When we received our orders to South Korea my husband and I were ecstatic! We couldn’t imagine a more fitting overseas assignment for our family. We had both studied a years worth of Korean in the Army and 14 years later we still ate out at Korean restaurants, yelled at our kids in Korean (ballee wha!) and, like the big nerd I am, I continued writing hangurl for the fun of it.
The response to our new assignment was received very differently by friends and relatives. Many of our older family members were gobsmacked; taking our kids to a third world country that had a northern neighbor wearing his 40 year old diaper and playing with nuclear toys? Others wondered how we would survive without basic American comforts like Football and potato salad. All the while, I was chewing my fingernails and hoping that we would live offpost so that I could be smack dab in the middle of Korea!
It’s true that I am a terrible American. I don’t like football, garbage disposals or the voice. But South Korea is NOT a third world country and it’s major cities offer everything that America does and more! Except for the garbage disposal, Korean plumbing is awful and it can’t handle food down the drain.
During the Korean War (1950-1953), the capital of Korea, Seoul, changed hands four times between the Americans and the Chinese. The city and the country were devastated and yet in less than 75years, South Korea has become an economic juggernaut that competes with leading western nations, especially in the electronics market. Do you like your Samsung and LG Flat Screen TV’s? Or Hyundai and Kia cars? Thanks Korea! South Korea also boasts the fastest LTE and internet in the world for competitive prices.
Trivia Fact: LG was originally called The Lucky Goldstar.
Many people worry that since you are a foreigner you can expect to pay higher prices or to be asked to leave stores/ restaurants. Don’t throw racist tomatoes at me but South Koreans are super nice. This is a stereotype I am ok with. 99% of the time you are treated kindly and can expect the same customer service that natives receive. When I did classes with local Koreans they always said “You are a foreigner, you can’t do anything wrong!” And it’s true. If you have tattoos up your arms, you can enjoy local hotsprings without any worries. Tattoos are frowned upon here (still can’t figure out how they have so many Tattoo Parlors if it’s culturally unacceptable) but if you are a foreigner than it’s perfectly ok. If you don’t bow properly or you don’t use the proper honorifics when trying the language, no one will get mad at you. If you can’t use chopsticks you will be politely given a fork and spoon. The only ones who will laugh at you are your buddies at the table.
There are always a few bad apples that ruin it for everyone. Like the crazy old devout Buddhist who will yell at you for glancing in the direction of a Korean girl or a wannabe thug who spits in your general direction. But they are the exception to the rule and you’ll probably only experience their antics through the news and Youtube.
If you have young kids prepare yourself for the attention! Everyone loves little foreign kids, so much so that you can easily get modeling jobs for them if you are interested in that sort of thing. If you don’t speak a lick of Korean, merchants will be patient with you. Through waving your hands in the air and pointing at pictures on a menu, you can order, eat and buy anything you want, the number system uses cardinal numbers so knowing the price of an item is not a problem (ex. 5,000
w). I don’t feel that I have ever been swindled or told a price that was higher than a native would get. The only time I thought I was cheated was when an onpost cabby kept my change of 500 w, about 50 cents. However, I’ll caution that you won’t get a deal when purchasing electronics at a market unless you do the research beforehand and bring the proof to negotiate the price.
The peninsula of South Korea is mountainous so the hiking and biking opportunities are endless. Hiking is an important part of Korean culture so the trails are well cared for or have stairs and there are Buddhist temples/ shrines to enjoy along the way. Jejudo, the largest island to the south of the peninsula, is a tropical getaway with beautiful waterfalls, crystal clear lakes, incredible beaches and a volcanic landscape to hike and camp on. All of these locations are just a plane, bus or train trip away; It takes a little over 3 hours to reach the southernmost tip of South Korea from Camp Humphreys by car. You don’t need car since South Korea has one of the most efficient, cheapest and cleanest public transportation systems in the world. They have MagLev Trains here!
Did I mention the shopping? Because it is everywhere and there is not enough hours in one lifetime to explore every nook and cranny of the market districts and department stores in Seoul and Busan. The outdoor markets, such as Namdaemum and Dondaemun, are sprawling labyrinths through back alleys and busy streets where merchants hawk their wares or invite you to step into their stores. High end department stores like Lotte or Shinsegae offer luxury brand named apparel and hole in the wall shops will sell hand carved stone or wood trinkets. Shopping has become a major boost in Korea’s economy since Chinese tourists have made a point of spending their vacations days in South Korea just to shop. South Korea is also a quick plane trip to all of your bucket list destinations like the Phillipines, Cambodia, China, Japan etc. and Space A is usually available outside of the Summer season.
Finally, the food! If you can get past the spice, the food here is full of umami flavor and is extremely healthy for you. I consider myself a boring American; Potatoes, Meat, maybe a vegetable but sometimes I just take a second helping of potatoes instead. After moving here, vegetables and fruit have easily become 45% of my diet and it’s only because of my own stubbornness that my soda intake hasn’t decreased. Koreans don’t offer soft drinks at their restaurants as a requirement but they are available if you want to work for it. Getting Soda requires a quick walk to their fridge to get it yourself. I’m much too lazy for that. Instead I buy soda from the commissary and drink one can of guilt a day. Why can’t I quit?
Back to the food, the spice levels can vary from mild to actual pain that makes you consider going to the hospital hours later. If the menu says it’s spicy or has a picture of a pepper, then it’s been purposefully made too spicy as a challenge for those adventurers who like it when it burns the next day. I’ve had plenty of Koreans tell me that certain dishes are too spicy for them, so don’t feel ashamed! Normally, the food ranges from medium spicy to no spice at all and is full of carrots, onions, cucumbers etc. And cabbage, lots of it. Kimchi tastes so much better here than back in the states, wait until you get here to eat Kimchi in all of its glory. When you are ready to eat something other than Korean, the international food scene is mind boggling. There are so many different things to try and if you go out on a night on the town, you’ll wonder how so many Thai or Italian restaurants can survive right next to their competitors. The variety and options that are available will have you spending an inordinate amount of time just deciding what to eat. For indecisive adults like my husband and myself, we’ll walk around arguing about whose turn it is to pick for so long that we are starving by the time we stumble into the first restaurant that was on our list an hour ago.
Eating out in Korea is extremely cheap compared to the states. In the US, McDonald’s costs our family of 4 around $25 but here we can eat for under $15 and not be hungry and hour later. The trick is to avoid restaurants that are purposefully catering towards soldiers/ Americans. Our more expensive meals get into the $30-$40 range, a far cry from an Outback or Olive Garden. And there is no tipping. Seriously, don’t be rude.
There is so much for your kids to do here as well. In addition to the hiking and beaches, there are amusement parks, water parks, playgrounds everywhere etc. And every military base offers a number of MWR, Library, ACS, CYS and USO events. Camp Humphreys even has its own waterpark and Miniature golf course.
As far as South Korea’s troubles, I won’t really be covering those here. Of course South Korea has political and cultural turmoil but what country doesn’t? As I am writing this, we are planning on electing a US president who wants to build a physical wall to keep out the evil foreigners. Who am I to judge other countries! As far as North Korea is concerned, the Kim’s have been throwing fits and threatening South Korea for decades, any new news from North Korea is stale before it hits the airwaves. I do believe North Korea is a credible threat but not enough for me to hide and not live my life. I could die just as easily from driving on the highway or choking on a walnut.
I hope I have alleviated any fears you have about South Korea. This country is beautiful and has so many wonderful opportunities. It’s not perfect but ti’s a great place to spend 2 years before heading back to the states.