If you’re anything like I was before I went to South Korea to teach English, you’ll have very little idea of what to expect when you arrive. While you’re not moving off to a different planet, the considerable difference between South Korean and North American cultures can certainly make it feel that way. Even though you’re deeply excited to start this new adventure in your life, it may also seem a little daunting. Whether you’ve been in South Korea before, or are about to launch on your first visit, here are a few ways to combat that pesky unease for optimal enjoyment of an incredible and breathtaking country.
1. Watch a few K-dramas
Seriously. There is no better way to build your vocabulary, excitement, and basic knowledge of this country than to watch a few popular K-dramas (the nickname for South Korean TV drama shows). While it’s important to understand that things won’t be exactly as they’re portrayed on television, the shows can provide insight into cultural norms and fun things to do while you’re in the country that might not have occurred to you otherwise.
2. Buy a rice cooker
Whether you have time for cooking or not, rice cookers are an amazing investment. You don’t have to spend a fortune on them, either – you can find pretty cheap ones at places like E-Mart or GMarket. Depending on the make, you can even throw frozen vegetables in them along with your rice. Whip up some BiBimBop sauce (gochujang, sesame oil, water, and sugar) and fry a few eggs and you pretty much have an instant meal.
Ordering things online in South Korea was one of the best experiences of my life, because almost everything was delivered overnight. GMarket is an online store that you have to register for with your Alien Registration Card and bank account. It’s fairly straight forward, but you can ask one of the staff at your school to help you, should you need it. Once registration is complete, you can pretty much order anything you like, and it is CHEAP! If your school allows it, simply set the shipping address to your school’s address and you’ll be all set to develop your online shopping addiction.
4. Download Jihachul
This is an app for your phone that provides the best underground/subway map I have ever used in all the places I’ve been so far. Honestly, the South Korean subway system is a DREAM to navigate (even if it’s a bit crowded at times) because everything is clearly marked in both English and Korean, and all the exits are numbered. But there are a lot of stops and a lot of neat things to check out, and Jihachul will allow you to plot your course, tell you the stops you need to take, and give you an estimate for the time of your arrival.
5. Splurge for a smartphone
Once upon a time there was a website that you could use to buy a phone and have everything set up for you, but they don’t seem to be in business anymore. Regardless, if you don’t bring a smartphone overseas with you, then buy one while you’re there. If you have one already, you can likely get a SIM card that would allow you to use it in South Korea. If you’re in Seoul, there will be quite a few places that will have someone who speaks English in the store to help you, but if not, ask one of the staff at your school to help set up a plan/contract. Having a smartphone where you can download helpful apps like Jihachul and Google maps will be almost essential if you want to do a bit of exploring in the beginning of your stay. It’s a nice safety net to have, to be able to call someone if you get lost and have them direct you (although from experience, people in the street are exceptionally helpful if you ask them nicely for directions).
6. Buy a vocabulary book
I cannot stress enough how important it is that you attempt to learn some of the local language. You don’t have to become fluent! You don’t even have to learn to speak in full sentences. But learning to read the language will help you get your bearings, especially if you find yourself in a place that doesn’t see a lot of English-speaking traffic. Learning the names of things, directions, and certain questions not only goes a long way towards endearing yourself to the people, but also means you don’t have to constantly rely on others to do things for you.
There are many different lifehacks for getting the most out of living and teaching ESL in South Korea. People have been doing this for over a decade, and you certainly aren’t the first to find things a little daunting. So relax – you’ve got this! And remember – there will always be someone to help you through any situation that arises while abroad.
Written by Ashley Marie Shuttleworth
Ashley is a graduate from Trent University with a degree in English Literature. She spent a year teaching English in South Korea followed by a year Au Pairing in England, and both jobs have provided some of the most rewarding experiences in her life, to date. There are many more adventures planned for her future, (India and Japan are next!) all with the hopes that this worldly knowledge will help to fuel her career as a published author.