The Survival Guide to Life in Korea

A year back, roughly around this time, I was a bundle of jittery nerves and two jelly feet. As July approached, so did my anxiety of having to relocate to a new country. The positive effect of living for two months in Seoul (April and May) — in preparation for the actual move — had been negated by spending a month back home in June. It’s hard to explain the uncertainty of a new life; the fear of meeting new people; the struggle with a new language; and the effort it takes to learn a new culture. It’s harder to leave the ones you love behind and the memories that shaped who you are.

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As an expat, there’s always a constant struggle between the excitement of what you love — about your new home and the anxiety of all your fears.  I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to give in to my fears. But, I’d also be lying if I said that life here was always glum. Maintaining a balance between the highs and lows has been the biggest challenge so far. In Korea, the word “Hwaiting” (fighting) is often used to boost your morale before a difficult event. Without a doubt, it’s been my survival mantra for the past year.

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Here’s our ‘Survival Guide to Life in Korea’. It’s a sum of our experiences, our mistakes, our observations, and everyday life — over the past year. I don’t think we have the final draft just yet. It’s still a work in progress and hope we can improve it over the next year.

Live like a Local

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The view outside the window

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The old railway line

It’s easy to find localities built for expats in Seoul. If you want to live like a foreigner — you’d feel right at home. It’s may be relatively easier to live in expat friendly localities; especially, if you can’t do without your favourite food ingredient or need to speak English for survival. We chose our locality based on its proximity to Basil’s workplace and connectivity to the major landmarks (and airport) in the city. Besides, we always wanted to live with locals (an extremely difficult decision to stick by). When we moved here, I found it to be a lack lustre locality with towering, grey buildings and busy people — always trying to reach somewhere. Fortunately, within a few months, the forest line opened and life slowly changed for us. It took time to be recognised, to win smiles, and start conversations. Once that happened — those frozen, grey buildings melted into the background and all that was left behind was a collection of familiar faces.

Eat like a Local

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Bulgogi on a leaf

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Meat Stew

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Traditional Korean Sweets

Korean food is dominated by meat. If you’re a vegetarian or somewhere in-between (like me) — it can get quite difficult. I had spent the better part of my life, thinking of convenient excuses to decline meat, in a meat-eating family, and here we were. Even vegetarian croquettes, at a local bakery chain, had meat stuffing in them. The first few months were hard and I believe — I ate whatever I could. Gradually, I discovered Korean preparations (porridge, bibimbap, gimbal, ramyon) that weren’t necessarily meat intensive. I’m particularly fond of the traditional Korean (rice) sweets because they don’t douse it with sugar and are a good option for a light snack whilst hiking or otherwise.

Learn Korean

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King Sejong: The Inventor of Hangeul

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Work in progress

As much as I love language, I’ve never found it be a deciding factor in choosing where we  should travel. I picked up traveller sign early on and we survived most of our trips — without knowing the local language. Sadly, traveller sign doesn’t work effectively as an expat. Choosing to live in a locality, with hardly any expats, doesn’t seem like a wise idea in hindsight. Few locals speak English in our locality and the first few months were  extremely frustrating.

Being multilingual makes me more open to learning new languages, but also leads to an inherent confusion. I started learning Korean (a free online course) last year, only to give it up, when last year’s heat wave got to me. A couple of months back, I resumed my online conversational Korean course and have stared learning Hangeul (the Korean alphabet — invented by King Sejong). This small step has helped me win brownie points with taxi drivers, the laundry lady, tailor, local eateries, and our friendly security guard. I’ve realised when you know the language, everyone is very ‘chatty’ and friendly. They’re not curious, just want to get to know you. Sadly, when my vocabulary gets stuck at lesson 13 of my online course, I can see the mild disappointment of a conversation cut short.

Read History

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Getting back to the books

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The War Memorial of Korea

The more you travel, the more you start to realise how little you actually know. You also realise how different perspectives get painted — depending on which side of the line you’re on. The War Memorial of Korea, in Seoul, is a definitive place to get a summary of Korean history. It’s where you truly begin to appreciate the resilience of the Korean people. The war wasn’t a pretty sight and it’s fascinating to see a country rebuild itself to where it is today. I had been searching for a course on Korean history, but haven’t been very successful in finding one or managing my time better. Instead, I picked up an interesting book on Korean History, written by Korean teachers, for Korean students, and later translated for an international audience. From the first Koreans, to the tribes, and eventually three kingdom period (where I have reached so far), its a great way to get insight into local history.

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The statue of the admiral at Gwanghwamun Square

Image Source: IMDb

‘The Admiral’ was a rage when it released back in 2014 and was suggested by Basil’s male Korean colleagues (an idol for many Korean men). Based on the battle between, Korea’s exalted naval commander, Admiral Yi Sun-shin and the Japanese fleet; it’s an unbelievable tale of victory over doubt and learning how to channelise fear to your advantage. After watching this movie, you realise, why the entry to the iconic Gwanghwamun Square has a towering statue, almost dwarfing the mountains in the background, of the admiral rising valiantly from the ground below.

Watch Korean Movies

Image Source: IMDb

Image Source: IMDb

An actual ride on the KTX (Train) to Busan minus zombies. 

I used to watch arthouse Korean movies long before our stint in Seoul. And when I felt the need to resort to escapism — I turned to Korean rom-coms. When we moved to Seoul, I had long given up watching world cinema and bowed down to popular internet shows. Now, unlike Basil (who’s obsessed with the dead, the living dead, the undead, and everything in-between), I’m not a zombie movie fan. And yet, ‘The Train to Busan’ captured my attention with its trailer. It took months before we could watch the movie with subtitles. On the surface, it might look like just another zombie film. But, for someone who’s lived here, or is in tune with the popular pulse of the nation, you slowly begin to realise the hidden subtext in the movie. In fact, it could also be taken as a metaphor for some of the more recent events in the news. I’ve never felt much for zombies as much as I felt for almost every character that turned into a zombie in this movie. The emotion is well placed and the director makes you think about: preservation of self, the throes of capitalism, nation, fear, and lost opportunities.

Submit to K-Drama & K-pop

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Myeongdong at night

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Image Source: IMDb

My musical preferences have evolved with age or where I lived. What’s remained constant though, is my adulation for bands that can write/compose/play their own music. Now, that could have been the reason for my aversion to K-Pop. And it is a hard battle to fight, especially when you see K-pop stars plastered on every visible marketing surface, and their songs played at every cafe or shopping outlet. It’s a slow, steady seduction to the other side. You will lose the battle and the sticky tentacles of catchy beats, androgyny, and incomprehensible lyrics will eventually suck you into the honeypot-of-no-return.

Now, K-Dramas are hard to escape from in Korea. You’d see almost every ajumma, at small eateries or shops, glued to her TV screen. ‘Descendants of the Sun’ was a rage last year and this year it was love-fantasy drama, ‘Goblin‘ that rocked TV screens and music charts. It made Gong Yoo (also starring in Train to Busan) the heartthrob of the nation. Anyone who’s seen ‘A Muse‘ might feel compelled to compare the two and reach the verdict that ‘Goblin‘ is the toned down version of the former. That being said, we loved the show and given the times we live in, I believe, we all need a little sugar coated television to take a break from the trend of tapping into the viewer’s dark side.

Learn a traditional craft

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Jewellery Box

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Mini Cabinet

I started Hanji (traditional Korean paper craft) to make new friends and get oriented in Seoul. It sounds pretty lame now, but there was no deeper reason for spending hours gluing paper to cardboard. What started as a whim has become an obsession of sorts and a year later, I’ve begun my first level of the certification programme in Hanji. I hope to complete all three levels — without questioning why I’m doing this in the first place?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a surge of new followers and we’d like to thank each one of you for your follow. We truly appreciate it. I do try to visit as many blogs as I can, but honestly, it’s hard to keep up, and if I don’t check your blog — here’s my apology. For those who’ve been following us since we moved to Seoul, this will probably be my last post on Korea (do I hear a sigh of relief?) for a while. We aren’t leaving Seoul yet, just taking a break from writing about it. I’ve convinced Basil to write his first post (fingers crossed) on his solo trip from 2012. In more recent news, we’re just back from Vietnam and I’m going to spend the next few weeks documenting our trip (once I get the pictures organised). That means my posting schedule might be far apart and I hope to see you around whenever I break the silence. 

43 responses to “The Survival Guide to Life in Korea

  1. Well, I hope you’ll be back soon. I’ve only just found you! My daughter, who was in South Korea for a year found like you that having made a real effort with the language opened many doors for her, but it’s hard, isn’t it? We made the effort during our month there, but didn’t get past conventional greetings and so on. But even this was appreciated. I tried really hard with hangul too, but by the time I’d decoded, the moment was usually past! I haven’t managed to get into Korean movies at all, and as for K pop – I’m definitely too old! But a really interesting post – do come back to your blog soon.

    • Aww! That’s the sweetest comment I’ve heard so far! Since my hubby (Basil) isn’t going to help me with posting (he’s way too slow), I think I will have to get back to the blog. 🙂 🙂 I underestimated the importance of language until we shifted here. It still is very difficult because there’s so much more to learn. Yes! They totally appreciate greetings and the soft bow and small cultural gestures like giving money with both your hands. I add a smile and that’s how I win friends. 🙂 I’m so glad you loved our blog! It definitely made my day. My next few posts will be on Vietnam, though. I hope you’d find it interesting. We loved it and felt we didn’t have enough time. 😦

  2. This was a really fascinating look into life as an expat living as much as possible like a local. Having changed countries quite a few time in my life and most recently to live in Sri Lanka, I can definitely relate to it. The struggles with language, vegetarian food and being far from loved ones. I totally agree that immersion, especially into the culture and history is essential.

    Looking forward to your travels in VietNam ( where we lived for 5 months )!

    Peta

    • Thanks for your comment, Peta. 🙂 I knew you’d get me. I’ve truly enjoyed reading your stories on life in Sri Lanka. I’ve always wanted to visit it. We loved Vietnam. It was a very short trip and was packed with Basil’s business trip. I’m glad we went there! The people are so warm and the food — divine.

  3. I really learn so much reading your posts. I also understand the amount of time it takes reading other folks blogs. While lots of fun and very educational I can take away from time to write and live a life worthy of writing about. So, enjoy your time away and we will look forward to your next installments.

  4. While you know I enjoy your musings on life in Korea, I totally understand the need to move on to other things, and I certainly look forward to a Basil post and your write-up on Vietnam! You have made an amazing effort to adapt in Korea. I know you probably don’t share each and every frustration or setback, but from a distance, what I see is a huge list of successes and a very positive outlook. If I were in Seoul, I’d be right there in those Hanji classes!

    • I hope Basil gets to his writing. He’s completed one post in 3 months! So, I can’t take that break after all and will be writing about Vietnam pretty soon. I truly appreciate your observations. You’re one of the few people who can read my mind. 🙂 I have consciously omitted a lot many negative experiences or chosen to be vague about them. I’m not sure if it was because I wasn’t brave enough to write about them or because I didn’t want to wallow in a pool of negativity. I’ve met many expats who do so and it’s harder to rise above the tide and swim across to the shore. I also learned a lot from my mum, who’s always advised me to make the most of where I am — even if it is miles away from her. 😦
      The beginner Hanji classes are free! I know you would have loved those classes! They’re amazing. I haven’t met Shelley in months because of those classes. I have a feeling she secretly hates them. lol

  5. Will check out those dramas as I’m still hooked on Korean film, but have to agree with your early food experience. On my visit, I wasn’t eating any meat so Korean food was a disappointment.

    • It would be interesting to know what you think about these dramas. 🙂 I felt as if I was watching a mainstream/commercial Hindi (Bollywood) movie at times. It’s packed with macho men (baby face at times) who feel compelled to save the damsel (the heroine) in distress! But, for us, it’s good to pickup Korean words and also understand pop culture here.
      On a parallel note, Konkana Sen-Sharma(Amu & Mr & Mrs Iyer) has directed her first film, Death in a Gunj. I’ve heard rave reviews and I can’t wait to see this film! I’m not sure when will I get to see it though! 😦 She stars in another, Lipstick Under my Burkha. Stirred a lot of controversy with the censors. I also want to See Beatrice at Dinner. I miss watching movies like these. 😦

  6. Loved this post-Cheryl. What did I like? Well, It’s a small primer to Korea…especially for an outsider….may be Indian perspective?
    It’ll be great to see the post from Basil…
    Vietnam sounds exciting….I guess I have been reading & watching Korean winters on your blog..I suppose Vietnam will be a nice change with tropical climate! Just guessing!! Enjoy this break

    • Thanks so much, Arvind. Getting Basil to write a post isn’t very easy. I’d given him 3 months and he has managed to write only one post. So, I’m going to extend his deadline by another 2 months. lol. I also felt the blog could do with another perspective and also the sleeping partner needs to wake up. 🙂 🙂
      Vietnam was fantastic, although hot when it didn’t rain. I’m excited to write about Vietnam. It was long on my list. You won’t believe it, I’m actually dreaming of Korean winters because it’s getting so hot here!

      • I think each of us has our own blocks. so its okay.
        Did you guys visit Halong and Hoi an? Yearning for the winters, already?

      • I covered Ho Chi Mihn (Saigon), Mekong Delta, and we covered Hanoi, and Halong Bay together. We couldn’t visit Hoi An. 😦 Yeah the heat is really annoying!

      • I can understand the heat part. One of the major reason is that it’s something we are not accustomed to!
        Looking forward to your posts on Vietnam, Cheryl

  7. I too have the book Korea Unmasked given by a Korean colleague that I may appreciate Korean culture and to be able to work better with the team in Korea.

    • I totally agree! Korea Unmasked is a fantastic and simple way to get a crash course on Korean history and culture. I read the book halfway and this was before we knew we were going to move to Korea! It did give me a rough idea of what to expect. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to visit Korea. 🙂

  8. Hi Cheryl, I get your juggling blogging comment 110%. Anyone who chooses an expat life no matter how long or short is brave and is richer for it. I love the fact you are doing your Hanji and would like to read more about it. I found what you said about the Train to Busan interesting. Not that I have seen it nor any zombie film but I like what you said about the theme of the movie. Keep on with the language,,, you know how good it feels to get somewhere with it. Louise

    • Hi Louise! 🙂 I was definitely the reluctant expat. Basil, my hubby, is quite the opposite. I’m learning to love it slowly. 🙂 🙂
      I want to write a post on Hanji, I’m waiting to complete more exciting projects to document. I’ve just completed a Korean table (from scratch) and I’m so happy with it! You must watch ‘Train to Busan’ if you can! Here’s another review: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/train-to-busan-2016
      I’ve lost count of the number of languages I’ve tried learning. These days, I’m so confused and I seriously fear forgetting everything I already know. 🙂

      • Haha ha .. I know what you mean, I speak a bit of Italian reasonably and lived in South America for a short spell and learnt Spanish….some days in those situations I would open my mouth and nothing came out! Not even English.

      • lol…”I would open my mouth and nothing came out!” I’ve lost count of the times that has happened to me. It happened to me in Vietnam. The confusion was crazy!

  9. You seem to have made an interesting life for yourself. 🙂 🙂 We are thinking of moving fulltime to the Algarve next year but we would find it hard to do so without some company from the expats. We belong to a walking group over there, and it seems to be an unknown concept to the Portuguese to walk for pleasure. I did make a start on the language but I was trying to learn Polish at the same time. Not a good move! 🙂 I’ll settle to it much better when I live there.

    • Wow! I’ve always wanted to visited Portugal! We don’t have Europe in the travel cards, but I’m glad to go there virtually. 🙂 Other expats will be your first friends and definitely the ones to help you settle. It’s harder making friends with locals initially (it also depends which country you’re in though). I’m happy to have a mix of both. A walking group sounds excellent! I’m so confused with language right now. I’m worried I might forget English soon! Thanks for stopping by, Jo. It’s always great to hear from you. 🙂

    • Wow! It’s going to get hotter next month. These days, it’s a little wet and gloomy with the rains. All the best with your adventure here! I’m sure you’ll love it. 🙂

  10. Isn’t level 13 is good? I gave up a long time ago learning Korean on very basic level like introducing. 😐
    I just can send you ‘hwaiting!!” from a far.
    Stay healthy and positive. 🙂

    • haha… I started learning Hangeul and haven’t practiced for a bit. Level 13 isn’t good enough beyond basic communication. 🙂 Thanks so much for your positivity! Hope you’re doing well! 🙂

    • It’s hard! What you’re feeling is quite normal. 🙂 I’d say try not think about it (and that’s the hardest part actually) and go with the flow. Stay positive — no matter what! And you’ll do just fine! Hugs!

  11. Hi Cheryl, I loved reading about your acclimation to a new home. Korea sounds fascinating and challenging. Fun that you are diving into Korean culture and Hanji. I’m happy that your following continues to grow– well deserved– and you don’t need to apologize — we all lead busy lives and blogging has its ebbs and flows. Great to reconnect.

    • Thank you, Jane! Means a lot coming from you. Life isn’t very easy, but living here has made me learn to look for the silver linings. 🙂 One of my Hanji creations has made it to a local exhibition! Exciting times!
      I’ve always wanted to support new bloggers and feel so guilty for not being able to check blogs regularly. 😦 It’s so great to reconnect with you, Jane! Stay in touch! xo.

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