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.
💡 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
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
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
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.
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.