Saturday, September 19, 2009

How to make the best of your time in Korea...

I was inspired to write this entry because of a post written by Chris in South Korea. He received an e-mail from someone thinking of going to South Korea and wondering if Korea is as bad as it sounds. I've met lots of people who aren't having the time of their life here and I want to give some suggestions on how to make the most of your time in Korea. If you're feeling a little down, or if you're looking to come to Korea and do it right, please read this!

1. Learn the language! Even if you never become conversational, being able to read a menu will make you feel 10 times more comfortable when you enter a restaurant. Just learning simple phrases like "Do you have .... ?" and "Please give me......" can make eating and shopping so much more relaxing. The alphabet is incredibly easy to learn, I learned it on one boring afternoon in my Sophomore year of college and never forgot it. Take one afternoon and learn it and you'll never regret it. Some of the most depressed people I know here never bother to even learn something as simple as an alphabet.

2. Learn the culture and history! A few trips to some Korean museums, the DMZ, and watching some movies and dramas will really help you understand why Koreans act the way they do. When you think about the fact that Korea was a war torn country only a few decades ago you can understand why ajummas can be so pushy and why they still eat dog meat. Korea has modernized very rapidly and their old traditions have not faded. Even if you don't agree with their customs, just learn to respect them as much as you can.

3. Choose your friends wisely. If you feel that all you do with your friends is gripe about the country and your job, then find some other friends to be positive with. The more you listen to negative thoughts, the more negative your experience is going to be. If the only thing your friends want to do is drink, find some friends that will go to museums and Korean class with you when you're not in the drinking spirit.

4. Make some friends with Koreans! And not a Korean who is just using you to practice English... A real genuine Korean friend might give you a totally different perspective on Korean life. This one can be a bit challenging, since your average Korean is too shy to really try to get to know you. I may also be a bit biased in saying that dating a Korean is a good idea, but it's working out well for me, and a few other folks I know too.

5. Find a job that suits you well. Pre-school sounds like a piece of cake, but when you're in a classroom alone with ten 5-year olds, you may realize quickly that it's not the job for you. It's not all arts and crafts and games as one might expect... Some people have the right personality for it, and others just don't. Try to figure this out before you sign a year of your life away to a school to do it full time. Same goes for any other age. If you aren't at least somewhat confident that you can do it moderately well, try to find another job. Same goes with hours, There's lots of different types of schedules, if you're a morning person, maybe a 9-5 is good for you. If you enjoy your sleep there are plenty of 1-8 or 3-10 shifts to be had. think of the kind of lifestyle you want to have when you decide what kind of hours you're going to do.

6. Do you research about your school. Especially hagwons. Korea gets most of it's bad rep from "bad" hagwons. Yes, there are some really awful schools out there. Then there are a lot of mediocre ones and there are a select few that are really great. Try to find reviews of your school. Try to talk to as many past teachers as possible. Don't just talk to the one you're replacing. They may be trying to get out early but need a replacement fast. Try to get honest answers from them. A little research can tell you a lot about a school. Also, take bad reviews with a grain of salt. If the teacher is complaining that they couldn't get time off to travel, keep in mind that it's a buisness and they can't just give people time off whenever they feel like it. Things to keep your eye out for are schools that fire teachers before the end of thier contract, schools that don't pay for health insurace or pension, and schools that have forced overtime or don't pay for overtime. Minor problems occur daily between teachers and administration, but they aren't nececarily indicators of a bad school.

7. Remember, it's just a job. Even if your job sucks, keep in mind... there are bad jobs at home. No bad day here could make me feel as bad as the time I worked at Gillette Stadium and they put me on parking lot duty in the furthest parking lot, alone with just a walkie talkie, with no one but some sketchy drunk guys trying to convince me to "party" in their van with them. I don't have to be at work at 6:00 am like I had to when I worked at Borders Book Store, and I don't have to fold shirts for 8 hours like I did at Filene's. Work is work, you do it for the money, but when you're not working, you need to make the best of your time.

8. Travel! Travel in Korea. Travel outside of Korea. You may never get this opportunity again to be in Asia, so make the best of it. I don't have to tell this to most people, but there are those folks that are so worried about money, or just plain homebodies that they never see anything outside of Korea or even Seoul. You might have to sacrifice a little, but when you look back 20 years from now, you won't regret that trip to Thailand that cost you a few more Won than you wanted to spend. Of course, travel responsibly. Search for the cheapest ticket and research your hotels well. We stayed in a luxury hotel in Bali for about $30 a night per person. We could have spent double that and stayed at the holiday inn or the Ramada down the road, but we had a fantastic time, enjoyed a beautiful pool, a 2 minute walk to the beach, friendly staff and free airport pickup. And if we had been on a lower budget, we could have stayed at a decent hotel for only $10 a night. You can travel in Asia for really cheap. There's no excuse not to do it.

9. Eat the food! Korean food is delicious! There are non-spicy options for those of you who can't handle that much spice in your life. I found for myself that the more I ate it, the less spicy it feels. Now if my food isn't spicy I feel as though it's missing something. Not only is Korean food delicious, but it's amazingly cheap! You can eat a huge meal and spend less than $5.00. If you want something a little more extravagant, you'll probably still pay less then $10.00. For prices like that it's really not much cheaper to eat at home. Also, learning to cook Korean food at home is easy and actually will save you money. Shopping in markets is also highly recommended. At E-Mart you might pay 1,000 won for 2 or 3 bell peppers. At the market, we found a huge bag of bell peppers of only 1,000 won. You're money goes so much further in the markets because the market doesn't need to pay someone to stand at the end of every aisle and give out samples. In the market, they are all average Koreans just trying to scrape by. Support these people instead of megastores like E-Mart! Oh, and when you're feeling a little homesick for some other kinds of food, that's when you can make your way to Itaewon, or other areas where you can get some great foreign food. Try to go to the places where real live foreigners own the restaurant. The food is generally so much better then when Koreans try and fail to recreate non-Korean food.

10. Try to think of Korea as home. I know it's hard, but this is your home for at least a year. If you can make the most of it, you might even want to stay longer. Find yourself a niche. If you love dance, then find a good dance studio. If you love clubbing, then make your way around Hongdae. If you love languages, then sign up for some Korean classes. Find yourself a spot in society doing whatever makes you happiest. You may have a little more cash then you would at home, so spend it wisely doing things that make you happy. For me it's my Korean class. For others it's something else. Be a part of your community. Also, join the on-line community. The K-blogosphere is huge and many of us feel as though we almost know each other just from reading and commenting on each other's blogs, and e-mailing each other when we need advice. A blog or a flickr account is a great way to keep track of your adventures and allow people from home to keep tabs on you.

Do you have any other advice to make the best of your time here? Your experience is only as positive as your attitude. If you come in with a negative attitude, then you will have a negative experience. If you let annoying bosses and co-workers to get in your way of enjoying life outside of work, then you're going to have a miserable time. While I don't love every aspect of Korea, I'm much happier here than at home. How did you overcome bad experiences to have a good time in Korea?


  1. i really this post!!! - jennie

  2. I had the same experience when teaching in Japan.

    By chance did you see Lost in Translation? I love the movie. It show exactly the struggle you describe above. The main characters wallow in their displacement and miss so much.

  3. A lot of great, practical suggestions! Thanks.


  4. Great post, especially since I will be moving to Korea in a little more than 2 weeks. Thank you!

  5. While making Korea your home, also make your house a home. Choosing your own bedding, dishes, even curtains makes it feel like you are really in your own space, rather than a temporary bookshelf.

  6. Hey, I wasn't sure if my comment was held for moderation or if it just didn't make it through, so I'm going to try again. :) Great list! I was wondering if I could use your list as the basis for a post over at Talk to the Clouds. I'll credit this blog and provide a link to your post, of course! Let me know if that's OK. Thanks.

  7. Great post! Nos. 3 and 4 really hit home for me--in the three months I've been here, finding the right friends have been/are key in my (ongoing) adjustment.