Pre-Trip Tips for a Headache Free Arrival

Seoul is a big city. Wait, no let me revise that statement; Seoul is a huge city. At over 12 million people just in the city proper, Seoul is one of the world’s most populous cities, and when it comes time to travel from one side of Seoul to the other the city’s immense size shows.

You’ll want to master Seoul’s many different modes of transportation as soon as possible. For the people who are coming here on a short trip, becoming familiar with the transportation options here will give you more time to do the things you want to do. That is unless you really came to Seoul in order to stand close to some ahjummas on a subway while viewing Seoul’s sights from a subway window. For the people who are here for an extended period of time, mastering the transportation systems here will save you a lot of time in your everyday life, and believe me this adds up fast.

First, before you arrive in Korea I recommend downloading an app called ‘Jihachul’ to your smartphone or tablet if you have one. It is free but I would easily recommend it even if the cost of admissions was a few dollars. It is an absolute life saver for locals and tourists alike. Familiarize yourself with the subway map and the places you will be going — Seoul has over 120 subway stations and so it can be a little overwhelming at first.

Second, upon arrive in Korea buy a T-Money Card as soon as possible. A T-Money Card (T-Card) is an electronically chargeable transportation card. It can be purchased at most subway stations and convenient stores around Seoul for 3000 won (3 USD) and can be used when taking the subway, the bus, and even in taxis. Recharge stations are found at every subway station as well. I recommend keeping about 10,000 won on your card at all times just in case. The subway opens at about 5:00am and runs until 1:00am on weekdays and 12:00am on weekends. However don’t cut coming back too close to the closing time if you want to make it to your station.

The third tip of the day is one that my friends and I have learned the hard way. If you see a black taxi DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT TAKE IT! This tip is mostly relevant for the Seoul area as other cities have black taxis that are okay to take. In Seoul black taxis are more expensive than other taxis (acceptable colors being white, and silver taxis). The starting rate for a normal taxi is 2400 won however black taxis starting rate is about double that and the rates increase about twice as fast. Although you might hear people call them deluxe taxis, I have yet to see any difference in their quality during my few trips in them, other than the fact that one of the black taxis I took had curtains on the rear windows. So unless you are looking to throw away perfectly good cash or you want to pay homage to the old throwback of curtains in cars from way back when (See the VW Bus), then stay away from these tricky little cars. Be super wary of them at the airport. The drivers of these taxis will often take your backs – sometimes without even offering – speak a little English, and tell you they can take you anywhere. If you do decide one from Incheon International Airport, expect to pay about 100,000 won (about 100 USD) or more depending on your destination.

That being said I would say that all other taxis are an acceptable and reasonably priced mode of transportation. I would not take them everywhere or all of the time, but compared to the United States, taxis are relatively affordable here even on a student’s budget. The starting cost is about 2,400 won and unless you are going across Seoul fares are usually under 10,000 won even for taxis rides of decent lengths. Rates do go up a little after the subway closes, so keep that in mind for those late nights out in Gangnma or Hongdae.

Tip number four: Buses are also a great mode of transportation but can be a little more complicated to get used to. Bus schedules use less English and of course you have to be sure you are on the right bus. There are local buses, district buses, and intercity buses for the Seoul area, all of which can be identified by different colors and sizes. I myself usually use the subway because it is on tracks and I appreciate the peace of mind that comes in knowing it will always go where it is supposed to go. Admittedly I have found myself a little lost from time to time while taking the bus. If you are interested in busing it around Seoul from time to time I recommend that you download the “Seoul Bus” app. It has various bus routes in English and as long as you have internet on your phone it will tell you how long you have to wait until the next bus will arrive at each stop – so long as you know which stop you are waiting at or looking for.

My final tip for the day is to get a rental phone or a SIM card rental for your own phone if it is unlocked. This is true for short trips, but especially for extended trips. Whether or not you get a smartphone is up to you. Regardless, not being able to communicate with people you meet either from school or at work is an absolute pain. Banks and other institutions almost always require you to write down your phone number in conjunction with your e-mail address and place of residence and many of them know that a foreign phone number is likely to be inactive or useless. Rental phones can be had for about 1500 to 3000 won per day. This is usually sufficient for a decent amount of calls and texts. However if you are texting like it is the week before prom and you still don’t have a date then expect to pay more. There is also a deposit and you’ll need a valid credit card in order to rent a phone but for most this should not be a problem. I recommend going with a rental company here in Korea for better phones and services  although it is possible to rent a phone prior to your trip.  SK Telecom and KT Telecom are phone companies that I have used and have been happy with. They have kiosks and rental facilities at Incheon Airport conveniently located near the main exits. You can rent a smartphone from them as well (usually an iPhone) but this is quite a bit more expensive. I can say that having a smartphone in Korea is useful but it is up to you if it justifies the roughly 10,000 won cost per day and the roughly 700,000 won (about 700 USD) deposit.

I hope that these tips help you in your travels and can save you some time, some money and some headaches. I will upload more tips as soon as possible. Good luck and safe travels.

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Five Minute Kourse in Korean Etiquette

It should go without saying that Korean culture is not like anything we experience at home. For those of us who grew up in the western part of the world, Asian stands as one of the ultimate foreign frontiers to explore, and Korea represents one of the many unique cultures Asia has to offer.

Without going into too much detail of Korea’s history in this article, be sure to do a little homework before your trip here. As helpful as it can be to be able to speak Korean when you come here (although DON’T let your lack of Korean ability deter you from coming), being culturally aware during your time in Korea is even more important. I contend that the same should be said of any country that you find yourself travelling in that has a culture different than your own, however it is especially important here because no matter how you feel inside, on the outside you still look Korean; and this makes all of the difference.

61610_1489289083836_5412391_nThis in no way means that you need to be a master and an expert on all things Korean or related to Korean culture prior to coming, however a little effort and a little care goes a very long way. After all, Korea is a proud country with a rich history based on Confucianism, traditional values, and respect. The latter is especially important when meeting people who are older than you. In Korea, age matters. I’m not just talking about respecting your elders, I am talking about how a few years difference in age can change the dynamic of the relationship you make. It sounds complicated, but actually it is a matter of simple math and then treating the person with the higher number with more respect. This more respect usually comes in the form of Korean that you are using — Korean has different sentence and word endings that denote a varying level of respect. How you would speak with friends is not how you would speak with your elders, seniors, or strangers.

Gestures are also important in Korean culture, although to many foreigners they may seem subtle. Whereas at home it is likely you are used to a proper handshake as a form of introduction, a bow here will do (sometimes supplemented by a handshake). When in doubt, bow, bow, bow. Most of the time a slight bow will do such as when you see a friend or when you enter a restaurant. Generally speaking, the deeper the bow the greater the amount of respect that is shown. I am sure many of my friends back in America would just assume I was nodding my head a bit. Also, in terms of gestures, do your best to give and receive food, drinks, and gifts with two hands. This is especially true for any circumstance where you find yourself younger than the other person, but it is a good practice to get used to. The act of doing so shows respect for the person you are meeting with. Once you do this a few times it is not uncommon for the person to tell you it is okay to stop after a relationship or friendship is established.

If it is a little difficult to remember these things or even a little awkward just keep at it. Remember, you don’t have to try and be someone or something you’re not, just do your best to be culturally aware and open minded. I have met many different people in restaurants, in bars, and even in subway stations who were curious as to why I could speak English fluently and yet appeared to have act in a manner befitting of a Korean. It can be a conversation starter that leads to great memories and new friendships.

Housing Options Galore

When planning your trip to Korea for either a long term or short term period, it is always important to consider all of the different options for accommodations. Hotels seem like an obvious choice but these can be expensive. Seoul is a city of over 12 million people in the city proper and so space for citizens and visitors alike is not as easy to come by as it is at home. Also, because Seoul is so large you’ll want to be sure to be in a good location. Seoul’s subway system is great and efficient, but travelling for 40 minutes by subway one way everyday to meet a friend for coffee, or to go to one of Seoul’s many malls gets old. I have stayed in places that had a less than ideal location and I ended up spending 2 hours a day on the subway.

When considering hotels there are a lot of different options. First of all you’ll want to decide whether you want to stay at a western or Korean style hotel. Western hotels will be familiar to people from the US and Europe, including household names such as the Hilton, Marriott, Best Western, and Ramada hotels. Other comparable Korean hotels that are stylized after their western counterparts include the Koreana Hotel, the Lotte Hotel, the Hyundai Hotel (found in Gyeongju and Busan). Room prices for these hotels vary depending on the season and location but you can expect to spend around or above 200 USD per night to stay at one of these hotels. That being said, you will be getting some of the best and familiar accommodations Korea has to offer. These hotels will have a bilingual staff, western style beds, currency exchange services, and usually a western style breakfast brunch buffet.

If you’re looking to save a little money on your trip to Korea but still want to have the privacy of your own hotel room you can look into staying at one of the many motels found throughout Korea. I should say at this point that these motels are often referred to as “Love Motels” by Koreans and foreigners alike as they provide cheap places for people to well…you know…have private time together as a couple. These motels can be booked online at any travel site such as Expedia, or Orbitz and for the most part they are decent considering the price. Do your research on these motels and ask around before booking your reservation because some of them can by more questionable and seedy than others. Prices for rooms at these types of motels range from about 40 USD to 60 USD. Not a bad deal for a room with a private shower, air-conditioning, and most of the amenities offered at the more expensive hotels. However many of these motels will not have an English speaking staff, so keep that in mind.

For adoptees who are travelling in Korea and are really on a budget or are interested in a new experience and staying in a place where it is easy to meet other adoptees, definitely consider staying at any one of the adoptee guesthouses in Korea. In Seoul there are three guest houses that I know of, the first being the guesthouse at Holt International’s Post Adoption Services Office. The rates are about 45 USD per night, but unlike the other guest houses this does get you your private room. The guest house is literally on the fourth floor of the office and it is located in the Mapo District of West Seoul. This guest house is really just a place to stay though as in my friend’s experience it was a little awkward at times staying in the same building that the Holt employees worked at, and there is not the same opportunities for social interaction with other adoptees as there is at the next to locations I will discuss.

Woori Jip (Meaning “our house” in Korean) is another great place to stay for adoptees who are looking to stay in Korea on a budget. Woori Jip is run by the post adoption services organization InKas. For more information on InKas be sure to check out the article about the different post adoption services organizations found in Korea. Woori Jip is an actual home which is a nice set up because guests have full use of the house including the TV room, living room and kitchen. Each room houses a few guests but you will have your own closet and desk. Also the staff is very nice and helpful as well. The cost to stay at Woori Jip is  roughly 300 USD per month. However this does not include the mandatory fee of about 110 USD for bedding. The fee is a one time fee as you purchase the bedding you will use during your stay at Woori Jip. Woori Jip is ideal for longer trips or adoptees who are studying here in Korea. Also, in order to stay at Woori Jip you must be an active member of InKas which means you should sign up at their website (http://www.inkas.or.kr) and pay 30 USD per year to maintain an active membership status. Woor Jip is in located in Sinchon, near central Seoul, north of the Han River. This location is close to Yonsei University and the Hongdae areas which is a popular hot spot of locals and tourists alike.

The KoRoot guesthouse is also a great place to stay and meet other adoptees during your trip in Korea. The KoRoot guesthouse is ran by KoRoot, an organization that helps adoptees who are returning to Korea and advocates for political action on adoptee related issues in Korea. The cost to stay at the guest house is about 15 USD and this includes your bedding, breakfast, and a home cooked lunch (except on the weekends). Like Woori Jip, the KoRoot guesthouse is an actual home and so adoptees have access to all of the home’s amenities such as the TV/lounge area, kitchen, and dining room. The are different guestrooms depending on your needs. KoRoot has one room dedicated to men, one to women, a couples room with a queen size bed, and a separate room for families. The couples room is slightly more in terms of cost. Also you can expect to meet many adoptees from around the world while staying at KoRoot, depending on the time of year. This is a great way to make new friends and have a group to go out with if you don’t know many people in Seoul. KoRoot is also air-conditioned during the summers and heated (floors included) in the winter. KoRoot has a great staff who is always ready to help its guests with translation services, tour tips, and even ordering deliver food. For reservations be sure to contact KoRoot via e-mail prior to your trip. Their e-mail can be found on their website along with more information (http://www.koroot.org/). KoRoot is about a 10 to 15 minute walk away from Gyeongbokgung Station although there is a bus stop in front of KoRoot as well. KoRoot is located in central Seoul north of the Han River.

Aside from these options you can also look into staying at other hostels in Korea. Hostels are a cheap alternative to hotels and some even offer private rooms for a slightly higher rate. You can expect to pay about 15 USD per night for a group room, give or take a few dollars. Hi Seoul Youth Hostel is a particularly nice hostel built in 2011 (http://www.hiseoulyh.com/eng/).

Seoul Food

At first glance many people including adoptees might find themselves averse to Korean food. Despite being declared one of the healthiest foods that the western world isn’t eating (or smelling), Kimchi isn’t the only food to come for Korea, nor is it the most delicious. Korean food has recently gained popularity in other countries in the form of endless amounts of marinated beef and pork at Korean BBQ restaurants. For those who prefer a more vegetarian diet, bibimbap or kimbap have also gained popularity in cities around the US as a healthy lunch and portable snack.

41163_1484907374296_7671926_nAlthough with its dramas and movies, one of Korea’s greatest cultural delights comes in the form of fermented vegetables and delectably tender meats. These days I find myself much more concerned with “what amazing food we will eat today”, as opposed to concerning myself with such trivial manners such as “where will we go?”

It should also be noted that Korea, specifically Seoul, is becoming more and more international everyday. Although it might not be as easy as in a city such as Los Angeles or New York, it is very possible to find world class food from around the world in this city of 12 million people. Craving pasta? No problem. The Seocho area of Seoul is home to a number of authentic Italian restaurants and French Bakeries. I even had the great pleasure of going to one where the chef spoke only Italian! Need to get your burger fix? Korea has a seemingly endless number of burger restaurants that have western burgers from home and new innovative burgers that are sure to longing for the days when you could eat a burger in Korea, even while you’re home in the US.

46712_1484913374446_1200422_nThis page of the blog is dedicated to bringing you information about the best places to eat in Seoul. I will do my best to supplement articles with pictures and directions as well.

Oh, and during your time in Korea you can expect to have kimchi’s rather unique flavor and aroma grow on you. Much like the finer things in life such as wine or coffee, kimchi is an acquired taste. Keep at it for long enough and you’ll be a true kimchiphile in no time at all — you’ll probably be healthier for it too.

A Crash Course in Language Opportunities

As an adoptee from Korea or as anyone who might be interested in learning Korean for whatever reason Korea has many language programs all over the country. Although many of the programs are found at universities in Seoul, you can also check out other cities such as Busan for formal language learning opportunities. Programs here are generally about 10 weeks long and will include about 4 hours of class time per day. Each program varies from school to school so be sure to do proper research on each university’s program prior to making your decision. Of course at any program you can expect to learn Korean, some programs focus more on conversational Korean, while others focus on reading and writing. Be forewarned, the program type and focus can make a big difference. Some names to consider and checkout in Seoul include Yonsei, Kyunghee University, Sook Myung University, Sogang University, and Ewha University. If none of those names sound familiar, don’t worry. I will post more information about the universities later.

For anyone who is interested in learning Korean here in Korea I would highly encourage you to look into all of these programs as possible options. I found out the hard way that if any part of you wants to learn Korean, that desire isn’t something that just goes away on its own. I spent time focusing on learning French instead of Korean because I was not sure how much I would use Korean in my life and that decision only delayed my Korean studies for a few years (Anyone who knows me can tell you that despite taking the time to learn French I still can’t speak it). Obviously travelling in Korea becomes easier the more Korean you know, but more than that learning Korean can be an invaluable asset when trying to pursue such endeavors as locating family members, meeting Korean friends, and avoiding the common awkward yet mildly humorous conversation with Korean taxi drivers or restaurant owners. Remember, even if you don’t feel Korean, you look the part and so people will have the expectation that you speak Korean. This little caveat shouldn’t deter you from coming to Korea but it is something that you should know before coming here. Currently there are many adoptees and foreign born Koreans who are in Korea for a wide variety of reasons, many of whom do not speak Korean or are currently in the process of learning Korean so you are not alone. That being said, I believe it is in the case in any country, when you take the time to use someone’s native language it shows respect to that person and their culture. After all, when travelling in another country why should anyone be so arrogant as to assume that everyone else will speak the same language? A little effort goes a long way.

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King Sejong – the creator of the Hangul

Additionally, when considering whether or not you should take part in a language program that will bring you to a foreign country for a few months or longer costs are sure to be in the forefront of your mind. Costs of each program vary between universities but in general, tuition is around 1000 to 1600 USD. This does not usually include room and board which again varies, but is generally speaking around 500 USD a month. While for some this costs may seem daunting, there are MANY scholarships out there for adoptees trying to learn and study Korean in Korea. Holt International, InKas, and G.O.A.L. are all organizations that help with post adoption services and offer various scholarships to adoptees. These scholarships usually cover about 50% of tuition costs but some programs such as the Holt Homecoming Program cover all of the tuition and room and board costs for up to two quarters (20 weeks). I will post a separate article about each of these organizations and the scholarships that they offer as to not take up even more space here.

In short my advice is this: If you’re interested in coming to Korea to learn the language and you have the time and resources, don’t wait. Give your self a chance to have a new experience in a foreign country while you can. Is it for everyone? No, but if you think you might like it, do yourself a favor and look into it. ALSO, get all of the necessary documents ready and apply early. For many scholarships you will need to have an apostilled criminal background check performed by the FBI. These checks can take anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks, and they will take the full amount of time to be processed and mailed back to you.

If you have any questions feel free to leave a reply to this post and I will try to answer them in a timely manner as best as I can.

Pre-Trip Thoughts and Considerations

First things first: For whatever reasons you are coming to Korea, make sure that the reasons are your own. In my experience travelling to Korea your first trip here, or really even your first few trips here will be nothing like any other vacation that you have taken in the past. Whether you come here with a group of adoptees on a trip facilitated by one of the Post Adoption Service Organizations (PASO) here in Korea, your family, you closest friends and confidants, or alone is obviously up to you, but make sure that your heart and your head are ready for WHATEVER might come your way. I want to emphasize this point before proceeding onto the finer details of what you can expect because in all honesty no matter how much you plan for, and how many thousands upon thousands mental situations you put yourself though prior to your trip there is no guarantee that you will come back home the same person that you were. That being said there is also no guarantee that you will change either. None of this is said to deter anyone from taking their first steps back in the country of their birth; if anything I would only want to whole heartedly encourage each adoptee I meet to at least take one trip back to Korea. However, I also think that too often adoptees and adoptee organizations overlook the important details and emotional repercussions that could very well change the way one thinks, feels, and acts. The best advice that I can offer anyone who finds themselves walking out of Incheon International Airport and headed towards Seoul for the first time is this: Remember who you are, remember where you came from and be open to whatever will come your way during your trip and everyday after.

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Night view of Seoul. Taken at Seoul N Tower

Coming back to Korea is a big deal. Even if we don’t admit it to anyone but ourselves. For some the decision to come back is an easy one. For other people it can take years to finally decide to come back. Although I have my own opinions on which I think is easier to handle (although not necessarily better) I would suggest that the decision to come back is one that is made while keeping the thoughts and feelings of our loved ones in mind. I realize that some people are more private than others, I myself being a very private person with the exception of a few people, but life was not made to go through alone. Without trying to preach for the sake of preaching I truly believe that the best moments in our lives will be the moments we share with the people we love, and I think that Korea and the memories that have been made and will be made here are no different. I was lucky to take my first trip to Korea with a group of my friends whom I had met in high school and through Taekwondo. If anything the trip only brought us closer and to me, that group of people will always hold a special place in my heart because together we broke and ate hodduk, we drank glass after class of cold soju, and we travelled to places together that I have not even walked with the people whom I share the same blood with. Even without them knowing each one of those people whom I had the privilage of travelling with touched my life and made an impression on my memory in a way that few people have. I am fortunate enough to say that every trip I have taken to Korean since then has only added to the wealth of memories and friendships that have been cemented into my memory and helped shape who I am.

Long story short is this: much like a trip to Las Vegas, anything can happen when you come to Korea. However, unlike Las Vegas your trip to Korea is much more likely to be journey that has been a longtime in the making as a defining part of who you who you are, who you could have been, and who you will be. Be open, be optimistic, and be sure to include the people you love and care about. Safe travels.

Note: Like Vegas it is also very well possible that your trip to Korea could be filled with alcohol and subsequently short term memory loss. For anyone who is unsure of what I mean by this, be sure to check out my post about “soju,” or at least take the time to Google it.