The Best and Worst Things About Living in South Korea

Okay. We've been here over 4 months. I think I've generally gotten the feel of living here now. So here's the best and worst, as told from the perspective of a runner, new mom, and Army wife. Let's start with the worst.

The 10 Worst Things About Living in Korea

1. Produce (and other groceries). Commissaries never seem to have great produce, and this one in Korea is especially bad. It's hard for me to get off-base to go shopping, and produce in Korea just tends to be really expensive anyway. Also, you can't always find what you are looking for.

2. Air Quality. This doesn't really affect me, because I don't have any sensitivities or asthma. But everyone always talks about it and uses it as an excuse to not go outside (or take their kids outside), even if the air quality is "acceptable." Basically if the air quality dips below a certain level, everyone will judge you if you take your baby outside for a minute. Even though it's really not that big of a deal.
Edit (9/10/17): Since I wrote this, I've met more people who have been affected by the air quality here. I've met a mom who had to take her child home because the air made him sick. I met another mom whose daughter's cough immediately cleared up the second they got back to the States. So I might have been quick to judge here. We're a little more careful now, especially with a baby.

3. Outside building/city appearances. Koreans take great care about their personal appearances when they are out and about. They look awesome. All the time. Also, the inside of apartments, coffee shops, restaurants, malls, etc, look great. The outside, however, doesn't always look so hot. They put their trash out on the curb, sometimes not even in bags for the trash guys to come pick up every couple days. The electrical cable management looks horrendous. This is one of the reasons that I'm glad we don't live off post. Thankfully we have dumpsters on post and good cable management.

4. Walking and Personal Space. I kind of mentioned it before, because it's one of the first things that I noticed. You get less space here while walking. Sometimes when I'm walking toward someone, I literally can't move any farther to the right and I feel like I'm playing chicken with them. Then they'll just barely lean to the side and we won't hit each other, or just barely touch. Why? Why not just move to the right and give me some space? I don't get it. Also, even though they drive on the right, it doesn't seem like it's common courtesy to move to the right here while walking. Also, if you are approaching an old person, they aren't going to move. Old people always get right-of-way in Korean culture. Period. James had Jensen in the backpack carrier while ordering a coffee and one old woman just shoved the backpack (with our baby in it!) to get by, forcing James to pivot. I haven't gotten a chance to ask a Korean friend if that was actually acceptable here or just rude. Either way, it's been the most annoying culture difference for me. </rant>

5. Mail. I didn't realize how addicted I had become to 2-day shipping until we came here. We get an APO (Army Post Office) address here, which acts as a United States address, but the USPS delivers it here in Korea. Granted Amazon doesn't usually take too much longer than a week, but not everything will ship APO. I've already shipped something home just to have family ship it to me themselves. Occasionally something will ship really slow and come here on a boat, taking about 1 to 2 months. Also, James has to pick up out mail, because it's in a clearance-only building. So if I order something for him through the mail.. it's kind of not a surprise.

6.  Hourly childcare is basically non-existent on base. Usually, I guess, you can get hourly on-base childcare for relatively cheap at most bases. Here, there are only a couple "slots" for each age group. It's basically a lottery on who calls in first to reserve a spot for the following week. Basically, you have to figure out childcare on your own.

7. Distance from family. This one is kind of a gimme. It's expensive to fly home. It's a 13+ flight just to get back to the states. Kinda sucks.

8. The winters and summers are bad. I'm a midwest girl, so I thought this wouldn't bother me. The thing is.. I drove everywhere when I lived in Illinois. In Korea, if we are going anywhere off-base, we usually take the train/subway (traffic and drivers are cray in the city). That involves walking and then standing on a freezing platform waiting for the train. Also, the underground stations are just as cold as the above-ground ones. Yeah, we didn't go out a lot in the winter here. Also, I haven't experienced it yet, but apparently the summers are brutal too.

We did get some snow though and that was pretty. 
9. The language barrier. Usually, it's completely okay to not be able to speak Korean (that's one of my points below). However, sometimes it's just frustrating when someone starts talking to me and I have no idea what they are saying. Also, street food. I wish I could just be like.. hey, what is that? I don't want to accidentally eat dog. Or octopus eyeballs.

10. North Korea. Do I live here in fear? No, but it's still the elephant in the room about living in South Korea. And despite our reassurances, we have family that are afraid that we are here. This is how I feel: if the United States' government really thought that we were in danger, they wouldn't be paying to move families over here to live with our soldiers while they are stationed here. It's not cheap to move a whole family and their stuff overseas. Is that an ignorant stance? I don't think so. I still pay attention to the news. We had a choice to have Jensen and I stay behind and have James do a "unaccompanied tour" here, but we chose to stay together as a family. If you want to read more, this is a good article.

Okay, enough of the negative. Here are..

The 10 Best Things About Living in Korea

1. The cafes and restaurants. Koreans know that good pictures for Instagram and Foursquare are important for business. Decor is chic and food presentation and taste are on point. They have fantastic bakeries, cafes, and all kinds of international food in the area we live (Itaewon).  They also have themed cafes, like Hello Kitty, Audrey Hepburn, Harry Potter (this one is actually in Daegu, 2 hours away by speed train, which is the only reason I haven't gone), and more are popping up all the time.

Turkish Coffee. No big deal. 
2. The Kids Cafes. This one took us a few months to discover and I'm not sure why. But these places are amazing. They are like Chuck-E-Cheese, but actually really nice. You can sit there and watch your kid play in a ball pit or jump on a trampoline while you drink your coffee or beer or whatever. It's normally the equivalent of about $4-5 per hour.

3. The Trails. In South Korea, you can bike to and from any major city and never leave a bike trail. Okay well, I haven't personally done this but we have been told by multiple people that it's true. There's a bike shop that has some kind of little passport and you can collect  stamps at different locations around the country. These are also accompanied by pedestrian trails, so it's great for running too. They also have little convenience stores with cafes very often (as much as every kilometer) along the trail in Seoul. So you can stop as often as you want for coffee and snacks along the way.

4. Race Prices. Between my husband and I, race prices normally can really start to add up sometimes. Here, not so much. The Army MWR sponsors all the races on post. We don't spend a dime, and we get a free shirt when we finish. Also, Korean races are much cheaper as well. I am running the Seoul Nike Women's Half Marathon in May and I paid the equivalent of $24. The same race is probably over $100 in the States. Granted, it's a little harder to Google information about Korean races, since they don't always show up in English search results.

5. Cheap Public Transportation. This is an awesome thing about Seoul. We're never more than about 45 minutes away from anywhere in the city by subway/train, and it will be just a couple bucks each way. Taxis are also very cheap, although we try to avoid taking them since we don't bring Jensen's car seat around with us. If we want to visit another city, we can hop on a speed train for about $40 and get there in a couple hours. The bus system is pretty good too, but honestly you are never more than a few blocks away from a train station and it's awesome.

6. Cost of Living Allowance (COLA). We get a special allowance for living here from the Army, since living in Seoul is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. We try to be pretty thrifty about how often we go out to eat and how much we spend, so we are actually pocketing quite a bit of money here.

7. The Community. We live on base here for the first time, and we love it. We have a small group with the Chapel that is all people in our neighborhood and we potluck and study the Bible together every week. I run into people I know at the commissary almost every time I go. People I know often honk and wave at me when I go running. The feel of the community here is this very small-town island (or bubble) in the midst of living in this huge foreign city and I'm kind of loving it.

8. It's usually okay if you don't speak Korean. I'm trying to learn some basic things, but honestly, most Koreans in our area speak a little English. Most signs and menus have English as well. And if they don't, there is always Google Translate.

9. No Deployments. James is kind of already deployed while we are here. He won't go anywhere else while he's here in Korea. It's kind of like a family deployment.

10. We get to live in and experience another culture (for free). There's part of me that wishes that Jensen was just a little older, because he will likely hardly remember this place. By living here, I'll learn so much more about Korean (and other Asian) culture that I would have never learned from a book or by just visiting for a couple weeks. Forever, we'll get to tell people that we lived in Korea. As much as the cultural differences are difficult, it will make me think about things much differently once we go back home. And I'll be forever thankful that we had this opportunity.


  1. Great lists! That sucks about hourly care :( I know it was so hard to be so far from family when we were in Germany too. And that is great about no deployments.

  2. Have you anybody who took their family without command sponsorship? My husband just got orders to korea and we are so scared as a family of what is to come. I'd hate for us to be apart but he also doesnt want to serve two years out there. Plus it takes away from getting to pick his next duty station if we go through command sponsorship. I honestly cried the whole entire day we found out the news. We do have a 2 year old together.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, I'm so sorry it took me a few days to respond. I'm so sorry, I know it's very overwhelming! I have heard of spouses coming without command sponsorship and I'm sure it has been done with a family, it can just be more complicated and expensive. Please email me at running army wife @ gmail . com (without spaces) and I can answer what I know and hook you up with other spouses who know more about it.


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