An expat’s love note to the beautiful land of mountains, department stores, & kimchi
It seemed such a foreign land when I first stepped foot onto the peninsula of Korea (South of course, I better clarify that before going any further.) Way back in 2009, I took a 30+ hour journey that landed me wearily in the country that I would unknowingly call home for more than four years.
My first hours in Korea were exceptionally Korean. I was placed in a love motel for my few days of training and taken to a dinner that came out wriggling and squirming in the pot. However, after the click-click-click of the gas stove, it began to slowly lose it’s luster, changing from sea life to dinner. It’s been kimchi and seaweed ever since, and although it took some time to acquire the taste, acquired it I have.
From Ulsan to Busan, teaching students aged 2 to adults; I’ve traveled the country, learned to love my local neighborhoods, and have grown comfortable living life as an anonymous foreigner in an incredibly homogeneous country. The list could go on and on of the things that I love about this country, but I’ll reign it in and keep it to a short-ish list.
It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s so AFFORDABLE. Everything from a visa required health check to an eye examination and glasses fitting are services readily available and advertised to foreigners. Many hospitals employ a full time translator who will help set up your appointments, discuss what you need, quote you a price, and go with you to translate during your visit. My best medical experiences:
- 10 Minute Glasses – There are glasses shops on every street corner full to the brim with inexpensive frames. The exam takes minutes and is as high tech as Asia gets. My last two pairs of glasses took longer to chose than to have made. After I found my perfectly dorky pair, the assistant informed me to wait 10 minutes for my prescription lenses to get put in. TEN MINUTES! The cost? 30,000 won, or less than 30$ (*Disclaimer – not all optometrists will speak English, be brave, or shop around for a shop with a doctor who can communicate with you. Or use google translate on your phone.)
- Dentist Visits – Luckily my dental health and hygiene has been mostly A-OK, minus one unfortunate incident. Cleanings you can have done at most chi-gwuas(dentists,) but you should know that it’s different from cleanings back home. In Korea teeth cleanings are called “scaling.” It can be a scary experience if you’ve never had it done before. While it’s called scaling, it is more like “scraping” and it feels like a sharp metal object scraping along the gum line of your teeth. But it can’t be all that bad if it’s what the entire population receives for dental care and the whole frightening experience will only cost you about 10,000 won, or less than 10$ USD.
- Blood Work – I’ve lived with anemia for my entire life and never thought much of it, but figured that while I have reliable, full coverage insurance, why not check it out. It’s good that I did because my iron levels were extremely low, so I got jabbed with two viles of iron, started taking pills, and adjusted my diet. I then made a few more appointments via the English translator to continue checking that my iron level was increasing with the pills. The appointments may have been superfluous, the translator and doctor even questioned why I was visiting again so soon after my last visit, and my reasoning quite simply was, why not? The entire experience of seeing the doctor and having a consultation via the translator, having my blood drawn, waiting for the results took about 2 hours and cost roughly 20,000 won, I’m sure you worked the exchange rate out already, but that’s about 20$ USD. Oh, and after the results were done there was another consultation with the internal medicine doctor. Let me repeat that – I had two personal visits with a specialists via a translator, and got blood work done in about 2 hours. Getting blood work back in the US can involve visiting a lab and waiting a couple of days for the results, Korean healthcare is miles beyond American.
Cost of Living
Korea is so livable. I lived in the second largest city, Busan, and was able to not only get by, but to save money. Granted, I’m generally a frugal person, but the cost of living in Korea is relatively low compared to back home in the US. Check it out:
- Rent – I found an apartment that was a block from the second largest beach in the city, a 10 minute walk to the subway line that connects the whole of the city, and was surrounded by mostly cafes and some dotted restaurants. In Korea you pay key money, or a deposit on your apartment which you get back at the end of your stay. Key money can range from 1 million won to 10 or 15 million won, that’s about 1,000/10,000/15,000 USD. Monthly rent depends on your key money and ranges from 300,000 won to 600,000 won (300USD/600USD.) Oh, and I should mention that Korea has the fastest broadband internet in the world and connection/router/month of unlimited use costs about 20USD.
- Food – Korean food is healthy and delicious. As mentioned about it requires some acquiring though unless you grew up eating fermented cabbage on the regs. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables at local markets for cheap. Eating out at Korean restaurants is cheap as well and healthy. Western restaurants serving pizza and pasta will put you back much more and generally are disappointing.
- Enjoy Your Life – You can truly enjoy your life because you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay your cheap rent. There are loads of things to do especially around Busan: yoga of course, hiking, cycling, camping, bars, noraebang, department stores, jimjilbang, and more. I sometimes can’t believe the lifestyle that I have just given up, but I’m hopeful that a similar life is possible to create elsewhere in the world, and if it isn’t then back to the Bu I shall go.
- Healthcare – *See Above
Safety & Convenience
Korea is sometimes known as the Land of the Morning Calm (possibly because everyone’s still at noraebang [karaoke] till 7am) but should really be called the Land of Convenience. From shops and bars that never close to easy-to-use public transportation. Likewise Korea could be known as the Land of the Low Crime Rate. Straight away upon my move to Korea I adapted a sense of ease and comfort navigating the zigzagging streets at all hours of the night when returning from those never-closing-noraebangs, which might sound straight up stupid to someone who’s never lived there before, but those of you that have, know what I mean. I’m a small, unintimidating woman and never once did I fear for my safety while in Korea. This might just be the hardest thing to leave behind.
- Transportation – It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s often, it’s Korean public transportation and it comes in the form of buses, trains, taxis, and subway. You can get from one side of the city to the other for about 2$USD and in a little over an hour. You can also get from Busan to Seoul by bus or your option of slow or fast train, KTX. You can also use your rechargeable subway pass both in Busan and Seoul, and probably Daegu and Ulsan, etc. Now, can you imagine pulling out your DC metro card in New York with no problems?
- Safety – No drugs. No guns. Minimal crime. There are countless stories of smartphones being left in cabs and getting returned, bags full of belongings getting forgotten on that convenient public transportation, and getting returned, and even wallets getting handed back with cash still inside. This is not 100% true all the time of course, and I did have a bike stolen from my building once, but never have I feared for my physical safety (other than every single day on my bike commuting on the road, but this is a love letter note a hate note, so I’ll leave that bit out.)
- Healthcare – *See Above
This could go on. I could write about relationships, the yoga community, and my lovingly adorable students, but already I’ve hit the magic number of 1000+ words which means that most of you quit reading a long time ago, or never even clicked, too scared off, and to those of you who stuck to it, congratulations and thank you! So I must bring this post to an end by saying that I will forever remember my time in Korea in the warmest part of my heart. It will never fade away because Korea has become a part of me, I will probably take my shoes off when entering a house, I will pass money using two hands, and I will have so many great friendships formed over the bonding of being expats in the Land of the Morning Calm.