Seoul's cityscape at sunset. / © Mathew Schwartz
Luxembourgish teenager Maja Mannella recently interned with RTL Today. Here's what she wants you to know about her new home in South Korea.
When you think of a trip to Asia, most probably other countries come to mind, maybe Japan, China, or Thailand, but rarely South Korea (for me, it was the same). This might be because most people think it’s not safe due to its neighbouring country North Korea, when in fact, South Korea is one of the safest countries in the world!
But before I get to my personal experiences, I’d like you to know more about the country…
Let’s start with the basics: the Korean peninsula is divided into 2 different countries, funny enough: North and South Korea. The border that divides the Korean land roughly in half is called the demilitarized zone (DMZ). It runs in the 38th parallel north and is approximately 248km long.
The North closed its borders, North Koreans can’t leave their country easily, and it’s hard for the rest of the world to get inside. The Dorasan Station, a new train station which connects the North and South, is near to the North Korean border, but trains can’t cross the border yet, so today there are 4 daily trains from Seoul to Dorasan, which are mostly used by tourists.
South Korea is a democracy with freedom of speech. It has a highly developed, mixed economy, which is the 4th largest in Asia and the 12th largest in the world!
With a population of around 52 million and one fifth of it being in its capital city Seoul, with 9.988.000 inhabitants, Korea has a rather dense population. It’s very organised, with no confusion (well maybe a bit in the beginning for foreigners, but I can guarantee you, you will get used to it).
Public transport runs on time, it’s highly efficient, fairly priced and plentiful (if you miss a bus, the next one will probably come in 10 minutes). You can use a rechargeable transport card on all types of transport, so no need to spend time on buying tickets anywhere.
Back to Korea being a very safe country, you can frequently observe in bars or restaurants how Koreans for example leave their bag or even their phone on the table when going to the bathroom. I haven’t seen this anywhere else before. It still feels a bit odd to me. Even better, you can in fact be reasonably confident that if you lose something, it finds its way back to you. Forgetting a bag or phone in a a taxi or restaurant or even in the metro will most likely not result in permanent loss, there are ways to channel it back to you. My dad forgot his wallet, including his passport, in a restaurant – again no worries, it was all still there the next day.
As you might already know, the Korean language is completely different to western languages. It’s called Hangeul (한글) and is actually one of the easiest Asian languages to learn.
With it being rather a barrier to communication, there are several apps to help you out and the Naver map app is the gold standard to help you move around. Another app that is well worth downloading before you go is Papago, a translation app which allows you to do voice recording, text translation but also take images and translate the text. This is particularly handy in restaurants where the menu often is exclusively in Korean.
During my first few weeks there, my family and I lived in an Airbnb in a residential area with few foreigners. It felt a bit like we were 'the attraction' since we were visibly not Korean. It is rather difficult to communicate in Korea without knowing the language – English is not widely spoken so you need to be creative in how to interact and communicate.
However, even with this language barrier I find the Koreans most adorable, they are such polite, respectful, and smiley people (at least the ones I met…). If you are open-minded you can have a lot of fun in Korea – with that open mind you also need to understand that a lot gets “lost in translation”, sometimes also with the apps, my dad for example once was convinced that he had been eating dog meat while it turned out later that the translation was wrong – luckily. It was not far fetched as dog meat used to be a thing which has only recently been outlawed.
Furthermore, you’ll find convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, GS25 and CU everywhere. They’re the leading convenience store chains in Korea, which allows you to buy ready-to-eat foods, beauty items and various drinks at a very good price.
In public you can observe a higher military and police presence. While this is rather visible, I did not feel intimidated in any way.
With the strained relations with its northern neighbour, military exercises are visible, sometimes even in the city and you simply get used to it when you live there.
Another striking element is the public alert and preparedness system. Even with a foreign phone you will receive frequent messages with “safety alerts” – in Korean. They could be about anything from heat waves or heavy rainfall with expected flooding to the announcement of military exercises or, as it happened to me – an earthquake. While this can be annoying for some as these messages are nearly daily occurrences, I find it reassuring that if something serious were to happen, we will be notified.
But let’s get back to lighter topics: some of you might already know about K-Pop, K-Drama and K-Beauty! The Korean wave, which began some years back, has now spread around the world. For me it’s still something to discover but from what my friends have told me, it’s worth a try.
And of course, there’s a lot to visit in Seoul and Korea overall. South Korea is not the classic tourist destination but, in a time when you can find your fellow countrymen (and women) everywhere you travel, it is rather refreshing to be in this country that has few foreigners and has preserved a lot of its originality.