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Living Like a Local in Seoul, South Korea

Gabriela Castelan has been teaching English in an elementary school in Seoul, South Korea for almost two years. She’s originally from New Jersey, U.S.A. You can follow her blog at

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: Imagine a company picnic in which you have to go hiking up a mountain for at least two hours with a giant backpack, food, drinks and gear — well, that scenario is actually not that uncommon in Korea. Many tourists probably don’t know how popular hiking is as a hobby for many Koreans. Hiking is not a joke here; Koreans are very serious about it. Many people spend their weekends going to different hiking areas, parks and mountains.

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: The worst culture shock was seeing how many people constantly push, shove and don’t form lines when it comes to getting on a train or bus. I had read about how forming lines isn’t really “a thing” here, but it was shocking to experience first-hand when I was terrified of using transportation to go anywhere! I barely notice it now, but it was amplified when I first arrived.

Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: Living in a foreign country has definitely made me a better traveler. Leaving the U.S. and coming to live on the other side of the world was a little scary, to say the least, but I feel it has given me a sense of adventure and the courage to visit other countries. You can’t be a good traveler without having that desire to travel, which is exactly what I feel living in Korea has given me. Even within Korea, there are places I have yet to see but definitely want to. Always wanting to know and see more is a key ingredient to becoming a better traveler.

Q: Which tourist attraction in Seoul is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: Going up to see Namsan Tower in Seoul feels a bit overrated. The view is gorgeous, and it’s interesting to see the many locks placed on the tower to signify either eternal love or friendship, but it’s crowded with people and there’s barely any room to take a nice picture without someone walking into your shot.

If you have some time to spend in Seoul, I would recommend going to Bukhansan National Park and climbing up Bukhansan Mountain. Note that it’s a bit of a strenuous climb though. A few friends and I made the mistake of thinking the hike would be similar to a nature walk. It wasn’t, and most of us stopped halfway through the hike, but one friend did make it to the top. He told us the view was spectacular, and you could really see how gorgeous Seoul looked. So if you’re fit and you really want a view of the city, Bukhansan is the place to go to.

Q: No one should visit South Korea without tasting ________.

A: Dolsot bibimbap. This amazing food is a mixture of vegetables, rice, beef and a fried egg. It’s all individually cooked and then put together in a hot stone pot called a dolsot. The rice is put at the bottom so the heat from the dolsot can give it a nice crunch. When it is served, it is up to you to finish the job by mixing all of the delicious ingredients together with your chopsticks or spoon and then digging in.

Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: I think the toughest part of being an expat is figuring out how not to feel lonely during the family-oriented holidays. South Korea has its own version of Thanksgiving that lasts for about three days. It’s pretty rough on expats because almost everything is closed; Koreans spend that time with their families. It can feel pretty lonely when you can’t spend time with your own family on holidays because they are so far away.

One of the most rewarding things of being an expat is recognizing the great things about this country. Seeing a way of life that is so different from my own is always a fascinating experience. Korea has an interesting culture; convenient, cheap and clean subways; safe neighborhoods and delicious food. Even after I leave South Korea, I know I will miss what I have experienced here.

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