These days, the amount of foreigners living in Korea is on an increase. This will probably keep rising due to a number of reasons. Some are crazy about K-pop, others fancy the idea of teaching English while figuring out what to do with the rest of their lives, and the rest might just be wanting to escape from the comfort of what they already know and instead want to embrace the new and unknown. But just like with moving to any other country in the world, moving to Korea isn’t something one should take likely. So here is a list of things I think you should consider before moving to Korea!
01. Answer the question WHY are you thinking about moving to Korea?
I’m not in the slightest saying that you shouldn’t, it’s been a wonderful time of life for many, but you do need to keep it real for yourself. For example, if all you’ll really be getting out of moving to Korea is proximity to K-pop stars, then perhaps it’s better as a travel location than a living location.
02. Korean dramas do not equal to actual life and society here.
It sounds silly to even say that, but better safe than sorry? But hey, life in South Korea can be plenty of fun even without your life directly mirroring the plot line of your favorite drama. And if you think about it, you probably wouldn’t want to actually want to date one of the main leads in Korean dramas; not beyond their looks, anyway.
03. You might have to bring a lot of your own wardrobe with you.
In many ways, Korea is a shopper’s paradise. There are cheap street shops for clothes and shoes and bags everywhere, and the stuff is usually really cute! They may not be as durable as brand items, but if that’s the case then you probably didn’t pay much for them to begin with. With that being said… Although Korea is getting better at offering clothes and shoes in different sizes, the reality is that they mostly cater to the Korean body. This is absolutely fine, except us expats may not always fit into them, then! Basically, if your shoe size is 39 (Europe)/8 (US) or above for women, and 44 (Europe)/10 (US) or above for men, you may want to bring a few pairs of your own shoes, just in case. Similarly, if you are quite tall, or muscular, or curvy, you may not want to leave all of your clothes behind.
04. Korean is likely a new to you language to learn.
Yes indeed, I fall into that group of people who think you should be capable of speaking the language spoken in the country you’re living in. Of course, you don’t actually have to become fully fluent in Korean, that takes a lot of time and effort. However, it’s only respectful towards the locals to know how to do some basic things, like ordering food at a restaurant, in the local language! If you just want to use English, then perhaps just stick to an English-speaking country?
05. Korean cuisine and food culture in general may be quite different from what you’re accustomed to.
Eating out in Korea is super affordable, especially if you stick with local foods, but that does require you to like at least some of the Korean food available. In addition, there is a huge range of international restaurants to choose from, at least in Seoul, but many of them are faux authentic at best as the recipes have been tweaked to fit Koreans’ taste buds better (I mean, sweet garlic bread, anyone?). In addition, what’s being sold at Korean marts and supermarkets can wildly differ from what you’ve been accustomed to in your home country.
This obviously doesn’t mean you should immediately decide not to move to Korea if you’re a bit picky with what you eat – hell, I know many Koreans who came to Finland as exchange students and basically spent the entire time eating package after package of instant foods sent to them by their parents – but the different food culture is most definitely something you should mentally prepare for in advance! Koreans also do not use ovens, so if that’s your staple in a kitchen, you might have to search high and low for one (ok, I’m exaggerating a teensy bit, there’s usually someone always selling theirs on Facebook and Craigslist). Don’t forget that a lot of Korean food is also spicy! How spicy it’ll feel for you, is of course completely dependent on your own taste buds and how accustomed to spicy food you’ve previously been (although it’s a very different kind of spicy from, say, Mexican or Indian cuisines).
06. Korea is not yet perfect for those with dietary restrictions.
Korea is getting better at catering for muslims, vegetarians, vegans, and the like… But you’ll probably find yourself having to get creative with your food choices. And good luck trying to find gluten free options.
07. Korea’s weather just might drive you mad.
In the summer it gets hot and humid and rainy. In the winter, even when the degrees aren’t necessarily that low, the wind will make you feel cold. Fall and spring are awesome, but also blink and you missed it in terms of length.
08. Your hair’s needs might be totally different from Asian hair’s.
While at least in Seoul you can find several hairdressers that can cut and dye non-Asian hair types, finding the right kind of shampoos, conditioners, and other hair products can be difficult, especially if your hair is curly or blonde. In those cases, it might be a safe bet to bring some products with you from home. In case you need refills, you may shop online for them, or get care packages from home.
09. You probably shouldn’t start up a chat with random people passing by. And it’s not that common to smile at them, either.
This is important for you to know for 3 reasons: 1) if you try this with a Korean, you might be making them feel uncomfortable, 2) if you are a woman and a male approaches you like this, more often than not their intentions with you are not quite so sincere and innocent, and 3) in general most of the Koreans who’ll try to stop you on the street for a chat are trying to recruit you to a cult…
10. Korea’s drinking culture is quite extreme.
You may have already heard it that Korea can get pretty hardcore when it comes to alcohol consumption. It is perfectly socially acceptable to drink stuff like soju any day of the week. And alcohol is also easily accessible in many normal local restaurants as well. Drinking will likely be one of your Korean friends’ favorite activities, which can be tough on your liver (and wallet) even if you also love drinking. And if you don’t drink but want to salvage your social life? It’ll come in handy to always have an alternative activity suggestion ready to be presented when drinking is suggested.
11. Office gossip is totally a thing.
Especially in a work life setting, you’re not going to want to tell your colleagues a lot about your life outside of work, they’re masters at gossip! Hell, I remember back when I was working in a company, and I was single at the time, and one morning we were all out for coffee with the team when I happened to get a text message that made me smile (probably from a female friend), and although I immediately denied it being from a guy, rumors quickly started spreading… to the point where even questions of whether I was going to be marrying this guy that was a figment of their imagination!
12. Education in Korean universities can be a hit and miss.
Are you moving to Korea because you’re specifically in awe with their education system and quality? Or are you moving to Korea to study because you like the country itself? If it’s the latter, please do your due research (aka talk to other foreigner alumni!) on whether it’s going to be the right decision for you specifically, or if you’d be better of studying somewhere else first before moving to Korea.
13. It is not the easiest country for a foreigner to stay long term.
Korea is definitely a wonderful location to live for a while, especially when you’re young and living in the Seoul area. However, for many of us, living there does get exhausting after a certain point in time. Unfortunately for us, at the end of the day their culture, society and norms just aren’t inviting towards immigrants yet. Luckily, that doesn’t mean it won’t be fun for you for a year or two. Or even a bit longer than that!
With all of that being said, I do think South Korea can be a pretty great place to live in. If I hadn’t enjoyed being there, I wouldn’t have stayed for nearly 8 years myself! However, it is also not some magical land of fairies and elves; and as much as you may love your life style and the Hallyu Wave, you might also find yourself frustrated with some of the everyday things of life there. Thus, I think it’s good to take the time to do your research and a thorough process of thinking before making the decision – and this goes for any country you may be moving to!
Which Korea-related topic would you like to read about next? Please answer in the comments!