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16 Expats Talk about What It's Like Living in Korea

Betsy Burlingame

Summary: Expats in Korea talk about living in Korea - topics range from international schools to deciding where to live to the lack of diversity.

Seoul, Korea
Seoul, Korea

Expats living in Korea talk expat life in Korea. They appreciate the family-oriented culture, friendly people and food. The lack of diversity and limited socializing between foreigners and locals can pose a big challenge for expats.

Meeting People in Korea

Expats living in Korea talked about meeting people in Korea and local clubs and organizations:

"SIWA Women's organization Seoulsynergy- a club for triathletes and runners Anzcck- Aussie and New Zealand chamber of commerce," said one expat living in Seoul, Korea.

"The Royal Asiatic Society for tours of Asia and hiking and bi monthly lectures on Korean history. The International Hikers club for weekly mountain treks," mentioned another expat in Korea.

"There is a small foreign population here. The most commom foreigner seems to be Foreign English Teachers, who work at English institutes called Hagwons. There are modern supermarkets but there is limited access to international foods. Of course the city has McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Outback Steakhouse, and some other international bakeries and restaurants. Seoul is an hour and a half by express bus or two hours by train," commented one expat who made the move to Korea.

"Daejeon offers a variety of activities for expats. There are book clubs, sports organizations, artist collectives, and volunteer opportunities. However, the frequency of participation tends to vary greatly, depending on the current expats living in Daejeon. Since the majority of the expats in Daejeon are EFL teachers serving one year contracts, there is quite a turnover and variance within the expat community. There is a monthly publication called the Daejeon Access that focuses on expat happenings. Also, other expat-oriented information can be found at hang-outs frequented by foreigners. Santa Claus (the best known bar in Daejeon) and Brickhouse (a very popular expat spot) are great places to plug into the Daejeon ex-pat "scene."," remarked another expat living in Daejeon, Korea.

Expat Life in Korea

What is it like living in Korea? Here is what people had to say:

"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 skateing), 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," said one expat living in Seoul, Korea.

"Most expat men come to work and their wives tag along (mostly reluctantly). Expat wives spend alot of time shopping, caring for their children and lunching with the ladies. A lot of men try to do sports in Seoul and if single, there's a lot of drinking and partying going on. Korean people run in their own circles and don't really associate with foreigners that much, mostly due to the language and cultural barriers," mentioned another expat in Korea.

"work and spending money and eating and eating some more. And driving cars and motorbikes," commented one expat who made the move to Korea.

"This seems to be a university town and "bedroom" community. There are a few nice parks, and an underground shopping center in the Myeon Dong district," remarked another expat living in Chuncheon, Korea.

Deciding Where to Live in Korea

When we asked expats living in Korea to offer newcomers advice about choosing a neighborhood and finding a home, they replied:

"My husband relocated to Korea first and chose a location close to subways and shopping - an area called Itaewon. Unfortunately, if I had to do it again, I would not choose this neighborhood. The area is frequented by singles and there are many bars. Not necessarily the best neighborhood for raising children," said one expat living in Seoul, Korea.

"I lived with my in-laws for a few months, which was a great load-off. Then scouted out places near work. After a few weeks of looking on my own I brought in my boss to negotiate the fees--and he did a GREAT job. The place is about a 10 minute walk through the (safe) park to work, if brand new and less than I'd have paid downtown back home. Definately take a local to negotiate if at all possible," mentioned another expat in Korea.

What Expats Appreciate about Their New Culture

We asked expats in Korea what they appreciated about their new culture. Here's what they had to say:

"VERY family oriented culture. VERY helpful people, although reserved to strangers. Hierarchal-based society. Very proud, hardworking people," said one expat living in Chinhae, Korea.

"The smiles of the people, the helpful attitudes that many have after just struggling with a simple Korean hello. Most will help you with anything. The ability to bend over backwards running around like nuts to help you and then in the end, nothing was really done. (here instead of just doing A to B, they do A, D, F, Z, N, Q, H, then B)," mentioned another expat in Korea.

The Most Challenging Aspects of Living in Korea

Then, we asked expats in Korea what was most challenging about their new culture. They replied:

"In direct opposition to positive behaviors, once behind the wheel of a car, very few rules apply! Imagine LA or Chicago traffic on steriods," said one expat living in Chinhae, Korea.

"Remembering that you chose to live abroad. Stop comparing and embrace where you are," mentioned another expat in Korea.

Diversity in Korea

We asked expats about diversity in Korea and whether locals are accepting of differences. They said:

"There is diversity and tolerance of others. There are Budhists and Christians and Muslims and others living side by side with great tolerance," said one expat living in Seoul, Korea.

"Again, there are limited numbers of foreigners. I have heard unofficial numbers of a little over a thousand out of a population of over 250,000. There are temples and churches of various faiths here and a SDA English Institute with church services in Korean and English (Saturdays)," mentioned another expat in Korea.

"Korea is a VERY homogenous society, so diversity is rare and uncommon, especially outside of Seoul. Those who are not Korean can expect the typical stares that are ubiquitous throughout Korea, and the uttering of "waegook saram" which means foreigner, is also quite common. That said, overt racism is almost non-existent in Daejeon and those of non-Korean descent typically enjoy a high quality of life. The expat community in Daejeon is relatively small and it is possible to go about your day without seeing another foreign face. However, within the expat community there is an array of cultural backgrounds present, mostly due to the large international student presence at Daejeon's universities, and the science and technology sector, which attracts people from around the world, particularly India. Diversity is most noticeable in the Oeun/Gung-dong neighborhoods on Daejeon's west side. These two neighborhoods are sandwiched between Chungnam University and KAIST, both of which have considerable international student bodies. These neighborhoods, especially Gung-dong, are also popular EFL teacher hang-outs. Here you can find a variety of foreign food, such as North African and Pakistani, plus a variety of businesses that have an expat friendly vibe. There is also a Muslim place of worship here (just a small room), the only one in the city," commented one expat who made the move to Korea.

"Not very diverse ... They appeared to accept my differences BUT I am not sure that they were that much different from me," remarked another expat living in Seoul, Korea.

International Schools in Korea

"You should strongly consider whether it is in the best interest of your children to take a Korean assignment. Foreigners are generally not welcome in Korea. The anti-foreigner sentiment has been getting stonger in recent years. Segregation and animosity between Koreans and Foreigners becomes much bigger in Middle and High School. Bullying, pressure, and threats are common tactics by both students and faculty. Unless you have raised very strong, independent children, they may struggle in this environment. Many foreigners leave their Korean assignment early because they cannot deal with the school situation," said one expat whose children attend Seoul Foreign School in Seoul.

"SFS is simply the best international school in Korea and in Asia. Students have high goals set for them and very rarely do students not attend college. Many of the students who graduate attend prestigious universities in the US and England. I am impressed with the level of achievement, the dedicated teachers and wonderful arts programs as well. SFS is a wonderful school," added another expat with kids at Seoul Foreign School in Seoul.

"Remember this school opened it's doors for the first time on September 18 2006. It is a new school, but if this is the first year, I am excited about what is to come. I truly expected there to be a lot of teething problems, but I have been constantly impressed at the level of professionalism the school has acheived in a short time. The staff here are fantastic," commented one expat when asked about Gyeonggi Suwon International School in Suwon.

"I would highly suggest Gyeonggi Suwon International School. It has a nice international and welcoming feel," remarked another expat living in Gyeonggi Suwon International School (GSIS) with children attending Gyeonggi Suwon International School (GSIS).

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

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First Published: Feb 11, 2018

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