Waygook PSA: Potential Problems (and Solutions!) for Expats in Korea

Hello friends!

So, I’ve been in Korea for almost a year now, and the time has absolutely FLOWN by. I loved this country pretty much instantly and that hasn’t changed. Howeeeeever, there are a few things which can make life slightly difficult for certain expats, and I will try to gently discuss these today in this Waygook Public Service Announcement!

(For anyone wondering, waygook is Korean for ‘foreigner’ and is the name given to all expats/non-Koreans in general. A bit odd, but hey, that’s life!)

First up is the most important thing that you could possibly miss from home: food!

Now, y’all know I am super keen for Korean food and love me a good ppyeodagwi haejangguk at any time of the day. But that doesn’t always make up for the fact that sometimes you just want to have a taste of home. That means something different to everyone, but here a few of my necessities/guilty pleasures.

1. Food

Coffee: There are cafes EVERYWHERE in Seoul (and Guri and Korea in general) and it seems like every day there is a new one. The funny thing here is that there aren’t actually that many international brands as you might expect. Yes, there are some Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaves about, but mostly there are Korean chains (Caffe Bene, Angel-in-Us, Paris Baguette, Hollys Coffee) or incredibly cute independent coffee shops. Try these!

I have read that the coffee in Korea isn’t great, but I completely disagree. Granted, some of it may be a bit sweet (and I drink cafe mochas), but overall it’s pretty steady and can be reasonably priced if you know where to go. Not a problem 🙂

What an Iced Mocha looks like in Korea
What an Iced Mocha looks like in Korea

Chocolate! <3 Okay, chocolate is a pretty big deal for me and honestly, I think that’s just self-explanatory. But my favourite, most delicious Cadbury chocolate isn’t available here. Oh noes! What to do? Well, when I first arrived, I was more than pleased to find that the CU’s and GS25’s (Korean convenience stores) stock the now-defunct Dove chocolate. For the uninformed, Dove is a super-creamy, rich chocolate which melts in your mouth. Not too shabby, eh? It has been my saviour here and I ain’t feelin’ no shame ’bout it.

Brunch: Now this is a tad harder. The coffee shops here are great at coffee… and not much else. In Melbourne, there are some trendy cafes which will serve nothing more than cold-drip coffee with a wisp of air (which you will be charged for), but mostly there are sandwiches, hot food, desserts and snacks. Not so here. Yes, you will get some muffins, and maybe some cakes, but some of the snacks will be slightly odd-tasting (to me) Korean bread, and there may not be great sandwiches everywhere. Granted, you are in Korea and that just isn’t their forte – nor should it be. Just be conscious of this.

But if you were after a yummy brunch, just where could you go? I can’t recommend The Flying Pan White in Apgujeong/Sinsa highly enough. OMG this place is incredible. Gav and I discovered it one day online and we have never looked back. The manager there is so friendly and always greets us so warmly. The food is incredible and tastes just like it would at home. One time he offered us free drinks (because it is the Korean way) and he has done so a number of times since. They are very generous and the whole place has a lovely ambience. My personal favourite is the french toast with grilled banana, ricotta and maple syrup. Please just go there! My mouth is actually watering thinking about it.

The french toast with grilled banana at Flying Pan Blue... heaven.
The french toast with grilled banana at Flying Pan White… heaven.

Muesli: As you may have gathered, certain breakfast items are a little trickier to find. Again, this is because Korean people (wisely) don’t differentiate between breakfast and any other meal of the day, and so use similar dishes for each one. This is smart and economically friendly – and just so un-Western! Sadly, I just don’t play like that – I need my breakfast to be breakfast-y. And preferably featuring some form of oats!

Recently I discovered a decent muesli at Home Plus (a grocery store which is owned by Tesco) for 8,500 won, which is pricey but reasonable here. Also, for rolled oats/oatmeal/porridge (depending on your home country), I actually found some perfectly fine oats on GMarket.com, Korea’s No.1 online store (and also a credit card vortex). Go forth and shop, my pretties!

Notable mention: Lotte Department is fantastic for avocados, international foods (coconut milk! curry sauces! Tim Tams!) and the Guri one at least has a fantastic food court with sushi, frozen yoghurt and even a TGIF’s.

2. Groceries

Toothpaste: Now y’all know I have more than a bit of a thing for Korean cosmetics, but there are just some things which are a bit trickier/different here (obvs). Toothpaste is one of these. The majority of Korean toothpastes don’t have fluoride in them, something I wasn’t really aware of until recently (thanks, Gav). It’s funny, as much as Koreans focus on personal appearance – and they do, a lot – somehow teeth seemed to avoid the conversation. I mean, the Korean teachers at our school brush their teeth three times are day, which is once more than me, but the toothpaste just doesn’t leave that ‘clean feeling’. Considering I haven’t been to the dentist in almost a year (I’m a liiittle bit scared to go here) I want to make sure I’m getting me fluoride, goshdarnit!

Travel tip: pack your Colgate (or whatever other brand you use – are there even other brands of toothpaste?) before you come, or become intimately aquainted with iHerb.com.

Deoderant: Similarly, Koreans are naturally a cleaner and less sweaty bunch than us grotesque Westerners (lol, not kidding) and so there isn’t much deodorant available here. At all. While it would be nice to be able to forego this pesky step and live slightly more chemical-free, we just can’t afford to do it. The human body is a wonderful thing, but sometimes it’s just dirty and yucky and ain’t nobody got time for that. Again, bring your favourite brand from home, or buy online.

Towels: For some reason that I am yet to understand, towels in Korea are teensy-tiny. I’m talking roughly the size of a hand towel or bath mat – if you’re lucky. Don’t panic! There are some full-sized (almost) towels available at Daiso for 5,000won and they have been fine for me. However, you may want to bring a nice towel from home if you are accustomed to a certain lifestyle (I’m not).

2. Learning Korean

Obviously, if you’re living in Korea, it’s going to make your life a whoooole lot easier if you speak the language. That makes sense right? However, many a young traveller enters this country not knowing a lick of the native tongue… and they quickly get shut down. Fast. Basically, Korean people are the nicest and friendliest people ever, but there’s just not much English here. As in, at all. I was fortunate enough to have learned Korean in school, and although I can’t really remember much, I can read it (which is admittedly the easiest part).

I didn’t realise just how much that helped me settle in until I went to Japan, where I have absolutely NO idea what is being either spoken or said (and their written language is beautiful and insaaaaane). Being in a foreign country, with no friends, with no idea where you’re going and no way to read any of the signs (particularly if you are outside of the big cities) is really disorientating and a bit daunting. Being able to read Hangul (the Korean written language) was a godsend. It helped me out numerous times on the train, and just made me feel like a little bit less of a foreign fool, which is always a good thing.

I am currently (sporadically) studying Korean and one resource that has helped me a lot is Talk to Me in Korean. A friend recommended this and I absolutely LOVE it. Part of the reason is that each lesson is small (I’m talking 7 mins or so) and they explain the meaning behind words. There’s a lot of repetition and it really gets burned in my mind. But most of all, I love the banter (and latent sexual tension) between the two hosts. Just go out already, you guys! TTMIK is a great way to keep entertained and learn at the same time and it will make you feel x100000 smarter.

On top of this, try your best to engage in conversations and make use of the wonderful opportunity around you. It’s not every day you get to be transported to a foreign country with a population who are more than happy to help you learn the language. Even knowing just a few phrases will show that you’re willing to learn and will come in so handy. Plus you will be one step up above the LOUD English-only waygook who just speaks LOUDER IN ENGLISH when he/she isn’t understood… so that’s good!

What not to do! :S
What not to do! :S

3. Dating

This is a big one for expats – and particularly for the girls. As a “taken lady” I can’t exactly speak for myself, but I have had lots of vicarious experiences through my friends which have explained a LOT about the problems I hear from expats here. Namely, the cultural/language barrier.

Now, I’m not saying that dating is necessarily easy in Australia or wherever you’re from. With all due respect, sometimes it can feel like there’s a lot of oddballs out there, ain’t that the truth?! Finding someone who understands you is already tricky, let alone when they actually don’t understand you because you’re literally speaking a different language. My advice would be to keep an open mind and try to avoid generalisations. There are certain stereotypes about Koreans (and particularly Korean men) which I won’t go into today but which you may be aware of. However, the problem with stereotypes is that it presumes that everyone is the same and we all know that ish just don’t fly. It’s 2014, hello! Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but if you make an effort to learn the culture and maybe the language, a little goes a long way.

Friends in Korea actually organises a speed dating night, as well as language swaps and general meetups. While I feel that designated ‘mingling nights’ can feel a bit forced, I think the speed dating sounds fun and could be a good opportunity to meet a mix of Korean and expat people. (Note: the author holds no responsibility for the success – or social awkwardness – of these outings!)

4.Friends!

This is one that is a bit trickier and it’s something I’m still trying to navigate. Depending on where you work you may find yourselves surrounded by foreign friends, or perhaps the only ‘foreigner’ in your school (I’m presuming you’re an English teacher because most, but not all, expats here are). It can be tricky for foreigners to meet other foreigners (just love that word!) in such a non-Western country. But there are things you can do to make your life easier.

Before you come here, I suggest looking up your town on Facebook as there are a lot of expat communities online (such as the Guri folk here). I didn’t do this but my friend Sehar did and it’s a good way to bounce ideas people, find secondhand household items (especially useful when you first arrive), or learn about events happening. Another thing that I want to do this year is to volunteer, and Animal Rescue Korea is a great resource for animal shelters and volunteering opportunities. Groove Korea and Chincha are also two useful online magazines that have a host of information about upcoming events that will make your days brighter!

I have been lucky and have made awesome friends at my school, plus I have a pretty special boyfriend who has joined me on this crazy adventure. However, I still feel the need to expand my social circle (and comfort zone) and definitely would suggest taking it upon yourself to make opportunities. There are a lot of cool things to do here if you try to find them!

Fam <3
Fam <3

And that concludes my first Waygook PSA. If you’re coming to Korea, hopefully this gives you some pointers and tips to make your transition more comfortable. And as always, I’m still learning so there may potentially be a follow-up post in the future!

Thanks for reading 🙂

Steph x

4 comments
  1. That French toast looks amazing. O.O I couldn’t handle small towels though…some Korean/Japanese things are just too small for spoiled western me lol. I’ve also noticed Asian toothpastes don’t really seem to clean and I don’t really get how Japan/Korea can value appearance so much yet not take care of their teeth.

    1. Omg it’s actually amazing. I keep meaning to try something new but I just can’t resist it 🙂 Yes the towels can be an issue… I really have no idea how/why they use them here but hey, as long as I can get a “big-size” one then I’m ok! And I’m so glad I have my Colgate with me now, I am sort of avoiding the dentist here but I hope it will help! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. I have to recommend the Flying Pan Blue in Itaewon, too! I will go to the “white” one on my next trip.
    Great read, thanks again, and I think this will help many people who are trying to live in Korea!^^

    1. Oh I went there once when my brother was here but it just wasn’t the same for me! >.< Perhaps I will have to try it again, and you should definitely give this one a shot so we can compare notes hehe. I am obsessed with this place, it's so beautiful and delicious! Thanks (as always) for your kind words ^^

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