Expat Interview: Life in Seoul, South Korea
Posted by Dannielle Noonan
Wondering what it's like to deal with culture shock and language barriers in South Korea? This week Medibroker asked expat blogger Laura Nalin from Willful and Wildhearted to share her thoughts and experiences of living in Seoul.
Where are you from and where have you lived?
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s a pretty working class town, so it allowed me to be down to earth while having enough grit for me to develop my sarcastic wit and no-nonsense attitude. When I turned 18, I moved to Chicago, Illinois, where I studied journalism with a focus on news reporting and writing. I stayed in Chicago (and loved every minute of it!) for a total of 7 years before I moved to Seoul.
I felt as though I was in a rut. I had been in a relationship far past its expiration date and worked as a writer for a content marketing agency I didn’t like for far too long. Not to be cliché, but as soon as those chapters in my life closed, I knew it was time to start anew. I’d always thought about teaching English abroad, as I knew it would be a great way to fund my dreams of traveling the world, but I’d never been in the position to do so.
I reflected on the fact that I’d loved my opportunity as a literacy tutor for homeless children throughout college, and decided to enroll in a TEFL practicum at the International TEFL Academy in Chicago. Throughout the practicum, I volunteered as an ESL tutor for Iraqi and Burmese refugees, which allowed me to be more confident in a classroom setting in addition to the experience I was already gaining at ITA.
What I found so attractive about Korea are the benefits people receive as English teachers. I have a free apartment in the ritzy Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul, the cost of living here is extremely cheap, the public transportation is some of the best in the world and my monthly bills are never higher than $50 combined. I am able to save a lot of money each month having the time of my life. I don’t think it gets much better, if I’m honest.
What was the biggest challenge when you were planning your move? (EG visas, insurance..?)
It’s a bit of a pain getting to Korea. I had to get my Bachelor’s Degree diploma notarized and apostilled, a sealed copy of my university transcripts, a criminal background check apostilled by the U.S. Department of State, and eventually an interview at the Korean consulate to receive my visa. It was a lot of paperwork as well as footwork, but I just stayed organized and it all came together swimmingly.
What do you love about being an expat in Seoul?
I think what I love most about living here in Korea is the absolute freedom I have. I haven’t felt many financial constraints or worried about my spending. With that said, I’m on a tight budget, but that’s because I’m saving up to travel!
Another thing I love about living here is that everything is new to me! Every day can be an adventure if you want it to be, and that’s something I try to embody on a day-to-day basis. Korea continues to completely blow me away with its beauty. Whether it’s the people, new restaurants and cafes, exciting events or the magnificent mountains and topography, I feel blessed to be able to explore Korea as often as humanly possible.
How do you handle the language barrier?
Here in Korea we expats use a lot of body language as well as simplifying the English language on a daily basis. If I were to ask someone if they have a headache, maybe I will say something along the lines of, “Is your head very ouch?” while simultaneously making facial expressions and touching my head to get my point across. It’s endearing and hilarious at times, but trust me – it can also become quite frustrating.
However, before coming here I studied Hangul, or the Korean alphabet, in an attempt to be less confused by my surroundings. This proved to be extremely beneficial, especially at restaurants once I became familiar with Korean food. I’m currently enrolled in Korean classes, which help as well! My teacher is a Korean news broadcaster, so she wants to work really hard on making sure my pronunciation is on point. The opportunity is super unique, incredibly helpful as well as extremely rewarding.
What’s the most challenging part of expat life in South Korea?
Korea can be an extremely difficult place to live at times. The way of thinking here is so much different than what I’m used to, which can be angering from time to time. The culture itself is quite homogenous and many people are xenophobic to an unhealthy degree. Almost everything is done last minute and often without any thought. It’s been extremely important to just keep an open mind about it all and not let it affect me.
What’s the South Korean healthcare system like for expats? Any experiences you can share?
To be honest, I haven’t had the best experiences with healthcare in Korea. It’s extremely cheap compared to the United States (that’s not saying much, though!) and can be quite efficient for some people - not me.
Just last month, a doctor nearly forced me to get a stye surgically removed from my eye, when all I went in to ask for was some medicated eye drops. Last year a doctor began sewing stitches on my finger before injecting any anaesthetics. He told me I was crying because, "you are woman." I have a friend who had an accident in which he broke his nose and he woke up with a nose job. I'm not kidding.
With that said, Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Yes, this tiny peninsula holds that title. It's quite terrifying, if I'm honest. Tourists and locals alike flock to surgical centers in Gangnam for a number of controversial procedures. Two of the most popular are the infamous double eyelid surgery, in which a portion of the eyelid is removed to give a patient with smaller, "Asian" eyes a more "Westernized" look and the sometimes deadly V-line jaw reduction procedure, in which the patient has their cheek, jaw and chin bones shaved down to create a "perfect V shape." They even have discounts if you go to these surgery centers with a friend! It makes me sad, really.
What has been your most memorable experience since moving?
It's really hard to pick just one! I have so many memorable experiences. From sleepless nights with friends to weekend trips away - solo, with my significant other or our friends - it's been one incredible journey. There's something so unique about Korea that I really can't explain to people unless they move here or visit. It's too quirky for its own good - and I mean that in the best way possible. There's always something that happens that is an "Only in Korea!" moment and I really wouldn't have it any other way!
Medibroker can offer free recommendations for health insurance in South Korea and we are completely impartial. Clients benefit from award winning support for the life of their policy and help with claims. Why go direct?