Ulsan, on the south-eastern tip of the Korean peninsula, is famed for its arresting rocky cliffs, long stretches of sandy beaches, for being home to the world’s largest automobile manufacturing plant, for whale watching and, more notoriously, for whaling.
The city has grown to be South Korea’s most important industrial hub, powered in recent years by Hyundai, the country's largest automobile manufacturer. Roughly one million people live in the city, many with ties to the industry.
Ulsan’s strong whaling heritage has earned the coastline a high degree of respect within the local community. Koreans and international residents alike regularly frequent its beaches.
A day at the beach in Ulsan provides an interesting insight into the region’s cultural diversity. Ulsan’s locals love to make a home-away-from home during their seaside visit. Throughout the day, the beach will slowly fill with large tents in which banquets are laid out.
Swimming costumes (particularly on women) are definitely not "du jour." Instead, locals swim and play in the ocean fully clothed, or lie buried in the sand (fully clothed – purportedly there are enormous health benefits to doing so). As the sun sets, the firecrackers come out. Don’t be alarmed to see a father versing his 4-year old son in the art of lighting firecrackers; this is perfectly normal.
Such profound cultural distinctions are underscored by Korea’s language, both spoken and written. Korea’s culture is as esoteric as it is enthralling, no more so than in Ulsan, which is less cosmopolitan than Seoul. The language and cultural barriers are often easily overcome; Ulsan’s locals are generally warm, friendly and inclusive. Coupled with a strong local expat community, living in this city is an enriching, rewarding experience.
What is special or unique about your city?
Once people learn the basics of the language and gain an understanding of the history and culture, people tend to become quite fascinated by Ulsan and Korea in general. It's an amazing story of how the people of Korea came together after the Korean War (1950-1953) to rebuild the nation. The founder of Hyundai, Chung Ju-yung, was an instrumental figure in this rebuilding period. At the entrance of Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), you may visit Asan Memorial Hall, which tells the story and history of Chung Ju-yung. By and large, people adapt to living in this city, and begin to even enjoy it. Even though it is known as an industrial city, there are a number of mountains and beaches to enjoy, as well as the Taehwa River which bisects the city.
The cultural and language barriers do not go away, but these need to be overcome by individuals.
There is an excellent book by Rhie Won-bok, entitled "Korea Unmasked - In Search of the Country, the Society and the People," which is recommended for anyone planning to live and work in Korea, as it gives great insights into the Korean culture.
What are a newcomer's first impressions of your city?
Most newcomers are usually in awe of the incredible industries found in Ulsan: automobiles, shipyards and oil refineries. Seeing a shipyard for the first time leaves a lasting impression, and HHI is the world's largest. It's an impressive industry and the sheer size is incredible. Seeing the highly automated automobile factory and the drivers loading the brand-new factory cars on to the shipping vessels is also an impressive sight.
There are a few initial challenges people face, often due to the language barrier, cultural differences and navigating around a new city.
Are these impressions likely to change?
Many of these impressions will not change specifically, but what does often change are people's appreciation of this city and country.
What is the local language?
The local language is Korean or Hangeul.
How easily could I live in this city without knowing this language?
It's getting easier, as more Koreans are studying abroad and English is on the rise, but there will be times when language will become a barrier. It will help tremendously to learn the basics to get around town, direct a taxi driver or order food in a local restaurant. The Korean alphabet is actually very easy to learn and very phonetically.
What are good things to remember in order to avoid offending the other residents of this city?
Take your shoes off when entering someone's home. Do not write someone's name in red ink. Don't stick your chopsticks in your rice. Don't pour your own drink and, when being poured a drink, hold your glass with two hands. Don't blow your nose at the table while eating. And learn the local system to dispose of your garbage; there are specific trash bags one must use specific to their neighbourhood. It will keep your neighbours happy!
How might the local weather affect my daily life?
Ulsan has a monsoon-influenced humid subtropical climate, with somewhat cold but dry winters, and hot, humid summers. Monthly means range from 2 °C in January to 25.9 °C in August. Its location on the Korean peninsula results in a seasonal lag, with the warmest days being in August and averaging very near 30 °C. Precipitation is relatively low in the winter months, but is made up for by the high rainfall from April to September.
Is there anything else I should know about the overall character of your city or its people?
Koreans tend to be an "extreme" people with huge amounts of pride in their country. One great example: during the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Koreans brought their gold rings, necklaces and other jewellery to their local banks to help increase the country's foreign reserves. Another great example of this nationalistic pride was during the 2002 Football World Cup hosted by Korea and Japan. Nearly every Korean wore a "Be the Reds" t-shirt and supported their team throughout the tournament. People spent hours practicing specific cheers to support their national team, which in the end reached the semi-finals and beat many people's expectations ...except for the Koreans! There's a significant amount of pride in the Hyundai Group, as HHI has been the #1 shipyard in the world since the 1980s and Hyundai Kia Motor Company is now recognised as the 4th-largest automaker in the world.
Koreans work very hard, like to drink, eat very spicy food and are very determined to finish what they start. Korea is not the easiest country to live in as an expat, but with an open mind, a good sense of humour and a good bit of patience, people can and do have wonderful experiences living and working here.