Moon Living Abroad in South Korea author Jonathan Hopfner is a journalist living in South Korea. Originally from Canada, he has worked for various news agencies in Asia, and has also written freelance articles on travel in the region. He has made the move to South Korea twice. We picked his brain on moving to South Korea. Herewith, his answers.
Living Abroad in South Korea with Jonathan Hopfner
1. Are there any local customs that a newcomer should be aware of?
Non-Koreans will encounter plenty of customs that are unique to Korea, but for the most part, don’t worry about them too much—Koreans generally don’t expect foreigners to adhere to all the local norms, and the basics of polite behavior are very similar to those in other countries. The two main things to keep in mind are to be humble—despite some appearances to the contrary this is a culture that prizes modesty, and a certain amount of deference in dealing with others. The second is that Korean society elevates the group, particularly family and colleagues, over the individual. This means you have to get used to a lot more things being done communally or by consensus. It’s also important to be conscious of the needs and feelings of others in your “group” when making decisions. Those who insist on getting their own way don’t tend to do very well here.
2. Making local friends is a great way to assimilate to living in a new country. What’s the best way to meet new people in South Korea?
Koreans are generally gregarious and great socializers, so most expatriates don’t have much trouble meeting locals. A lot of initial friendships are formed through work, places of worship or school (or the children’s schools, in the case of parents), but the best way to meet people with similar interests is to get involved in some kind of activity. Language exchange programs, volunteering, local crafts and martial arts are offered, even in smaller cities. In places like Seoul or Busan there are dozens of clubs with a healthy mix of foreign and Korean members that focus on things like hiking, sailing, public speaking or Buddhist studies. Unfair as it is, drinkers may find meeting and bonding with people easier than those who abstain.
3. What do you consider essential items to pack before moving to South Korea? Are there any items you just can’t find?
When packing, prioritize things of emotional or comfort value, since just about everything else can be bought or replaced here. Things like photos of home, a much-loved book, or portable hard drive loaded with your favorite movies, music or TV shows can come in handy on those days you just want to forget you’re in a foreign country for a while. If there’s something you need for a pastime that’s important to you—say an instrument or a mountain bike—bring it or ship it over if possible, since it will add to your quality of life here. The list of things you can’t find in South Korea shrinks every year, though anything exotic and imported is bound to cost a lot more than it would back home. Some things expatriates commonly complain are tough to find are (Western) sauces and spice mixes, plus-size clothing, English-language books and games for children and some types of liquor (dark rum or single-malt scotches for example). Any medication or beauty products you want to continue using should also be brought over since they may differ or be unavailable locally.
4. Should someone planning a move to South Korea find housing before they leave home or look around upon arrival? Are there any great housing resources to be aware of?
I'd advise against anyone making a final decision on housing before they arrive and see a place for themselves, unless their employer is choosing for them. There are simply too many things that can go wrong if you try to negotiate an unfamiliar real estate market from a distance, and finding a home you’re comfortable with is one of the biggest steps you can take towards an enjoyable stay. A great deal of housing information is available on the internet, but almost all of it is in Korean, and what there is in English is heavily skewed towards very high-end properties in Seoul. There’s no harm in corresponding with a few real estate agencies before your arrival to line up viewings or get advice. But the best approach is to book some temporary accommodation, either a serviced apartment or hotel, for a few weeks after your arrival and do your house-hunting on the ground with agents based in the neighborhoods you’re interested in.
5. What’s the best way to manage your money in South Korea? Any tips on opening a bank account?
Managing your money here is really no different from doing so back home. However there are fewer financial products advertised and made available to non-Koreans, so if you have a savings plan or investment portfolio in your home country that you’re happy with, consider maintaining that even if you have to remit funds back home to do it. If you’re looking to set something up locally, a few institutions, including Korea Exchange Bank (KEB) and Samsung Securities, offer services such as savings plans, loans, and online trading for expatriates. If you’re going to be sending money home a lot, or your time in South Korea will be short, it may be worth opening a foreign currency account. This will protect you from exchange rate fluctuations and often offer heavily discounted or free remittances. Opening a standard bank account is a pretty straightforward process—walk into any bank branch with identification and you’ll have one in a few minutes. Getting a credit card, or an ATM card that works overseas, can be substantially more complicated, which is why you’ll want the help of a local friend or colleague to deal with an expatriate-friendly institution like KEB.
6. When moving to South Korea, what are the initial costs? How much money should you set aside in order to make the move?
Initial costs vary substantially depending on your family situation, how much traveling and socializing you’re looking to do, as well as your tolerance for “going local”. Someone who can handle three Korean meals a day will probably spend a lot less than someone requiring regular doses of steak or pasta. At the very least you want to be able to cover your expenses for a month and have a bit of a financial cushion should things go wrong. As a rough guideline, a young, single traveler who’s content with budget accommodation should set aside $1000-$2000, and a family staying in a decent hotel or serviced apartment about $5000-$6000. These figures don’t include expenses incurred before arrival, like plane tickets or shipping household goods.
7. In which fields is it easy for a foreigner to secure a job? Any tips on getting hired?
The obvious answer is teaching English. Employers and visa regulations are more discriminating in recent years, but the Korean obsession with learning the language means any university graduate from an English-speaking country should have little trouble finding a job as a language instructor. Unfortunately, because the industry is fairly unregulated, pay and working conditions can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, and potential employers should be approached with caution. Many expatriates start out teaching English and branch later into various fields where their language skills can come in handy, including sales, public relations, or journalism. Others, especially those with technical or management expertise, are increasingly being hired directly by local firms, many of which are looking to boost their overseas presence. As in most countries, the best positions are found through word of mouth, and in fact, personal relationships probably count for more in South Korea than they do in the West. If you’ve got ambitions, it’s important to get out there and network.
8. What’s the one thing you wished you had known about living abroad before you left?
That it can be addictive. While it won’t always be easy going, a spell abroad teaches people so much about themselves and the wider world that many find themselves repeating or extending the experience.