What I Miss and Do Not Miss About Living in Seoul, Korea

July 18, 2014
I've mentioned on here before that I lived and worked in Seoul, Korea for three years teaching English as a Second Language to students in elementary and middle school.  Even though I left Seoul in 2008, I still often think about the time I spent over there.  While reflecting on my overall experience, I came up with a list of what I do and do not miss, and I thought it would be fun to share on here.

What I Miss About Living in Seoul

* Teachers are respected more in Korea than they are in the United States.    Of course this is a blanket statement, but one that I've personally found to be true.  Here in the U.S., I hear people insulting teachers on a regular basis.  People compare teachers to babysitters or the recite the terrible expression, "Those who can, do.  Those who can't, teach."  Often times teachers are villainized as being "greedy" for wanting higher (read fair) salaries.  In Korea, the parents of my students seemed very appreciative of the teachers who worked in my school.  I often received thank you cards and letters from the parents and also from the students I taught.  The parents who came into the school  bowed at me as a sign of respect. There is even a holiday called Teacher's Day that is celebrated on May 15th.

* Going out to eat was cheaper than buying food at the grocery store.  Yes, not always, but it's all about knowing which restaurants to go to, and my roommate at the time introduced me to all of the cheapest places.  For example, I knew of a place where I could get a steaming bowl of dolsat bipbimbap (warm steamed rice with vegetables, red pepper paste, and egg) for 3,500 won, which was about $3.50 U.S. at the time. The meal filled me up and often times I couldn't even finish the whole bowl.  I also knew of a kalbi (marinated beef or pork) place where I could spend less than $5 and have a feast.  The affordable price of going out to eat in Korea was ideal for me because I don't really like to cook and led a busy life
over there.

* My Favorite Themed Bars.  Some of my favorite bars in Seoul were the Bungalow bar (complete with sand to put our feet in!), an ice bar called Sub Zero, and a cave bar.  These bars made going out even more fun!

* Being able to visit a palace whenever I wanted.  There are 5 palaces in Seoul, but the one I visited the most was Gyeongbokgung.

* Having easy access to plenty of beauty stores.  The Face Shop, Etude House, and Skin Food are three famous Korean retailers that were all over Seoul.  It was nice to go into those stores and to be able to buy a bunch of inexpensive makeup and skincare products.

* The markets and shopping.  Some of my favorite spots to shop were at Dongdaemun, Hongdae, Myeongdong, and around Ehwa Woman's University.  I found so many great pieces of jewelry, purses, shirts, etc.  Even though I was shy about doing this, it's fine to ask for deals or to haggle with the sellers over the prices.  It added to the experience and saved me a little money.

* Having tea in Insa-Dong.  There are all sorts of traditional tea houses serving many different types of tea in this area.  Going to Insa-Dong in general was something I always looked forward to.  There are a lot of shops that sell traditional Korean gifts like varnished wooden boxes, hanboks, products made with ginseng, tea sets, etc.

* Having cheap and efficient forms of public transportation available.  It was so nice not having to drive and to not have car payments or pay for gas, car insurance, and repairs!!  I preferred taking the subway because it was easy to use and I didn't get motion sickness like I would on some of the buses.  A one-way ticket to anywhere I wanted to go in Seoul was always less than $2.  Taxis were also way cheaper than in the States.  Sometimes I would take a taxi alone, but usually I went with friends and then split the cost so that it was even cheaper.

* Ondol heating.  Instead of hot air coming out of vents, Koreans have a system that uses water underneath the floor to heat up the floors.  Since many Koreans sleep on the floor or sit on the floor even when eating meals, this type of heating system makes sense.  I liked it because I feel cold more often than all of my friends seem to, and lying directly on the floor always warmed me up right away.  I would sometimes even sleep on the floor in the winter just for that extra warmth and toasty feeling.

* Cherry blossoms in the spring.  It was always so beautiful for those couple of weeks in the spring when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

* Free side dishes came with every meal.  The side dishes always included cabbage kimchi, but some other side dishes I got served were: radish kimchi, crispy sweet potatoes in caramelized sauce, finely shredded lettuce with 1,000 Island dressing, seasoned bean sprouts, tofu, seasoned mushrooms, or fish cakes.

* Being able to go to the doctor's when I was sick and not worrying about the cost.  Even with insurance going to the doctor's in the States can get ridiculously expensive, so I usually don't go unless I feel like I'm dying.  It was such a relief to be able to go to the doctors in Korea and not stress about the financial burden of it.

* The button on the tables in restaurants.  I thought this was so cool and convenient.  You know how when you go out to eat sometimes the waiter or waitress ignores you?  Or maybe they're stopping by too much to ask how you're doing and you just want to be left alone.  In some places there are buttons at each booth or table that you can press if you need something and the waiter will come right away and get you whatever you need.  It's perfect!

* Discovering new places all the time.  Even by the end of my 3rd year in Seoul, I was still finding out cool places to go to that I had never been to before, like Samcheongdong.  Samcheongdong was an area of Seoul that had many hanuks, or traditional Korean houses.

* Having a good base to explore other parts of Asia.  Living in Korea meant that I could easily book a flight to Japan, China, or a destination in Southeast Asia for far less money than I would spend if I traveled to those places from the United States.

Shanghai, China  For you, Rachael!
* There are a lot of jobs in education.  I got a job lined up in a matter of days without even having an interview!  (Although, now I assume most schools will want to at least do a phone interview.)  There are tons of postings for ESL teachers on sites like Dave's ESL Cafe.  I wish there were more job openings to apply to around me, that's for sure!

* Learning about the Korean culture.  I find cultural differences fascinating and living in Korea certainly provided me with some new insight!

* Hearing the word "Service."  When someone says "service" to you in Korea, they are trying to give you something for free.  I feel like people were always trying to give me free stuff over there, and that was pretty awesome.  Examples of "serviced" items would be a free drink, some extra side dishes that don't usually come with the meal, or free beauty samples.  Probably the best thing I got were two coupons for free deep conditioning treatments at the salon I went to. 

* It seemed like there was always something going on.  There were all sorts of festivals and events.  New restaurants and bars opened up all the time. Some pretty big performers started coming to Seoul, too.  While I was there, I went to several concerts!  I saw Muse, Bjork, Beyonce, and Christina Aguilera.

* The corn and sweet potato pizza.  Okay, so most foreigners living in Korea did not actually appreciate these pizza toppings, but I did!

* That it was custom to remove your shoes before entering someone's home.  I do feel like it's more hygienic to leave your shoes at the door and not wear them around the house.  I mean, I know I've stepped in some pretty gross stuff!

* Korean food is generally healthy.  I ate mostly rice, kimchi, vegetables, and meat when I was there, and did end up losing weight.  Also, the desserts over there weren't sugary compared to American desserts. Without all the added sugar, the desserts didn't really taste that good to me so I quit eating them.  When I came back to America, my mom made me a Funfetti cake which was my favorite kind of cake.  I took a bite and ended up spitting it out because it was too sugary!  Of course, now I've gotten used to the high sugar contents and once again love Funfetti, but gosh...It was nice to be able to eat clean over there without having to put in a lot of effort!

* Not having to pay rent.  Most schools in Korea will provide housing for foreign teachers, so I only had to pay my bills which weren't even that much.  It was so easy to save money.

* My students.  I had some great kids that I really loved.  I always wonder about them and how they are doing.  A couple of my former students are in high school now and have added me on Facebook. It was awesome to re-connect!

What I Do Not Miss About Living in Seoul

* The pollution.  I ended up getting vocal nodules and chronic laryngitis from talking too much (teaching will do that) and breathing polluted air did not help.

* The dating scene.  It was very dismal.  Even my friends who were 10's had a lot of trouble finding decent guys to date.

* Feeling alone.  Most of the time this was not an issue, but one time I got really sick with a fever of of 103 degrees.  I was all alone in my apartment and just had no one to help me.  I remember taking the subway to the doctor's and how I almost collapsed getting there.

* Not being able to find shoes, pants, or bras that fit. 

* Sitting on the floor while eating a meal at a restaurant.  This is just personal preference...I never feel comfy having to sit on the floor.

* The large crowds.  Sometimes this could get overwhelming.  I would just want to ride the bus without being packed in like a sardine.

* Getting gawked at.  That's what happens when you're a 6 foot tall white girl.  Sometimes people were so annoying about it, but then again people have said some not-so-nice things to me here about being tall. 

* Not being able to find my essentials like deodorant that worked or tampons.  Thank goodness my sister sent me some care packages full of what I needed.

If you have lived in or traveled to another country what did you miss from your home country?  What are some things that you miss about the place you traveled to?

18 comments on "What I Miss and Do Not Miss About Living in Seoul, Korea"
  1. My dad was stationed in Seoul, when I was a junior in high school and we were able to visit him for two weeks. It was an incredible experience and I"m sad I've never been back. Sounds so wonderful!!

    1. Seoul was never even on my list of destinations, but once I lived there I was blown away by how much it had to offer. Now it is one of my favorite cities in the whole world, but I might be biased. :)

  2. Replies
    1. They were! Even the regular bars we went to a lot were just a lot of fun! You never knew who you would meet.

  3. What do you think made the dating scene so dismal? I've heard lots of horror stories about clothing shopping there for American women. Big-ish boobs + "average" size feet = no bueno.

    1. Lol, I just sent you an email explaining why I thought the dating scene was dismal. I was able to get like 2 pairs of shoes there the whole year, but I had to special order them from GMarket.

  4. oh the list of things i miss from my country is a mile long. i have a similar post in my drafts but because the US is the foreign country in my experience, i dont want to offend anyone. so we'll see. but feeling alone is a huge thing for me, i'm never alone really but i feel alone often. i have my husband and best friends, its hard to explain. but anyway! Seoul sounds pretty amazing :)

    1. No, I know what you mean...When I lived in Italy, I had my ex-boyfriend and his family and friends, but I still felt alone. I'd love to read your post!

  5. Those themed bars sound so much fun!

    1. They were! Bungalow (the beachy one) even had swings to sit on!

  6. I have a friend that is there teaching now and loves it! She comes home about once a year...
    Do you think you'll ever go back?

    1. I'm tempted to all the time!! I truly loved it there...well, besides the stuff I wrote that I did not miss, but the good things outweighed the bad ones by far.

  7. As a former teacher I like to hear how teachers are held to such high respect in Korea.

    1. I was in for a rude awakening when I came back to America!

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I love hearing about other travels and experiences. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Oh man, I would happily live on Korean food. Especially if it was that cheap! We have some great Korean restaurants near my work in Seattle, but nothing really close to home, and definitely nothing for $3.50!

  10. I love adventure, good food and cheap! It looks amazing in Korea and it is a bummer to be stared at. It is so difficult being an immigrant anywhere. (I have never been an immigrant but I have friends who are/were and have heard the difficulties)