12 rules for expat life in Korea

12 rules for expat life in Korea

A North American transplant to Seoul provides the definitive list to fitting in

You’ve moved to Seoul and on your first day at work you end up in a karaoke joint till 3 a.m. surrounded by girls pointing V signs into their faces while they pose for photos singing ‘classics’ from the Backstreet Boys.

That’s just a regular day at the office.

Avoid the culture shock with our quick guide to acclimatizing in Seoul.


1. Learn to drink like a fish

 Your work contract might say 9-5 but you forgot to read the fine print. Birthday parties, staff dinners and other work functions will keep you going late into the night. Just remember that in the South Korean workplace, an invitation is an obligation.

2. Try not to get 'celebrified'

 Just because you get cat calls on the street from students who are surprised to see a foreigner does not mean you are famous. There might be a certain novelty to being a visible minority here, but try not to let it get to your head.

3. Bring your own clothing

 If you have broad shoulders, big feet, a big chest or a big anything, forget looking for something that fits in Korea because you probably won't find it without a hunt. And don't trick yourself into thinking you can pull off Korean style because you definitely can't (this isn't a challenge).

Korean studentsStudents by day, photo bombers by night.

4. Learn to dance K-Pop

 It doesn't matter how straight you are, your pre-pubescent love for boy or girl pop groups (remember the Spice Girls and N'Sync?) will come rushing back with the hottest sounds from 2 p.m. and Big Bang to The Wondergirls and Girls Generation. And don't feel ashamed that you know all the dance moves; your Korean friends will love it.

5. Put the gay away

 Korea has its own "don't ask don't tell" policy, and although gay rights have come a long way in the last 10 years, there remains a strong prejudice in this uber-conservative society. So, if you are one of the many queer expats in South Korea, keep your homo on the hill.

6. Buy good face cream

 I'm not sure if it's the pollution, the stress, or the water, but living in Korea will age you, and your pimples and wrinkles will battle it out to see who can destroy your face the quickest. No wonder there’s a cosmetic surgery shop on every corner.

karaoke in SeoulShe's singing her Seoul out.

7. Embrace your inner diva

 The best night out is one that involves a visit to a nore-bang or “singing room,” where you and a few friends can rent a private room and sing, or rather shout, your favourite pop songs at each other.

8. Don't tip

 The first time this happened, I was chased down the street by a waiter who thought I overpaid him. Taxi drivers, hairdressers, and waiters don't expect a tip, so save some extra cash for those long nights out.

9. Don't have a coffee addiction

Koreans brew a pot of coffee with a teaspoon of grinds, so you will end up drinking six cups just to get a small buzz. And it's not cheap -- a regular cup of java can cost up to three times more than what you'd pay back home. If you are desperate, try the popular instant coffee sticks.

kimchi in SeoulFood porn pics are obligatory if you really want to blend.

10. Take pictures of your food

It's okay to lug around your DSLR camera to snap pictures of your favourite Korean dishes from steaming kimchi soup and barbecued meat to a cup of tea or rice cake. Everybody does it and how else are you going to remember what you ate after those seven shots of tequila?

11. Adjust your diet

 Goodbye gluten, hello spice and rice. Your grubbery will complete a 180-degrees spin as you transition into the world of Korean cuisine. Not to worry, as most of the food is healthy and dining out can be pretty cheap. For the incorrigibly Western though there's a slew of international restaurants too.

12. Strike an Asian pose

When getting your photo taken, a simple smile is not going to cut it. Make a peace sign with your fingers or a heart with your arms, show your claws or look surprised. The zanier the better! For some posing tips, check out asianposes.com.