Thinking of a new life in Seoul, South Korea's capital? Find out if you can hack the pace in our essential expat's guide
You’re new? Let’s go for galbi! How old are you? Cool, I’m buying then. Have you had soju yet? Jeogiyo! Soju han byeong juseyo. Give me your glass and I’ll give you mine. Gambae. Welcome to Korea. Right, off to Noraebang. Gaja!
ANNYEONG HASEYO? (HELLO!)
I’ll bet you a bottle of plum soju that after you’ve landed at Incheon, your first time of meeting a co-worker or another waygook (foreigner) is going to involve at least half of this. Korea is green and friendly and traditional. Seoul is reactionary and progressive, tall and grey but getting greener, brash, bumpy and bally-bally.
Welcome to Seoul. It’s Korea and it isn’t.
JEONEUN SEONSAENGNIM IMNIDA (I’M A TEACHER).
There’s a good chance that you’ll be here as an English teacher. In 2014, South Korea spent $18 billion on private education and an awful lot of that was on English. Unless you have Korean heritage, you need a couple of documents to get a visa including a clean criminal background check and a copy of your degree with an apostille from a solicitor.
The degree itself is pretty crucial and the jobs themselves can be very easy to get. Many schools offer accommodation, but if you're looking to rent somewhere on your own, you should be aware of the deposit. The ‘key money,’ as it is referred to, is usually at least a couple of thousand pounds and usually more. You get it back when you leave, but it’s obviously a hell of a hindrance to starting to rent a place.
If you’re looking for a place on your own, or to get a room in a flat, the best place to start is the ‘foreigner-town’ of Itaewon. Itaewon (and its environs of Harbangchon and Gyeongnidan) grew out of the US army base in the middle of Seoul, however the area has (mostly) moved past its seedy beginning and is now very trendy and filled with the most diverse selection of bars and restaurants in Seoul.
Buddhist Temple, Seoul
ANNIYO! NANEUN BUKHAN GAGO AN SIPEOYO. (NO! I’M NOT GOING TO NORTH KOREA.)
I’ve got cannon and missiles pointed at me right now; increasingly ballistic and belligerent. My integration as Seoul-shimin is measured in part by how little I think about that fact. During the first nuclear test I was here for, I watched the morning news, freaked out, stepped outside and waited for the world to end. The sunflowers were tall. Birds were chirping. Cabbies were being arseholes. That’s the frequent experience of Seoul-shimin. We’re 35 miles from the DMZ.
The North’s going postal’n’petulant? Go to work. Go shopping. Go out. Go home. It doesn't matter 'cause it ain’t nothing but a family thing.
EODI KA? (WHERE ARE YOU GOING?)
In the North, there is the spirit of Cheolima (Thousand Mile Horse) which propels the glorious commie machinery into another five year plan/spurt/fail. In the South, it’s bally-bally; literally, quickly-quickly; even more literally, hurry the fuck up. Seoul is fast. It doesn’t stop and it doesn’t sleep. You will always be able to find ten places to eat and more places to drink, no matter the time of morning or night.
The subway is vast, cheap and clean. The buses can be tricky but there are more than a few apps that’ll help you navigate around. Taxis are a huge temptation. It seems like every tenth car is a cab. You can travel for 30 minutes and spend about eight or nine quid. To hail a cab, stick out a paw and waggle your fingers down like you’re upside down beckoning something.
However, no matter where you are or how you’re getting there, don’t be afraid to stick out an elbow or two. Seoul-shimin are always going somewhere quickly (except when they’re on a date and they’re walking like it’s goddamn Disneyland) and they don’t have much time to get out of anyone’s way.
If you bump into someone and apologise, you are strange and people will not know what to do. Grandmas will stab you with sharpened elbows as you’re getting off the subway and pedestrians are ‘right-of-way’-less collateral damage to tunnel-visioned drivers.
CHUWEO! DEOWEO! (COLD! HOT!)
An odd experience that you may experience is being asked how many seasons your country has. Of course you’ve got 4, but the UK at least does not have seasons like Korea has seasons. If you’re here for a year, pack for everything. The spring is chilly and dusty and the summer is sticky and it stays too damn long. Seoul in autumn is wonderful for all the bright yellow gingko trees that stay for weeks, but winter can be bone-biting bitter. I love them, but even Canadians and Siberians of proper standing have often told me that there’s something ‘special’ about Korean winters. Come ready for all seasons and be prepared to complain about the weather, no matter when.
WAH! NEODO HANGUKMAL JAL HAL SU ITSEOYO! (WOW! YOU’RE GOOD AT KOREAN!)
Learn Hangeul. Hangeul is the native alphabet of Korea, designed in 1443 by Great King Sejong but not truly promulgated until independence in 1945. It was designed to be, and remains, incredibly logical and easy to learn. It was said that it was easy enough for a wise man to learn it in an afternoon, and a fool by night.
With hangeul (and a smartphone dictionary) in hand, a world of drink and food and travel opens up to you. English in Korea is a generational thing, and a persistent culture of embarrassment and reluctance inhibits most English students and speakers. Hangeul opens up a lot of it, and your menus and cabbies will remain frustratingly alien unless you get at least a bit of the alphabet.
HAN JAN DEO HAJA! (LET’S HAVE ONE MORE!)
Let’s assume that you’re at least willing to bend your elbow. Seoul has you covered. Korea drinks more alcohol per capita than any other country in the world. The most sold brand of alcohol in the world is Jinro soju.
Soju. Ah, soju. Fuck you, soju. Most waygooks who have woken up the day after the morning after the night before in Korea, have made the attempt to mix the stuff or go tiny glass for tiny glass with a Korean. It’s just 20%, but it’s the sneakiest 20 you’ll ever try. Try SoMaek (precisely measured soju and beer) at your peril, and playing Titanic with the stuff is going to clobber you and you’ll never see it coming.
Seoul (especialy the waygook-town of Itaewon) is experiencing an amazing beer boom, like it’s never seen, but outside of there, anything more than the standard does-the-trick piss-wasser is hard to find. If you’ve learned your lesson from soju, then there are certainly other Korean swallies to try. Makgeoli is a fermented rice drink (about 4-8%) that can be very expressive and hit the right spot on a humid summer night. There’s a lot of fruity and herby drinks like baekseju, podoju, or maesilju, all of which, like everything Korean in Korea, is supposed to be much healthier for you.
With all of these drinks come the accompanying foods. You don’t drink in Korea without having some food (anju) with it. Even if it’s a bowl of nuts, a dish of pickled radish, some dried-to-leather-tough squid, or a giant plate of fresh fruit, you’ll either be given something wee or required to buy something big.
Drinking culture is big in Seoul and the way to drink is important, too. On a proper night out, you’ll hit three places. These will all have food for the table, but at least one of them will be a real meal. You’ll all have a drink in front of you, but don’t sip it whenever you want to; cheers and drink all together.
There is a system of holding glasses (and a lot of other items) that you’ll pick up, but the gist is one hand for your closest of friends, two hands touching the glass for distinct seniors, and a sliding scale up and down your arm for everybody else.
Don’t pour your own drink; pour for everyone else. If no one pours for you, they hate you. If you pick up their glass and pour for someone else, you’re cursing them to never be married. If there is a senior at the table, drink pointing away from them and never leave their glass empty. You’re a waygook, so they’ll let you away with failing at all of this, but it’s damn impressive if you know it.
MASHEETDA! MAEWEO! (DELICIOUS! SPICY!)
And then there's the food. You've learned how to talk about drink and the weather, but there's nothing that's going to endear you to a Seoul-shimin more than talking about food. A Korean meal is not a meal without rice and kimchi, but the food extends far beyond.
Starting with the part that is most 'Korean', if you can handle your spice, you'll do well here. Half the dishes and meals seem to have a load of Korean red pepper added. The only food that I have sworn off is buldak (Fire-Chicken), but you get used to it and you'll impress anyone here by being able to handle some spice.
Hopefully you don't mind meat, as Korean barbecue is extraordinary. You all perch around a pan or a grill, add raw meat to the fire and cook to preference. It sounds simple but the range and quality of simply going to eat meat is amazing in Seoul. Galbi, Toshisal, Samgyeopsal, Dakgalbi. Stews like pork bone and potato broth, chicken leg soup, and shabu shabu. Little veggie dishes like dolsot-bibimbap (mixed veg and rice cooked in a stone pot) sundubujjigae (spicy tofu stew) and as much kimchi as you can handle. A lot of the food in Seoul reflects its self-image with its utterly communal nature; friends and family sitting around a steaming or sizzling dish and digging in. There are lots of individual dishes to be had, but the best is to be had with others.
EUNG, MEOTJIDA! (YEAH, IT’S COOL!)
Seoul is ancient and brand new. It's been razed and ruined by the Han, the Jurchen, the Mongolians, but most especially by the Japanese and themselves.
However, this isn't to say that the city has nothing to see. Korea has a special attitude when it comes to architecture; if it is destroyed, it shall be rebuilt identically down to the engraved roof tiles and shades of green lacquer. There are very few of the temples or palaces from the last thousand years still standing in Seoul that are perfectly the same.
Namdaemun is the only gate of the old city walls that was not destroyed by the Japanese occupation. It was burned down in 2008 by a man despairing with bankruptcy, injustice and mental illness. Its rebuilding was just finished in 2013, and no one bats an eyelid now.
Go to Gyeongbokgung and walk the royal palaces. Sit in Tapgol park and read the chiselled inscriptions of defiance and patriotism. Follow the city walls up and down Namsan hill in the middle of the city. These all sit in the middle of an architecturally adventurous, design-conscious urban hub that is probably the most connected major city in the world.
SEOUL EH OSHINGEOSEUL HANYEONG HAMNIDA! (WELCOME TO SEOUL)
There are ten million people in Seoul and another ten in Greater Seoul. It doesn't stop moving and the businesses are ruthless and all encompassing. Although nobody will shut up about K-Pop, the arts are loud and vibrant! The food is spicy and the drink flows. Seoul life seems to be a constant balance between beating pressure and deadlines and shitty bosses, and laughing as loud as you can with the people that you love. Come to Seoul. It's a fucking gas.