Hitting Culture Shock: 9 Tips for First Time Expats in Korea

Last Updated on June 10, 2020 by Christine Kaaloa

teaching in Korea, my apartment in Korea, my korean apartment, life in Korea

Life in Korea: My Korean bathroom (sink/toilet/shower compressed in the same room) is smaller than my NYC apt bathroom

 

I just arrived into my new Daegu home after a weeklong EPIK Teacher’s Orientation. Then culture shock hit me. Here are Tips for First Time Expats in Korea

How do you take a bath in Korea? Let me tell you how I just did it in my new Korean apartment.  I washed over my sink and shaved my legs by propping them up on my toilet lid.  Yes, a toilet lid can have more uses than just one when you’re in an efficient country like Korea.

You haven’t heard peep from me since I’ve arrived in Korea. I’ve been in an intense transition and it just hit rocky. The “rocky” is something I’m still working through. I’ll fast-forward over my escape from the draft of flu, my partial hearing loss due to airplane travel with a cold and my suspended bowel movement, which had me alarmed for several days. I will blow past my honeymoon phase with Korea- my wonderful EPIK orientation, experiencing Korea for the first time and the “ I love being here!

I’m gonna start my Korean blogging with my first “real” GRRRL whimper… the moment when “yours truly” turned girlie whiny and wanted to book the first flight home! Yup, you heard me. Within an hour of arriving in my Daegu apartment, I wanted to go back home.

my dirty korean bed, my apartment in Korea, my korean apartment, life in Korea

They say first impressions count in Korea

… like dressing well, welcoming a new colleague/newcomer and maybe even taking them to dinner after a 3-4 hr long bus ride (and at that point, even a McDonalds will do…). I got Nada.

Instead, my Korean co-teacher picked me up and drove me to my apartment, and then proceeded to dump on me– that she did not like her job, our school/my apartment is located in one of “poorer”, more “remote” areas of Daegu and that the job of her being my Korean co-teacher was “compulsory “. She did not want the job of host, but she had no choice but comply the order of the principal.

Wow.

According to my EPIK program (working in the public school system) Korean co-teacher is a Korean native teacher. They are teachers who work in our school and their support is said to be invaluable to our move, lifestyle and stay in Korea. They are said to help us set up our new lifestyle like banking, utilities, mobile phones, medical, etc…

But upon my meeting my Korean co-teacher, she wasn’t smiling but letting me know that she was burdened by  me and the responsibility.

Korean apartment building, Korean houses

Culture shock.

We arrived at a 3-story nondescript and unthrilled-looking apartment tucked into a dark ass-crevice of a street alley.

I met my predecessor Suzi, a young Canadian girl with rosy cheeks, a cartilage piercing and whose backpack was roaring for Thailand.

She quickly ran through the operations of the apartment and left me with a tiny 5×8″ notebook paper scribbled with:

•   A passcode numbers for the apartment doors (my apt bldg is all electronic and has no keys)
•   The address of my school so that I could have my mail forwarded there (the apartment is a hit or miss with the mailman and taxis),
•   A tiny hand-drawn map to the subway
•   The name of the subway stop for E-mart (the Korean K-mart).

No sooner  as Canadian Suzi whizzed through the instructions of my apt, she and my co-teacher were off to the airport.  Bye. No dinner. No help finding a grocery store.

My co-teacher left me her phone number (despite the fact, I don’t have a phone) and said she’d pick me up to take me to my first day of school… three days later. That was it.

It was a three day holiday before school started. Armed with Suzi’s  note of instructions, I knew nothing about my area, my job, my school… I knew nobody. I was alone and feeling like an abandoned baby.

Life in Korea

45 minutes after arriving in my Daegu apartment…

I was dazed, confused and housed in the seemingly “shadier side of town”. Alone in my new one bedroom apartment, my starving vegetarian stomach was giving off an audible growl of “lost and lonely”.

Unpacking, I noticed little “welcome gifts” left from Suzi… crumbs, old  refrigerator food and a thick coat of dust around, under and behind my bed. The bed padding and linens were a lovely shade of “used”, spotted and had grown some blond strands of Suzi-hair in the process.

The bed was rickety and the “mattress” was a bunch of springs with a thin layer of dirty-looking padding.

My chest started to constrict and I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry or to clench my chest and say “Ouch”.  I didn’t know if having a cigarette would make me go into cardiac arrest or chillax me.

A two-word mantra played in my head: Quit tomorrow!

Life can sometimes feel like it’s all about first impressions and presentation. I might have been blindly happy, had my co-teacher just lied to me about my location. But there were no lies. No fake smiles. Just the raw truth of what she saw and how she felt about things.  I was an unwelcome guest in Korea and in my co-teacher’s life,  according to her I lived in the “bad” part of town and I’d have to find my way around and get my household supplies on my own.

 

As an Asian-American, I think and speak fluent …”Asian”.

Thus, I’m just as unforgiving as any Asian can be. The “first impression” of my new host was colored the shade of bleak.

I may be Asian-American. I may not speak fluent Korean or Japanese, but this doesn’t mean I slack on my expectations for other Asians, when it comes to expecting a proper Asian welcome. In fact, I’m more critical of my own kind, as we’re raised with a strict traditional discipline.

Respect your elders. Don’t shame your family. Be humble. Strive for perfection. And always be a hospitable host…!

These are just some of the ‘given’s that work across-the-board of Asian cultures. So there’s simply no excuse for being a bad Asian, when you live in Asia!

Trading hotels for a home abroad: the difference between dating and marriage.

As a traveler, I’ve roughed it before and in invariably worse ways… insect-infested rooms, rooms without ventilation or sleeping bundled up with layers of scarves, mittens and coats to avoid the cold or…bundled up to my eyeballs to avoid mosquito bites.  So why am buckling in this one-bedroom mildly furnished apartment of warmth, which to an average New Yorker may seem like a palace?

Why? Simply put- I am ball-and-chained to my situation for a year! I liken this to my vegetarian dietary habits abroad. For instance, when backpacking through a developing country or meat loving society (and not a vegetable is in sight), I know there’s an eventual end to my starvation rainbow. Though I can’t taste it, I can see it. But when you’re contracted to a country for a year, there’s no way to hold out on eating for that length of time unless you’re a Buddhist monk!  You must either make concessions, which you will not like or changes which are more effort than its worth. Me, being chained to a potentially lame situation spells a bad marriage to have to live with and I won’t do it.

Making new expat friends

I’d love to say I dug my claws in and handled my panic with a steel-cut New Yorker GRRR! But this did not happen.

I was “freaking out”, didn’t think I could make it past a week and called the one number which was foremost fresh in my mind . It was the number of a quite solid, but roguish U.K. lad- Adam- whom I’d been briefly acquainted with through my orientation.

escape ropes in korean hotels, what are escape ropes

Thank God, I had internet in my apartment.

I gave Adam a Skype call.

Hi Adam,… um.. remember me?…

I explained what happened, how I felt. How I didn’t want to be alone and needed a friend.

… And that’s how friends are made!  (Ironically, this introduction scenario to my new Korean location is a very similar story to my N.Y.C move also- but I’ll get into that 911-stranded story only if I need to…)

Adam was kind and understanding and put me up for the night. His situation wasn’t perfect either- his apartment was still unmade, but his school and co-teachers were generous to provide accommodations for him, until they could go shopping with him for furnishings the next day.

Because I didn’t have co-teacher to help me shop, I went along with them.

shopping at emart, emart korea

solumel


9 Tips for First Time Expats

1.  Flexibility

Try not to have expectations about how your life will be in your new country or how things will turn out. Too many expectations of how your life will be perfect when you move to a new place, sets up big shoes to fill and culture shock will tear them down. (This was my killer)

Instead, be open to the good or bad that comes and take it as an opportunity to move your life into “the adventure of living abroad”.

2.  Bring in familiar routines

You’ve uprooted your mundane life to live in a foreign country. “Foreign” is exotic but also unfamiliar and thus, you’ll also be vulnerable to times when your surroundings feel too unfamiliar.

Try to stabilize, find your core. Whether it was working out or doing a mundane activity which grounded you, try recreating some of that. This helps you to own and regulate your new space.

It’s also possible that with your new environment, your tastes might change. You may not feel like doing the old things that used to ground you. So find something new… Join a community Taekwondo class or a language class… something which you can do on a weekly basis and which might also present opportunities to understand the community and make friends.

3. Have realistic expectations

Moving abroad and living in a country which not your country of origin is not meant to be easy. Did you think it would be? If so, then you were kidding yourself. Everything takes work and getting this far is a lifetime dream for most.  There will be culture shock and difficulties with language barriers. You cannot expect to prepare for everything you might experience because there will always be 10x more that you did not prepare for.

Rome was not built in a day. You can’t instantly set up a new life in a new country and expect it to be your Cinderella life. It takes adjustment, time, patience and work.


4.  Be patient

Give yourself and your new situation time and patience. Be realistic about expectations for yourself and others. You are navigating an entirely different culture, which has its own ways of dealing with things.

Was your past life perfect before? If so, then why did you leave it? If it wasn’t perfect, then how can you expect this new life to be, when you are the same person?

Before you pull the plug, give it a second chance; maybe a third and fourth while you’re at it. Suspend your judgement and wait things out.   Wait for a new day. Things may look different.

5.  Explore your area and find beauty in it.

Find ways to fall in love with or find familiarity with your surroundings or neighborhood. It will help you find more happiness in your new home.

Own your location by making small connections through a favorite grocery store, etc… Make acquaintences who’ll give you a smile when you visit. Have a favorite bakery or restaurant.

Check out the resources you do have in your area.

 

6. Learn the language

I took a Korean language class at the Daegu YMCA, to improve my lifestyle and to navigate Korea better.  Things like reading product labels or forms… learning how to understand directions when I was lost. Taking a language class certainly helps you adjust to your environment and you can ask cultural questions there. The language classes in my new city also allowed me to meet expat foreigners like myself.

7.  Get out and make friends

Join activities, expat meetups and clubs… make friends. Join a community class, or something which bridges you to the culture so you can adapt to and enjoy it more.

What other types of groups could you find? Hiking, traveling, language, taekwondo, volunteering (orphanages, dog walking, etc…), flag  football, vegetarian clubs, social groups, etc…  These were some of the things I and other expats found collective interest in.

Research Facebook to find other expats with similar special interests in your community or connect with your program and ask them if they know of any special interest groups that other expats, like yourself, often use as support.

8.  Everything is as it should be.

Explore the lesson you might learn and be proactive about finding ways to make it a positive one.  Why did you choose to live abroad and teach English in the first place?

For me, it’s been a dream to provide education to children who are under-privileged. Either way, living abroad, there’d be change in my life and there would be highs, lows and great challenges that I was once excited to undertake. This was my original goal before I set out to teach or live abroad. Reminding myself of why I made this decision, made me realize why I chose to be in Korea (good or bad). I was fulfilling my original purpose.  My situation was not an accident. I had a purpose.

9.  Join the expat community

Join our expat community… why? It is because bitch sessions are necessary. Keeping your native tongue is necessary too (and eventually you lose your sense of correct grammar the longer you teach).

 Feeling the comfort of familiarity once in a while and feeling a part of a community, is necessary. When you’re feeling panic, lost and lonely in a foreign country you’ve just moved to, building a bridge to familiarity and support is key. I went through my EPIK orientation with approximately 100 other newbie Daegu-placed EFL teachers like myself. New to Korea and the EFL teaching experience, we are like solo travelers, who met as strangers and share a similar journey.

While I’d like to have more than just expat friends, knowing other expats can feel essential  to surviving your new life .

Expats help you gain a better perspective and understanding of your own situation.

Our experiences were all varied and mine stood somewhere in the middle of the road- not the worst and definitely, not the best. Comparing notes of our experiences with our new apartments, co-teachers and school expectations from us, made me feel infinitely better about my challenge and allowed me to put my situation into proper perspective.

expat community in Korea, expats in daegu, expat community

What are your Tips for First Time Expats in Korea?

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36 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi Christine!

    Your blog gives me so much life ?? I’m currently teaching English in Daegu through EPIK and I’ve struggled/been struggling so much. Reading your blog is like reading about my own life to a TEE! You’ve put into words and helped to make sense of so much of the struggle no one talks about when researching teaching in Korea.

    Anyways, I want to shout you out on my blog- sobesaysblog.wordpress.com- and just wanted to give you a heads up! I set it up to tell the truth about teaching in Korea and I think so many people would benefit from your page- I know I have! You da best!!!! Thanks for sharing about your experiences and I hope all is well!!!

    -Sabrina

  • […] GRRRL Goes Whimpery in Her New Korean Location […]

  • I am with GEPIK i think. I am being sent to either Icheon or Uijeongbu. Thank you so much for your advice, my mind is a little more at ease now 🙂

    • @Aisling: GEPIK tends towards more rural placement but it’s got long vacation perks to balance it, I believe. During orientation, connect with AS MANY PEOPLE as you can in your surrounding area and outside. You’ll want to travel, especially when you hit rough spots and need a break; it’ll be nice to have friends all around. When in doubt, go to Seoul. It’s a whole new world & it’s the most western. Good luck! It took me a while to fall in love with Korea (but for a good majority, people fall in love w/ the newness instantaneously); most of the year, I didn’t know how I felt but just rode it out. Now, I find it a special place.

  • Hi,
    Firstly i love your site and has helped me so much. I was planning on moving to south korea for a year with a few friends to teach english. I was so excited to go but now have just found out that i am being placed on the opposite side of the country to my friends and it is impossible to relocate. I’m kinda freaking out about moving to the other side of the world on my own but i think i will regret it if i pass up this opportunity. Is it easy to meet people there? a year is a long time 2 be in a place you dont know anyone.
    Thanks from Ireland 🙂

    • @Aisling: Hmmm… I guess it depends. Where are you located and what program are you with?? If you’re in a rural area, it’ll be harder to make expat friends, however, good news is you’ll probably make local Korean ones and learn the language quicker! I know a girl who loves her rural environment, although this isn’t for everyone. A big city, will have more expats and if you’re coming in w/ a gov program, you’ll likely be placed together by location and can make friends at your orientation. Also, a year does go by quicker than you know it. Keep in mind, no matter where you are, you’ll hit rough spots and expat go thru the erratic periods of culture shock/depression but if you give Korea a chance, you’ll be surprised how nice this lifestyle is. A lot of expats end up renewing.

  • I have to say thanks for this post. I’ve been in Korea almost three weeks, the majority of that time holed up in my apartment being sick. I have developed this sort of doorstep fear of venturing outside my building for anything other than work. But once I’m outside heading somewhere I need to go, I want to go elsewhere. Transition periods like this always throw me for a loop for a while.

    • @Jacki: Think it’s perfectly natural to feel that way when you first get to Korea. As for sick- OMG- the first 6-8 months of being there every expat that I knew (we EPIKers were connected thru a FB group) were continually getting sick and relapsing. For a while I thought I’d start a series of all the sick masks I was collecting. My co-teacher would say, “I guess you haven’t gotten used to Korea’s germs yet”. It’s a bug many of us expats have difficulty acclimating to, apparently. Also, keep in mind there’s yellow dust warnings. That’s also a cause of colds.

  • Ironically, this sounds almost identical to my own first day/night in Korea. I arrived late at night and was dropped off at love motel, told I would be picked up in the morning to drive to Jindo, the island where I was to live. When I got to Jindo, my co-teacher dropped me off at 9pm at night to a bare apartment with a gross mattress, very, very used-looking sheets, and a layer of dust and grime all over everything. She didn’t tell me how to use anything, or even where the grocery store was. Like you, my first night was an exercise in resisting the urge to head back to the airport.

    I’m glad to see that you made it.

  • Thank you for sharing your life in Korea.

  • It is really a great and useful piece of info. I am glad that you shared this useful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  • I enjoy your blog ! Sorry things haven’t worked out– a good welcome is important when moving to a new country. It sets your first impression. Hope things get better.

    • @Barbara: Wow, don’t know how I missed replying to your comment sooner. Thanks for your support! You are so right– a good welcome does set your first impression about a place. Fingers still crossed. 😉

  • Super site! I am loving it your posts. Hang in there. Taking you feeds also, Thanks.

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