7 tips for staying positive in Korea

By Whit Altizer

Expats in Korea seem to fall into one of two camps. The positive and the negative. Trust me, having been here for almost 6 years now I’ve found myself in both. But I refuse to stay negative for long. So if you are teaching, in the military stationed in Korea or a professional working here, check out these tips on how you can get the most out of your Korean experience.

1. Get involved. You don’t have to learn the language. You don’t have to eat the food. But you should try to get involved in a community. There are Korean groups, expat groups, expat and Korean groups that will welcome you. Our friends go to Korean churches, join Korean hiking groups or have formed their own expat groups. One of our friends even started his own art magazine! There are communities out there right for you. Type in your interest or hobby and “Korea” or the town you live in on Facebook. You’ll probably find someone looking for you. If you don’t, start your own. Get off the base. Get away from your comfort zone. Leave your apartment. There are plenty of things to do, but you have to go find it.

Thanks to our lovely co-teacher and her boyfriend we enjoyed several lovely outings with a Korean photography club.

2. Find positive people. This might be the most important tip. If your community isn’t positive about life in Korea, go find another one. Negative attitudes from those around you can ruin your experience. Don’t let them. It’s easy to bitch about life in Korea, but it’s a lot more fun to enjoy the eccentricities that might annoy you about life here.

Every month we organized a Korean-foreigner dinner. We met our best friends through this dinner.
Good, positive people make all the difference. Find them.They are here.

3. Travel with a smile. Traveling around Korea with an open mind and heart makes it as good a place to travel as any Asian country. It is in Korean’s DNA to share and welcome a stranger. Especially when you are doing something active like hiking or running in a marathon or even cycling Korea’s bike paths. We’ve had a meal bought for us on the spot, had a lovely evening drinking with an old Korean couple we could barely understand (and vice versa), were welcomed into a home on our bike trip for drinks and food and just last week my friend and I drank makgeolli with a hiking group. Don’t shield yourself from these interactions. Smile, say hello, be respectful and accept what comes to you. These interactions will make you fall in love with Korea.

4. Be flexible. Life in Korea can be unpredictable most of the time. A lot of that comes down to language barriers and a lot of that comes down to being on a need-to-know basis. Every place I’ve worked in Korea I’ve had days off, classes and extra hours sprung on me at the last minute. Westerners need to know things well in advance, Koreans don’t. If you go with it, you might even enjoy the spontaneity.

My running buddies and I said “yes” to an invitation from Eeodeung Running Club void of details. We ended up running a half-marathon and drinking loads of makgeolli. It was a blast.

5. Leave things at home. Between Costco and other large supermarkets, these days you can find almost everything you want from home.  Also, sites like iHerb and GMarket can get you what you want or close to it.  If you are military or a professional that can ship things over for free, be sure you know that in the big cities you can stock your apartment with second-hand goods for cheap. Cars and appliances are all made for life in Korea and yours might not be. We’ve come almost empty-handed, stocked our apartment with second-hand items and then sold them when we moved. We’ve sold almost all of our possessions every time we’ve come and gone and it can be liberating. You’ll love the feeling of a good purge.

6. Don’t compare it to home. Don’t come with any ideas about how you think things should be. The moment you start comparing Korea to your homeland is the moment you start feeling negative about Korea and maybe even angry with it. It isn’t and never will be your home country. It’s best to only worry about what you can control.

7. Don’t be intimidated. I think the people who don’t survive here are the ones that are intimidated by the new food and language. You can find yourself scared to try the food. Scared to leave your base or apartment. Or scared to have an interaction with a Korean. It took me about 3 months to really feel comfortable getting out. My wife and I hesitated to try a restaurant in our neighborhood because we had no idea what to expect. It also took me a few times to be open to the random conversations on the street. Koreans usually just want to practice their English for nothing in return. And of course as we’ve said time and time again, the food is amazing. Don’t let anything about Korea frighten you.

See a similar post with expat “wisdom” from way back in 2008 after only a year here.