Is there anything good about living in Seoul as an expat?
May 29, 2008 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Is there anything good about living in Seoul as an expat? Looking for first-hand experience to counter my (largely unfounded) negative impressions.

My husband might be able to get a transfer to Seoul which would almost certainly provide a big step forward in his career and, more importantly, involve work that he finds very interesting. I might even be able to line up a job there myself (in fact I would have to, as it doesn't sound cheap).

My problem is that Korea is one of the few countries that I have consciously thought I wouldn't enjoy. Admittedly my experience of it is limited to transferring at Seoul airport about 12 years ago, but from overhead it seemed an ugly city, and I didn't sense that people are very warm towards strangers. I like the food and I used to know a couple of lovely Korean women several years ago, but they were pretty demure and from what they said it seems a very conservative culture; at least where women are concerned.

I'd like to be optimistic about possible this move but am finding first-hand descriptions of living in Seoul rather difficult to track down on the internet - and what I have found is mostly limited to young ESL teachers living on the cheap, which we are not.

Can anyone tell me what it's like living there? Things like weather, culture, meeting people, entertainment, eating out, getting out of town - good, bad or indifferent.

Links to decent info about cost of living would be very welcome too - estimates I've found range dramatically, presumably because they're polarised between young teachers and rich executives; we would be somewhere in between.

posted by 8k to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't access flickr at work, but you might look for a flickr user going by the name of Elizabeth Taylor. She's an expat living in Seoul, seems to really love it.
posted by sully75 at 10:08 AM on May 29, 2008

and I didn't sense that people are very warm towards strangers

that's odd, I found the people of Seoul much more friendlier than Tokyo. I was only there a day, tho.
posted by tachikaze at 10:47 AM on May 29, 2008

From my experience Koreans can be very friendly. Don't they describe themselves as the Irish of Asia or something?
posted by sully75 at 10:56 AM on May 29, 2008

I've heard "Italians of Asia," but that may mean nothing.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:12 PM on May 29, 2008

I haven't lived there, but the few days I spent there on business last February were great. I went in with no particular ideas about what it would be like. I found that I really loved Seoul and couldn't wait to spend more time in Seoul and explore more of Korea. People were friendly. The city really values its history, and I love that gates and palaces are sprinkled throughout the sleek modern buildings. Don't judge the city based on an overhead view and a transfer at Incheon Airport. It's got a lot to offer.
posted by bassjump at 1:18 PM on May 29, 2008

12 years ago the airport would have been Kimpo, not Incheon.

Housing is going to be the big expense of living in Seoul - you really shouldn't consider going unless your husband's company is including housing in the expat package or at the least a generous housing allowance.

The weather is pretty much like those in the mid-Atlantic states, I'd say - four distinct seasons, with cold but not snowy winters (there's a term that translates as "three cold days, four warm days" that describes the winter weather), and hot, muggy, rainy summers, with beautiful spring and fall weather. Seoul is a great eating town, but certain cuisines are lacking, most notably Mexican.

From conversations with my mother I get the impression food costs are in line with the U.S. - I have to admit she does a great deal of her grocery shopping at Costco (there is one in Gangnam!) or Emart. Public transportation is cheap, but car ownership (and gasoline) is very expensive. Healthcare will be a lot cheaper than in the U.S.
posted by needled at 1:47 PM on May 29, 2008

There was a metafilter thread recently about a south korea "love" theme park (with several relevant links with a lot of information), and there were many responses in that thread that mirror your impressions, it seems. Fairly conservative.

My girlfriend is grew up in America, but is half-korean and has visited family there several times. She says that they generally seem to be fairly cold to foreigners and non-Koreans, except in the touristy and commercial areas.

That being said, there is a fairly large American military presence there, and my sister seems to be having a good time while stationed there.
posted by Espoo2 at 5:12 PM on May 29, 2008

Seoul is a great eating town, but certain cuisines are lacking, most notably Mexican.

For good Mexican food, you need to be in Mexico or the U.S. Any other country is likely to disappoint.
posted by zardoz at 5:22 PM on May 29, 2008

I don't know anything about living there, but I visited Korea (various cities) for a few weeks some years ago and had a wonderful time - and that was partly because of the people. (There were also a lot of beautiful places to visit. It helps that I like temples.)

I was traveling alone, and people went out of their way to help me. Folks made sure I got on the right bus, helped me with my luggage, etc.

But the most amazing part was the family I met (while walking down the street) that invited me for dinner, took me sightseeing with them, etc. Mom didn't speak any English, but her son and daughter both did. I've lost touch with them now, but we wrote to each other for many years.
posted by jeri at 8:49 PM on May 29, 2008

(btw Stavros hates Seoul & lives in the southern end of Korea)

I love Seoul for the food and people, the drinking culture, and the art and music (both of which can be hard to track down, depending on what cuppa tea yours is).

I don't love the expat "community" here.

Seoul has changed tremendously in the last twelve years (hell, it's done so in the six I've been here), but it's still fairly conservative (gender/family/hierarchy stuff especially).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:13 AM on May 30, 2008

This is going to be looong... I'm an ex-pat in Seoul and have thought a lot about this. I like it here, I'm happy living in the city and in Korea in general, but a lot of people find it very tough (as you'll probably see from browsing the web) and I've often wondered why that is. I would love if only people ready for Korea moved here, since the negativity isn't good for the unhappy ex-pats or for Koreans, so I'm really glad you're asking these questions. I don't know anything about you, so apologies if some of this sounds patronising.

A lot of it is going to be about you and how you react to the specific mix of factors that make up Seoul. Some people need the place they live to have certain attributes and without these they have a terrible time. Others can cope with almost anything, which is not to say they are more tolerant or culturally sensitive, just that this is how they react. So be honest with yourself - if you're the sort of person that needs certain lifestyle features, it doesn't reflect badly on you, it just means that you won't be happy in particular countries or cities.

It's slightly worrying that you got a negative impression of Korea simply changing planes. Even the keenest Koreaphiles can instantly name half a dozen things about the land of the morning calm that profoundly irk them. You can't live here if a bad day, week or even month is going to bias you against everything else. Despite the skyscrapers, ultra-hi-tech phones and western clothing, the underlying culture of Korea is deeply alien to a western world view. You will almost certainly get culture shock and you will have to ride it. You will have to focus on the positive and ignore lots of things that you find odd, wrong, asinine or maddening in some other way. Note that you almost certainly do this in your own culture, but it's a lot harder to do in someone else's.

Your main question was 'is there anything good about living in Seoul'? For me, the best things are
  • the low violent / petty crime rate and sense of personal safety
  • an efficient and cheap public transport system
  • Korea has the most fast internet connections in the world
  • my job and the opportunities in it
  • general efficiency in day-to-day life, though speaking Korean or having a Korean friend is necessary to appreciate that
  • being at the heart of one of the most hi-tech countries on earth
  • the rate of change in all areas of life is fascinating
  • the crowds and bustle, which admittedly are also one of the things that I hate at times, can be invigorating
  • that alien culture which constantly keeps me on my toes mentally
  • underfloor heating

  • You also asked about:
  • weather - unpleasantly cold winters, unpleasantly hot summers, but spring and autumn are very nice
  • culture - you'll have to be more specific about what you mean by this - traditional? high? low? the arts? everyday?
  • meeting people - Koreans are generally friendly, but making new friends as an adult is unusual, since friendships are generally formed at school and University and maintained thereafter. All my Korean friends have lived outside Korea and appreciate the western concept of friendship.
  • entertainment - concert tickets are expensive, but big names do visit Korea. This is probably the weakest area of my experience, I haven't yet found a 'scene' I feel particularly comfortable with.
  • eating out - Korean food is affordable and of high quality. Non-Korean food is generally over-priced for middling quality, though this is improving.
  • getting out of town - can be hard, since traffic in and out of Seoul at the weekends and holiday times can be horrendous. Traffic generally is a pain; many ex-pats don't bother to own cars. Weekend trips reward the adventurous and tolerant, they are not there for the taking.

  • Finally, you asked about costs. I'm also somewhere between a young teacher and a rich executive. Housing is the main expense, it's pricey for the size of apartments available. Living a western lifestyle in terms of food, leisure etc. is also pricey. However, Korean food is cheap, public transport and taxis are cheap and if you can get into the whole Korean discount voucher system through a Korean friend, lots of other things become very affordable - I usually save 50% on ski trips because I use vouchers.

    Finally, you might want to read a book to get a deeper sense of this 'Korean culture' people keep talking about:
    Culture Shock! Korea By Sonja Vegdahl Hur, Sonja Bernice Vegdahl, Ben Seunghwa Hur
    The Koreans: Who They Are, what They Want, where Their Future Lies By Michael Breen
    Mastering Business in Korea By Thomas L. Coyner and Song-Hyon Jang

    (disclaimer - one of the authors of the above books has bought me dinner...)

    (second disclaimer - I don't have time to re-read this, so it might contain unfinished sentences or other stupid mistakes)

    posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:29 AM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

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