University, Hangul & Samul Nori – My first week in Seoul

Streets of Seoul

To me, South Korea and Seoul itself are full of new experiences, differences in culture, language script, food and even in everyday life. It’s a country full of opposites. New-age Korea with all of its high modern technic versus the old traditional Korea with all of its palaces and Hanbok – This post is about my first week as an exchange student in Seoul.

EWHA Womans University with the view in direction of the city

💡 Facts about South Korea and Seoul
The official name of South Korea is the Republic of Korea (Daehan Minguk in Korean, 대한민국). The official language is Korean and the official script is Hangul. After Second World War the country was divided into North and South Korea. Since then, North Korea is the only borderline of South Korea. The capital of the Republic of Korea is Seoul. It is also the largest city in the country and the 16th largest city in the world. Circa 50% of the population from South Korea live in the metropolitan area of Seoul.

Finally, my semester abroad in Seoul started. After 18 hours and a little stop-over in Abu Dhabi, I finally arrived in Seoul. South Korea has a time difference of seven hours compared to my home country Germany. Lucky me, I hadn’t to deal with jet lag plus the weather is just very nice – Something between late summer and early autumn.

Living expenses and grocery shopping in South Korea
Clown and girl on the street

I am studying at the EWHA Womans University. The campus is really beautiful and even a little tourist attraction in Seoul. Rents and especially deposits are disproportionated high in South Korea (at least compared to Germany), which is why I am happy to stay in a dormitory (even though in the beginning it was a real fight, read more here: Curfew. Woman’s University. Visa. And lots of preparation.) The living expenses are rather high in South Korea, which makes the country so expensive compared to Germany (and many other countries). Also, the food prices in supermarkets are higher, especially, fruits and vegetables are quite expensive (for example, five apples cost approximately 6,500 ₩, these would be 5.80$). Unsurprisingly, groceries which include (for Asia) uncommon ingredients are also pricey. This includes all kinds of milk products as cheese and chocolate, but also most of the bread. And for a reason – nobody understands – toilet paper seems to be a luxus article as well.

❗️ Tips for groceries and toilet article
We bought our toilet requisites including toilet paper but also sweets and some basic food in the discounter around the corner of our university. A common and good one is the Japanese shop Daiso. You can look after street hawkers or local markets mostly it is cheaper there for fruits and vegetables.
Also do not forget, some toiletries are especially expensive in Korea (or actually the whole of Asia). Therefore, my tip is to bring enough deodorant (most Asian do not use it because they do not sweat as much – therefore it is hard to find but really expensive), tampons, and especially sunscreen. Latter is not really hard to get but can be really pricey plus most sunscreen includes whitener because the Korean (and also other Asian) ideal of beauty is pale skin.
Dining outside – restaurants

Even though, grocery shopping feels quite expensive to me, eating out is actually really affordable. I wondered really often how it can be that cooking for yourself seems to be more expensive than actually dining outside. I heard that special groups of society like families and restaurant owners get a card with which they can do cheaper grocery shopping (but I have no proof this is true). I guess a few points which make going to restaurants quite cheap compared to many other Western countries are three main points. First of all, you always get free water or cold tea with your food (you only pay for additional drinks). Second, usually, you get free side dishes like Kimchi, yellow radish, other vegetables, or rice (it depends a bit on your meal) and you mostly also reorder them for free. Third, Koreans do not tip.

Fast food, street food and markets

But I noticed very fast that even when eating out is comparatively cheap (to me) it is still too expensive to do so every day. The cheapest meals you can get are probably street food and meals from the local markets. As well as from convenience stores like my favourite snack Samgak Kimbab (triangle Kimbab). Also, the prices depend a lot on the district. I noticed that the street food in the student districts is way cheaper than in the city centre. Another really common way is to order food. I feel like most shops have their own delivery services, even the fast-food chains. One of the favourite spots to order food and have a picnic is the Han River. When we went there in my first week we got 41 different flyers (I counted them) for delivery services in Seoul, most of them offering Fried Chicken or Pizza.

❗️Tips for eating out
Not surprisingly, the cheaper restaurants are outside of the centre. The restaurants owned by Ajummas (아줌마, middle-aged Korean women) or Ahjussis (아저씨, middle-aged Korean men) with traditional Korean food are usually cheaper as well but they will not speak English or offer a translated menu. But usually, the menus have some pictures (or even a display window with the meals). Also ordering food is quite easy (literally the only word I knew when I went to a restaurant), just say the name of the meal and behind it Juseyo (주세요), it means please, for example, Bibimbab Juseyo (비빔밥주세요).
Also, one restaurant my roommate and I love is the Food Café. They have common dishes as Kimbab, Jajangmyeon (black bean noodles), or omelette. As far as I know, the restaurant exists close to Gangnam and Sinchon.
The other way around, all kinds of restaurants which offer so-called Western food are usually more pricey.
Learning new language characters
King Sejong who invented Hangul
King Sejong who invented Hangul

Hangul (한글) is the official written language in Korea. Although it looks really complicated, it’s not that difficult to learn. My university book for Korean classes says it’s the 12th widely used language in the world and ahead of Italian and French (sounds unbelievable, I know).
Hangul was invented in 1443 by King Sejong, the fourth monarch during the Joseon Dynasty. The new language script was supposed to help ordinary people to write and read. Because before Hangul, Korean was written in Chinese characters. One says a wise man could learn Hangul in one day, a stupid man could learn it in ten days. I have Korean classes twice a week, so I learned Hangul in seven days ;). The modern Hangul has 24 letters and 27 digraphs. But also if you don’t speak the Korean language, especially Seoul has many English speaking people who will try to help you and the metro signs and the station announcements are also in English.

Samulnori Traditional Korean dance and music
Samul Nori

Samulnori is a genre of traditional Korean music and dances (read more in my blog post about Traditional Korea). My roommate and I were lucky to see such a dance performed by Korean students at our university. Samulnori means literally translated playing four things which already explains the use of four different percussion instruments. They have a small gong (Kkwaenggwari), a larger gong (Jing), an hourglass-shaped drum (Janggu) and a barrel drum (Buk drum). The students wore beautiful Korean dresses, called Hanbok. They had two students, which were dressed differently in pink jackets. These two had small gongs and provided the rhythm. Some students from the audience ran to the dancers and clipped some banknotes under their hats.
There was also a little ceremony in the beginning. We didn’t understand what they were saying (because it was in Korean), but one girl had a pig mask. Pigs count as a lucky charm here. Some of the girls were standing in a line, got something to drink, then they had to kneel down. After they got up, they gave some little papers to the pig mask. My guess is that they wrote down some of their wishes.

Read more

Other things I joined in during my first week were a museums visit during Culture Day, and a free trip to the South of Korea. Culture Day is an initiative of the country offering free entrances and discounts on cultural facilities. I visited the Seoul Museum of History. It shows the history and culture of Seoul from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) to the present day. It represents the living of the people in Korea, also during the Japanese colonial era until the late 1990s.
The free trip was sponsored by the Korean government to show foreigners around their country. We went to a little island, different festivals and another museum about Korean art. You can read more about Culture Day and how to join in a free trip in my blog post Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts.

First written on Friday, September 16th, 2016, you have read the blog post University, Hangul & Samul Nori – My first week in Seoul on My Travel Journal-Blog.

Curfew. Woman’s University. Visa. And lots of preparation.

In preparation for my exchange semester in Seoul …


Why South Korea?

“Of all things, why South Korea?” This was a question I had to answer really often when I told someone I will make an exchange semester in Seoul. I never was in Asia before (once I crossed the Asian border of Istanbul – however, I’m not sure if this will count). But I was always really interested in the culture and people of Asia. I believe one of the main reasons are the cultural differences in the opposite of Western Europe. My first contact with Korea was through a friend a few years ago. She is a big fan of Japan and once she told me she had watched a really great TV series from South Korea and – for sure – I would love it. So I followed her advice and watched my first K-Drama (this is the abbreviation for series in the Korean language). The title of the series was “Playful Kiss” (or also “Mischievous Kiss”/ “Naughty Kiss”/ “장난스런 키스“) – a clumsy girl falls in love with a handsome and clever but also sometimes really rude boy. K-Dramas are really different from American, British or German series – I normally watch productions of these three countries.

The Korean culture is different, they have a variety of Dos and Dont’s which were really strange for me (… and they censor cigarettes on TV – because nobody will understand what a person holds in their hand when smoke is coming out of their mouth). Honour is an important value of the Korean culture and of course, the tribute and respect for older people and traditions. Korea has a high hierarchically system, which is especially striking in their language – Korean has five different polite forms. I also was really surprised that living together seems a really big no go for lovers in South Korea. However, I was really fascinated by all that – for me – crazy (but in a good way) new world in Asia. Later, I watched three, four other K-Dramas and heard some Korean Songs (it is called K-Pop).

The official YouTube channel of the TV series “Playful Kiss” – The producers created seven mini episodes for YouTube after the large success of the series.

Hangul and Coffee shops which sound like “copy shops”

However, when I decided to make my Master Studies in Berlin another aim was to make an exchange semester abroad because this was something I missed during my Bachelor Studies. You have three choices for the stay of an exchange, I thought I had to pick three countries (for real you have to choose three universities) – so I prepared myself for a counselling interview. I chose Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea. The consultant was happy I named Korea and totally ignored the other two countries. She encouraged me to go to South Korea and told me that every student, who was in Korea, was highly satisfied with their choice. That was the decisive reason why I picked South Korea and applied to three universities in Seoul. In 2010 – when I was highly addicted to Korea and watched the K-Dramas for the first time  – I would have given everything to get the opportunity to go to Seoul. So six years later I wanted to take this chance. Actually, the only reason I didn’t choose South Korea on the first side was because of Hangul (this is the Korean alphabet). I was afraid I wouldn’t understand a word and couldn’t even buy Ramen (Ramen is a noodle soup and a famous Asian dish) in a supermarket because of the missing vocabularies. To be honest, I still don’t speak Korean. I can only say some useful words as “saranghae” (I love you) or “keopi syob” (coffee shop but sounds like “copy shop”).

Much preparation stuff

After I wrote motivation letters, collected thousands of important papers and provided all kinds of evidence, I finally got my accommodation letter. I decided to go to the EWHA Womans University in Seoul because it has the largest and the best offering for my field of study – Media Studies. At this point started my preparation time: I needed a visa, a place to stay, a flight, inoculations, health insurance, apply for a scholarship and other financial facilitation, I had to freeze the contract of my cell phone, needed a backpack… thousands of stuff.

The visa is relatively easy to get for Germans because the countries have a good relationship with each other (and it’s free). The inoculations are really expensive and there are a lot of recommendations about immunisation protection. If you don’t want to pay more money for inoculations than for the flight, it is impossible to get inject against everything. The flight is one other problem. My plans are to travel a few months after my exchange semester that’s why I don’t know yet when I will come back to Germany. However, it is cheaper to book a return flight right away. That’s why I would recommend searching for a flight with nice rebooking options. One other problem will be the luggage. I have to left some stuff in Korea while I’m travelling around. I also have just 23 kilogrammes of free luggage from Germany to South Korea. A friend gave me a piece of really nice advice. She loves backpacking journeys so she is kind of an expert. She always takes some old or washed out clothes to her travels or just outfits she doesn’t like anymore, so she can throw them away and has more space for clothes, souvenirs or just food. I believe it is a bit of really useful advice.

Immaturity in Seoul

Flats and rooms have – at least compared to Germany – really high rents. Some cheaper flats have a higher deposit of up to 5000 Euros respectively Dollars. This is one reason I really wanted to rent a room in a dormitory (and there you still can pay over 500 Euros/ Dollars). Unfortunately, curfews are a common thing in the dormitories of Seoul. I knew that South Korea is more strict with the separation of sexes. However, the curfew shocked me a little bit. I read that not all universities have stringent conditions. However, one article (here) from October 2003 from the English newspaper of the EWHA Womans university – the university where I will study – discourage me a little. But perhaps something changed meanwhile because the article is 13 years old by now. The curfew is just in some of the dormitories in the EHWA, however, in my opinion, the rules are very strict. The curfew is from midnight until five o’clock in the morning (12pm-5am). The article talks about black marks: Three for being tardy, five for staying out without permission – the students who collect ten marks have to leave the dormitory. If one wants to stay out, they need to sign up hours earlier. The process is even more complicated at the weekend. Then students need the permission of their parents.

I read that some reasons for the curfew are the responsibility to take care of the students. The curfew would help the students to go to bed early and stay healthy. And also to maintain their regular daily life.  Actually, to me, this sounds really unbelievable. Don’t get me wrong, however, in my opinion, at an age of 20 or older you should be able to organise your daily routine on your own. But perhaps some don’t want this and it is one of the differences between the cultures. I also read that some people like the rules and feel more organised and save with them. So it perhaps depends on the person which dormitory is the best for themselves.

By the way, the International House of EWHA hasn’t a curfew and I’m so glad I got a place there. Because in my opinion, dormitories are in general a perfect decision to live for an exchange semester. The dormitories are near the university on the campus, you meet really fast other students, you already got the most important furniture, the period and costs are complementary. Therefore, we will see how it will work for me. I am very pleased to get the chance to study in Seoul. For sure I will tell more about South Korea from time to time because the adventure has just begun.