Oh, Korea, you’re a funny place sometimes! I’ve lived in here on two separate occasions now, both as a student in Seoul and as an ESL teacher in the countryside. Currently, I’m preparing to go back for a third time to teach in a city called Suncheon and, in my preparation, I’ve started to remember all the weird things that happen when you become an expat in Korea.
10 weird things that happen when you become an expat in Korea:
1. You will suddenly know what it’s like to be a celebrity
Ever wonder what Taylor Swift must feel like leaving her apartment every day? Well, you can have the Taylor Swift experience right here in Korea, and you won’t even need the boyfriend speculation or musical talent!
Unless you’re East Asian looking, you will be stared at. By everyone. Small children will point at you. This will be even more apparent in smaller areas outside of Seoul. If you hear ‘wayguk saram’, then know they’re literally calling you ‘foreigner.’
Like being a celebrity, this has its ups and downs. You’ll be flattered at first but after a few months, it’ll get pretty old. If you want to get cheeky, point back and whisper in awe. ‘hanguk saram,’ which means ‘Korean person.’ They’ll usually laugh at the joke or turn away in embarrassment.
2. You’ll develop this thing with cheese
When I first arrived in Korea, I ate American cheese and, if I was feeling fancy, Brie. Sure, I liked my cheesy goods but I didn’t think they would be on my list of cravings. I distinctly remember listening in confusion as my fellow expats talked about the stuff with almost a surreal level of delirium.
Somewhere in the middle of my two years in Korea, that all changed. I found myself hosting a New Year’s gathering and dedicating a good portion of my budget to buying all the cheese I could find at the nicer grocery store in town. Trust me, it’s not even that great, but the thought of their Red Apple Smoked Gouda had me salivating. Right before I left Korea (when I should have been eating all the ddeokkbeokki and kalbi in sight), I actively went out in search of a place that served mac and cheese. I then very much overpaid for it. Twice.
3. You might as well be H&M’s new brand ambassador
Unless you’re a size 0 with exactly no curve in your boobs, hips, or bum, 99% of Korea’s clothes will either not fit you or not look good on you. Most Korean stores – especially the ones they show on T.V. – are ‘free size’, which means they come in exactly one size. This is either a size 0 or a potato sack. Once in a while, you can find a potato sack garment that you can work with, but more often than not you’ll find yourself holding up items and wondering who they fit exactly.
Now, while most big brands have locations in some of the bigger cities in Korea, they only carry up to a certain size, and that size is usually a 4 or a medium. And they’re way more expensive than their U.S. counterparts.
H&M, however, is everywhere (well almost everywhere) and it carries its full range of sizes. Nevermind that the store used to make you cry because its sizing was so different from Old Navy or American Eagle. It fits you in a land where nothing else does, making it paradise. By the end of my two years, I was partially conditioned to prefer H&M over other brands. Even being home, I find myself lighting up when I see that red logo.
4. Your favorite shoes will no longer be your favourite
Oh, did you live, breathe, and die in your riding boots like I did? They went perfectly with your blanket scarf and Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, didn’t they? Do you own a pair of black or white Converse for more casual looks and a beautiful pair of strappy heels for special occasions?
Don’t even waste the suitcase space. Most places in Korea require you to change before you enter the building and taking more than 10 seconds to remove or put on your shoes is too long.
You know how when 4:30 p.m. hits and you’re ready to be halfway home? Stopping to shove your foot into your boot and zipper it back up gets annoying very quickly. Especially if you put them on only to realize you’ve left your cell phone all the way back in the office, which means you need to take them off all over again!
5. Using your whole bathroom as your shower will start to feel normal
In most places in Korea, your shower isn’t in a separate area. Mine was positioned right between my sink and my toilet, and I had to remember to put my toilet paper outside so the water didn’t ruin it.
It sounds annoying but it’s actually pretty convenient. You might even come to prefer it, especially if you’re not a fan of cleaning the bathroom like I am.
Just make sure you leave your toilet seat up and your door open while the bathroom dries. Stumbling over and sitting on a wet seat in the middle of the night is not fun.
6. A grown man listening to bubblegum pop will also feel normal
I remember standing in a stationary store and suddenly hearing the cutesy sound of APink’s ‘Mr. Chu’ coming from a middle-aged man’s phone. This is a song that makes Mandy Moore’s ‘Candy’ sound like an indie classic.
As the sound rang over the store, everyone was very nonchalant. He wasn’t embarrassed. The teenaged cashier wasn’t stifling a giggle. No one looked over in confusion. It didn’t even hit me right away that I should be surprised.
The cute culture is a very real thing and you’ll slowly find yourself embracing it too. Whether it’s sticking cute little stickers on your cell phone, using ‘^^’ while texting your coworkers, visiting a poop cafe, or hearing a grown man openly enjoy bubblegum pop, that’s just Korea!
7. You’ll find yourself laying on your apartment floor a lot in the winter
So, Korea doesn’t have central heating like you might be used to. They have ondol or floor heating. For my apartment, this meant that I turned on the hot water and let the heat rise up gradually.
Korean winters can be brutal. They’re just as bad if not worse than U.S. Northeast winters but without the centrally heated buildings. This means I can make my classroom nice and toasty but the minute I step into the hallway, I enter Antarctica. Going to the bathroom is always torturous.
All this back and forth will leave you exhausted. You’ll get back to your apartment, turn on the ondol heating and lay on the ground until you feel alive again. Get a nice carpet off Gmarket and you’ll thank me later.
8. You will start to develop a biological urge
Even if the thought of pregnancy gives you the chills or you’re as single as they come, the sight of a Korean child will start to trigger all sorts of maternal and paternal urges. Have you seen any toddler as cute as a Korean toddler?! My cousins, who are some variations of Caucasian, have some of the cutest kids out there but I would still pick a random Korean baby’s picture over theirs.
Don’t get me wrong, Korean kids can have their challenges just like anyone in the world but I don’t know a single expat who hasn’t melted into a puddle at the thought of them. I still get the gushiest feelings when I think about my elementary students.
9. Online banking will inspire more hatred in you than you thought yourself capable of feeling
If there’s one aspect of Korean culture that drives everyone (including Koreans) to the brink of insanity, it’s online banking. I think I jumped through fewer hoops getting hired and filing the visa paperwork than I did to maintain my Korean bank accounts.
Here’s the thing. You have to go in person to open up an account and you have to remember to specifically ask about online banking. This is all fine until you realise that most banks open and close while you’re at work and often, no one is available to help you go to translate.
When you do finally sign-up, you need to download a certificate. If you don’t have this certificate, you can’t log in. Also, you can only use your online bank between certain hours and usually not on weekends or holidays. If you need help, it might take a few different numbers to find someone who can speak English. In fact, I’ve had people just hang up on me even though I’m asking in Korean.
Oh, and if you want to transfer or do anything, you need this card your bank will give you when you sign-up. It has a grid of numbers and one of the security questions will ask you to input those numbers. If you lose this card, you have to go back in person to get a new one. You will probably misplace this card at least once.
Did I mention you can only do all of this on Internet Explorer?
10. The thought of cleavage will suddenly make you blush
Despite what most K-pop outfits suggest, Koreans are actually really conservative when it comes to showing skin from the waist up. In summer, the most daring shirt you’ll see is a sleeveless top and it will most certainly have a high neckline. Even the most innocuous V-neck shirt will suddenly feel too scandalous! Yes, those of you with busts over a B-cup will probably struggle.
Alternatively, there is no such mentality when it comes to below the waist. Short skirts, short shorts, short dresses… My friend said she had co-workers come in in booty shorts and no one even batted an eye.
Of course, there are so many other aspects of being an expat in Korea. These are just some of the funny little things most I’m sure most foreigners will sympathise with!
Looking for more posts about Korea? Read these next:
Thinking about becoming an expat? You might find these posts helpful:
- 10 Reasons Why You Should Become an Expat
- Expats Share: The Best Thing About Being an Expat
- 10 Quotes about Expat Life
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Are you an expat in Korea? What would you add to this list?