Seoul, South Korea Report of what it's like to live there - 11/06/21

Personal Experiences from Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea 11/06/21

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, previously lived in multiple cities in South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe over the last two decades with the State Department.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

DC. There's a direct flight that's a little over 14 hours. Not bad for getting to a post in Asia.

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3. What years did you live here?

2020- present.

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4. How long have you lived here?

One year.

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5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. embassy assignment.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Nearly all embassy personnel live on a former Army base. The Army left in 2018 and the embassy decided not to follow them out. In my opinion, Seoul simply has the worst housing situation I've ever encountered. The three pedestrian gates (20-45 minute walk away) remain open but will be closing before summer 2022. There is only one gate open for vehicles. Deliveries on base are not allowed. There are no stores for basics/groceries near the gates. The simplest of errands require driving out (into a city with excellent walking and public transport) and paying for parking. If this were a normal situation, with housing in the city, you could easily grocery shop and run errands within blocks of where you lived. It's my understanding that Embassy personnel will continue living here for at least four more years.

Bottom line: in my opinion, don't consider coming to Seoul until at least 2025 when housing will be off-base. Even then, confirm that new housing is in operation before bidding.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Similar to DC prices for groceries, household goods, electronics, and clothing are quite a bit more expensive. Eating out is pricey even for the "cheap" options.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Nothing really. Korean vegetables are different than what you're used to but where isn't that true. It's fine if you can adapt to local availability. You can find almost anything at specialty stores but the prices are premium.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

I hear Shuttle is great but the army (which isn't even here anymore) has banned them from coming on base, so I wouldn't know. Some people use Shuttle and then meet them at the gate 1/2 mile from the housing, but that kind of cancels out the convenience of delivery if you ask me.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Houses have a lot of centipedes but they're harmless, just eat other bugs. Mosquitos are everywhere between March and November, including inside the houses. Drainage on base is badly designed so there's a lot of standing water around.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO. These days it takes 7-10 days.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

This is hard to answer. If you live on base the only real option is to sponsor a TCN (usually Filipino) who lives in. It's nearly impossible to get someone a badge to come on base otherwise.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

One free gym on base that's closing in early 2022. Another at the army's hotel on base that's about $60 a month. No idea outside.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Yes, everywhere.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

All kinds.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Having no Korean here is very limiting. It's not a language easily picked up and for a developed country there's surprisingly little English on signs, menus, etc.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Mixed picture, depends on the part of town.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Yes. Living on base is a transit dead zone, so few on Yongsan use it much. The isolation of the housing from transit stops forces you to drive all the time.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Anything, but you must have one.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, usually set up before you arrive.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Local is easy enough.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Surprisingly formal.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

None.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Air quality is bad. Restaurants don't inspire confidence in their safe food handling if you peek into the kitchen.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Pretty bad. It's seasonal but the air is rarely what you'd call "good."

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Respiratory problems due to pollution.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

The base situation, in my opinion, is a downward force on morale, there's no getting around that, so I'd say that's the biggest mental health challenge here.

I feel that singles and anyone who doesn't speak Korean can feel very isolated, even within the embassy community which has a high percentage of Korean-Americans and officers married to Koreans.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Four seasons. Winter can be super cold, but dry and sunny. Summer is the worst time of year as it's hot, muggy, and airless. The shoulder seasons are short but the best time of year.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Huge. Morale in the general expat community is high. Morale at the embassy is bad.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

It takes a lot of effort but can be done, mostly to overcome the logistical hurdles of living on base. There are biking groups for expats, plus the usual bar/club scene.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Living on base is good for young families since the kids can run around unsupervised. Singles and couples without Korean family nearby tend to be underwhelmed.

The city itself is ok. There are some sites but once you've seen one Korean palace you've seen them all.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Koreans are pretty intolerant, so more of a don't ask don't tell situation.

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5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

I've only been here during covid, so can't share much on this.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I wish I had known about the housing situation. Had I known I would have never come.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Nope, not in a million years (or until after 2025).

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Expectations.

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4. But don't forget your:

Jacket, mosquito spray.

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