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5 things I wish I’d known before moving to South Korea

Updated 23 Sep 2019

South Korea is a hugely popular expat destination. Each year thousands of people from across the globe head to the country for a new adventure. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of this exciting opportunity from someone with first-hand experience. 

1. Learn Hangul

Hangul, the Korean alphabet, consists of 24 letters. Memorising these letters takes about 30 minutes. It will help you decipher signs, menus and notice boards. 

Taking the time to learn Hangul made South Korea much more accessible. Even though at first I didn’t necessarily know what words meant, I built up a memory bank of words that I could recognise. This helped me look for specific city names when buying bus or train tickets. Knowing the names of dishes also helped me scan menus in restaurants.

2. Be open-minded about new food

From snacks like beondegi (boiled silkworm pupae) to sundae (blood sausage), South Korea is known for strange street food. Being a picky eater made it hard to adjust to expat life.

My best advice is to push yourself to try everything at least once. Food is an important part of Korean culture. Being open to trying new food helped me connect with my Korean coworkers and students. It also helped me feel less foreign in a way. I am now at the point where I am completely addicted to Korean barbecue and kimchi, and can’t imagine life without it.

3. Embrace technology

South Korea has the fastest internet in the world. It’s also very technologically advanced. Using this to your advantage will make expat life much easier. 

Small things like buying groceries can be overwhelming. The products are completely different from what I was used to, and everything is written in Hangul. After my first shopping disaster, I realised that I was going to depend on technology for a while.

I downloaded the Google Translate app. This app can translate words even when you’re offline. You can also take pictures and then translate directly from the image. Google Translate was my lifeline for the first few months. It helped me get my hair cut, buy medicine, and direct taxi drivers.

South Korea has an app for everything. I downloaded apps to track the local buses in my city and one for the subway system in Seoul. The Kakao apps are also worth downloading. Kakao Talk is the biggest messaging platform used here. You will use this to communicate with anyone in the country. There is also a Kakao Taxi app which allows you to conveniently order taxis.

4. Be proactive about making friends

There is a large expat community in South Korea, so I expected it to be easy to make friends. I imagined walking down the street and strangers waving at me and starting up a conversation. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. I learned that even though we share the experience of being foreigners, expats are still just strangers to each other. I had to learn to be proactive when it came to making connections.

Luckily, once you start, making friends in South Korea is easy. I went to language exchange meetings and from there made a few friends. Almost every town in South Korea has at least one “foreigner bar”. I found that simply taking yourself out to one of these bars was the best way to meet new people. I was lucky to make friends with a group of people who eventually became like a second family.

5. Don’t accept the first job offer you receive

One of the worst moments I had to live through in South Korea was losing my job six months into my contract. I realise now that I had been rushing the process of job hunting in the hopes of getting my new life on track as fast as possible. As a result, I accepted the first job offer I got after just a five-minute conversation with the employer. I started to realise I was in a dodgy situation when the apartment I was promised turned out to be a room in my new boss’s home. Things progressively got worse until the school finally closed down due to financial issues. 

First, shop around when looking for a job and use reputable websites and recruiters. Be willing to negotiate a good expat package and discuss your salary, accommodation, working hours and annual leave allowance. Don’t be afraid to take your time.

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