Question from a reader: nervous about living in Seoul

A reader I'll call M.G. writes in:

Hey Chris, I found your email on a blog sight about Americans in South Korea. I have recently interviewed with the Army Corps of Engineers for a civilian job in Seoul, Korea, and was hoping you could answer some questions about living in Seoul for me. I am a recent college graduate and have never lived outside of the US. I do not speak Korean would like to know how hard it was for you feel comfortable going out on your own in the city to do typical errands; grocery shopping, buying typical grooming items, going to restaurants, sight seeing, etc. Also, I am 23 years old and was wondering if there is plenty for someone my age to do in Seoul in order to meet some other people my own age. I am not concerned about learning Korean for the job since I was told everything will be done in English, but is learning Korean a nessecity for living in the city in order to function?

For most English teachers that come to Korea, this is their first international experience. Korea, especially Seoul, makes it pretty easy to get along and get started with life. As far as your job goes, yes that will presumably be entirely in English; what happens outside of work will be a different story.

As an anecdote, I'd like to share that I was successfully riding the subway (which is in Korean and English - good practice!), ordering food at a restaurant, and grocery shopping by myself within my first week here. I didn't know much of the language or the alphabet, but managed all the same. Remember that a store wants to sell you something as much as you want to buy it. Even restaurants that have a menu only in Korean often have pictures. The 'point and smile' approach also works too, but not as well if you have allergies or are vegetarian. Once you arrive, ask your colleagues for the nearest supermarket or department store - E-mart, Lotte, Homeplus, and a few other chains are similar to Walmart / K-mart back in the states. Over time, it becomes a routine, just like living anywhere else in the world.

As for the 'what to do' question - you're set. Seriously. As a civvie you'll probably be able to pass for the otherwise ubiquitous English teacher that will comprise the vast majority of foreigners not living on an Army base. The Army soldiers here in Korea do have some regulations they have to follow, so know whether you have to follow them or not as a contractor. For meeting other young Koreans or foreigners, Hongdae is well known for the night life. Itaewon (near the Yongsan army base) is like a foreigner-town, Sinchon has some night life and is near multiple universities, and Gangnam is one fashion capital worth visiting for the night scene. All are within Seoul and connected to the subway system.

As for learning Korean - you'll want to learn some basic Korean words or phrases once you arrive. For most people, learning hangeul (the Korean alphabet) is easy, and knowing some basic things in Korean can get you started. Conversing is a bit more difficult, but can be learned as well. In some cases, just knowing how to read the Korean alphabet is enough to decipher what the label or menu says - quite a few English words have been transliterated into Korean characters. Pick up a Korean book before you leave the US and pick up a few basics (you can find them in Korea too, but it's always nice to get a head start).

Life in Seoul will be a bit of a shock at first, just like everyone else. Everyone finds their own comfort zone within the city and culture, however. You'll be fine.

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