|Picture courtesy of Korea.net|
I've lived in South Korea for 14 years and almost the last 13 years have been spent in Seoul. I have enjoyed this journey and although I'm not 100% sure yet, I might be leaving at the end of the year. I would like to share what people should look for before they decide on living here. Every place has it's pros and cons and that's what I will do in this blog post. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom. So here we go. I'll start with the negative aspects first and then move onto the positive ones:
1. On weekdays, subway lines can be extremely crowded (especially Lines 2 and 9) during rush hour such as 9:00am, 6:30pm and even at 10:00pm when some people go home late or some people stop hanging out with their friends after dinner and/or drinking.
2. When walking on sidewalks, people don't choose a side. Some people are walking on the left, some people walk in the middle, and some people walk on the right. It's one thing that I still don't understand. I'm sure it's a lot worse in China, but be forewarned.
3. Another point regarding pedestrians. People are unaware of people around them. If they're texting friends on Kakaotalk (a very popular Korean texting app), people walk slow. Sometimes people are in front of you playing a cell phone game and once again, they walk slow. It's not that they're trying to be rude, they just don't care about people around them and are unaware of who's around them.
4. This one is the MOST important.
(a) Before getting an English teaching job at a children's hakwon (academy), you must check whether the school is reputable, they have a good curriculum, AND if the foreign teachers that work there enjoy working there. My first school was brand new and although the job was smoothed out after a few months, I never got paid pension (which is required by law for Americans and Canadian teachers) and the director never backed me up with disciplinary support when students misbehaved. My second academy was a smaller one. I met the native teacher who was on his way out and he seemed to like the job, but all he did was play games with the kids and the kids loved him. Little did I know that I was expected to be the clown teacher with bad curriculum. It was hard to competed with my previous teacher that did nothing but have fun with the students. My third school was in Yangju (2 hours north of Gangnam in Gyeonggido). I worked at my director's academy on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with NO BOOKS and worked at another school in Dongducheon (2.5 hours north of Gangnam) on Tuesday and Thursday with bad books, six classes straight, and no time to prepare my classes. I strongly suggest you to do some research before accepting a job position.
(b) If you want to teach adults, you're in for a bit of competition. If you came to Seoul 10 years ago, you would only need a Bachelor's degree and may get your housing covered. Nowadays, you need either a teaching certificate and/or Master's degree just to get an interview. There are a lot more native English speakers that live in Seoul, so adult academies can be picky. If you want to teach in a university, you will definitely need a Master's degree and preferably in ESL. You won't get an interview without it.
5. If and when you do get a job in a Korean academy, be aware that Koreans communicate differently. Sometimes Koreans will tell you things at the last minute or they can be very indirect. Make sure that you're always on the same page or you'll expect a surprise. Ask questions and be polite. Never assume anything!
6. Be aware that drivers in South Korea are probably the worst drivers among all OECD countries. I see people driving while on cell phones (even backing up while talking on their phones), people driving fast in areas with a high amount of pedestrians, taxi drivers run red lights, people with tinted windows and/or have black cars drive dangerously because they think they own the road, and people sometimes driving the wrong way to make themselves a short cut. The ones that drive the wrong way will turn on their emergency lights to let people know that they're in the wrong, but to allow them to do it anyway (a half apology).
7. There is only one great season in Seoul, if you're like me (a southern California native who loves warm, dry weather). In winter, when the days are nice and warm, the air pollution is bad due to fine dust from China and coal plants in Korea. When it's a very cold day, the days are clear and sunny. In spring, the weather is comfortable, but fine dust blankets the city on many days. Summer is very humid and sticky until the end of August and July is normally monsoon season, so expect a lot of rain. Expect the best weather in September and October when it's beautiful. It starts to get cool in November but it's not too bad yet but the weather has been really cold the last two years in December in January. Expect temperatures to dip to -15C or -4F at its worst. But it's not the temperature that makes it the worst, it's the wind! It's very windy during a Seoul winter compared to Shanghai or Tokyo.
8. (a) If you're a Korean-American, Korean-Canadian or even Asian, some older people might assume that you're Korean and will speak Korean to you. If you're among a group of white people and you're the only Asian, the restaurant employee will speak Korean to you first expecting that you will understand. This is funny at first but can get annoying if you've been here a long time. I'm not Asian, but know this from speaking to various Asian friends from abroad. (b) If you're black, people may still treat you differently and either not want to sit with you on the subway or not want to work out with you at the gym. This is a sad reality. However, I've known some black friends that had a great time in Seoul, but the ones that told me they had good experiences tended to be female.
9. Although Korean women are very attractive, the ones in Seoul can be very high maintenance especially if they speak English. It's easy to date one, but hard to get married to one. They might have high expectations especially if they speak English well. Since there are many English teachers in Seoul, you won't stand out so much. If you're a professor, that's one step above that. And if you work in a company, they might think more highly of you. Status and appearance count a lot here but there are nice girls here. However, the prettier they are, the riskier it is. Thankfully I married a sweet, Christian, Korean-Chinese woman that doesn't care about shallow things like that.
10. Don't expect to live in a large apartment if you don't have a lot of money. If you want to teach kids, they will provide you with an apartment but it will be small. If you want to teach adults, they will provide you with a deposit (if you're single), but you will have to pay the rent. If you want a nice apartment, that means you'll pay at least $1,000 per month in rent plus utilities minimum.
Now that may seem like a lot of negative aspects, but I have a lot of positive things to say about this amazing city. Please weigh them out yourself and also get to know people that live here and get some other points-of-view. Now the awesome aspects of Seoul...
1. Seoul is a safe city. Yes, women should always be careful no matter what city they live in, but a woman would feel a lot safer walking home at midnight in Seoul compared to L.A. or Chicago in a New York minute. Crime is very low and if there is any crime at night, it's due to a drunk guy getting into an altercation with his friend.
2. The public transportation is beyond amazing. You can from the airport to the center of Seoul at a relatively cheap price. You can get from the center of Seoul to the countryside for another inexpensive subway fare. You can also take a high speed train to Busan in 3 hours. Seoul even beats Tokyo when it comes to easy access to public transportation. It's honestly the best in the world.
3. Seoul has a variety of foreign restaurants from American, Mexican, Italian, Greek, Ethiopian, Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Turkish, etc. If you get tired of Korean food, there are plenty of other options. But it can be expensive, so beware of that.
4. Compared to Japan and China, people are much more willing to speak English especially if you need directions. People are very willing and helpful to non-Koreans that are lost. Overall I find Koreans very kind to "foreigners" that are in need of help, so you won't have any issues there.
5. Seoul has many things to do. You can see various palaces, visit various parks, see different types of museums, go hiking in many mountains that are near subway lines, three places with large aquariums, check out old buildings and compare them with the new ones, etc. You can also see performances such as Nanta or Jump, which have been popular for many years. You can check out the tallest building in the country (Lotte Tower), which has an amazing view of the city. I've been here for a long time and still haven't seen everything.
6. Despite Seoul being a very modern city, there are still 15 traditional markets in Seoul: See the list here. My favorites are Namdaemun (for cheap goods) and Gwangjang Market (for cheap and delicious food).
7. Seoul has the second largest movie theater screen in the world located in Youngdeungpo inside Times Square Mall. It's 103 feet by 42.7 feet. The largest screen is located in Suzhou, China.
8. If you love coffee, Seoul is the place. In 2005, the cafe boom started and now you can enjoy cafes with various themes to them. For example, do you like animal cafes? There's a cat cafe, bird cafe, raccoon cafe, bird cafe, sheep cafe, dog cafe, comic book cafe, book cafe, travel cafe, camera cafe, cereal cafe, pitch black cafe, jazz cafe, etc. When I first came to Korea, people said that coffee wasn't healthy and that I should drink tea. My, how times have changed!
9. Korean food is great here. I love grilled meat and I think Seoul does this the best. You can get grilled pork (samgyeopsal), chicken (dakgalbi) or beef (bulgogi) and enjoy a wonderful experience here. If you want something simple, you can go to a cheap Korean restaurant and get very good food (soup, stew, fried rice, etc.) for a reasonable price.
10. If you're into nightlife, Seoul is the place to be. There are many clubs or bars with various themes to them. The atmosphere fits all different walks of life. If you're young and crazy, you can go to Hongdae or Itaewon. If you're into jazz clubs, you can go to Apgujeong or Sinsa, and if you want a quiet evening with friends, just get away from the most popular subway stations and you'll find a cafe with a lot less people.
So there's my list. Feel free to do some research yourself. Seoul is a fun place to be and it might totally fit what you're looking for. You might think it is, stay one year, and decide to stay for just one year. You can be like me and many of my friends who think they're only here for a year, but spend 1/3 of their life here!
Scott Worden (The L.A./Seoul Guy)