I’ve been living in Korea for 18 months now, enough time to get over the initial culture shock and to adapt to living the Korean lifestyle. There have been both good things- going out for dinner and getting a delicious, filling meal for under £5, and bad- fearing for your life every time you are on/ near the road because of the crazy drivers.
Here are some of the things I have become accustomed to during the last year and a half in Korea- the good, the bad and everything in between…
- Luxury Buses
Our first impression of Korea was pretty good- getting onto the bus to head to Wonju, we were amazed at how nice it was. Comfy, reclining seats with a proper footrest… and check out the leg room!
And not only comfy but cheap- £12 for a 3 hour trip. Even better, a normal hour-and-a-half trip to the capital city is only £6 on the day. Can you imagine getting to London for that price?
The only downside to the buses- no toilet. This is definitely something you have to get used to, and isn’t the best when you get stuck in traffic for 3 hours…bad times indeed.
Calling all sushi lovers- Korea is the place for you. The plate pictured above cost under £6 and was just a dream! The pick-and-mix nigri, also pictured, is only 500 won per piece- roughly 30 p. In England, 2 pieces of nigri are often about £2.
It’s been 18 months, and I still can’t get over how amazing it is. The one downside? Too many sushi-comas from overeating the stuff.
Forget about wine and cocktails (unless you’re in Seoul/ want to pay a fortune for alcohol). The favourite drink among Koreans is Soju, a clear spirit which people drink alone as a shot or added to beer.
It takes some getting used to, seeing hikers drinking Soju at the top of a mountain, or downing it on trains at 10 in the morning- but while in England this could be taken as a worrying sign of alcoholism, it is simply the culture in Korea.
But watch out your first time drinking the stuff. Koreans can down Soju like it’s water, but Westerners… not so much. Let’s just say expat stories of their Soju experiences don’t always have the best endings…
- Sharing food
So, much like Joey from Friends, I’m not a food sharer. Especially with my boyfriend who inhales food so quickly it’s hard to get a bite before it’s all gone! No, I like my meals to be my own, so I can eat how much I want at at my own pace.
But this is pretty impossible in Korea- in most restaurants the food comes in one big dish like soup, or on a barbecue for everyone to cook together and share. And, I suppose I have learnt to share my food… though that’s not to say I haven’t had arguments over who gets the last bite!
You know how you go to a cafe, order a coffee and then add a bit of milk? Quite simple yes? In Korea- not so much. Coffee is either a black Americano, or white Latte. Trying to ask for an Americano and just a bit of milk leads to absolute confusion, as I’ve found out on many occasions. And don’t even get me started on trying to ask for a little milk to add to your tea…
Leading on from coffee, comes cafes. You know that glare you get from the servers when you overstay your welcome at a cafe- when you’ve only bought one small cup of tea but have stayed for hours? Well, you never get that here.
It seems like it’s the norm to stay half a day in the cafes- bring along study materials, sit back and watch a movie on your I Pad, no one will bother you. The cafes are even open much later here, often until 9 or 10 pm… it’s almost like they want you to stay!
When our first Korean friend told us how he went everywhere in taxis, we thought he must be either rich, or a big spender, thinking that we’d never waste money doing the same. Only rich people or celebrities get taxis everywhere, right?
Wrong. Taxis are so cheap and accessible they are the best way to get around. Pretty convenient… but a habit I’ll have to get out of back in England, unless I want to end up bankrupt.
- Smart Phones
They are just everywhere. Kids as young as 7 years old have the latest model and use them all the time. Going on the subway is like a smart phone commercial, with everyone engrossed in their phones. Ditto family meals.
It’s no wonder that Samsung had succeeded!
Don’t be fooled when you see ‘Pizza Hut’ or ‘Dominoes’ here- you will not be eating a replica of what you would back home. Pizza here has a definite Korean twist. Want a plain cheese pizza? Nope, they add sweetcorn. Cream cheese is also a regular addition to pizza. But the most popular topping here is potato wedges, which Koreans just love to pop on top. Because Pizza doesn’t already have enough carbs, right?
- Lack of Food Restrictions
I have to admit- I’ve always been one to smuggle food and drink into places. Cinema, sports arenas, concerts… I want to avoid having to buy things inside which cost twice the price and taste worse.
In Korea, you don’t have to worry about this. You want to take a McDonalds into the cinema? Go ahead. Takeaway pizza into the World Cup Stadium? No problem. It’s amazing! If only they would start doing this in England- finally, I wouldn’t end up with food which is squashed from being hidden at the bottom of my bag…
- Animal Cafes
Just the best thing ever. Korea has again been ahead of the times with animal cafes- Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in London is now hugely popular and the new ‘big thing’, but Korea was there first.
If you’re an animal lover or miss having a pet, there is nowhere better to go.
Just one tip- don’t wear your best clothes if you’re going to a dog cafe.
It never ceases to amaze me how Korean people change when they get behind the wheel, from gentle, friendly people into angry madmen. Seriously. There have been times when I’ve been in a car or bus that I’ve felt like I was on a rollercoaster, my stomach flipped that many times.
Oh, and one time, I saw a 5-minute standstill at a roundabout because no one wanted to give way. A roundabout. Those very things which are designed to keep traffic flowing smoothly. This is how little Koreans follow the rules of the road.
This incident was topped only by the time I saw someone drive the wrong way around a roundabout. Genius.
So I knew rice was popular, but definitely underestimated the extent of this popularity. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks= rice. You can get rice cakes, alcoholic rice drinks, even pizza bases made from rice.
Honestly, when I don’t take rice from the lunch buffet at school you’d think I had committed a crime by the outraged looks I receive. I’m sorry, I just don’t love plain, dry white rice… please don’t hate me!
Needless to say, if you’re following a low carb diet, Korea might be a tricky place to live. Dr. Atkins would turn in his grave if he knew.
No article about Korea would be complete without mentioning Kimchi. The food which Korea is famous for, and it is well and truly loved here. Every meal, every day, everywhere.
To put it into perspective- when on holiday in the Philippines, I saw Korean families who brought Kimchi to the breakfast buffet with them to add to their meal. Because a meal without Kimchi is an incomplete meal.
It’s like the English with tea, only, dare I say it, even more extreme.
- High Rise Apartments
Something which you notice quickly in Korea is the lack of houses and the abundance of high-rise apartments. The higher up your flat, the higher your social status. Apparently.
- Countryside vs. city
The juxtaposition of city and countryside in Korea is definitely odd. One minute you are in the middle of a concrete jungle, then you drive for five minutes and you’re in beautiful countryside where there is greenery as far as the eye can see.
So don’t underestimate the natural beauty of Korea- it is actually estimated that 65% of Korea is forest land. Good news for nature lovers.
- Exercise Equipment
If you ever fancy a quick workout whilst you’re wandering around the city, never fear- Korea is full of small, outside workout machines. This country really gives you no excuses to be lazy…
- K Pop
Imagine Beatlemania at its highest, the most obsessed ‘Directioners’ (One Direction) or ‘Beliebers’ (Justin Bieber). Replace their screaming, adoring faces with Korean faces; that is how Koreans react to K Pop. K Pop mania truly governs Korea, and they want it to take over the world.
- Mouth Protectors
Don’t worry- there isn’t some contagious disease in Korea which people are scared of. These masks are simply worn if you’re sick, or if the air is extremely polluted.
Still, it was a little disconcerting on the plane to Korea to see 90% of people wearing these. What was this? It was like something out of 28 Days Later! Perhaps I’ll take a mask home with me, in precaution for the next time there’s a swine flu scare…
- Hiking Gear
Summer? Yes. 35 degrees? Yes. Koreans hiking up a mountain, covered from head to toe in skin-tight clothes? Yes.
The hardcore hikers in Korea wear the proper hiking outfits, complete with hat, gloves, even a face bandana. Not an inch of skin is exposed to the sun. How they don’t die from heat is beyond me.
The first time we went hiking in shorts and t shirt, we felt practically naked in comparison- and we certainly invited as many odd looks as if we had been.
In my humble opinion, Bibimbap is the best thing about living in Korea. A meal which I have not only become accustomed to, but cannot imagine living without.
Simply a delicious, wholly comforting meal- rice, vegetables, hot pepper paste, meat and egg all in a big mix. Maybe it doesn’t sound like anything special but it definitely is. Different wherever you go, but always satisfying!
Hearty, healthy, Bibimbap is happiness in a bowl.
So what else have I grown to love in Korea? Many things… I know that I will never get bored of buying novelty socks with cute designs, and I’ll definitely always appreciate the convenience that wherever you are there is always a 7/11 or CU store on the corner- so practical!
Sure, there are some things which take getting used to, but I can safely say that living the Korean life has been pretty good. Now, off to eat some bibimbap…