Move over Paris, we all know that Seoul is the real City of Lights.
Ask any Korean and they will proudly tell you that Korea is over 5000 years old with Seoul being at the forefront of many battles and historically significant moments. It slipped through the hands of many a greedy conquerer and remained independent. Ask any Western Political Theorist and they will tell you that Korea was the fastest nation to develop fully in the history of the world. Within thirty years Seoul went from being a broken, war-torn and poverty-stricken nation to a high-end, economic powerhouse with one of the highest standards of living in the world. In fact, in recent years Seoul has repeatedly been listed as one of the top ten most expensive cities in which to live.
Indeed, Korean history is a huge source of pride for the people of Korea. They have repeatedly suffered under the hand of other, larger countries only to persevere and bounce back, more determined than ever to keep their land and culture distinctly Korean. Even though Korea can be considered one of the more “westernized” East Asian nations, this protectionist view toward culture and language means that expats who are expecting Korea to be Westernized often experience culture shock upon arriving in a very distinctly Asian city.
Seoul, the capital city of The Republic of Korea, is found in the province of Gyeonggi-do and is located just under an hour away from the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean Peninsula into North and South. Being the relatively small country that South Korea is, travel within the South Korea is relatively cheap and easy.
Being the centre of business and the land of investment Seoul is, you will find expats wherever you go. Some will be in Seoul for business and many are immigrants from other Asian countries. By far, the majority of English speaking expats living in Seoul are working as ESL instructors for public schools or Hagwons (private kindergartens and schools). While there are lots of resources around Seoul to support the foreign community, expats may be surprised at the amount of Koreans who don’t speak any English. This is your time to shine! While Korean may sound complicated and the words can be difficult to pronounce, learning the Korean alphabet is extremely easy and can be memorzed quickly – this helps more than you may think, since “Konglish” (a mixture of Korean and English) is used widely throughout Seoul. Expat hubs in Seoul include the areas of Itaewon, Gangnam, Hongdae and Jongno where you can find a variety of international food and goods.
Your experiences with Korean people will depend largely on your attitude as an expat. While Koreans are some of the friendliest, most humble and giving people in the world, they appreciate you more when you attempt to speak Korean and understand their culture. Some expats limit friendships to other “waeguk”, or foreigners, because they believe it is too difficult to maintain friendships with the differences in Korean and Western cultures (etiquette, formalities, and general behaviour are some of the main differences). However, friendships with Koreans are the ones you will remember for the rest of your life and are worth the effort. That they will help you understand Korean culture and will teach you useful phrases is just an added benefit! Having Korean friends will make your time in Korea that much more enjoyable.