Seoul, South Korea may be known for being quite Westernised (especially with it’s reputation as a tourist destination) but it is as far from Australia as I could have imagined. Many people, especially those who have an online based knowledge of Korean culture and language will find themselves surprised when they actually arrive. It is nothing like the television shows, but perhaps that is for the better. Seoul is a city that is best experienced by those with a genuine interest in the culture and one should never assume expertise unless you have lived here previously. The language, culture and society is vastly different to what the bloggers tell us and it is intricate, complicated and strict.
We are not in Kansas anymore.
About the City
Seoul is a city of contrast; on one hand, it is highly commercialised with large billboard advertisements, flashing lights and sales people screaming about discounts. On the other, it is still clinging to its history and culture with entire areas dedicated to traditional villages, art and independent Korean designers/artists. Coming from Sydney where historical sites are fairly sparse, it is experiencing this culture that will make the trip worth it. Don’t be afraid to try new foods, jump at opportunities to explore and live life like the locals. Also, bring a camera.
The transportation system is Seoul is extremely reliable and affordable, meaning that fewer people actually drive here. If you are travelling in the nearby areas, you are looking at around 1,050 won on the train (the equivalent of approximately $1.20). However, people usually use T-Money cards so ensure that you get one of those or, if you are officially a Yonsei Student, then you can use your student card for that. It is also possible to pay for things like cabs with the same card.
There are no student rates for transportation – not that you would need it. Trains are generally five minutes apart, ten at maximum, so you’ll be absolutely spoilt here. Train stations are read out in English, but having basic knowledge of Hangul would definitely be beneficial.
Before you go to Seoul, it would be best to look up where you will be staying. I’m told that it’s not too big a problem if you figure it out once you’re here too (since there are Goshiwons everywhere) but I still think that it is safest to book in beforehand. I came to Seoul three weeks in advance, which I definitely recommend, and booked into a Guest House online. Don’t expect too much from these places because housing is expensive in Seoul and many places are small and cramped. Your main concern, really, is to ensure that it is clean with good security. You’ll spend most of your time outside, anyway.
Shopping in Seoul can be either very cheap or very expensive, so it is definitely up to you. Areas around the universities (Sinchon, Edae, Hongdae) are very affordable while the upper end areas like Gangnam or Apgujeong can be more expensive. If you are a girl and wanting to buy clothes, like myself, then you should be shopping around. Many of these stores sell the same things from the same Dongdaemun wholesaler, so you can usually find things again. Also, a lot of people talk about haggling in Korea and I just want to say that you should only do this moderately and in certain establishments. Many sales people will give foreigners a higher quote so don’t be afraid to just walk away or show your objections (politely). If they are rude to you, just walk away.
For restaurants, things work differently to in Sydney. 95% of these establishments will have free water that you have to get yourself and chopsticks/spoons are located in a small drawer attached to the table. In some, they will bring you kimchi or you will be getting your own. I feel that, in Sydney, waiters/waitresses are expected to serve but in Korea, the general consensus is that you are a patron, but they are not ‘lower’ than the customer. Generally, no one will ever be rude though.
Food is often sweeter than they are in Western countries so look forward to sweet sandwiches, super sweet toast desserts, and even sweet salted popcorn. Fusion food is generally huge here but you’ll be finding some pretty creative combinations.
(Don’t be afraid to try there. Just do it.)
A lot of these restaurants also deliver and the service is approximately a million times better than it is in Australia. While you can get pizza, you can also get noodles, rice dishes, Korean fried chicken, snacks.. McDonalds delivers as well. All of these services are very reliable but most will need some knowledge of Korean language so you’ll need to ask someone to help you out.
A lot of people talk about Korea being the most polite country ever and, while I would never generalise an entire population, I have to say that the idea of politeness and formality is very different to Westernised society. Many people will charge through streets without care for the people around them and, if they bump into you, they won’t stop to apologise unless they’ve seriously knocked the wind out of you.
These are just differences in culture and society though so you don’t need ot be offended by this. If anything, I think that you will jsut gradually get used to it, like me.
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