It wasn’t so long ago that I was in the position that you are currently in -- reading many articles and blog posts, trying to figure out and solidify if South Korea is the right place for me to spend my semester abroad. It’s safe to say that I’m very happy with the decision I made to come to Korea. After being here for almost two months and closing in on midterms, I’m here to give some advice on things you should be aware of before you come to Korea.
1. Do some background research on the culture before you arrive.
This might seem like an obvious one, but it’s still something worth mentioning. South Korea is able to beautifully maintain a balance between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. It’s a highly technologically advanced society that also holds on to rich Confucian values. In order to avoid any embarrassing mishaps, it helps to just do a quick Google search on the cultural norms of the country. For example, Korea has a no tipping culture, so no need to calculate how much you need to tip after eating out at a restaurant. When taking the subway, make sure you don’t sit in the seats marked for the elderly or for pregnant women. Don’t be surprised if you get pushed around a little with no apology on public transportation or in a crowded street. It’s just the way things are in the busy city like Seoul.
2. Learn 한글 (Hangul, the Korean writing system)
A lot of people might say that you can just get by on only speaking English in Seoul. I can’t say for sure whether or not that’s completely true, but what I do know is that knowing how to read will help you loads in many situations, from reading a menu to navigating around Seoul. 한글 is incredibly easy to learn -- some say it can take as little as one-two hours -- and you’ll find that a lot of words are simply Konglish (Korean + English). Learning 한글 will help you be able to memorize some basic vocabulary and phrases that you can use to help you while exploring the city.
3. Download these essential apps.
As aforementioned, Korea is a technologically proficient society. There’s apps for everything, really. CIEE will let you in on a few when you arrive, but I find that it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with them before you arrive.
- KakaoTalk: the most used chatting app in Korea. You cannot go without it (partly because CIEE will make you download it, but even if they didn’t, virtually everyone in Korea used KakaoTalk to communicate with each other). It’s definitely the #1 must have.
- Naver and Papago: Naver is a Korean search engine and Papago is the translation app owned by Naver. Both will help you with translating Korean to English or vice versa. Papago is also much better and more accurate than Google Translate, and it’s become my go-to whenever I need to translate something.
- KakaoMap: The name pretty much speaks for itself. You can use this to navigate, figure out which bus to take, while subway line to ride, where to transfer, etc. Also a must have.
- Kakao T: Also known as Kakao Taxi, this app helps you book a taxi if you’re out late at night and can’t ride the bus or train, or just need to get somewhere quickly.
- 미세미세: This app will let you know how bad the air quality will be on any particular day and will let you know if you need to bring a dust mask with you or not, or if it’s better to remain indoors on a certain day or not.
4. Buy a dust mask and a portable fan
Korea, especially in the springtime, suffers from something called fine dust, which can be very dangerous for your respiratory system. As such, it’s best you either order yourself (or buy one when you come to Korea) a dust mask to help protect you. It also can get very hot (and humid) in Korea during late spring/summer/early fall. A portable fan will be your best friend, and you can find them at Daiso in Korea at a very cheap price.
And there you have it. While I could go on, these four things are the main things I definitely think are extra helpful to do/keep in mind as you prepare for your trip to South Korea. Until next time!