Is Seoul a Good City for an Expat to Live?

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On the television this morning was a programme about the top ten cities in Asia for expats to live in. It wasn’t a particularly well made programme and I got the impression that it was segments from a collection of programmes pulled together under the rather weak connection that they dealt with  expats in  other Asian cities. Of course, there’s plenty of problems with this kind of competition, namely that the majority of those described as expats were Caucasian and in well paid positions, and in several cases the people were merely English teachers.

Anyway, the hit list goes like this:

  1. Georgetown, Malaysia*
  2. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  3. Bangkok, Thailand*
  4. Taipei, Taiwan
  5. Macau, China
  6. Hong Kong, China*
  7. Osaka, Japan*
  8. Tokyo, Japan
  9. Kobe, Japan
  10. Singapore, Republic of Singapore

(*Just a little side note to point out that I’ve visited these cities)

It being a Korean programme I was assuming that sooner or later Seoul or Songdo would end up. Now, I’ve never lived in Taiwan but seeing as Bangkok and Taipei were so high up the list, which I don’t really know much about, but I’m pretty sure Seoul is way better (of course this is editorial bias). My doubts on the quality of the list really started to rise when Hong Kong was in fifth place, and then there were two Japanese cities, Tokyo and Osaka, in third and fourth. Of course there could only be one winner but seeing Kobe in second was a shock, not to the point of anger or anything, just an ‘oh’ kind of shock.

The programme gave plenty of reasons for Seoul to be included – many of the cities in the top ten did things such as welcoming foreigners, teaching them to speak the language, cultural lessons, great public transport, all of which Seoul does. And, you should really take into consideration that the programme didn’t really offer a rubric for rating these cities

Watching this raised the question, is Seoul a good place for expats to live?

Well, it depends on which way you look at it. Allow me to give you both sides of the argument based on my own experience.

The ‘yes’ side of the coin

When I first moved to Seoul in 2005, I was young, single and earning too much money. I lived the life, going out several nights a week, eating in good restaurants, travelling around the country, and after my first contract I managed to afford a three month trip around Asia, return flights to Ireland and then spent two months sitting on my arse. It was great. I felt like king of the world. When I came back I wasn’t single but still managed pretty well, and I still do after living, working, and coping here for the past few years.

Based on six years of living in Korea, life is, all and all, very convenient. I’ve had my ups and downs, but there has been nothing necessarily overly negative which could be described as only an expat problem – like in work, if there was a problem I soon got the idea that whatever my problems were my Korean co-workers had it a lot worse.

As a place to live, Seoul does have everything you could need. The public transport is exceptional and very affordable and there is little need to own a car. Taxis also provide a very reliable service, there being exceptions on a driver-by-driver basis of course.

There is great food and an uncountable number of restaurants serving all kinds of food. This is not limited to only Korean food; Japanese restaurants are everywhere, as are Italian, Chinese, and there is an increasing number of decent fast food places and other ethnic restaurants gaining popularity. And, if you go to any of the popular social spots around the city you will find the variety extensive and satisfying to not only your pocket, but also your wallet.

You can get anything delivered to your door and often within a few days. You can get what you’re delivering collected and delivered to the door hassle free.  I’ve never heard of any other western country provide any form of comparable service and I would wager that a relatively large portion of the economy relies on this industry on a day-to-day basis. If you have ever had to use any major courier service you will know the frustrations that are involved with these.

As for take-away, the service is prompt and hassle free. Even if you can’t speak Korean all you need to know is your address and what you want to eat, and before you sit down to pick your nose as you wait there will be a knock at your door and your food will have arrived hot and tasty.

Supermarkets sell all kinds of food, and while the prices have been increasing over the past year, many neighbourhoods have local fruit and veg markets where prices are still very low, and the same can be said for meat and fish. The vast majority of food has a picture on it so you know what it is you are buying. There is bread, dairy, herbs, spices, beer and wine all available in varying degrees of quality.

There are newspapers, magazines, television, and films all in English. There is a wealth of sports teams functioning at all levels of enthusiasm for any visitor. There are professional organisations, clubs, societies and volunteering opportunities. There is a fantastic and diverse countryside waiting for you to explore. Korea has, for want of a better word, everything.

Like any country or place, when you move here you have to learn how to do things such as how to pay bills, how to pay taxes (and how to claim them back), how to sort things out in the bank, and a whole list of other things. Sure, understanding the language helps but often you can get by relatively easily. A tried and tested strategy is to go in and act desperate and stupid and the decency and sense of duty most people have takes over, and things get worked out in the end. This isn’t something specific to Korea, I’ve used it in the UK and the US with very satisfactory results, namely I survived to tell the tale.

Of course, every place has problems but like any the headphones treatment works wonders. If things on the street bother me I give it the old Richard Ashcroft treatment, minus the shouldering and jumping over cars, by plugging in my headphones, turning up the volume and just walking by it all. It’s not my problem and it won’t make my life any better or worse if I do involve myself.

I could say more but will only offer a brief summary. I am happy here to a certain extent. I have a good job that I enjoy a lot and which offers new opportunities on a daily basis. I live in a very comfortable home which I enjoy returning to every night and don’t mind spending long hours in (this wasn’t the case over a year ago). My neighbourhood is quiet, pleasant and within walking distance of everything we ask for. I have a wonderful wife who cares for me and looks after me far too much.

I, like many people, have made my home here happily in Korea.


The ‘no’ side of the coin.

When I first moved to Seoul in 2005 I was oblivious to much of what was going on around me. Wide eyed from the wonders around me and the generally positive experience I had enjoyed in Korea, much passed over me for about three years. It wasn’t until I was married that I started to understand more about Korea and whether or not it would serve as a place that I could live in and raise a family.

When I came back to Korea several friends of mine had recently started young families, and within a year most of them have left Korea and moved back to their home country. The reasons for this can essentially be boiled down to the fact that many expats in Korea do not see Korea as a healthy place to raise a family.

Of course, it might be considered that I am automatically talking about the high levels of pollution. But that’s easily avoided by moving out of the city. What I am talking about is what I see as things that just shouldn’t be the way they are and for them to be considered normal is wrong. For Koreans, who are generally proud of whom they are, their history, their food, their language, and many other aspects of their culture, it is the society which has created a very negative impression on me.

This is not a cultural debate. The issues I am going to mention here are social issues that have affected people very close to me, pointing to hypocrisy on a national level that has sunk into the national consciousness causing people to think that, generally speaking, it’s ok for these problems to fester.

There are several things that frustrate me about how social issues are dealt with here, and most obvious one is the complete lack of awareness raised in the public sphere. For example,iIf you explain to many Korean people, as I have, that Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, many are unaware of this. I’ve even been offered reasoning along the lines that it’s because many celebrities have committed suicide. Regularly, the international press covers the issue Korea’s rising suicide rate however I know of only one person, Tom Coyner, who has raised this issue in the media in Korea. If there are more, then please let me know.

Without awareness, without people talking about it, without pressure on the government to do something about it, it will only get worse. Suicide is probably the biggest example of this and while it doesn’t affect many expats directly, it is a strong example of the lack of awareness raised on a serious social issue. If you can think of any other social issues which need to be addressed, it probably fails in comparison to this.

Personal safety is another thing that bothers me. Or I should say, the complete lack of respect for other people’s right to life, and even, I could say, a complete lack of recognition of the dangers people are coming close to on a daily basis. I get the feeling that most are willing to learn from their mistakes.

You can see this mostly on the roads. For example, on a daily basis I see scooters zig-zag between cars, its rider with no helmet, and then it flies through a red light. I don’t want to lecture on why this is wrong, I want to lecture on why do people not stand up and say stop? Why do the police only drive out on the roads and apprehend motorists after an accident has occurred? Are people afraid to step on someone’s toes to upset the status quo or do they not care? Because that’s what it seems like.

It’s my life I’m worried about because I don’t want to have to go to hospital because of someone else’s carelessness. Ffortunately I have never been sick , and I mean really sick, in Korea. Because the national health insurance does not provide for you, it only helps you get a prescription on the cheap which actually turns out to be Tylenol and a multi-vitamin.

But what enrages me, what really pisses me off, and what cannot be considered in anyway a cultural misunderstanding, is the outright discrimination of over 50% of the population. Women in Korea are essentially second class citizens who are judged firstly by their gender, and then by their age, and then by their appearance.

Idolised for the sexuality or worshipped for the care they deliver, all over Korea women are struggling to deal with men. Of all the people I meet in Korea it is women who leave the longest and most lasting impression on me. Not only are they strong willed, open-minded, intelligent, they are  over 50% of the population and discriminated on in a really petty and old-fashioned manner – essentially, men are better and stronger so you should do what you’re told. I get the impression that women have no other role in society than to feed the men and spread their legs, and then tidy up the mess.

I could write for hours about the injustices here, but allow me to give just short take on what the problem is here.  To give you an example of how women can be expected to live in Korea, read this article about a woman’s experience in her place of work when she got pregnant. I don’t believe this to be single case.

I have heard from students of mine that their mother is their hero, but then they turn around and say that their mother should stay in the home because that’s where they want them to be, there for them when they get home to cook them food and tell them they’re a good boy (and probably to scare their wife too). I have never asked them how they feel about their sisters, but surely this displays a complete lack of respect for their mother and a lack of understanding of human beings that the mother should only be there for the sons when they have a hard day.

Again, it’s about respecting other people, but more importantly the people who brought us into the world. I don’t think anyone should give up their life for anyone else. Expecting a mother to just mother is just selfish. Does she not have feelings and dreams herself? Does she not have skills and knowledge worth using to earn her own living? There’s more that I could say here, but I will finish by saying that there is no excuse for treating women as second to men, no excuse.

As a person who is married to a Korean woman I am entitled to be this angry. As a person who has experienced this discrimination with his wife I am entitled to be this angry. As a person who, one day, will hopefully have children who may grow up in this country I am entitled to be angry, because more than anything else, allowing this to be normal is wrong.

There may be plenty of expats who come to Korea and never think they witness this. Well open your eyes. It’s everywhere, from the Room Salons called cafés to the home where the mother cooks the dinner and cleans up all week long while the husband, kids and grandparents sit around watching TV.

Nowhere do you see this in Korea more often than in the capital, Seoul.

And that is why I do not think anywhere in Korea is good for an expat to live.


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