I lived in Korea for a little over two years. I moved back over the holidays, but I wrote this article when I was still living there, and it still applies.
Here are my top five reasons why I loved living in Korea.
I didn’t grow up in a bad area, all things considered. The only danger I ever really faced was coyotes in the tree line behind my friend’s house. But I was chicken little as a kid, so I never went out walking after dark, even in my safe suburban neighborhood. I didn’t even like walking around in the daytime. And try to get me to stay out after nine, even with a car? Fat chance.
At the risk of scaring my mother out of her wits, I will reveal that I *gasp* often walk home after dark here in Korea. Sometimes quite far. And I’ve never felt unsafe. I’ve never had anyone talk to me or grab me or anything. I see other people walking all the time. Kids, women, dogs, cats… They all walk around until late in the evening (I’ve never been out past 11, so that’s my version of late). Of course there is crime. No country is crime free. And I don’t walk in unlit areas, so I’m still smart about it. But the point is that crime is far less prevalent here. It’s a statistical fact. (Facts people.)
Petty theft is also rare. People leave shoes outside their apartments, leave bikes unattended, leave products outside stores after hours…and they don’t get stolen, for the most part. I’m sure it happens occasionally, but nowhere near as often as back home. I don’t have to hide my cash when I withdraw from an ATM. It’s just safer. (But hey, be smart guys. Still be safe. Never let your guard down. And realize that some areas of Korea are safer than others.)
Cost of Living
On the scale from Numbeo, the major cases where Korea is MORE expensive than the US are in these categories: dairy, produce, coffee, imported clothing, and housing. Those come as no surprise to anyone who’s lived here a few months. I’ve taken to eating less dairy as a whole simply due to expense. And outlet stores are a joke.
The majority of the rest of life is a little cheaper, including important things like meals and transportation. I’m able to save a lot of money here owing to the fact that I don’t have a car and my apartment is so tiny I don’t spend much on utilities. The car thing is huge. Back home a lot of my money went to gas or upkeep every month, so not having that to deal with is a boon.
Even on a relatively small teacher’s salary, I live very comfortably with enough left after saving to travel and buy pretty much whatever I want.
Having no car, aside from saving a lot of money, also means I get to walk everywhere. This might not be a benefit to some people, but I love it. I like the urban feel, the free exercise, the chance to slow down and avoid road rage…and Korea is well adapted to walking. I don’t know what the ratio is between walkers and drivers, but it seems like at least half the population uses shank’s ponies to get around.
I say well adapted; my friend has at least three times lamented “unregulated sidewalks!” when we’ve had to goosestep around people, but at least there are sidewalks everywhere. In my hometown, that’s not the case.
Buses and the subway are superb as well. Again, being from the suburbs, public transport wasn’t something I was familiar with before coming to Asia. I had the impression buses were stanky pits and you had to clutch all your belongings tight. And the subway was some mysterious force in New York that only the very brave ever, well, braved.
But the Korean metro is notable for its ease of use and convenience. With every sign in English and a comprehensive set of lines, you can get anywhere in Seoul with no trouble. If you don’t count elbows in your ribs during rush hour. No white gloves though. Looking at you, Japan.
One of the big draws of Korea for me was the food. I love spicy, flavorful food, growing up on Indian and Mexican, so discovering Korean was an utter delight. It’s becoming more popular in the US, so you might have tried Korean BBQ, with pork belly or beef grilled and dipped in rich sauces. You may have slurped Korean style ramyun or naengmyeon, the strange and refreshing ice noodles. You may have even tried Ddeokbbeoki, the famous street snack of rolled rice cake covered in spicy red sauce. (I may be a little hungry.) Not only that, but western food here is also good. I don’t know what the reason is, whether it’s better quality food itself or better preparation, but even in the fast food chains that have reached Korea (Burger King, McDs, KFC), the food is better. No dry, uninspired burgers here. No limp noodle fries here.
I’m very interested in natural medicine and herbalism. I went to the chiropractor weekly at home, but outside of that, it was hard to find places where people accepted the legitimacy of alternative medicine. In America, I feel like it’s still seen as quaint and peculiar, not a fully acceptable solution. But in Asia it’s equally as cool to see an acupuncturist as a doctor, and no one is going to assume you have crystals and tarot cards at home to go along with it. Suction cups are another method of healing here, one that I have yet to try (it’s just way too scary). More and more people are getting into it, which is helping the exposure (Michael Phelps coming to workouts with giant bruises probably did a lot). But in general, the first step when you’re feeling sick is often diet related or a simple remedy than an immediate trip to the doctor for pills.
On a related note, when you do need to see a doctor, it’s super cheap. I’m not sure how the insurance system works or whether there are hidden costs for some people, but with my health insurance provided by my school, I could see a doctor and get medicine for under $10. Even when I got more intensive tests done, it was a fraction of what it would have cost back home. It made getting sick a little less scary and stressful, to be honest.
Now that I’ve lived at home for half a year, these are the things I miss most about Korea. I miss walking everywhere, I miss taking the subway to the mall and spending the day there, shopping and sitting in various cafes, I miss the abundance of Korean food, the succulence of Korean fruit, the cheap medical care, the safety…there’s a lot I don’t miss as well, but it’s nice that I have those good memories. I may never go back to Korea, but it was an amazing journey there.