What I Learned from Living in South Korea for 6 Years

Military spouse red leggings lean balcony

Living in South Korea for two years is a long time for an American ex-pat. What I Have Learned Living in South Korea could fill a book. It’s a little past our 1 year anniversary in Korea. Which means we have one more year to go. We have no idea where we are going next, but we do know wherever it is, it won’t be half as exciting, aromatic or utterly frustrating as this past year, and the upcoming year, we’ve spent living in South Korea.

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suseong-lake-duck-boats-in-daegu-1 What I Learned from Living in South Korea for 6 Years

What I Learned About Life in South Korea
Living in South Korea

I have totally enjoyed our time living in South Korea so far. We’ve been to Phuket, Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tokyo, Kyoto, Kuala Lumpur and we’re on our way to Hanoi and Siem Reap in a couple of months, back to Thailand for our 21st Anniversary and Australia and New Zealand after the New Year. Daegu, South Korea is a great jump off to explore the country and the region. Way better than coming from America, that’s for sure. I’ve loved gaining the experience of each and every culture, food, dance, and history. I’ve explored both modern and ancient. And I’m definitely better for all the experiences living in this part of the world have afforded me.

When you first arrive, you start off confused, irritated, and like a fish out of water. Then you get used to the lack of salt and pepper shakers, you’re not going to find a regular salad with salad dressing choices and the tons of hit and miss accidents. You get used to seeing all the Bulls jerseys, NWA t-shirts, and popped collars. You even get used to being run over by cell phone zombies on the city streets until that one day when you get cut off by a crazy driver and you go back to counting down the days until you leave.

Traveled vs Non-Traveled Koreans

You can really tell the difference from Koreans who have traveled to the US from those that haven’t. The former understand the subtleties, gestures, and nuances of the English language. They may drive a red or blue car, hate K-pop just as much as you do. And also don’t understand why mashed potatoes and garlic bread are sweet. Here are just a few of the things I’ll miss (or won’t miss) when I leave. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which is which.

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1. The Driving/ Parking
This is Crazy 

Live Like a Local– carry a Brick. On one of our first outings a year ago, I found our car blocked in the parking lot by another car. There was no way to get around it. I learned that this was nothing unusual. It’s common to find another car parked behind you with either the keys in the ignition, a note on the inside windshield with their cell phone number, or a block of wood, book, or tree branch lodged under the rear tire. The obstacle keeps the car from rolling forward because the driver left it in neutral. He simply expects you to remove the impediment, roll the car out of the way, and put it back under the tire.

Hits and misses is the perfect name for this article because one of the things that aggravate me the most here is the driving. On any given day you will see multiple people running red lights. Sometimes they creep up to them and wait to see if no one is coming in the opposite direction or in the crosswalk, sometimes they don’t. I am amazed, no I shocked I see more misses than hits. Conversely, living here in South Korea aside from the driving I am exposed to more hits than misses. So now that my biggest negative is out of the way, here are a lot of other observations about life as an Expat in South Korea.

2. Picture Menus

When you live on the economy, you’ll experience a lack of English translations. Fortunately, some menus will have pictures of birds, cows, or pigs which is helpful. But you really need to learn a little about the language if you plan to live on the economy. It wouldn’t be so bad, but this is also the case during emergencies, at the airport, in shopping centers, and in my building. Because I know they know there are non-native speakers living. After the third announcement I went to the office and asked them there is an emergency can they simple say GET OUT!!

In addition, if there is an English translation, think literal. A bacon burger is not a burger with bacon on it. It’s just bacon.

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Spicy kimchi noodles served with three sides of kimchi and dry seaweed.

3. The Sweetness/ Spicyness of the Food

I’ve written about this before. What is not supposed to be sweet is and what is not isn’t. Get it? Why does my garlic bread have honey in it? And why are all the bags of chip with peppers on it NOT peppery? I don’t get it. Then if you go to a restaurant and see peppers designating the spiciness of the food, you probably should stick to ONE pepper. It took 24 hours to get the taste back in my mouth after just TWO and most restaurants go up to FIVE!!

4. Everybody’s Driving the Same Car

It’s more than likely a Hyundai or a Kia and 99% of the time it’s going to be white, black, or silver. It’s like being in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

5. The Long Sleeves and the Short Skirts

Hey if they like it, I love it. I just don’t get why it’s okay to show your ass and not your shoulders. lol, I asked several friends and I’ve gotten a few answers. I’ve heard it because of the modesty of the culture to the fact most Asian girls don’t have boobs and get ostracized if they sow them off around their flat-chested sisters. I also just read that because Korean bow a lot, cleavage may present a problem. I know why they wear short skirts though, its because Koreans have beautiful legs… I’d show them off too!!

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Transportation above ground is bad enough, but on certain days using the Metro is near impossible. We gave up Korean Labor Day and walked several miles home because we couldn’t even get on the platform for the Metro or find a taxi.

6. The Crowds

It doesn’t matter where you are, there’s probably a whole lot of people there too. That’s’ what happens when you have 50 million people living in a country the size of Indiana. Sometimes I even think it surprises the Koreans. I see them taking pictures of the crowds TOO. lol… and on that note.

6a. Breaking Ranks

In the military, there is something called breaking ranks. It’s when you are in a formation, you never cut in or let someone cut in your “ranks”. Well, the Korean civilian population seems to have adopted this. You’re walking down the street, minding your own business while 4-5 people are walking in your direction. Then one cuts in front, no problem, you keep walking, not you barely missed clipping them, but the third, fourth and fifth person decides to follow suit instead of going around you and you end up bumping right into them or having your purse bumped behind you. I don’t understand this, but it happens daily and we’ve decided to chalk it up to Asian efficiency… taking the shortest course from A to B even if that means cutting through you.

7. The Stares

This one puzzles me. I stood at a crosswalk the other day and this older gentleman walked up beside me. He was staring right into my soul, so I bowed and smiled thinking he’d reciprocate. He didn’t but proceeded to try to read my mind too. It was such an uncomfortable moment, I thought about running out into the middle of traffic to get away from his mind-melding. But the most intense ones come from those under the 4ft, kids have no filters or sense that their staring is quite disturbing.

8. Speaking Konglish

The hello and where are you from everyone you come across. But that’s it… that’s usually the extent of their English. But what I have noticed is that more people seem to be speaking short phrases IN ENGLISH to me when I get in the elevator of my building.  My security guard even managed to say he hadn’t seen me in awhile one day when I was dumping the trash. I had no idea he could speak any English, but he took the time to say something nice to me. It made my whole day.

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Vatos Tacos in Seoul is one of our favorite places to grab a snack and the only place we’ve found good Mexican. The cafes are a great place to people watch but they serve the same Koreanized pasta.

9. Cafe or Rather Coppee Culture

I love this. It reminds me of all the days spent at outdoor cafes in Europe. And yes that’s copper, there’s no F in the Hangul vocabulary. I figured that out after watching numerous NESCAPE commercials. lol

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We had no idea that Daegu would have worse pollution conditions than Seoul but it does because of its location in the valley surrounded by mountains.

10. The Air Quality

It sucks, there’s no getting around it. You can wear a mask to filter out some of the bad air, but that won’t help you keep your car or apartment free of settled dust. I like to check the air quality every morning either on Google or Internet sites like map.

11. The Lip-Smacking & Eating with an Open Mouth

Not only do most Koreans eat with their mouth open, but they smack their lips and shove larger than normal heaps of food in their mouth too. It can be a little unsettling.

12. The Lack of FCC Like Agencies

You just never know what will come out of the restaurant or store speakers as you traverse the country. I really wish there was a regulatory industry to keep certain words off the air here– alas there is not.

13. Shipping

It is more than annoying to find something I really like on Amazon only to find out the seller won’t ship to my military address. If I’m willing to pay the shipping, why won’t you ship it to me? In the past, I’ve shipped it to my mother who then ships it to me, but I’ve decided not to do business with anyone who won’t ship to the US Military abroad.

14. The Aromas

Ok, I get the sewer smells, although I think they are a bit strong for a civilized country. But there are times that I have to race from the elevator to my apartment door because it smells “skunky” in the building. I have no idea what my neighbors are cooking. I actually don’t want to know either.

15. Blurring Out Cigarettes, Knives, and Blood

It’s just that. Certain channels blur out cigarettes, knives, and blood.

16. Commercials

Again, I wish there was some kind of FCC that would limit commercials to 20 minutes per break. I can’t tell you how many times I forgot what I was watching.

17. The Vampires Come Out in the Daytime

Sitting here at the counter of one of my favorite spots, I can’t help but ponder how lonely it is in the sunshine. I feel like I’m on the set of Vampire Diaries sometimes. There is this weird perception that the paler your skin is the better. So (mostly women) walk around covered from head to toe when the suns out. They wear gloves, turtlenecks and carry umbrellas. And don’t get me started with the face creams which almost always have whiteners/ brighteners in it and what the heck is a “white tan”? And even though the cosmetics are supposed to be some of the best on the market… be careful, most of them contain whitening agents.

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The hiking is awesome. Too many trails to climb. Note you are on your own on most trails with less safety features than hiking trails in the US.

18. The Walking/ Hiking Trails

They are awesome and extremely popular. As far as I’m concerned, some of the best I’ve ever traversed. If you live in South Korea long enough, you’ll end up hiking too.

19. The Lack of Trash Cans

Ever walk around for an hour with trash in your hands, pockets, or purse? I have. Why? Because there just aren’t any public trash cans around. No one has been able to explain why there is a dearth of trash bins. The locals (and business) just end up stacking their trash against a tree or something. Every evening an old person (usually a woman) comes by and rummages through the trash for recyclable items. They are looking for cardboard, bottles, plastic, etc. Thre is so much trash on the streets at the end of the day. It’s crazy.

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20. The Ajjumma’s

Don’t get me wrong… ajjummas (old ladies) is where you are going to get the majority of your people-watching entertainment from. Man, I love these little old ladies for their “have you always been fat” kinda honesty. You’ll see them scolding their husbands and young girls they think aren’t dressed appropriately. They do a fair share of the staring, which is less than threatening. But they will also cut you if you are standing in line, walk through a door you opened or just wait for you to move if you might make them deviate from the course they’ve set. It’s also very entertaining to count how many different patterns they can wear in one outfit. They are a trip.

21. Sometimes It Feels Rude

Maybe its because there are so many people in such a small country, but sometimes I feel the locals have thrown out civility, I can be standing completely still and someone will bump into me or pummel with their purse. Sometimes I have a hard time getting off an elevator or through a doorway because someone is trying to do it at the exact same time. There is this NEED to wake 3-4 deep on the busy sidewalks. If one cuts in front ALL cut in front you off in what I call the flock of bird mentality. And a few times, if you take two to three beats to place an order or move forward, you will get cut in line.

22. There’s a Korean Version to That

Think you are getting Italian… nope its Korean Italian. The same goes for Mexican, American Grill, pizza and pasta. Some of it isn’t bad, but who cares, that’s not how that works… this isn’t how any of it works.

23. The Largest Shoe Size is an 8

They may have an 8 1/2, but a 9 forget about it. And you may just get the universal no signal if they think your feet are bigger than that.

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24. There are a Lot of Soldiers Here 

This one gets my husband all the time. After you confirm that you are a soldier (or spouse) they seem confused as to why we are here. Like… they don’t know they are living under one of the longest cease-fires in history. A lot of young people don’t realize their country is technically still at war with North Korea.

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25. Kimchi and Other Pickled Vegetables

No matter where you go here in Daegu. Your pizza, pasta, or salad is going to come with a side of kimchi, sweet or pickled pickles, radishes, onions, or carrots. Kimchi is a way of life in South Korea. Don’t tell your Korean you like it unless you want a refrigerator full of it.

26. Grand Opening/ Grand Closing

Just when you find a favorite shoe store, it turns into a cell phone store. That’s life in the fast turnover economy of life in South Korea.

27. The Ades

The ads are delicious if not a little too sweet. They have lemonades, but you have to try the unconventional flavors too. Who can resist an avocado, sweet corn, or tomato ade on a hot day? You need to get used to unique flavors living in South Korea. I’ve tried them all, but my favorite is the green grape or regular lemonade.

28. Cosmetic Surgery

Is so common it’s given to young girls as a sweet 16 present. It makes you feel sad that they don’t realize they are already beautiful and that some idealized sense of beauty shouldn’t be their goal.

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29. Festivals

Living in South Korea means here’s a festival just about every weekend for something. The Korean people have developed a wealth of unique cultural traditions related to the way they dress, eat, and live. Festivals reflect life in the South in Korea. These traditions reflect the natural environment of the terrain which is covered by tons of flowers and fruit trees and surrounded by the sea.

30. The Taxi Drivers

Somebody tell me why none of them seem to ever know where I want to go even if I SAY it in perfect Hangul (because I Practice or have it recorded), have it written down or present a freaking scaled map, a written down by an actual Korean friend or just point and grunt directions from the back seat. Is there a conspiracy going on that says give foreigners a hard time, every time? Or are those Korean dramas they watch while they drive I might add influencing their behavior?

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  1. Sireeta

    I just found your blog today and I’m soooo glad about it! Oh Korea, I miss you so much! My husband and I are going to be stationed in Baumholder, just found out yesterday. I did read your post about Germany as well and I’m excited. We have never done Europe before! I’m chuckling to myself about some of these things in Korea. Love the food, the K-pop, the commercials, the stares because I’m black (lol)…I won’t make this post too long by reminiscing. I love this!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Thank you for your support. For the most part, the Korean people are very friendly even to us black folk, lol. They love our culture. As you know, you will have a lot of fun if you let yourself venture out of your comfort zone– that applies to Korea as well. I loved Baumholder. The town is small, but there are a ton of things to do in the area. I loved going across the border to Cora (an awesome grocery store) and to practice my French in towns like Strasbourg and Bitche (pronounced like you think, lol), Trier and Idar Oberstein are great day trips. There are no shortage of adventures right outside of The Rock.

      1. Sireeta

        Yes, getting out of your comfort zone, which is on the base and just the “ville” right outside of the base is a must! I was a soldier also and I made that mistake being single the first time I was stationed at Humphreys. I left and then I was back a year later being married, and even now my husband and I have said we could have explored even more than we did! We don’t want to do that this time! There are some fears that I have to get over because our lives are different now. He’s an E7 nearing retirement, we have three children, we can drive, and that is something that I don’t like to do! I have to drive in a foreign country! Lord help! But yes, I’m going to take it one day at a time with God’s help to make the most of it and not be so afraid.

  2. Mary

    Thank you for putting all of this together! We just found out that we got switched from Germany to Camp Walker and I’m not going to lie, I was pretty sad. We’ve got a 3 year old and 1 year old and it just seems like such a challenge. I love traveling so just need to start planning side trips! Anyway, do you know anything about the new housing at Camp Walker? Think it will be open by this summer?

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Hi Mary, they had just broke ground on the housing community when I left last April, so I am surprised it will be ready so quickly. The HS was completed and it looked fabulous. I totally understand you were upset. As much as I loved it in Daegu, I would much prefer going back to Germany. But I’d chose South Korea over anywhere in the States.

  3. Tonya

    I’m so happy my husband found your blog! It looks like we will be in Daegu later this summer, so I have lots of reading to do. Oh yeah, I’m also a member of the best sorority across the land! DST!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Hi Soror!! Are you guys in Daegu now? How do you like it? And yes, DST is the best sorority in South Korea, And everywhere else too.

  4. Shane

    Wow quite a different experience than my expat life in Australia. I would love to experience somewhere my different culturally like this!

  5. Hridya

    must have been quite a culture shock for you? I agree to most of the points, strange for an asian myself.. but since I have been living in Malaysia for sometime, it is ok now hahah

  6. Christine K

    Thanks for the wonderful article on living in S. Korea. I have heard the same “complaints” from others expats who have lived there including some neighbors of mine who taught English there. I smiled at a few of these because you wonder why something so gross as eating with your mouth open is not even noticed! Thanks for the light-hearted list.

  7. R121

    I might take this more seriously if there weren’t a typo the first sentence. LEARN TO CHECK YOUR WORK BEFORE POSTING.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I actually don’t care if you take me seriously or not. I’m not a war correspondent for CNN International. When I find typos which are bound to happen, I send a nice comment to the author to inform them. So I will take your criticism and fix the problem and say thank you for helping me make my article even better than it was. Please forward the URL for your blog, so I can go through and help you too. Note I allowed your post to be included on my page so other people can see how nice and helpful you are too.

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