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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:

"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: (a language/events club), (an event/language club) and (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," said one expat living in Seoul, Korea.

"SIWA Women's organization Seoulsynergy- a club for triathletes and runners Anzcck- Aussie and New Zealand chamber of commerce," mentioned another expat in 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," commented one expat who made the move to 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," remarked another expat living in Chuncheon, Korea.

Expat Life in Korea

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

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

"work and spending money and eating and eating some more. And driving cars and motorbikes," mentioned another expat in 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.

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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:

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

"No, Koreans are the most homogeneous people in the world. They are very proud of their culture and don't want outside influences to change it too much. They have a very strong and interesting culture and the greatest thing about Seoul is the fact that it's so safe," mentioned another expat in Korea.

"There is diversity and tolerance of others. There are Budhists and Christians and Muslims and others living side by side with great tolerance," commented one expat who made the move to Korea.

International Schools in Korea

"If they are a Westerner I would advice them to get their kids into SFS as soon as possible, this is a school for Koreans and my child does not fit in," said one expat whose children attend Seoul International School in Seoul.

"Don't. Go to the British school instead. Do not go to Seoul Foreign School. The environment is one of bullying and cliques. Your child, if she or he is nice, or your children will come home in tears every day, as all the nice children do at SFS. Your entire family will suffer, and you will find your life is ruined for however long your child or children are enrolled," added another expat with kids at Seoul Foreign School in Seoul.

"There are currently two campuses on the SFS - the British sytem and the American system. Both are very different and both have good points. I find for my child that many of the Korean kids don't mix with foreigners (non-koreans) after school which is an important consideration for those keen on socialisation for their children," commented one expat when asked about Seoul Foreign School in Seoul.

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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. Some of Betsy's more popular articles include 6 Best Places to Live in Costa Rica, 12 Things to Know Before Moving to The Dominican Republic and 7 Tips for Obtaining Residence in Italy. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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First Published: Feb 11, 2018

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