I’ve been living in Korea for almost a year now, and while that in no way means that I am an expert of any kind (far from it in fact, like, far far from it), I wanted to share a list of some important tips to remember if you are planning on moving or studying abroad in Korea. Some of these things can apply to other Asian countries, but of course, I’ve only ever lived in South Korea, so this is specific to my own experience. Most of these are things that I have yet to see any other article or blog mention, and I tried to highlight at least a few really important things to keep in mind, especially because most of these can affect your health.
Something you need to be prepared for if you are moving abroad to a non-western country is the fact that your body is going to have to take time to get used to the food. I don’t mean in the sense that you’re going to have to suddenly become a connoisseur of traditional food/flavors/spices/etc. of the country, but more so that your body chemically will have to adjust to dietary changes. When I first moved to Korea it took a few months for me to adapt to the number of fermented foods I was suddenly ingesting. I was bloated off and on for a while and even suffered from stomach pains because I was eating a lot of food I had either never eaten before, or food that was being prepared in a way I wasn’t used to, though it was never anything terrible that prevented me from wanting to eat Korean food at all (I mean, it was a huge factor as to why I chose to move to Korea in the first place). Before I moved, I took probiotics daily just to ensure that I had more regularity in my digestive system, but due to the number of probiotics I now get by eating Korean food, I had to stop taking the pills. If you’re moving to a country where the food makeup is quite different from your home, know that it’s okay if you feel a little off for a bit. Your body just needs time to re-regulate its system because you will be getting nutrients from different food sources, and most likely introducing new foods in general.
Along the same lines, pay attention to the way things are prepared where you are moving, and be sure to ask locals the best way to cook the foods you purchase. In Korea, salad is something that isn’t really eaten regularly, nor has it ever been a staple of the Korean diet like it is in America. For me, this was difficult to adjust to because I had grown up eating salads with nearly every meal, but because it’s just not available here I had to wean myself off of the idea that not having a salad with a meal is okay. Eating raw lettuce much like Westerner’s do has only been introduced into the Korean diet semi-recently, so the process of growing and properly cleaning these vegetables isn’t honed to the same standard as it is in other countries. Eating raw vegetables isn’t that common in Korea, most are soaked in vinegar, boiled, or stir-fried. This means that you have to be very meticulous when it comes to washing vegetables; especially lettuces. At grocery stores, you will probably see giant containers of vinegar or vinegar based blends specific for cleaning vegetables. Typically, people soak produce for at least an hour and then wash it again afterward to ensure that all the bad bacteria and other bugs that may be on it have been killed (because pesticides aren’t at the same level here so you have to be safe). When I say that you need to wash your produce carefully, I’m serious, do not take this lightly. During the spring and fall in Korea, there is a higher chance if you are consuming lettuces that you can get worms. As a foreigner, because your body hasn’t been exposed to the same types of bacteria and antibiotics as locals, you are more susceptible to getting these bugs. So, it’s extremely important that you wash your produce, consume fermented foods, eat garlic, and take preventative medicine during spring and fall to make sure there’s nothing crawling around in your digestive system.
I’ve never been more thankful for the fact that I grew up in a country with clean air. It’s something that you would never think of as a privilege until you move somewhere where it’s either a rarity or at least something you notice from time to time. When I first landed in Seoul the air pollution was particularly bad during that week, and I noticed it immediately. I remember wheezing while walking and was shocked at how people could grow up living with such poor air quality. But at this point, it’s just a part of my life. You learn to live with these things and adjust accordingly just like everyone else. I use an app called 미세미세 (mi-se-mi-se) and check it in the morning before I decide what I’m going to do for the day. If the air quality is good, that means I can go on a run outside, or maybe even take the bus to the beach if I’m feeling up to it. If the air quality is bad, I’ll end up at a cafe, or take a mask with me when I go out to the city. There are masks available at most convenience stores that are specific for air pollution, and they are labeled accordingly. Thankfully, I live somewhere at the moment where the air quality is pretty good, but regardless there are times where I notice the air feels a bit heavier. Even if you aren’t going to change your plans due to the air quality (honestly at this point the only thing that changes is I won’t run outside), at least be aware of it.
If you don’t have a humidifier, you will need to buy moisture absorbing products. These can be found in the same section as your laundry detergents and bathroom cleaning product aisles at the supermarket and come in either the form of a hanging bag for in your closet or little boxes that you can set up in different places around your home. Between monsoon and typhoon seasons, the summer months are particularly humid in Korea. I don’t know of anyone who has the luxury of running an air-con all day, so these are a necessity unless you want your clothes to start smelling of mold once July rolls around. Luckily, these products aren’t expensive but compared to ruining a wardrobe’s worth of clothes, I don’t much see any argument as to why you shouldn’t get them.
Lastly, be conscious of the medicine you are taking when you are here. As someone who has grown up being vaccinated and taking medication in America, I have a very different tolerance level of antibiotics than people in Korea. When I first got antibiotics for strep throat, they didn’t do anything because they weren’t strong enough, especially for someone who has had strep throat more than a few times. I had to go into the clinic multiple times because of this and had to explain to the doctor that I had been diagnosed before, so I needed the strongest antibiotics they could give me for the strain I had. Even when it comes to painkillers, I ended up having to bring back my own from the States because the ones available here just aren’t strong enough to do me any good.
I’m sure I’ll do another post like this again soon, but as of right now this is what came to mind when I was thinking about some of the things I had yet to read about living in Korea.
Until next time!