Your first few days in South Korea will likely be some of the most difficult. The combination of jet-leg, a new environment and a world of unknowns can be extremely overwhelming and confusing. Anxiety, fatigue and disorientation are all typical feelings that come with such a life-changing transition.
Adjusting to new and unfamiliar circumstances takes time and for some, this can come as a big surprise. Teachers often don’t know what to expect in their first interactions with their school and employer. Some employers do a great job at welcoming their teachers by making sure their apartment is ready, giving them an orientation and even taking them out shopping or for a meal. Other employers are known to give only a minor introduction and leave it to their teachers to get settled and oriented on their own.
There is no telling what your first few days will be like or how helpful your employer will be, but there are a few things that we can help you prepare for to ease this time of transition. This page will help you get a better picture of what to expect upon arrival and provide you with some important information to help you adjust.
It’s not unusual for new teachers to spend a few days or even their first week in a hotel or another vacant apartment while the previous tenants move out or while the apartment to be cleaned. There is often an overlap between the new teacher’s arrival and the current teacher’s departure which can make it hard to get settled within the first few days of arriving. This is only temporary and as soon as the current teacher is moved out or the apartment ready, the new teacher is able to put their bags down and start unpacking.
In Korean culture it is acceptable to move out of an apartment without cleaning it. Unlike Western culture, it is the new tenant’s responsibility to clean their new apartment. Most schools realize that it’s very difficult for teachers to move into an unclean apartment considering the circumstances and will make preparations to have the apartment cleaned before you arrive. Despite such efforts, its not uncommon that the apartment still needs a thorough scrub after you move in.
It is very unlikely that there will be working Internet in your apartment when you arrive. Considering that there are probably wireless connections in hundreds of apartments and offices around your own, there is a chance you might be able to find a connection by moving around in your apartment with a computer. Though this isn’t a reliable source, it is worth trying in order to get in touch with friends and family at home upon arrival.
Until your employer arranges for the Internet to be set up, there are PC Bongs (or Internet Cafes) located in every neighborhood, not to mention the plethora of coffee shops that are very convenient and inexpensive to use. These internet cafes and/or coffee shops are a great resource for newly arrived teachers who are waiting to have their Internet connected (or do not have a computer – internet cafes have them!). PC bongs provide very high-speed Internet and are marked by signs that usually say “PC” in English to make them easy to locate. If you are unable to find one on your own, simply say “PC Bong” to any Korean walking by or in your neighborhood and they will point you in the right direction.
Cell phones are a necessity for life in Korea. It’s hard to believe that you would need a cell phone to communicate in a country where you know no one, but trust us – it will save and help you more than you’d expect. Without one, making plans, arranging events or meeting up with friends, and even keeping in touch with loved ones at home becomes challenging and sometimes impossible. Unfortunately there are a lot of hoops that foreigners have to jump through in order to set up a phone in Korea and it often takes months before a usable phone is in their hands.
Skype is the best and most affordable way to keep in touch with friends and family back at home. If you are unfamiliar with it, Skype is a computer program that allows you to call other Skype account holders anywhere in the world for free through the Internet. You can also put a credit on your account to make calls to landlines or cell phones back at home. We highly recommend using Skype instead of phone cards or calling codes through your cell phone. It is much more affordable and you can chat with live video as long as you want, without the hassle of refilling calling cards or adding additional costs to your phone bill.
There will be plenty of restaurants to choose from, the majority of them being Korean. Depending on your location in Korea, it might not be hard to find Western restaurants nearby. The easiest and most convenient way to start diving into Korean food is to look for a “Kim-Bop” restaurant. Ask any Korean in the neighborhood for a “Kim-bop Sheek Dong” and they will be able to steer you to the local spot. Kim-bop, as you will learn, is one of the most common dishes in the Korean diet. “Kim” means sea-weed and “Bop” means rice, and together “Kim-Bop” is a food that Westerners would refer to as “California Rolls.” Kim-bop isn’t the only thing on the menu at a Kim-bop Sheek Dong. There is actually quite an extensive menu to choose from, and most people can find something that they enjoy for a very affordable price. A decent meal will cost somewhere around 1,000-5,000 Won ($1-$4). Some popular dishes include:
Regular Kim-bop: rice, mixed vegetables, and ham rolled in seaweed.
Chom-shee Kim-bop: rice, mixed vegetables, and tuna rolled in seaweed.
Ya Chay Kim-bop: rice and mixed vegetable rolled in seaweed.
Dong-caus: Pork Cutlet usually served with BBQ sauce and a side of rice.
Kimchi Tofu (pronounced: Kim-chee doo-boo): A combination of Kim-chi served with pieces of tofu.
Mandoo: A form of dumpling with pork and mixed vegetables.
Kimchi Mandoo: Mandu with a touch of kimchi added in with the pork.
Ramen (la-mee-un) Noodles: spicy ramen noodles, with an egg and some mixed vegetables added.
Bee-bim-bop (Mixed Rice): Mixed vegetables, fried egg, hot-sauce, and rice. Make sure to mix all of the ingredients together. This dish can be served hot or cold. Hot Bee-bim-bop is usually served in black hot pots, whereas the cold is served in metal bowls.
For quick snacks or must haves, convenience stores (Buy The Way, 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Gs-25 etc) are located on almost every corner or in the bottom of almost every large building. These stores are a great place to find snacks, water, beer and other household items quickly. The prices are slightly higher than in the mega grocery stores, but they carry a number of much needed supplies without the hassle of crowded aisles and long line ups. If all else fails and you need a quick meal, they sell a large assortment of Ramen Noodles and all the necessities to make and eat it right in the store, which is completely acceptable etiquette!
Most teachers will want to buy some groceries and a few necessary items shortly after their arrival. There are typically several convenient stores within walking distance and a number of large department/grocery stores close by. These stores can be compared to a Wal-mart or Target, but on a much larger scale. They will have groceries, a pharmacy, household goods, clothing, electronics, furniture etc. The prices in these stores are lower than the prices in the convenience stores, and they’ll have a greater variety of items. These stores and a number of similar ones will have almost everything you would need to get settled. Co-teachers and employers are good people to ask for directions to one of these stores in the area, just ask for the nearest Emart, Homeplus, or Kim’s Club (the 3 most well-known mega stores).
There are many Western fast food and sit-down restaurants in Korea. Though they are more common in larger cities, they can be found in smaller towns as well. Some common restaurants are:
Note: There are many Korean Pizza places that offer pizzas for 5,000 won. This is substantially cheaper than what you will find at the Western pizza places. The most popular and widespread pizza place is called PizzaSchool. The pizza is made fast, tastes great and is significantly cheaper than other pizza places.
Accessing Money From Home
It is important to be able to access money from home before your Korean bank account is up and running. To access money from your account at home, you will need to make sure that you have a major symbol on the back of your ATM/debit or bank card (ie. Plus, Cirrus, etc.) If you are unsure whether your card will work at ATMs abroad, consult your bank before you leave and they will be able to give you all the information you need to know.
It can be difficult to find an ATM that accepts western cards. Many Korean bank’s ATM machines only accept Korean cards. If you are having trouble finding a machine that works with your card, you will probably have the most success at an ATM located in a convenience store. Unfortunately, many of these machines are programmed with Korean instructions. Store clerks are usually more than happy to assist you through the withdrawal steps if you signal for their help.
Some banks will charge a foreign withdrawal fee/exchange fee, which is usually around $5.00. That can add up quickly when you are taking out cash regularly. To save yourself additional costs and the hassle of constantly taking money out, consider raising the amount of money you can take out in a single withdrawal. If you can withdrawal a larger amount, you will avoid paying foreign withdrawal charges over and over.
It is also important to contact your credit card companies to let them know that you will be using your card abroad. Often credit card companies will put a hold on accounts if they are suspicious the card has been stolen or is being used by somebody else. Again, these are just some things that we hope will help you avoid any unnecessary stress in your first few weeks in Korea.
It is common practice for foreign teachers to be paid once a month for their previous month of employment. The average individual will need access to about $500 – $800 USD to support them in Korea until they get their first pay check (roughly one month after starting a contract). It is important to carry some cash with you at all times to make purchasing necessities, eating out and getting around more convenient and reliable. You can exchange currency at the airport when you arrive or find a local bank nearby your school or apartment to convert currency from your home country.
There might be utility bills left over in your mailbox from the previous occupant. Be sure to check your mailbox as soon as you get moved into your apartment and give all the leftover bills and mail from the last tenant to your school representative to avoid any unnecessary confusion.
Setting Up a Bank Account
The majority of schools will pay you by automatically depositing your wage into your Korean bank account. Most employers prefer and often require you set up an account with the same bank they use. Usually, banks allow foreigners to set up bank accounts using their passports but sometimes they require an ARC (Alien Registration Card) to open an account with them. This is a very simple process that your school director or co-workers will help you with. When you have your bank account set up, you will get an ATM card as well as a “passbook.” Passbooks help you keep track of all your account activity. Simply ask the bank teller to update your passbook and they will electronically print up your recent activity into your passbook.