A guide to expat life in South Korea

Meet Arienne Parzei and Tristan Thackray, two Canadians from Toronto who have spent the last two years living in South Korea. Working as English teachers, they’ve experienced the culture, lifestyle and history of this quirky country and are now backpacking around China, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. We had the pleasure of meeting them recently and chatting about their awesome travel blog at seeyousoon.ca. We wanted to know more about their life in South Korea.

Why did you go to South Korea?

Arienne and Tristan in BusanAfter finishing university and working in our respective fields for a couple of years, (Arienne in TV production and Tristan in stage production) we knew we wanted to see more of the world. We figured teaching abroad would be a great opportunity to travel and make money at the same time. We originally considered China and Japan as well as Korea, but in the end settled on Korea due to its better work standards (when compared with China) and lower cost of living (when compared with Japan). This meant we’d be able to save more money, which would allow us to travel for an extended period of time when we were finished our contracts.

What were your first impressions and did they change?

Gyeonbokgung PalaceObviously, arriving in Korea meant a blast of culture shock. The unity of Korean culture and society seemed like an impenetrable fortress that, as foreigners, we were only allowed to look at, but never enter. This initial feeling of exclusion was further compounded when we moved to the small city where we were assigned to live and work. Jecheon had only 140,000 people, packed into an area the size of a town (in Canada), with only one movie theatre, a bowling alley, and a ton of bars and restaurants with next to no English, anywhere! For both of us, being a miniscule minority in a small city was a polar opposite to living in the culturally diverse metropolis of Toronto. In the beginning, we couldn’t order food, read any signs, or even talk to the many people who gawked and stared at us. Essentially, our first impressions were ones of isolation, frustration, and feeling like a child with adult problems.

But as we settled into the daily routines of the job and felt more comfortable in our city, we really began to enjoy our time in Korea. Regularly we would travel around the country on the weekends to learn more about the culture and people, but we would always be happy when we’d return back to our small, country city, that began to feel like home.

What was the food like?

Korean BBQIn one word: incredible!  We’re not picky eaters to begin with, so we were up to trying anything and everything Korea had to offer. The cuisine is filled with many spicy dishes, and soon enough we were able to handle the spice like the locals. Kimchi (fermented cabbage in a red, spicy paste) is a staple at every meal, including breakfast, and we found ourselves enjoying it almost right from the start. Since we’ve been on the road we find that we occasionally get hit with a craving for kimchi! Luckily there are a few Korean grocery stores in Toronto that’ll satisfy our cravings. Korean BBQ is probably one of the most recognizable dishes outside of the country (and it’s delicious), but there’s more to the cuisine than grilled meat. Some of our favourite dishes include kimchi jjiggae (a soup made with kimchi and pork or tuna), pajeon (a large potato pancake filled with green onions and seafood), dalk galbi (spicy chicken and cabbage grilled in a large iron skillet), and nang myeon (a cold noodle soup perfect in the summer months). If you’re into adventurous meals, Korea’s got plenty of those too, including intestines, live octopus tentacles, and even dog meat!

What was the toughest thing about living there?

students in korean schoolFor us, the toughest thing about living in Korea was some of the nuances related to Korean culture. There are a number of things in Korean society we found really hard to accept, even though for Koreans it was normal run-of-the-mill stuff. For example, seeing students going to school from 8am to 5pm, and then going to special after-school academies at night was frustrating to see. Especially when the kids roll into our class and can’t get their heads off the table because they’ve barely slept. The long days at school are just part of the issues faced by students in an increasingly competitive education system.

The language barrier played a daily roll in our lives in Korea and unfortunately the Korean mentality of ‘saving face’ often meant that people who could speak English, wouldn’t, because they were too afraid of embarrassment. This led to numerous games of charades in public, with numerous Koreans standing thinking, “why is this foreigner dancing around like a drunken fool?” Even when we learned basic Korean, there were still things we couldn’t do, like go to a walk-in clinic, deal with household bills over the phone, or order delivery food from any place that didn’t know “the foreigner apartment”. This made us heavily reliant on our ‘co-teachers’, who lucky for us were wonderfully supportive and always willing to help.

Was South Korea an expensive place to live?

Jagalchi Fish Market BusanOf course, ‘expensive’ is a relative term, but in general we would say no, Korea is not an expensive place to live. On the other hand, it isn’t cheap either. Most people coming to Korea to teach will have their housing paid for them, so there is a huge savings right off the bat there. However, for most everyday products, you will pay pretty much the exact same price in Korea as you will in North America. For those living in Seoul or other large cities, you will find yourself probably finding it a little harder to save money than those living in less populated areas, simply due to the larger supply of forms of entertainment. Restaurants are generally pretty cheap compared with the west. A couple can dine for roughly $15 with a drink each. Bars on the other hand are not as cheap, with most drinks costing between $4-6. If you’re like us and want to save a bunch of cash, it can be pretty cheap to drink at home, especially if you’ve developed a taste for soju ($1/bottle). You can also expect your monthly utilities (hydro, gas, internet, phone) to be slightly cheaper than they are back home.

What were the highlights of your 2 years there?

Korean MasksExperiencing Korean hospitality: Being welcomed into a Korean household is a really special thing. If you arrive as a guest, you’ll leave as a friend. If you come as a friend, you’ll leave as a member of the family. There is almost no end to the generosity and care the Koreans show to their guests. It truly is amazing.
Making a good lesson plan, and then having it succeed: We both worked really hard on making our classes as fun and educational as possible for our students. For both of us, there were some really big road blocks in the classroom, but it made it that much sweeter when we learned how to avoid the pitfalls and really get a message across to a group of learners. Seeing the ‘light bulb’ go off in a student’s head is a really special feeling.

Traveling and learning about Korea: Being nestled between the economic and cultural giants; China and Japan, Korea is often an afterthought for travelers looking to come to Asia. For us, seeing what the country had to offer really opened our eyes to how dynamic Korea really is. It seems that almost every week there is a festival happening somewhere in the country, and with a relatively cheap and incredibly comprehensive transportation system, it’s really easy to get from one place to another with little to no stress at all.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to go to Korea to teach?

Lotus Lantern Festival, SeoulLearn to read Hangeul (Korean alphabet) and speak a little Korean. Hangeul is nothing like Chinese or Japanese characters. It’s very simple to read and write, and the sounds associated with each character are very similar to sounds in English. The Korean language is a little more difficult than the alphabet, however learning how to greet someone, order food, and general courtesies really isn’t too hard to do. Accomplishing both of these things will really open you up to more possibilities, instead of just going to the same old places and eating the same food because you know they understand a little English there. Believe us, learning even a little Korean was a really liberating experience, and it also showed the Koreans we were serious about being a positive addition to their society.

Don’t expect Korea to adapt to you. This is pretty much the one thing most people have difficulty accepting. The amount of times we both thought, “well back home this would never happen,” or “why don’t they just do it like this” was really frustrating, simply because it didn’t make a lick of difference what we thought. The reality is, you can’t change the country, and even if you could, is that really the right thing to do? What you can change however is yourself or your mindset. There may be some things that won’t mesh with who you are, but do your best to go with the flow, and if you are going to reject an idea, do it quietly. However, there are some really great ideas in Korea, and you may just find yourself doing things the Korean way when you get home.

Got any questions about life in South Korea?

Post your comments and questions below and we’ll get Arienne and Tristan to reply! Check out their video of leaving Canada and arriving in Korea.

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