Saturday, June 28, 2014

5 Misconceptions About Life in Korea

This blog entry was originally published on the Aclipse Blog, which is produced by current Chungdahm Learning teachers in Korea! The blog features entries on current events around Korea, advice for incoming teachers, and the best spots sightseeing, shopping, and eating. The original entry can be viewed here

So, you're thinking of moving to Korea to teach English. Maybe you already know a lot about the country, maybe you don't. But you hear it's a good place to live and work, and you're absolutely right. However, in your internet research and conversations with family and friends, you've probably come across a lot of sweeping statements about the country and its people that have given you pause. While I'm no expert, let me attempt to mythbust some of the more common misconceptions about living and working in Korea.

1. "You're moving to South Korea? Isn't that kind of... rural?"

This level of ignorance, unfortunately, is really common. There's a surprising lack of information about Korea being taught in schools. Beyond briefly covering the Korean War in history classes, it wasn't until I was looking into moving here that I learned much of anything about the country.

As a result, people will automatically liken your experience to the first thing they can associate with the place, which for South Korea, is frequently the TV show "M*A*S*H." As an Oklahoman, I can relate deeply to the frustration of this comparison, as most people think of my state in terms of The Grapes of Wrath or "Twister."

As you can see from the photo above, Korea has very, very developed cities. Obviously, some areas
are still rural, as with any other country, but it's absurd for people to think of Korea as a country full of huts with thatched rooftops. 

2. "Aren't you worried that North Korea is going to attack?!"

I'm sure you've heard this question approximately a billion times. When I first moved here, I definitely wasn't worried, but I still found myself a little jumpy when my city would run its standard siren tests and the like. After a couple bewildered afternoons of hearing warning sirens and not knowing what was going on, I started asking my Korean friends and coworkers about their feelings on the situation. In short, they aren't worried. It was explained to me that there's basically no chance North Korea would actually try something shady simply because it would mean the end of North Korea, which is the last thing the North Korean government actually wants.

I was actually back in the States last year during North Korea's huffing and puffing and it was very interesting (and alarming) to see how Western media was blowing it all out of proportion. South Korea, on the other hand, shrugged it off. Definitely gives some insight into the true nature of the situation.

My advice for handling this question? Refer your concerned family and friends to this gif.

3. "You're kind of tall -- you're going to stick out / won't be able to find clothes that fit you!"

While I'm only a whopping 5'7" (or roughly 170cm), I had a lot of people give me the impression that I, as a woman, would positively be towering over the Korean population The Asian stereotype is that they, genetically, are all petite -- short, small-framed, thin. This isn't untrue, it just isn't the standard by which you should be comparing yourself or people from this part of the world. 

Statistically, I am above the average height of Korean women, but from what I've seen in my own students, that's definitely starting to change. I have numerous middle school students, both boys and girls, who are my height or taller. 

As far as clothing shopping goes, there are tons of Western stores that carry Western sizes, so I haven't had any issues with finding pants in my size or dresses that aren't way too short. The same goes for guys and anyone else who isn't petite -- no one I know has had a hard time finding clothing.

4. "Good luck learning the language, I've heard it's really hard."

This one is really only half misconception, but I'm listing it because I feel like Korean is built up to be exceptionally difficult, which then scares people away. Korean uses sounds and grammar that will be harder for native English speakers, but don't let that scare you off. In addition, the use of non-Latin script is extremely daunting. So, let me reassure you -- hangul absurdly easy to learn and so, so logical. (Trust me, I have a minor in Japanese -- that is a complicated set of alphabets. Korean is a cakewalk in comparison.)

The first step to functional Korean is to learning the alphabet. This will make your life infinitely easier as you will then be able to read and it is definitely the foundation you'll need for tackling the rest of the language.

5. "You definitely won't be able to find ____ over there, so stock up before you go!"

Be wary of reading this on blogs, especially if the information is even a year old. So much has changed since I came here in 2011. Items that I used to track down in foreign marts in Seoul can now be found in stores like HomePlus, which seems to be constantly expanding its assortment of Tesco products. Even smaller grocers and convenience stores have started selling Dr Pepper and Reese's candy bars -- two things that used to be extremely difficult to find. Deodorant is now widely available not only in the big grocery stores but also in little cosmetic boutiques. Websites like Gmarket and iHerb offer basically everything you would need to supplement what you can find locally.

Essentially, there is very little I have to do without at this point, making the move to Korea an even easier transition than before. 


Moral of the story: Do your research well and beware of outdated information. 

Anything to add to the list? Leave a comment below! 


  1. Thanks for clearing up those misconceptions. I feel like Korean is much easier to learn than Japanese. I live in Japan and despite there being many foreigners in Okinawa, I can't find many cute and fashionable clothes that fit.

    1. Korean is definitely easier to learn than Japanese. And you'll be in fashion heaven here!