Apartment living

Apartment living in Korea is the norm and is seen as moving up in the world, as opposed to living in a free standing house (as seemingly the consensus is that living in a house is unsafe), which is generally contrary to the way we think in the West.

However, to the foreigner living in an apartment, can either be a blessing or a curse. It depends on a few criteria: 1) Age of the apartment, 2) Your neighbours, and 3) Your apartment complex caretaker.

As we were married at the time of moving to Korea, we had a choice of two apartments where we could live (If you are unmarried, you will not be able to reside together). The reason for this was due to the fact that both our schools had prepared apartments prior to our arrival.

The first apartment we saw was in downtown Buyeo, situated in quite an old complex called Dongnam. The apartment, although neat and clean looked very tired.  In fact we turned on a light, which sputtered and died, not engendering much positvity from the two of us towards the apartment. Other foreigners who lived in this complex often experienced frozen water pipes during winter and no hot running water on the odd occasion.

The second choice of apartment was on the outskirts of town which meant a short bus ride if ever we wanted to head into town, but within walking distance of one of the schools we would be teaching in.  This apartment was the total opposite to the Dongnam apartment.  It was in a complex that was new in comparison, but looked more welcoming, homely and updated. It was not a hard decision to make.

Your neighbours in any corner of the globe you currently reside can make or break the peace and tranquility of any home. In Korea you are surrounded by people in clustered apartment living 24/7. It is not uncommon to be woken in the middle of the night by shouting, or knocking on your door or banging sounds above and below you.

Finally, your apartment caretaker can either be extremely helpful, or a bit of a hindrance. We experienced both in the four years of living in our apartment.  We had a few caretakers in our time. Generally very pleasant and helpful men.  If needed, they would fix things that required fixing etc. It was only in our last year with the new caretaker that things were a little unpleasant.

The word privacy seems to have a different meaning in Korea, to the way we understand it to be.  In our final year, we would get home and find that our caretaker had been in our Apt without us knowing about it. Gas pipes were installed and everything left in a tip, an unexpected show house of our apartment to new prospective tenants to name a few irritations.

It is also not uncommon to expect gas line inspections or internet personnel to arrive after 7 pm in the evening for random inspections.

Lastly if you are not used to a wet room, you may be in for a surprise.  In most apartments, the shower will be in close proximity to the toilet. You will not find a shower screen or curtain installed let alone a cubicle, so unfortunately everything gets soaked. Toilet paper is also encouraged to be disposed of in a bin, rather than flushed.

Please don’t let this put you off though. In general, for the most part, our apartment experience was wonderful. It is just good to be aware of what may occur.

Korean Etiquette

Upon arrival to Korea and during your Orientation, you will be told about the etiquette  you will be expected to adhere to for the duration of your stay in Korea. However, as this is just another talk among many others you will receive in your jet-lagged and exhaustive two week orientation, much of this information may well be lost.

Here are a few basic etiquette guidelines to get you through daily Korean life.

Firstly, bowing as a greeting and farewell is essential and would be considered an insult if not done.

Secondly, when calling someone, please do not use the westernized hand signal for “come here” – Fingers upwards. This is very disrespectful, as Koreans use this hand signal when calling their animals.  When calling a person, it is best that your fingers are faced downwards.

Thirdly, always take your shoes off when entering your school or a place of residence, this will take some getting use too, especially during the freezing cold winters.

Lastly, when dining with your Korean co-teachers (which will occur frequently) it is customary to place your one hand under your pouring arm when pouring a drink for someone else.  If you are receiving the drink, hold the glass with both hands.  When you drink it is customary and polite to turn your head to the side and drink ‘privately’.

I hope these few basic tips will help you find your way in Korea.

Saving Money

Saving money in Korea depends on a few criteria-location, lifestyle and discipline.

Location

If you live in a big city versus a town, you will encounter much to spend your money on like big shopping malls, many bars/pubs. movie theaters and restaurants that serve westernized food. While this is great as a distraction, especially if you are in Korea on your own, you will find your monthly stipend decreasing rapidly.

If you live in a small town, not only are you paid more (W 100,000 extra) but you should not have as many  distractions to spend your hard-earned cash on.

Lifestyle and Discipline

We have joined Lifestyle and discipline together as we feel they are linked very strongly to each other.  It all depends on your priorities.

In general if you enjoy drinking every weekend or, possibly heading to Seoul to escape the small town for the big city lights, or embarking on expensive weekend or shopping excursions very regularly, then saving will prove to be a problem.

If you decide from the outset that saving is your no.1 priority then you will be able to achieve it with ease on the salary that you will earn.

In general, as a single person working in Korea, you should be able to save around R 5000.00 per month (around $500 US). As a couple you could save exponentially more. In our case we managed to save one entire salary and live and travel internationally twice a year on the other.

Even with our savings per month, we certainly did not count every penny we were spending in order that we could save as much as we could. Our lifestyle was such that we did not over indulge on things, but at the same time had a great financial worry-free time nonetheless.

In other words, we went to Seoul when we needed or wanted to but combined many activities while there, we joined occasional excursions and chose carefully when we did to get the maximum interest and enjoyment from them. We generally cooked dinner at home but enjoyed frequent meals out with friends.

Our rule essentially was to not live beyond/above your means. It worked well for us, hopefully it will for you too.

 

The Baekje Festival

The Baekje Festival is probably the largest and most important annual event to occur in both the towns of Buyeo and Gongju simultaneously. The festival is held in October of every year and lasts 9 days.

“A world-class historical and cultural event.”

The opening and closing ceremonies are not to be missed with the traditional firework display in conjunction with volunteers and  students dressing up in traditional clothes and processing down main street culminating at the Gudeurae Plaza (구드래광장) situated along the banks of the river Geum.

The procession is very popular as the entire main road in Buyeo in closed off and hundreds of locals and foreigners alike line the street in anticipation of the costumed spectacle.

Music blares from speakers as horses accompanied by volunteers walk down the street wearing traditional period clothing with flags waving eagerly back at the spectators.

There is an array of activities and displays for the entire family which include dance, music, art, drama, cooking, and food to suit every palate. It is  week in the Korean Festival calendar where the locals celebrate their cultural heritage in style. Its well worth the visit.

 

Public Transport

The public transport network is fantastic.  Our general experience spread over our four year sojurn was that the buses and trains ran on time and were very safe to travel on in all extremes of Korean weather and taxis were readily available if required. Depending on which town or city you end up teaching in, you will be able to access at least two modes of public transport, or if you are very lucky all 3.

In our town of Buyeo, we only had access to buses and taxis. This was due to the fact that Buyeo is a town with great historical significance and therefore the train network is prohibited. The nearest train station to us was around 40 mins away in a town called Nonsan.

If you find that you are in a town where there is no train, your only way to travel around the country is by using the intercity bus network.  Although slower than the train, we made extensive use of this network, travelling around and visiting different parts of the country.

If you do prefer train travel, then making use of  the Korea Railroad Corporation promoted as Korail (코레일) is your best option. Two most popular types of rail transport in Korea are the Korea Train Express (KTX) or the slower Mugunghwa trains.  The KTX is quite expensive but if you have the need for speed, or need a time saving commute, then the KTX is the way to go.

Taxis as previously mentioned are readily available, but can be expensive. Although cheaper than many countries, the bill soon adds up. It is best to use the local town buses to get around.

Although having said that, taxis are very convenient, especially after you have been shopping or its raining cats and dogs.

Taxi drivers can also display unfriendly attitudes towards foreigners. We experienced very few instances of this, as the majority were very helpful and friendly. Just be aware that this may be the case.

We often thought about purchasing a car (many foreigners do) but considering the financial outlay and insurance we would have to pay on the vehicle we decided against the idea.

Another reason we encountered which factored into our decision against purchasing a vehicle was what if we had an accident and had no easy way to communicate with the police?  We had heard rumours that the traffic police in the case of accidents generally would side with the Korean driver-whether there was any truth in this or not we  decided in the end public transport was the best and safest option.

The Lotus Flower Festival

The Lotus Flower Festival (부여서동연꽃축제) occurs in our town, Buyeo located in Buyeo County, South Chungcheong Province, a small county two hours south of Seoul.

 “A must for any nature lover, and makes a great day retreat from Seoul!”

It is an annual spectacle of beauty which occurs during the summer months, usually in July and lasts for 9 days.

The festival is located in and around The Gungnamji (궁남지) pond, which is one of the oldest man-made ponds in Korea. Visitors to the festival can expect to witness thousands upon thousands of pink and white Lotus flowers in full and partial bloom as far as the eye can see.

The programme of events include making paper lotus flowers, making lotus flower soap,making necklaces with lotus seeds and making a lotus leaf-shaped candlestick. There are activities geared for every member of the family to enjoy.

Evening festivities include firework displays (see our video of such a display located under the video tab in the menu), concerts, traditional Korean music and instruments like the Gayageum (Kayagum) and food to suit a hungry appetite including many lotus treats to eat.

The Mud Festival

The annual Mud Festival occurs on the west coast of Korea about a 40 minute bus trip from Buyeo, in a town called Boryeong (보령).

Upon arriving in the Boryeong bus terminal, you will need to board a second bus that will take you directly to the beach and the festival location.

It is most probably the one festival in Korea that attracts the most international visitors.  So communication in English will not be a problem.

Boryeong is a coastal town, so all the festivities occur meters from the beach, which is useful, especially when you need to wash all the mud from your body. For most people the mud covering you will end up becoming a head to toe affair.

The activities that you can expect to participate in include mud wrestling, mud sliding, mud massage, obstacle courses and much more.

The mud is known in Korea to have beneficial properties for the skin, and is available to purchase in mud soap bars at the Mud Institute in Boryeong located not far from all the festivities.

During the year, you can also visit the Institute for a mud bath if you wish, so if you are unable to make the festival, the mud is available all year round to enjoy.

So if you feel like letting your hair down and getting muddy, then we highly recommend attending this festival.

The Cherry Blossom Festival

The Cherry Blossom Festival(s) occur in various locations throughout the country during a period of about two weeks in Spring. This is primarily because the blossoms only bloom for this amount of time.

We enjoyed this festival the most as the beauty the blossoms create are incomparable.

For those like us who have only seen Cherry Blossoms on television or in books, it is magical the first time you witness the beauty of this flower in full bloom and congregated in large clusters.

The area closest to our town is a mountain called Gyreongsan, which we visited one year,  but fortunately Cherry blossoms bloomed in abundance in our town too, so some years we just enjoyed Buyeo’s blossoms. Seoul is a good place to go too

The Strawberry Festival

The Strawberry Festival occurs in April each year. It is held in a town called Nonsan which was about a 30 minute bus ride from our town of Buyeo.

Nonsan is famous in Korea for their strawberries and is one of the largest producers of this fruit in the country.

People from all over Korea make their way to partake in this festival. Activities include strawberry picking, strawberry cake baking and strawberry jam making among other activities, and is fun for the whole family.

It was the first festival we attended in Korea (since we had only been in the country a few months), and we thoroughly enjoyed mingling with the crowds and witnessing how efficiently these festivals are run and what fun all were having.  It is a great way to pass the time, if you have no alternative plans for the weekend.