Rome Korea, do as the Romans Koreans do.
Moving to a completely foreign country like Korea requires a few years of preparation, and still you can never be too prepared. Both Singapore and Korea might be Asian countries with a somewhat similar economic development story, but the similarities end there.
Korea, with its unique community, culture and lifestyle, takes a lot more to adapt to than simply learning a few Korean words and/ or K-pop ditties.
I made the decision a few years ago to head out of Singapore, and I chose Korea as my destination. I have been living in Korea for almost two years now.
Like it or not, I had to face the consequences of that choice, and there were a number of difficulties I faced when I first arrived in Seoul.
Here are the 5 of the most difficult problems I encountered and solved one by one by one, — alone — in a completely new environment.
The very first hurdle I had to overcome was the language. Coming from a country where the majority is effectively bilingual, you’d think it’d be relatively easy to pick up another language, right? Wrong.
I started studying the Korean language in 2010, about two years before my move, and then I spent another six months in Korea picking up intermediate Korean. Basic conversational Korean managed to help me get around and order food, but that’s about it.
I needed a higher level of Korean proficiency if I wanted to live comfortably in Korea. Things got exponentially easier once I was able order food beyond bibimbap, shop for my own groceries and get around the city in modes of transportation other than the subway.
I had to deal with several important administrative matters where all information is almost exclusively in Korean — like signing a lease for a rental room, contracting a mobile phone line, and opening a bank account. A good command of the language, both written and spoken, helped greatly in navigating these matters.
The real estate market in Korea is expensive, and there was no way I would be able to rent an apartment. I searched several websites like Craiglist and some Korean websites to find a suitable room to rent, and it took at least two months in Seoul before I found a more permanent place to stay.
I soon found out that there were studio apartments called one-rooms that I would be able to rent at reasonable prices, and set up appointments to view these places. More often than not, I was disappointed with them — they looked nothing like what the pictures on the websites showed. Space was an issue, and some of these one-rooms were in such bad condition and had no windows.
I started to think out of the box and searched websites like Airbnb. Most listings on such websites would only rent to travelers or those on short-term stays, and I had to learn to convince (usually in Korean) the home owners to rent their rooms to a poor student like me for at least a year.
There is a lot of delicious food in Korea, and for a while, I enjoyed myself trying out all the different foods the country had to offer. Everything tasted delicious and authentic, and cost only a fraction of what I had to pay for Korean food in Singapore.
But we don’t call Singapore a food paradise for nothing. I started missing the diversity of flavours I took for granted back home. You can classify all Korean food as either spicy or bland. And while I am a fan of spicy, spicy Korean food doesn’t even get close to sambal belachan.
I wanted to cook some simple Singaporean food — Yong Tau Foo, Laksa, Chicken Rice — but I couldn’t get the ingredients I needed for these dishes. No non-sticky rice, no coconut milk, no tau pok available at even large supermarkets like Lotte and E-Mart.
I had to rely on my friends coming to Korea for travel to bring some ingredients — like pandan leaves for Nasi Lemak — whenever I needed to satisfy my cravings.
4. Administrative Matters
No one likes to deal with administrative matters — they’re long drawn hassles, and you sometimes have to deal with unreasonable staff processing your documents.
Getting my D2 Visa to study in Korea seemed like a simple enough process, except that I needed a long list of official documents ready before I could actually apply for it. Certain visas qualify a foreigner to apply for an ID (called the Alien Registration Card in Korea), and without it, I would be ineligible for a number of essential services like a bank account and a mobile phone line.
Of course, tied to these services are deadlines and requirements (you need to have an eligible visa to apply for an ID — which you have to do within 90 days of entering the country — an ID to apply for a bank account, and a bank account to apply for a mobile phone line), which I had to figure out on my own, after several wasted trips to the embassy, immigration center, bank and telecom store.
When I made the decision to move out of Singapore, I also wanted to make sure that I made it out on my own. This was an extremely difficult issue, because higher education is costly. I saved up for a number of years before I was ready to be financially independent.
My full-time MBA course is partially financed by a scholarship provided by the school (which means I have to watch my grades), and am currently holding three different part-time jobs to help me to cover my rent, bills and expenses.
It has not been easy juggling being a full-time student with so many other responsibilities, but I’m determined to make this venture work out.
When I moved to Korea, it took me a lot longer than I initially thought it would to know the ins and outs of getting around the place. Sometimes I got frustrated and most other times I’m exhausted from the sheer effort I had to put in to make things work.
Patience and resilience became my two new best friends — and I’ve learnt to always keep them close to me whenever I encounter any difficulties living in a foreign country.