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Seoul, the smart city that never sleeps, is home to a staggering quarter of South Korea’s population. This progressive East Asian megacity, sprawled along the banks of the Han River, is the largest in the developed world.
Its history may date back over more than 2000 years to 18BC, but Seoul’s eyes are fixed firmly on the future. Here, more than 95% of households have broadband, smart apartments are remotely controlled from cell phones and central keypads, and handheld free-call Internet phones (think Skype) are the norm.
"Seoul is for service"; here, you don’t just get a (genuine) smile with the service, you’ll more than likely get a host of freebies as well. To top it off, no tip is expected in return.
Seoul’s citizens work longer hours than any other city's, and it is the norm for families to spend 15% of the household income on after-school tutoring. This is one of few cities where you can find an abundance of 24-hour study rooms for hire by the hour.
This incredibly strong work ethic has given rise to enormous demand for play time, a release from the stress of school and office. The city lets off its steam in a plethora of bang (rooms). Teens can do their best PSY impression at a norae bang (karaoke lounge), hang out and watch movies in a DVD bang, play poker at a board game bang or play runescape at a PC bang (internet café).
For adults, saunas, markets, malls, convenience stores, cinemas, Internet cafés and restaurants stay open all night, and it is not uncommon to see business men staggering out of bars and nightclubs at dawn.
You can’t help but dive into Korean culture; the local cuisine is incredibly healthy, remarkably appetizing (though perhaps pass on the live octopus) and reasonably priced. The city’s local and international art scene is currently flourishing and it is fast becoming a regional fashion mecca. Seoul has steadily grown in international importance; Forbes magazine recently ranked it 6th among the world’s most economically powerful cities, while PricewaterhouseCoopers projects that by 2020, it will surpass Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston and Miami in GDP.
What is special or unique about your city?
While Korea has been referred to as "The Land of the Morning Calm" and "The Hermit Kingdom", these titles are no longer appropriate for the dynamic, fast-paced city that Seoul, the capital city, has become.
The city is bisected by the Han River into north and south and is home to kimchi, the staple of the Korean diet. Seoul has been host to such international events as the 1988 Olympics, the 2002 World Cup and the G-20 Summit in 2010.
Tae-kwon-do is the National Sport; global headquarters are in Seoul.
There are a number of world-class companies, such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG whose brands are recognized all over the world.
There are many palaces, museums, cultural sites and festivals to experience and explore. Skiing and skating are popular in the winter and biking, hiking and swimming are popular in the summer, spring and fall.
What are a newcomer's first impressions of your city?
For most, their first impressions are somewhat of a surprise, meaning that people are typically surprised at what a big, modern city Seoul is, filled with technology, shops, an extensive subway system, countless number of high-rise apartment complexes, traffic, crowded streets, etc. There is a very unique mixture of new and old in Seoul.
There are also a few initial challenges people face, often due to the language barrier, cultural differences and navigating around in a big city.
Are these impressions likely to change?
Many of these impressions will not change specifically, but what does often change is people's appreciation of this dynamic city. Once people learn the basics of the language and gain an understanding of the history and culture, they tend to become quite fascinated by Seoul 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 Seoul and the nation. There was significant self-sacrifice in order to achieve what Korea has in such a short amount of time.
The government has also taken big steps to improve the living conditions of ‘Seoulites’ and make the city a great place to live in. There was a restoration project in 2003-2005 for a stream in the heart of the city, Cheonggyecheon stream, which is now enjoyed by thousands every day in the city. Seoul is a very intriguing place with some excellent contrasts between old and new, especially in downtown Seoul.
By and large, people adapt to living in this city, and begin to even enjoy it. The cultural and language barriers do not go away; they just 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 is the local language?
Korean or Hangul.
How easily could I live in this city without knowing this language?
It's getting easier, as more and more people are speaking English, 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 phonetical.
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 neighborhood. It will keep your neighbors happy!
How might the local weather affect my daily life?
There are four distinct seasons in Seoul. The spring and fall are spectacular, with beautiful flowers blooming in the spring, and the foliage in the fall. The winter is cold and dry, with some strikingly clear, blue skies. The summer is hot and humid, including a rainy season sometime usually in July or August. People need to have appropriate clothing for the four seasons. Many also invest in a humidifier and dehumidifier for their homes to cope with the winter and summer seasons.
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 2007 Asian economic crisis, Koreans brought their gold rings, necklaces and other jewelry 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!
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 humor and a good bit of patience, people can and do have wonderful experiences living and working here.