South Korea: Why I prefer to live in the East rather than the West

Published: June 16, 2013
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The Han River. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Han River. PHOTO: REUTERS The language barrier shouldn't stop you from visiting this beautiful place. It is worthy of your time and money. PHOTO: AFP

After reading an article on life in South Korea, I decided I should add to it by writing about my own experiences here. I came to Seoul in December 2012, bang in the dead of winter. There was snow everywhere!

Being a fan of K-pop, I knew about Seoul or I thought I knew a lot about it! I expected buildings, trains, well-built roads and busy people all around in one of the most overpopulated cities in the world. What I didn’t expect was the striking natural beauty; stunning mountains and the breathtaking view of the Han River is what I’m talking about!

The Han river

Seoul Grand Park

Later, my friends and I went to see the light show that happens every night around 8pm to 9pm. We visited one of the many bridges that divide the North of Seoul from the South of Seoul. This place is called Banpo Park and is frequented by couples, families, friends and those who enjoy a nice walk or love to ride bikes.

When I first came here, I was a bit afraid because I had read too many articles about Koreans being ‘racist’. However, this was not true. I stood shivering in the cold early in the morning of my second day in Seoul. A woman walked up to me and asked if I was American. I told her I was from Pakistan.

At this point I wasn’t sure how she would react to my country but she smiled and said,

“Ah, Pakistan! Well, you’re very pretty.”

I was taken aback because strangers don’t really offer compliments so openly back home. In my broken Korean, I told her that I needed to catch a cab. She nodded, stopped a cab for me and told the driver to take me to the place I needed to go.

Hospitable and polite is all I have seen here.

So far, the taxi drivers have been extremely kind, going as far as offering me candy, conversing with me and giving me advice. Taxis in Seoul are a little expensive because the meter charges you per time and not per distance.

Seoul has an impressive public transport system and I usually use the subway or a bus because as I’m on a student budget after all. You simply purchase a transport card from a nearby store, top it with cash and use it for public transport. It is extremely convenient.

Another thing that impressed me was the promotion of their local brands rather than international ones. It is almost impossible to find international products at any local store. You usually need to go to Itaewon for that. Itaewon is an area which is frequented by foreigners and has a lot of foreign restaurants and shops. There’s even a Pakistani restaurant here by the name of Usmania, which I am dying to try out.

A famous South Korean cosmetic company

Gangnam is an area in Seoul, on which the song Gangnam Style is based. It’s actually one of the more affluent areas in Seoul, comprising Cheongdam and Apgujeong. Apgujeong is known as the ‘Celebrity Street’, where most actors and singers live and shop. Needless to say, it is not a place for people on a budget but fun to roam around in, nevertheless.

Apgujeong area

Myeongdong is another place that is popular with Koreans and foreigners alike. It is full of cafés, shops and K-pop merchandise. It, too, is expensive and very crowded.

Korean food tends to be a bit on the spicy side, but if you are from Pakistan, nothing can take you by surprise. The spiciest food so far has been ‘ddeokboki’, which is rice cakes mixed in chilli sauce. It is delicious, especially if you’re shivering in the -13° C and having it from one of the food stands along the road with friends.

Street food in Korea

Koreans eat a lot of pork but there are always other options. ‘Bibimbap’ is one of my personal favourites. It’s usually a mix of vegetables and rice but sometimes has chicken, depending on what you order.

South Korea seems to be unheard of and I was mocked at when I told people that I plan to live here in the future as well because it is a common choice amongst people my age to prefer the West. However so far, so good; I have no regrets.

The East has been great to me. Aside from the language barrier, there is nothing that could make you dislike Korea. The people are inviting, the scenery is breathtaking and Seoul itself is a sleepless city.

Korea is not just Gangnam Style. There is so much more to this amazing country and its people. The history and culture is extremely interesting, and traditional areas such as Insadong really showcase Korean traditions.

If you plan on visiting South Korea, do brush up on your Korean because hardly anyone speaks English here. However, the language barrier shouldn’t stop you from visiting this beautiful place. It is worthy of your time and money.

PHOTOS: HERA IFTIKHAR

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Hera Iftikhar

A 20-year-old graduate from Nixor College who is currently studying Korean at Seoul National University. She is living the dream in Seoul whilst planning for the future.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.