10 Korean Experiences and their Unusual Alternatives

First off, hello everyone! It is good to be back in Seoul!

Seeing how most of my readers are from the US, I’ve focused most of my ‘Korea posts’ on what I would like to show a visitor with a limited amount of time. I wanted to do something a little different this time. This is a list of Korean experiences and how to take them to the next level. While some of these might be normal to expats already living here, I hope they too can agree that these can give an insight into Korean people and culture.

 

10) Live in an Apartment

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For the better part of my four years here, I have lived in an small, but cozy apartment. While it felt completely normal at the time, it wasn’t until coming back to Korea without a job last week that I experienced what most of you might in terms of accommodation: a guesthouse/hostel. Apartments will let you see the tiny places people live in, sometimes with entire families. The good news is that you will have control of your very own “ondol” or floor heating system. Even the cheapest apartments have this wonderful invention that makes your feet nice and toasty in the winter months.

Expert Mode:

Live in a Koshiwon

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A Koshiwon is a type of ‘living space’ most foreigners are probably not even aware of. Hundreds of these places are in Seoul alone and are designed to be the cheapest possible form of long term accommodation. They cost between $200-$500 and make apartments look huge by comparison. Usually, students needing a quiet place to study for national exams stay here, but I have come across people of all ages in my short stay. While the terms vary, there are many upsides. My Koshiwon offers unlimited free rice, kimchi, water, condiments, and detergent along with included utilities and fast wifi. Others also offer free unlimited ramen, coffee, toiletries, etc. No “key money” is needed to stay in one of these which is also a big plus! Personally, I love living here so far, but only time will tell.

 

9) Attend a Korean Wedding

My co-worker Rachel's wedding.
My co-worker Rachel’s wedding.

Just once, go to a Korean wedding. Trust me, once you have seen one, you have seen them all. Weddings in Korea come out of an assembly line with all of the main pieces pretty much exactly the same.

Ceremonies are typically held in “wedding halls” where the staff handles everything. No bridesmaids or best men to mess things up. You are allotted 1 hour (exactly) for the ceremony before you need to get the hell out and make way for the next wedding. The bouquet is thrown to a predetermined recipient, the food is (almost) always a buffet, and you need to make sure to give money in a white envelope before getting those meal tickets (heaven forbid you get creative with a wedding gift!)

While it is rather mechanical, there is something endearing about knowing that a wedding will not drag on forever. Weddings of good friends are great, but I am at the age where everyone I know is getting married so unless I am great friends with the couple, the faster the better. In addition, the bowing to the parents and use of “hanboks” is something quite beautiful. If you have a chance, go to see the private room ceremony (either before or after the main ceremony) where they dress like royalty and pay their respects to all family members.

Expert Mode:

Attend a Traditional Korean Wedding

My friend Christine in full headdress.
My friend Christine in full headdress.

I mentioned that all weddings are the same right? That isn’t exactly true. Out of the 14 weddings I have attended here, 1 definitely stood above them all, my friend Christine and her husband James’ wedding in Daejeon. The couple were dressed like Joseon Dynasty royalty, complete with a huge headdress and outfits. They were also carried in on a throne with a Korean drum band playing in the background. I was hooked long before they started throwing live chickens to the crowd.

Unfortunately, this is a type of wedding that is fading away in modern Korean culture. If you are lucky enough to be invited to one of these, don’t miss it for the world!

 

8) Visit a Hyper-mall

Myeongdong Shopping Area
Myeongdong Shopping Area

I don’t really know where I heard the term “hyper-shopping,” but it perfectly describes places like Myeongdong and Gangnam. Hundreds of shops trying to sell you stuff in a consumers heaven. If you are into cosmetics, good food, or simply the glittery lights (like me), stop by Myeongdong on line 4 (exit 6), or Gangnam on line 2 (exit 11) and don’t forget to get some free samples of everything!

Expert Mode:

Visit a Hyper-market

Yes, those are a million shoes. Settle down ladies!
Yes, those are a million shoes. Settle down ladies!

Fine, I made up this term myself, but I think it definitely fits. For a more traditional feel, nothing beats Namdaemun and Dongdaemun markets. Thousands of people pushing and looking for clothes or knick knacks to buy. If you want to try somewhere less foreigners frequent, try Kwangjang Market or the Noryangjin Fish Market. Kwangjang mostly sells textiles and hanboks, but it is also known for its kimchi mandu (dumplings) while Noryangjin is self-explanatory.

 

7) Work in a Hagwon

Max!
Max and the rest of my first class in Korea.

While this is something thousands of expats do in Korea every day, I think it makes you appreciate how much Korea values education. Students as young as 3 years old attend English schools in an attempt to get a leg up on their peers. It is no wonder why exchange students that go from Korea to America dominate in academics.

Expert Mode:

Attend a Hagwon

Photo Credit: Daryl Durand
Photo Credit: Daryl Durand

From a teachers point of view, it is very easy to hand out homework and expect it to be completed. What else do these kids have to do? If you teach adults, it is even easier to say “you aren’t kids anymore!” Attending a piano hagwon has put things into perspective. While my teacher was very patient, and I did learn the basics of how to play, I could tell she was disappointed when I didn’t practice. I really had no excuse after I bought a digital piano and could’ve potentially practice anytime I wasn’t working. I think this probably kept me in check from blowing my top whenever I handed out homework and a kid chose to play instead completing my assignment.

 

6) Ride the Seoul Subway

Photo Credit: Korea 4 Expats
Photo Credit: Korea 4 Expats

This one is kind of a no brainer and if you spend anytime in Seoul at all, you will probably find yourself using the subway at some point. Having experienced the subways in NYC, Mexico City, Naples,Hong Kong, Rome, Taipei, Shanghai, Osaka, and Tokyo, I can honestly say Seoul’s is the best (although the ones in Tokyo and Mexico City are close). It is just efficient, pretty clean, cheap, and goes everywhere.

Expert Mode:

Ride Line 2 during Rush-Hour

Photo Credit: LWY
Photo Credit: LWY

Really want to experience Seoulites up-close and personal? Get jammed up against them on the green line when everyone is trying to go home from work! If you survive 20 straight minutes of that, you really deserve a medal.

 

5) Visit a Temple

A typical temple, located next to the World Heritage Site of Jongmyo Shrine.
A typical temple, located next to the World Heritage Site of Jongmyo Shrine.

While it doesn’t rank high in the Korea “to do list,” Buddhist temples in Korea definitely have their own charms. Two of them are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites and are definitely worth a look. Haeinsa is my personal favorite so far, but I intend to visit many more before all is said and done.

Expert Mode:

Stay a Night at a Temple (Templestay)

The monks at Haeinsa start the ritualistic climb up to Gayasan mountain.
The monks at Haeinsa start the ritualistic climb up to Gayasan mountain.

Staying at a Buddhist temple in South Korea has been one of my favorite experiences over the last four years. You are given the opportunity to live like a monk would for 24 hours. While the experience differs from temple to temple, all of them start their day at 3 am. No that was not a typo. Three in the morning, the drums go off and by 6, you already had your vegetarian breakfast.

I stayed in Haeinsa Temple, of the three Crown Jewels of Korean Buddhism. Fortunately, we spent a good amount of time with a monk who has been a resident for 7 years. Surprisingly, he was hilarious. He made fun of himself for not being enlightened, despite being there for so long. He explained that the real reason for the vow of silence was that the newbies talk too much their first year. Finally, he shared that he too, like everyone, sometimes forgets important dates. The day we visited was a special ceremonial day which had completely slipped his mind. Sometimes we put people on an unrealistic pedestal and forget that much like us, they too are human.

 

4) Learn a few Korean Phrases

Note Reads: To the lady in the red jumper: We caught you stealing toilet paper from here on CCTV. If you come to the front office, we will give you 10 rolls!
Note Reads: To the lady in the red jumper: We caught you stealing toilet paper from here on CCTV.  Don’t do it again. Note 2: If you come to the front office, we will give you 10 rolls!

Learning a few words and phrases in any language is useful. One cannot expect the population to be fluent in our language if we are the ones visiting. Korea, however, caters to foreigners more than any other country I have ever been to. Free side dishes, discounts, and constant praise for “your Korean is so good” are just some of the benefits that come from learning minimal Korean. The real reasons to learn though, are that the locals will appreciate your efforts, and it will make your life a whole lot easier.

Expert Mode:

Learn to Read Korean

Credit: Joop.in
Credit: Joop.in

If you are a long term resident, there is little excuse for not learning how to read Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. Instead of guilt-tripping you, I’d like you to think about the benefits. For starters, many AMAZING Korean food joints have their menus strictly in Korean. There simply isn’t a market for the owner to learn English and translate for the few foreigners that walk in and can’t read. Second, more and more places use English words written in Korean script. Things like “치킨 / (phonetically read: ‘chicken’)” and “아이스크림 / (phonetically read: ‘ice cream’)” are simply English words that have penetrated the language in the last 50 years. Learn to read the extremely simple alphabet, and a whole new world opens up.

 

3) Eat Kimchi

Photo Credit: Nagyman
Photo Credit: Nagyman

Kimchi is the source of life for the average Korean. Reports of Koreans traveling with a tub of kimchi or crying their eyes out for going without kimchi for too long is not out of the norm. Want to know what the fuss is all about? Try some kimchi and find out!

Expert Mode:

Make Kimchi


One way to appreciate kimchi a little more (if the taste didn’t fancy you) is to go through the crazy labor that it takes to make it yourself. Kimchi making days are scheduled by families and festivals all across Korea sometime after the fall harvest when you make kilo after kilo of kimchi to last you the whole year. Despite looking simple, kimchi is rather difficult to make and can take hours of preparation. Unfortunately, this is the only item on the list which I have yet to experience myself. As a bonus, you might want to check out these videos on how to make other Korean meals.

 

2) Visit a City Outside of Seoul

Tile art in Suwon shows the city and its famous wall 200 years ago.
Tile art in Suwon shows the city and its famous wall 200 years ago.

Despite what people outside of Seoul might think, it is actually the end all be all. However, that doesn’t mean that other cities have nothing to offer. My first year in Daejeon was very different from my subsequent ones in Seoul. For starters, the people in smaller cities are less accustomed to foreigners, so you get stared at a lot more. On some occasions, Koreans asked if they could take a picture with me, or had me give them my autograph. For your 15 minutes of fame, visit cities like Suwon, Daejeon, Daegu, Mokpo, or even Busan.

Expert Mode:

Visit a Small Town or Island

The only ones that I am sure were dinosaur tracks.
The only ones that I am sure were dinosaur tracks.

While the idea of a small town is something of a misnomer in Korea, they do exist… kind of. Places like Chuncheon, Andong, Gochang and Buyeo are smaller towns that offer a way different experience than in the main cities. For an even more rural feel, try the island of Sado where it is you, a couple of houses, and 100 million year old dinosaur footprints. If you didn’t follow #4 on the list, prepare to go hungry.

 

1) Make Korean Friends

Korean Friends

While this goes without saying, it would be very rewarding to make some Korean friends. When I first came to this country, I didn’t really know anyone here, nor anyone who had ever done a teaching abroad program. On my search to avoid loneliness abroad, I came across a language learning site called Interpals. It is a good way to meet friends who are also interested in a language or cultural exchange. Conversely, you can also avoid the whole online thing and just make friends with coworkers, tour guides, shop keepers etc. It is surprising how easily Koreans share their phone numbers and how eager they are to make foreign friends.

Expert Mode:

Date a Korean

Doesn't she look so badass?
Doesn’t she look so badass?

There is no better way to learn than to date a member of another culture, period. I have always found different cultures fascinating and it still blows my mind when I learn something new from my significant other. For example, did you know that when older Koreans fight, they will ask each others age to know how to address each other in the heat of battle? Proof might be required in a “show me your ID card” demand. I cannot make this stuff up.

 

Anyone else have some unusual experiences they wish more foreigners indulged in? Please let me know on the comments below.

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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