and school to look for homes. Expats also agree that Korea is a very homogenous society and foreigners will get lots of stares.

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First Published: Mar 16, 2006

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