South Korea is a great place to enjoy the expat experience. There is a lot to explore – the mountains, beaches, modern cities, and traditional temples. Korea has tons of natural beauty, a myriad of festivals, religious spectacles, and fascinating people that are open to sharing all the above with a little black girl from America. But, Covid-19 has changed the expat experience in Korea. Here are nine experiences I hope are never affected by the pandemic and that we can continue enjoying for years to come.
Intro to the Expat Experience in Korea
South Korea is a great home base to jump off to other parts of Asia. But you don’t have to leave the peninsula to enjoy some of the best experiences the Asian culture offers. The pandemic has changed the way we celebrate all around the world. Here are 9 Things I hope never changes the expat experience in Korea.
Daegu Lantern Festival
I’m not left speechless often, but the Daegu Dalgubeol Lantern Festival took my breath away and made me feel like a kid. The festival takes place in April in Daegu’s Durya Park and might be one of the prettiest things I’ve seen since moving to South Korea. Click here to see what I mean.
Busan Fireworks Festival
Fireworks are always fun. How do you describe one that lasts an hour, is synchronized to music, and includes lasers lights over the longest suspension bridge in South Korea that also changes colors? Add more than a million people on a sandy beach and you have a spectacle.
The Busan Fireworks Festival takes place every October on Gwangalli Beach in Busan. The festival includes cultural events and entertainment, high-tech laser light shows, and culminates with one of, if not the best, fireworks display I’ve ever seen. It is one of the area’s most popular festivals, drawing crowds of more than 1 million visitors every year. Although most people flock to the beach for a closer view of the festivities, nearby Hwangnyeongsan Mountain also offers a great view of the fireworks. Click here for the video.
The DMZ isn’t your typical tourist destination. Learning all the things that happened there, watching them watch and photograph you, is surreal. Signing the “possible death” waiver is downright creepy.
However, I did learn a lot, and seeing it firsthand put most of it into perspective. I was shocked to see Soviet asylum seekers’ distance to run with 20+ North Korean soldiers chasing and shooting at him. He made it, but he was hauling butt to freedom!!! Nothing brings it home until you see it for yourself.
Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival
I decided to spend my birthday in Jinhae (or Chinhae) a week ahead of the annual cherry blossom festival. I recommend going down there before OR after the festival that began April 1 last year and ran through the 10th. Even though the blooms weren’t wholly mature yet, it’s gorgeous, and there are already lots of people– but not the overwhelming crowds during the festival. The event also features street performers, food vendors, and nighttime fireworks.
Changdeokgung Palace and Secret Garden
I got a chance to watch the colorful changing of the guard ceremony at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul. It is one of the “Five Grand Palaces” built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty.
Although you cannot roam freely about in the Secret Garden, there are English (and other languages) guides that will escort you and relay the history. Known as a place of rest for the kings, the rear garden boasts a gigantic 300-year-old tree. I think it was my favorite of the five because of its stunning ponds and pavilions. Plus, there are tons of adorable cats roaming around. Buy a palace combo pass to save money. It is well worth it.
Climbing Seongsan Ilchulbong
We had to get up at 3 am to climb Seongsan Ilchulbong, Sunrise Peak. Not only did I see a fabulous sunrise, but I challenged myself to do the climb in the first place after arriving late. I couldn’t have made this hike two or three years ago – so I am proud of where I am and the possibilities of where I’ll be now that I have established goals and a fitness routine I can maintain for my next 30 summers.
All the hiking is paying off. I hit another milestone – 30+ pounds down. Not lost, gone. I know exactly where they are. I left them on many mountain trails, treadmills, ellipticals, and city streets all over South Korea. Lol
After being down and out for most of 2020, I feel so blessed with the weight gain, depression, and finally having back surgery. I feel like a new person. So this holiday has been spent looking for activities that reward the mind, body, and spirit rather than the appetite.
And all this without my first cup of coffee. And I also acknowledge this is ‘my thing,’ but Steven (my partner) made it happen with minimal complaint. I highly recommend the hike if you visit Jeju. It’s less than 50km from Jeju City but takes less than an hour to get there and 30-40 minutes of hustle to climb to the peak before sunrise.
Expat Life Tip: Get involved in the Community. I teach a free conversational English class to 5 ladies who have become my friends for life.
I did not come to Korea to teach English, so I was surprised when the ladies of DIWA asked me. The Daegu International Women’s Association is a joint club for foreigners and Koreans interested in each other’s culture. The ladies from Korea have different comfort levels and experiences with English. And for many of them, it’s their only experience with foreigners in Korea. Teaching English is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done here.
Busan Sand Castle Festival
We’ve gone to the Busan’s Haeundae Beach Sand Festival two years in a row because we both love the artistry involved in these contests. The detail and precision that go into these sculptures are incredible. The competitors come to Korea from around the world for weekend-long festivities and lifelong experiences. And Busan is our home away from home, just a little over an hour from home on the KTX train. The festival takes place one weekend in late May.
You should check out Seoknamsa Temple in Ulsan. Again, there is no shortage of temples to visit. One of my favorites is Seongnamsa Temple in Ulsan. It is stunning with a ton of history.
What makes this temple a must-see is that the monks are all women. The female monks are of different ages, welcoming and engaging. We talked about everything from religion to my hair and when I shaved my head. It was such an exceptional experience; it’s one of a few pictures I will keep for myself. Of course, I sent it to the monk too. I can’t get over the “monk & technology” thing. This past year, life as an expat in South Korea has been one experience after another.
While the expat experience is fun and exciting, just like with anything else, there are ups and downs. Click Here for tips on how to avoid expat burnout when times get rough.