“Double-Take: The Expectations versus Realities of Living in South Korea.”
In coming to South Korea, my expectations rose higher and higher as I prepared to travel to the country. I read articles on the culture and politics of the country, I listened to audiobooks to help learn the language, I got too into Korean dramas, I sang along (badly) to a lot of Korean music, and I found the best Korean restaurants in my state to try the cuisine. I felt prepared. It felt like I was floating into a new life experience, so when reality hit it, it was like whiplash (minus the accompanying pain). This feeling appeared less as a culture shock and more as one of displacement, like someone had shifted everything in a room 10 centimeters to the right so that I kept bumping into the furniture by accident. South Korea became a lesson in expectation versus reality.
What I learned from this lesson was to not let preparedness affect my outlook. I expected to be immersed in the language and to be speaking somewhat conversationally within a few months. The reality is that there is so much English! I felt so at ease because having a familiar language present made it much easier to navigate the town, but also so easy to slow down on language learning. As a result I was told that my Korean is, unsurprisingly, textbook and unnatural (which, as an English teacher, I found to be particularly funny). I expected cold weather during winter. The reality was that South Florida did not prepare me for the icy chill that seeped into my bones for months. I saw snow for the first time and fell into starry-eyed wonder. Later, I nearly fell on my face after experiencing slush for the first time as well. On a related note, I also did not expect the wonderful reality of heated floors, thermal fans, and electric blankets. I expected very conservative dress, refined mannerisms, and glowing skin (a slight source of worry for me). The reality was that young adults here follow trends like anywhere else, kids are loud all over the world, and that skin is skin—some have amazing skin, some not so great, and others pretty ordinary.
I was constantly double-taking and I needed to relax. I am not a traveler dancing my way into a new culture with a guidebook and an international phone plan. I am a person who has dropped into the daily comings and goings of a country rich in culture and life. As I navigate my experiences with those of the people and culture in here in South Korea and Daegu, I’d like to share six expectations and their corresponding realities I have encountered.
Expectation: South Korea is very safe.
Reality: South Korea is VERY safe.
Unexpected Reality: Passersby will make sure that you get whatever it is you dropped on the sidewalk.
Safety is, by far, the most jarringly wonderful reality about South Korea, which is why it tops the list. Yes, I read that it was safe and yes, I’ve seen several videos of people here speaking on how much safer they feel in South Korea than in their home countries, but the reality was better than I imagined. The feeling was better than I could imagine because I had never before felt so at ease walking down the street. To be frank, I hadn’t realized how unsafe I actually felt back home until arriving here. I had lost my phone, wallet, and my carry on at separate points in time and received them each within a day (I am also much more conscious of my belongings). I can take my trash out, take a walk even, at any time of night and not feel as if my life was in immediate danger. The clicking sound on camera phones is fixed, so I am aware if someone is taking a picture of me. If I go dancing with my friends, I know that I won’t be touched or given unwanted advances. It was so strange and so wonderful. The feeling of safety has definitely made my life here so much more enjoyable.
Safety is a priority. When researching new countries to live in, I pay very close attention to crime statistics, treatment of women and foreigners, and the police. As a woman of color raised in the United States of America, these are issues that are constantly at the forefront of my mind. I definitely feel a little less tense while living here. I will, however, stress the importance of keeping safety at the forefront of your mind as a foreigner living or passing through the country. You are still a visitor and must always try to be respectful, cautious, and prepared for anything that may happen. Women especially, however safer you may be and may feel, you are still a woman in a foreign country and should be on alert. Have fun and enjoy your experiences, but stay safe!
Expectation: 떡볶이Tteokbokki, 라면ramyun, 김치kimchi, 비빔밥bibimbap, 자장면jajangmyeon, and other foods you read about and watched your favorite Kdrama actors and Kpop idols eat.
Reality: So much tastes so good and there is such a variety of food!
Unexpected Reality: Auntie Anne’s and Krispy Kreme are here and KFC tastes better.
I have tried all of the popular foods I’ve seen on Korean dramas and variety shows, but South Korea offers so much more than what is publicized overseas. As a public school teacher, I look forward to school lunches because I get to taste a variety of Korean food. Public school lunches are wonderful and nutritious, which is a necessity back home. I love the soups and stews, there is such a variety of side dishes, and quite a few dishes have been surprisingly similar to my family’s traditional food from the Caribbean. Korean food has surprised me. I always get 순대(sundae) and liver with my 떡볶이(Tteokbokki), I crave김밥 (kimbap) when I travel, and I get excited to eat 떡(tteok/rice cakes)! My friends and I talk about our weeks over삼겹살(smagyupsal) or찜닭(jjimdak) and it’s so delicious. Each city and prefecture has their own specialty dishes and they are all worth a try.
Additionally, the café culture here is massive, eclectic, aesthetic, and fun. Furthermore, if you are craving food from home, there are various restaurants all over Daegu that serve cuisine from outside of Korea. If you can’t find it here, you’ll probably find it in another city. As a Caribbean woman from the southern United States, I’ve had Mexican food in Daegu, Gumbo in Busan, and Jamaican food and Nigerian food in Itaewon.
Lastly, I would like to provide a lesson in adulthood: eat fresh groceries right away. It may be obvious to some, but not as much to others. Food from the local market or supermarket is fresh and seasonal, which is amazing, but as a result they spoil faster than expected (a moment of silence for the Great Loss of Strawberry Season. They were eaten too slowly, and moldy too quickly, rest in compost.). A friend of mine who is allergic to the pesticides and insecticides they spray on fruits in the United States is finally able to eat fruit here in South Korea. She is ecstatic and I hope you are as well once you try what the food here has to offer. Enjoy!
Expectation: Solitude sprinkled with a few foreigner faces
Reality: So many more foreigners than realized
Unexpected Reality: Foreigner families with children
To be frank, I did not expect to see very many foreigners in Daegu. I was pleasantly surprised to find a much larger population of expats than expected. The community is large and helpful when you feel homesick, lost or confused. For Daegu, there are Facebook groups for various interests, churches with multicultural services, and clubs and organizations that connect foreigners together. Some Facebook groups I recommend are: The Daegu Flea Market, Women of Daegu, and of course Colorful Daegu. Enjoy Korea, Trazy, Interpark and their corresponding websites are also great for finding things to do around the country.
Reality: Really easy navigation.
Unexpected Reality: The bus stops are announced in Korean and English. The subway and metro stops also have Japanese.
Transportation here is so great! Traveling around the country is much simpler than I thought it would be and much faster as well. Navigating my way around the city has been made so much easier by the English that is available on bus schedules, street signs, and apps. Korail Talk, the app to use to book a train ticket to other cities in South Korea, has an English version. Kakao Bus, to check bus times, and Kako Taxi, to call a nearby taxi to your location, both have an English setting that makes both apps much easier to use. Most of all, Kakao Maps has an English setting that allows you to use navigation, see bus and subway/metro times and location, and shows you several options to help you get to where you need to go. All three apps will be even more helpful if you can read Hangul, as the Korean is still present, but overall it is very user and visitor friendly. There are also Kakao Metro, Kako Navi, Kako Driver, and Naver Map as options.
Getting a taxi has also proven to be much easier than expected. You simply look for a taxi that has the LED red 빈차 (bincha or available) sign displayed in the front window and wave your hand out towards the road to catch it’s attention. Once, inside I suggest telling the taxi driver a recognizable landmark or popular building to get to your location. Otherwise, having the Korean address of your location ready on your phone to show to the driver or showing the driver the location on the map also works. Lastly, and surprisingly, people have been very useful for transportation. While people themselves are not forms of transportation (unless you are a baby), your legs are and directions from Korean people have been so helpful. More often than not, I would be given directions in English after asking for help in Korean. Transportation and navigation is both easy and friendly in Daegu.
Expectation: South Korea is super affordable!
Reality: South Korea is as affordable as every other country.
Unexpected Reality: Budgeting
It is interesting how money and perspective work hand in hand. Anything can be made expensive, cheap, or affordable when compared to other things or other countries. One of the important points I read about in my research on South Korea was how much more affordable the cost of living is. While this is true to an extent, the affordability is measured by how wisely money is spent. The reality is that South Korea is just as affordable as any other country is, especially if you live here. Perhaps if you were on holiday and saved money to spend in South Korea, I agree that your money will go a long way on your visit here. However, living here has proven that I need to budget wisely just as I would in my home country. Imported goods and non-Korean food, especially, will add up to be expensive.
I will say, however, that it is entirely possible to live affordably. Medicine, prescriptions, and healthcare are wonderfully affordable, fresh groceries and Korean food are wonderfully affordable, transportation is wonderfully affordable, and visiting traditional areas and monuments is wonderfully affordable. Money managed well, an amazing time can be had here. Most importantly, setting up a Korean bank account and banking app will aid immensely with money management. As you need a secret code card and often times a several-step security process when making certain online purchases, transactions made with a Korean card are very secure and your items will arrive to you within a few days! The process can sometimes be frustrating, but the feeling that your money is being handled safely and securely is very rewarding on its own and quite reliving overall.
6. Imported Goods
Expectation: There may be some imported goods, but bring most of what I need.
Reality: I could have saved the luggage space and purchased what I needed here.
Unexpected Reality: Afro-textured hair products and hair salons right in Daegu!
I could have packed more clothes and hair products. This is a sentence that often comes to mind whenever I see the same goods or products here in South Korea that are also available in my home country. I realized I was thinking of South Korea as a country that is new and foreign to me instead of as a new and foreign first world country with a flourishing economy. Yes, so many things are country-specific, as they are in every country around the world, but many things aren’t as well. For a fee, of course, I can usually find what I need at Homeplus, Olive Young, Costco, and even the convenience stores if there is no adequate Korean substitute. More often than not shopping locally provides little hassle. For clothing, and shoes, a quick trip downtown, or to any popular area will provide major and familiar brand names. H&M, Zara, Nike, Adidas, Timberland, Calvin Klein and Apple retailers are just a few of many stores open here as they are in other areas of the world. What I can’t find in stores I can find online at stores such as Gmarket.com, iHerb.com, and Amazon.com. I really could have saved the luggage space.
All in all, I find myself pleased that my expectations have been given a surprise many times over. Reality is much nicer and way more fun. Living in South Korea is like learning the steps to a new dance in my head—I always realize that more time, more patience, and more practice is needed before I can actually perform. The journey to getting there, however, is actually pretty nice. Lesson learned: it is important to be cautious and prepared, but is it equally as important to take a moment to exist in the present.