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Interview with Joel – an English expat living in South Korea

Updated 6 Oct 2021

Joel is an Englishman who’s been living, learning, and loving everything about South Korea since 2015. He’s developed a love for hiking in the mountains, trying lots of different and unique dishes, exploring cities, temples and getting out as much as possible. He teaches English at a university in South Korea right now, and before that he was teaching elementary and middle school students. He feels that it's a fun job and a great way to start an expat life in South Korea.

For more from Joel, check out his blog, In My Korea, and specifically his article on Expat Life in Korea. You can also connect with him on Facebook and Instagram

About JoelJoel Marrinan

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I’m originally from Salisbury, which is a small city in the south of England.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I’m now in Daejeon, South Korea.

Q: When did you move here?
A: I’ve lived in Daejeon since 2015 and love the place.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No, I’ve lived abroad for a long time now. My first expat experience was a year in Australia when I was 27. Later, I moved to Japan and lived there for 3 years. I then spent a year in Hong Kong before moving to Korea.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved to Korea alone.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved from Hong Kong to Korea to experience a different (less busy) life and to explore and learn more about a country I admittedly didn’t know much about. I was teaching English in Hong Kong and moved to Korea to do the same. I worked my way up from teaching elementary school children, and now I’m teaching young adults at university.

Living in South Korea

Q: What do you enjoy most about South Korea? How would you rate the quality of life compared to home?
A: I enjoy the wide range of dining options and the different ways of eating out. Back in the UK, dishes are mainly for yourself, but in Korea many meals are designed to be shared. This makes it a much more social experience and you get to try lots of different tastes in one meal. It’s also a lot cheaper to eat out, so I tend to do it more often. The quality of life is about the same, but due to the low cost of living in Korea, I can afford to indulge a bit more, such as when eating out. Korea is much safer than the UK, I never feel worried about being out alone at night or being robbed or threatened. That really makes life a lot better.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: Korea is a very homogenous country, so the most common problems come from not fitting in with the locals or being seen as a foreigner and being excluded from some places. The language is very different from English, so adapting to that has been difficult and made some simple things a lot more difficult than they should be. I miss being able to organise a lot of things by myself and I feel like a child sometimes when I can’t explain myself clearly. I also miss my family and the comforts of home.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The biggest adjustments I had to make when I moved to Korea, which was something I’d started doing in Japan and Hong Kong, was using technology to help me more in my daily life. Food delivery has been big in Korea long before everyone was forced to stay home. Buying items online and getting them delivered to your house is also easier than trying to find them in a shop. Using apps to get around, calling a taxi and saying where I need to go without speaking to the taxi driver, booking tickets and checking transport times. These were all things I had to use technology for before I learnt enough Korean to get by. I’d gotten over most of the culture shock I was likely to experience in East Asia after living in Japan, but I will say that life in Korea is a lot faster, and the sight of everyone rushing around and working so late was still a shock to me.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in South Korea?
A: The cost of living is mostly cheaper than in England, except for fresh fruit, vegetables and beer. Food seems to cost a lot more in supermarkets, but ironically it’s cheaper to eat out in Korea. Life in Korea has started to get a lot more expensive in the last couple of years though. Housing and energy costs have jumped a lot. Fortunately, Korea is a very advanced nation tech-wise, so I pay next to nothing for super-fast phone and internet connections.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in South Korea?
A: Transport is very cheap in Korea, with a one-way ride through Seoul costing just over $1 per journey. The flat rate for transportation makes travelling through cities so easy, and the relatively low cost to travel between cities is great. I can take a high speed train from Daejeon to Seoul for less than $25 and it only takes an hour. Buses, trains and subways are well run and I’ve rarely had problems with transportation being late. Taxis are also well priced and a reasonable alternative when you’re in a rush.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in South Korea?
A: I’ve not had to use the healthcare system too much, fortunately. Whenever I have used it, the process has been cheap and convenient. During the coronavirus pandemic, all costs were covered by the government and tests and vaccines were free. I pay government health insurance each month, which covers most costs for check-ups and basic illnesses. Any time I’ve had to get medicine in Korea, it’s cost less than a few dollars. The biggest operation I’ve had was laser eye surgery so I don’t have to wear glasses. It cost a quarter of what it would cost in the UK, the machines were very modern, the clinic was very clean and well-run, and the whole experience was relatively painless. I’m definitely happy with the healthcare system in Korea.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in South Korea? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Korea is a really safe country, both in terms of personal safety and for your belongings. I can leave my phone or my bag at a table in a café and go to the toilet and know that they’ll be there when I get back. People don’t really steal here; not from each other at least. And mugging or robberies aren’t common here at all. I’ve never felt threatened when heading out at night alone, even around a large group of drunken men after a busy night partying. It’s very different from England. The biggest safety issues come from driving. Korea has a high level of car accidents and the most dangerous part of living in Korea, in my opinion, is when you try to cross the road. Cars often run red lights. The worst are the scooter delivery drivers, though. They drive on pavements and anywhere they like, usually without braking. I don’t think there are really dangerous areas to avoid, even in Seoul, but perhaps clubs and entertainment areas are best avoided if people are concerned about safety at night.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in South Korea? What different options are available for expats?
A: Housing is fine in Korea, but different from England and similar countries. Most people live in tall apartment complexes and cities are very densely populated. Apartments are getting smaller and smaller and more expensive, so personal space is a real premium. Most people in Korean cities live in apartment buildings or villas, which are 3- to 4-storey buildings made up of apartments. Trying to buy a house is not easy as an expat in Korea. You need to provide a large deposit (over $100,000 for a small apartment these days) to get a mortgage, so expats can have a tough time buying their own house in Korea.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: In Seoul, Itaewon is known as the foreigner district, so there are a lot of expats there. Another good area for expats is around Hongdae and Mapo in western Seoul.

Q: Are there any activities, attractions or events that you would recommend for expats moving to South Korea? 
A: If you enjoy being outdoors, then try hiking. It’s a very popular pastime in Korea and, as the country is 70% mountainous, there’s no shortage of places to go hiking. Cycling is also popular and there are a lot of good cycle routes between cities and throughout the country. Korea has a lot of festivals, and if you want to learn more about Korea, joining these is a great way to find out about the history, culture, and food of the country. Popular festivals occur in spring (cherry blossoms) and autumn (fall foliage).

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in South Korea?
A: I haven’t experienced a great deal of discrimination in Korea, but as a white male, I feel like I’m less likely to than other groups. I’ve heard of serious issues of discrimination, but have been fortunate not to deal with it myself. Korea is a homogenous country, so if you don’t look Korean, you’re going to stand out, especially outside of the big cities. Seoul, Busan, and other large cities do have a relatively large number of expats, so I believe these areas are a bit more tolerant than more rural areas. That being said, there are also a lot of people who are still curious about foreigners and very eager to speak English and learn about other cultures. I’d say that the general attitude towards foreigners is more positive than negative, but don’t expect to be treated in the same way as a local.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Meeting people and making friends was a lot easier in Korea than in Hong Kong and Japan, but that’s probably down to my situation. I work in a large city in Korea, but was in the countryside in Japan. There are a lot of international students and teachers in Korea, so universities are a great place to meet other foreigners. There are also a lot of language exchanges for English, Korean, and other languages, which is a great place to meet locals and other foreigners. I made a few friends with language exchanges when I first came to Korea, and later joined groups and communities to make new friends. I think that the development of social media, as well as the prevalence of English-speaking communities in Korea, has made socialising a lot easier. I joined clubs for hiking, cycling, football and other hobbies to meet other people, and still enjoy all of those activities now.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: I must admit that I mainly mix with other expats. I work with other foreign lecturers and my main social groups are other expats with similar interests. I do have Korean friends and interact with Koreans through hobbies, such as hiking and football, but more recently, due to the pandemic, social groups have shrunk and that’s left me hanging out with other expats. For new expats looking to make friends with the locals, try to learn some Korean, engage in social activities and clubs, join a language exchange, and try to be patient while you learn the different etiquette and cultural rules.

Working in South Korea

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I started working in Korea as an English teacher through the EPIK programme. They arranged all the documents that I needed to apply for my visa, which I had to do at the Korean embassy in Hong Kong. Renewing my visa each year has been a relatively easy process and changing to work at a university was also quite simple. Immigration forms are in Korean and English, which really helps. There’s a lot of information online now to help guide you through the process.

Q: What is the economic climate in South Korea like? 
A: Economically Korea has been growing steadily for the last few decades and working conditions have been improving. Korea recently moved into the top 10 for global GDP, albeit only temporarily during the pandemic. Several large companies, such as Samsung, Lotte, LG and SK, dominate the Korean economy and getting a position at one of these companies is viewed as the holy grail of employment in Korea. A lot of expats, including myself, started working in Korea as English teachers before moving into other employment or setting up their own businesses. Korea also has a good attitude towards start-ups and encourages entrepreneurs and investors to come to Korea with a range of special visas and other support to help you grow a business.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in South Korea? 
A: Korea is a country that values harmony in life and at work. This often translates to the group being more important than the individual in work situations. Hierarchy has also been typically very strong in Korea, a country with traditional Confucian beliefs where power is very much top down and employees will not question their bosses. This can be an issue for expats who are used to speaking their mind or working independently. The best way to adjust to doing business in Korea is to learn about and understand the culture and etiquette of the country. Don’t try to push for answers too quickly, allow people time to discuss and share their opinions. Kindness, generosity and encouraging harmony are important values in the Korean workplace.

Family and children

Q: What are your favourite family-friendly attractions and activities?
A: There are a lot of public parks and play areas in Korea. These are great family-friendly areas where you can rent bikes or scooters and play on the grass. These areas are safe and there are usually lots of good facilities nearby, such as street food stalls, tent rental and toy shops. In Seoul, there are a lot of parks along the Han River that are great places for families. Seoul Grand Park and Seoul Zoo are also wonderful family-friendly attractions where children can play on slides and other attractions, as well as see lots of different animals.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: I can only offer a perspective as a teacher as I don’t have any children myself. School life in Korea is very different from the West, with students joining a lot of after-school programs. Education begins early in Korea and children as young as 4 or 5 may be expected to study extra classes, such as English, in order to get ahead in this competitive society. By high school, many students spend 12 hours or more studying at school and in private academies. The birth rate in Korea is very low and competition for the best jobs and university places is high, resulting in a very strong focus on education as a means to get ahead in life. Families can spend thousands of dollars on private education each month. However, Korean students rank 1st or 2nd for IQ in the world and are generally very intelligent. The quality of education and school facilities are good.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to South Korea?
A: Firstly, do your best to learn some Korean, even if it’s just to read the Korean alphabet. It’ll help you navigate and explore, as well as assist you in a range of everyday situations, such as shopping and eating out. You don’t need to be perfect, but a few expressions will do a lot to help you get used to life in Korea. Secondly, try to understand the different cultural norms and etiquette in South Korea. It’s a society that’s based on harmony and traditional Confucian values where age and position in society are more important than they are in Western countries. Get a phone and download apps for taxis, transportation, ordering food, and translating Korean. These will help you adjust to life in South Korea and make your life a lot easier.

►Interviewed in October 2021

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