It’s all happening. You’ve applied to Aclipse, you’ve aced all of your interviews, and you’re finally on your way to getting a job in Korea as an ESL teacher. Your life is about to undergo a drastic and tremendous change unlike anything you’ve ever done and trust me, it’s going to be awesome.
Moving across the world is certainly exhilarating, but there are definitely some things I wish I’d known about my first few weeks here. So I’m here to help your transition into the world of kimchi, k-pop, and soju a little bit easier.
You’re going to be tired
This is not “Oh I’m feeling a little drowsy, let me take a quick nap” tired, this is “I cannot physically keep my eyes open unless I tape them” tired. Obviously the time change is going to wreak havoc on your body, but that added onto a week of training is a recipe for a zombie. It’s okay, embrace it. Sleep at night only and try as hard as possible to avoid napping, this will just make it harder for your body to adjust. Thus, as hard as it is to fight the urge to catnap, you have to do it. I suggest a Redbull or the Korean equivalent, a Hot Six. Korea is also a nation that LIVES for its coffee, so just hit up one of the 3,000 cafes that are bound to be just outside your door if you don’t think you can make it until bedtime.
Another contributing factor to the chronic tiredness of the first month (give or take a week) is the lifestyle change. If you’re working for Chungdahm you are going to be working late. Usually from 4-10pm depending on your branch. I know this sounds strange, but after a while you will learn to love it. You can sleep in, go for a run in the morning, and take care of all your errands before work. It’s actually extremely convenient, especially because Korea is a country that rarely seems to sleep. Nighttime is when Korea thrives. Most restaurants are open late and some never close. These aren’t fast food places either; these are quality restaurants with delicious and usually very cheap Korean food. It’s awesome.
So like I’ve said, you will be tired, but you will survive. And once you’ve adjusted to your new routine it’ll be like you’ve been living this way for years. Just power through it like you did as an undergraduate, caffeine and junk food.
The Language Barrier
You came to Korea for a reason, to teach English right? Well that’s because many Koreans don’t speak fluent English, if they speak English at all. The need for English academies in Korea is a relatively new development, so typically the younger the person – the better their English is. However most people will understand basic English terms like “Hello”, “Thank-you”, “Goodbye” and “I’m sorry”. This is just a reality of any non-English speaking culture and it’s usually not a big deal. If someone doesn’t speak English there will definitely be someone else nearby who can assist you. Help yourself before arriving by learning some basic Korean phrases on your own. You can find many helpful sites online and I personally used the iTranslate app (available for Android and Iphones) a lot when I first arrived, it really helps.
The Subway is Awesome
One of the best things about Korea is its subway system. Not only is it extremely easy to navigate, its reliable, cheap, clean, and can take you pretty much anywhere in the country. First step is to purchase a T-Money card in the nearest subway station or convenience store and load it up with money (I wouldn’t put too much on it at once, just in case you lose it). This will be one of your most used possessions in Korea and for good reason. The subway itself looks really confusing at first, I know, but once you’ve ridden it a couple times you’ll be astounded at how simple it can be. If you have a smart phone, tablet, or an iTouch downloading the Jihachul app is a must. You simply choose your departure station and arrival station and the app maps out your entire journey, tells you the quickest, cheapest, and easiest ways to get there along with the price. It’s life changing.
The only downfall with the subway is that it closes around midnight and opens again at 5am so if you’re planning on going out late you will need to make other arrangements for getting home (or as it usually happens in Korea, stay out till the sun comes up). Lucky for you, cabs in Korea are pretty cheap as well, just make sure they turn on the meter when your ride begins, and buckle up because it’s usually a wild ride.
A word of caution on the subway: Many Koreans use this as their sole form of transportation so it can be crowded depending on the time and the line you’re traveling. There are a couple sacred rules for the subway to know:
*Do not sit in the end seats of each car – these are reserved for people with babies, the elderly, pregnant women, etc. and while it’s usually all right to sit there in the states or other Western countries while they’re unoccupied, it’s not a good idea in Korea. I’m not saying you’ll get kicked off or anything, but you may have your first run in with an ajumma (elderly Korean woman), and that can strike fear into the heart of any foreigner in Korea.
*Shhhh! – Talking loudly on the subway is frowned upon. It’s considered common courtesy to keep your voices low and the talking to a minimum. This is even more true for foreigners. Once again I’m not saying you’ll be shot if you don’t, but you’ll definitely get some stares and maybe even a strong word from your fellow Korean travelers.
Lotte, Homeplus, and Daiso Will Change Your Life
So you’ve arrived in Korea, you’ve passed training and now you’re on your way to your new apartment. Woohoo! Not so fast. Your apartment will be standard, nothing fancy, but just enough for you to live comfortably. But of course, a house is not a home until you add your own personality to it. Your mission is to find the nearest Lotte or Homeplus in your area. These are the Korean super stores. They carry everything from groceries, to bedding, to makeup, to electronics etc. These are your Korean versions of Target and Walmart (though hopefully less evil…) and they will become your most vital places to shop while living here.
If you’re lucky you’ll have a Daiso nearby too. This is the Korean equivalent to the Dollar Store except way better. The things you buy at Daiso are higher quality than the dollar store items at home and they’re actually cute! You can get pretty much anything at Daiso (except for groceries and clothing). I really like it for things like kitchen sponges, classroom supplies, wastebaskets, dishes, Q-tips, etc. So if you have one be sure and take full advantage.
Stay Busy on the Weekend
Once you’ve gotten to your branch, moved into your apartment, and met all of your coworkers your life in Korea can really begin. You’re on your way to having the best year of your life. But once the adrenaline wears off and you have some down time it’s not uncommon to feel a little homesick. The only cure for this, just like at home, is to stay busy. Busy, busy, busy. There are literally THOUSANDS of things to do in Korea every day and many of them are free or extremely cheap so there’s really no excuse to be idle. Of course your location affects where you can go and when, but luckily Korea’s an extremely small country and its railway system is amazing thus you can get anywhere relatively quickly. Here are some of my favorite places for your consideration:
*Gyeongbokgung Palace (Seoul) – In the middle of Seoul a gorgeous royal palace from the Joseon Dynasty (one of many!)
*Haedong Younggun Temple (Busan) – Absolutely gorgeous Buddhist temple that sits right on the water.
*N Seoul Tower (Seoul) – Best view of the city from 777ft. in the air. The best way to view your new home!
*Everland (Gyeonggi-do) – Korean Disneyland but cheaper and with a zoo!
A Couple More Things to Consider:
Cell Phones – Cell phone plans here are a lot like in the states as far as data plans and contracts. I know a lot of friends who either got phones from The Arrival Store, bought a phone from a Korean company (Sk, Olleh) or brought their smart phones from home. Some people do bring their Iphones and get it unlocked by one of the phone companies here. This can be a hassle or it can be easy, I’ve heard both sides from different people but once your phone is on a Korean plan, it works perfectly. It’s really up to you. The prices vary depending on your plan and what type of phone you want but they’re definitely reasonable. Also Korea has a lot of smart phones that aren’t available in the states that are really nice. I have the Sky Vega which is a great smart phone and I have unlimited data for only 60,000 W a month. Korea is in love with cell phones. People are on them non-stop and everyone usually has a smart phone unless they’re under the age of six or over the age of 70. But if you don’t want to pay the money for a smart phone no worries, wi-fi isn’t hard to find.
Bank – It will take a little while to get your banking account set up here since you have to wait for your ARC to arrive and such. Also it’s hard to know when exactly you’ll be paid so make sure you have extra money available. You can use your American debit card at most ATMs, just make sure your bank knows you’ll be using it abroad so they don’t put a lock on it thinking it’s stolen. And of course there’s a fee for foreign debit card usage. It’s just always better to be safe than sorry in a foreign country, especially when it comes to money!
Welcome to Korea!
A recent graduate of University of Massachusetts Amherst, Kara Jameson has always loved traveling and being able to discover new and exciting things everyday. After living abroad in Greece, Kara decided it was time for her next adventure, this time even further from home. After being introduced to Aclipse, she knew exactly how she wanted to spend her post-graduate days before going back to school. Kara now lives in Incheon working for the Yeonsu branch of Chungdahm. The months have flown by and every day is another opportunity to learn something new about this vibrant and amazing culture! To learn more check out her blog on the Ning page!