Hi! My name is Ida and I’m on my final year studying Business Management at University of Southampton. I’ve just spent my previous year in Seoul, South Korea on my study abroad program, which although was one of the best experiences of my life there were some things that I wish I knew before getting on the plane.
Due to my interest in Korean culture I knew a little bit about Korean customs and social stigma beforehand, but I was definitely not prepared for the stares of uncles and aunties, whilst travelling around the city. The transportation system in Korea has their own set of rules that need to be respected in order not to disrupt other passengers and feel like a part of the society and not just a tourist. Firstly, before entering the vehicle you need to que with other passengers in a designated area. If you are commuting through subway, you can just que in front of the door to the carriage, but if you travel by bus, there are special waiting areas designated to que in. Speaking loudly, as well as, eating or drinking in the bus or subway is considered extremely rude and unpleasant, therefore you should be careful when travelling with a friend. Lastly, there are some special courtesy seats that are reserved for elders, disabled passengers, and pregnant women and sitting on them, if you do not fit into the criteria, will also be treated as impolite. Sticking to those rules will help you avoid stares for the wrong reasons as due to the fact that you are a foreigner, there will always be an uncle or auntie looking at you curiously.
What I loved about Korea the most was the convenience for people like me who don’t like cooking and don’t have time for it. There were three options that didn’t involve using your pan. I could buy ready-to-eat products such as kimbab, sausages or dumplings in a convenience store, which was quick and easy to eat as it needed only a few seconds in a microwave and was also very affordable. I could also dine out, where the experience depended on whether I wanted to eat with my friends or alone. There are so many cheap options to share with your friends such as Korean bbq, hotpot, ddeokbokki or a jjigae that requires ordering at least two portions, which is why eating them alone would be problematic. The prices would differ between 8 to 15 pounds per person depending on the restaurant and the amount of food served, but there was always additional food given for free such as the side dishes, rice or water. If I decided to eat alone in a restaurant, my favourite options were definitely LaBAB or Kimbab Cheonguk, which were chain restaurants serving Korean cuisine from 3 to 6 pounds per dish. Lastly, if I got hungry at night and didn’t feel like leaving my house to go to a convenience store (most of them are 24/7), there was always a delivery option with multiple different apps offering a range of choices from Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Western cuisine that would be delivered in front of my door in around 30 to 40 minutes after ordering, even at 3am.
Making friends abroad, especially in the city, could be challenging sometimes but knowing where to go is the key to meeting new people. In Seoul there are three main districts where it is easy to make friends: Hongdae, Itaewon and Apgujeong. Hongdae is an extremely popular place among students and young people with multiple trendy cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs. Meeting people there was the best experience of my study abroad as I made amazing friendships with people from multiple countries with various cultures but similar interests. Joining a pub crawl is also an option if you don’t know anyone in the city yet as you get to meet other exchange students from different universities across Seoul as well as the locals who are eager to chat with foreigners. Itaewon is a district where most of the foreigners in Seoul live. People there are very open-minded, and they also understand the frustrations coming from the cultural shocks in Korea, which is why it’s easy to make friends there if you enjoy going to bars or clubs. Lastly, Apgujeong is a district to go if you prefer a classy vibe with the fancy bars in the area without that many foreigners. Although it is a little bit harder to make friends there if you don’t know Korean, there are a lot of locals that are curious where you are from or what you are doing in Korea and would love to get to know you more.
The past year was definitely the best year of my life and although I encountered some hardships at the beginning, knowing about the things that I listed above helped me get through all of them easily and without feeling homesick as I discovered that Seoul will always be my home no matter where I live. I hope Korea can become a new home for you too!