The Korean word “Kaja” is made up of “Ka” (go) and “Ja” (let’s do something). The purpose of this column is to provide insights into life in South Korea and build a foundational understanding about the country for students who are interested in traveling there or learning more about it.
In recent years, South Korea has been sweeping international charts and bringing home awards for its excellence in movies, music, and arts. Besides its active entertainment industry, Korea is also well-known for its demanding education system.
Life as a student in a Korean university is filled with schoolwork — so yes, no walk in the park — but is also accompanied by greater personal life balance and joy. In one sentence, the education system’s motto would be “work hard, play harder.” For instance, freshman year is an absolute blast with massive organized blind dates with students across different universities’ campuses, chicken and beer nights with friends, and star-studded university concerts. Many Korean high school students cram days and nights for this reason.
This applies to international students, with more and more students applying to study in South Korea for reasons such as cultural enthusiasm, language study, and affordable tuition fees. There is something for everyone. The Office of Global Education at Amherst offers the Yonsei-UIC Exchange Program, which is a great option for students who want to study in South Korea for a semester or a full year.
So, if you’re planning to study abroad in one of East Asia’s biggest hub of innovation, culture, and beauty, keep these things in mind.
Bring an Adapter
Without an adapter, you will not be able to survive on your first day here. I came to Korea to study at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. While I was quarantining at one of the university’s facilities, I realized that the electric sockets are completely different from the ones in the U.S. South Korea primarily uses the kind of plugs that have two round holes placed close to each other, also known as a Type C plug (Europlug). Another similar yet less popular plug here is the Type F plug (German Schuko), which also has two round holes with earth clips on the side.
South Korea is home to many metropolitan cities, which makes walking a norm. You can find yourself reaching 10,000 steps a day. However, during your excursions into the city, your phone’s battery will drain faster than you know. Luckily, solutions are more plentiful than you’d think. Before the trip, or during your first few days here, grab yourself a portable charger, and if you forget to bring one while finding yourself stranded with a dying phone, don’t fret! Casually walk into any cafes nearby and ask the staff if they have a charger. They are almost always more than happy to help. You can simply trust your device in their hands and relax with your cup of coffee while your phone juices up. And even if you cannot find any cafes to ask for a temporary charger, don’t feel despair. This is why convenience stores exist in Korea. A portable charger or just charging cable and brick will set you back around 15,000 won, which is cheap (about 11 dollars). But watch out, it’s the cheap things that end up costing you the most. I estimate that I must have paid a whopping 100,000 won for all the times I left my charger at home.
A T-Money Card: Acquiring, Keeping, and Charging
Public transportation is a big scene in South Korea. To use the transportation service here, you need to have a T-money card, which can be bought at any convenience store. This card is a pass for both buses and subways, and there are two main ways of charging it: you can charge it at any train station, or you can go to any convenience store and ask the staff to recharge it for you. They will typically ask you to pay with cash, which you can withdraw from a nearby ATM.
Now for the keeping part. In Korea, they like to use cards for everything. In addition to a T-money card, you also have to carry around your residency card, bank card, and security card for mobile banking. It can be a pain to lug around a bunch of cards when you go out. Load your travel bag with a nifty stick-on phone wallet from the Amherst Queer Resource Center (QRC), because that might just be the bee’s knees of solutions.
Convert Your Currency
You may swear by your Mastercard, Visa, and UnionPay, but hear me out — before you go, be sure to exchange some of your money for Korean won. While you can comfortably swipe your card at most eateries and shopping centers, don’t expect to get away with this payment method with street vendors. Korea is known for its vibrant street culture, which ranges from mouth-watering street food to roadside busking, and they typically only accept cash or do online banking transfers, and even the latter one can still be met with difficulties because it doesn’t have a place for the local banks. That is where your local cash comes into handy. But if you forget to exchange your currency before you leave, don’t fret! With a passport, you can exchange U.S. dollars and other currencies into Korean won at a money exchange machine in the heart of Seoul.
Language Choices: Korean or English?
Yes, going to Korea is a golden opportunity to brush up on your Korean speech skills. However, in most cases, don’t forget that you can usually fall back on English in certain situations. In general, follow these two rules: When you buy things or order food, use Korean, but when you process your paperwork at places like Immigration Center, using English helps avoid any miscommunications. I have learned this the hard way. South Korea is all about red tape, and when you try to show that you’re appreciating their culture with language, it will likely not be reciprocated. Although it is a non-English speaking country, Koreans are also catching up on their English skills, so it is actually a plus point to speak English.
Banking can be challenging, as most bankers do not speak English here, and they use Korean banking terms that will only be so good at confusing you, instead of communicating. At this time, your choice of banking can make all the difference. I recommend choosing Woori Bank, as they will connect you to an interpreter of English, Chinese, Vietnamese, and a few other language options while you are at the bank. It is also helpful because they also have an English customer service hotline, where staff can address your questions in fluent English.
So, how much Korean should you know? I would recommend learning to read hangeul (the Korean alphabet), which is fairly easy, so that you can effectively search for its meaning through translation service.
Korean is Flexible
Surprisingly, a large portion of speaking Korean is made up of speaking English with a different mindset. A long time ago, when I asked a security officer about a local bank’s directions, I forgot the Korean word for bank, which is “eunhaeng.” I tried being straightforward with the direct English word “bank,” thinking he might somehow recognize it as finance is such a large part of our everyday life. However, from his facial expression, I could tell we were not on the same page. Remembering how almost every single sound is spelled out in Korean language, I tried again, this time customizing it into something like “bankeu” (which is not even a real word) and, to my amazement, it worked out just fine!
Your Delivery May End Up in the “Other Korea”
With North Korea walling off from the world, what is the chance of a delivery entering this isolated land’s customs. You think the chance of it happening is very low, but this happened to my British professor in South Korea. He once expected a health insurance package from New Zealand, and he received a notification that it arrived in North Korea. The problem started when the call center called him to confirm his mailing address. The question was “Is it Korea with democracy?” Without much hesitation, he said “yes.” Turns out, the question they were trying to ask was “Is it Korea with the word ‘democracy’?”, since South Korea’s official title is simply “Republic of Korea.” Despite both him and the company waiting for months, he never got to see the document, which would supposedly be sent back.
If you use international shipping services like Amazon, this likely will not happen, because they do not partner with North Korea. However, if you get a similar call, don’t forget to mention the word “democracy.”
Freedom from Tipping
Imagine having to calculate a 15 percent tip every time you skip Val and decide to live a bougie moment at one of the places in town. Well, in Korea, you can offload your Calculator app for a while. Everything, including tax, is indicated on the bill, and you pay exactly what’s on there.
7-Eleven: Heaven in Disguise
One of the things that my American friends and I often joke about is how the Korean version of 7-Eleven changes their perception about convenience stores. 7-Eleven in Korea is definitely a cut above the rest. Not only is it a place to grab things on-the-go, it offers delicious snacks and drinks that leave you wanting more.
“Do you want to eat ramen together?” might be a warm offer to your friends during exam season, but Korean ears will hear a flirtatious invite similar to “Wanna Netflix and chill?” Test this phrase in Korean to your Korean friends on campus and analyze their reaction.
The Absence of Trash Cans
You wouldn’t expect a modern country to not have trash cans, but this goes back to 1995, when a new waste management system was introduced to make people pay for trash disposal. However, some folks tried to hide from this financial responsibility by sneaking their household trash into public trash cans. To combat this issue, the government slashed the number of bins in half until 2007.
There are still ways to dispose of your trash while out and about — find a convenience store with a trash can, or carry all your trash until you get home.
Get Yourself an ID Photo
Come to think of it, I may have been a tad bit overzealous in persuading all my Amherst friends to come to Korea for the purpose of taking an ID photo. While I think that unrealistic beauty standards are a problem in Korea, a positive outcome of it is that they take unusually high-quality ID photos for passports, visas, and job applications. Every time you pull up your photo-included paperwork, you want to see your best self, not something that resembles a criminal mugshot.
One of the popular places to visit for an ID and self-photo is Photoism. It’s a must-visit for archiving some moments with your friends during your short stay in South Korea.
Avoid Spring Semester at All Costs!
Unless you feel nostalgic about Amherst-like weather, don’t sign up for spring semester. May is upon us, and it still feels like the start of winter, presenting a real challenge to adjust the heat when summer rolls in.
Simply put, Korea and Amherst are similar when it comes to weather. In fact, the winter in Korea is way worse with really strong winds, and you will likely feel like you are pushed two, three steps backwards during the peak of winter.
For ski lovers, however, winter in Korea is a time to hit the slopes at the famous Yangpyeong ski resort.
Attendance is Everything
The pattern I’ve observed is that, at Amherst, our professors tend to be more lenient with our absences, while the same absences mean point deduction at Korean universities. Many professors here assign a percentage of points into the attendance and active contributions in class, so your in-class presence counts.
Google Chrome’s Built-in Translation
Don’t let your limited Korean fluency hold you back! Thanks to Google Chrome’s built-in Google Translate feature, you can automatically translate the entire visited page into English. There may be some funky translation results here and there, but with your common sense, you can navigate the content without breaking a sweat.
Keep Your Passport Safe
How can we talk about Korea without nightlife? Parties here are wild and unforgettable. As someone who shows up to take my friends back to their apartment after they are knocked out, I can attest to the fact that what happens in Korea stays in Korea. While it is generally safe to have a good time overnight, lots and lots of my friends lost their passports during their wild nights out. This is because you need to show your passports to get into clubs in Korea. Theft is not very common here, so you may drop it somewhere. The problem is, police officers are not proficient in English and may not be able to offer the best help to foreigners who report a lost passport. As a result, they have to pay a large fee to reissue their passports. So, party with your eyes on your passport!
Things to Warm Your Heart
What is so alluring about Korea is how much this country prioritizes human experience in public spaces. You can see a heat room that keeps everyone warm while waiting for the subway in winter. You will also see trees wrapped in straw scarves and colorful blankets around its body, because people want to protect them from the freezing winter. And if you’re lost and ask a Korean for directions, don’t be surprised if they actually go the extra mile and personally walk you to the place.
Korea is full of adrenaline kicks: Every time I choose the challenge, I grow a little bit. Living in Korea has definitely helped me view life in a new light. Sharing my personal experience is a tango of two: giving sneak peek of what to expect in a new country and taking stock of my growth as a person on a foreign land. By voicing lesser-known things about Korea, I trust that my readers will get to learn the various personalities of this country that underwent dynasties, wars, and changes. So, buckle up and get ready for the ride of your life in South Korea.