About half the population identifies as Christian, which accounts for all the red neon crosses in the city night sky, and the other half identifies as Buddhist, which leaves you with a lot of old, beautifully painted temples to explore. Most small towns and many remote mountaintops have got a temple, and bigger cities have several each. Some temples, such as Bong Eun-sa in Seoul, offer temple-stay programs where you can get a more intensive Buddhist experience, trying out the food, dress, and lifestyle of a monk, even if just for a day or two. Otherwise, most temples have regular visiting hours when anyone is welcome to enter the grounds for a stroll or just to have a look. Note that removing your shoes is considered polite in most indoor temple spaces.
Public transportation in South Korea is great in a lot of ways. It’s generally cheap, quick, and reliable. Subways operate in only a few major cities. By far the most extensive metro system is in Seoul, with several very long and interconnecting lines. You must buy a T-money card from a kiosk in or near a subway station, then load money onto it at the station agent’s window or at an automated machine (these operate in English and Korean, the station agent may not). You tap the card at the turnstile to enter the subway, and tap it again on your way out once you’ve reached your destination, and your card is charged based on distance travelled. The subways operate until roughly midnight, a bit later on weekends.
The food in South Korea is very different and takes time to enjoy it. When I first moved into my apartment in Seoul, I could hardly bare to the open the refrigerator door for fear of the aroma that would pour out and linger in the room for an uncomfortably long period of time. Fortunately enough, I would soon become very familiar with the stench of Korea’s national dish, kimchi. There are a few variations on this delicacy, but the basic idea is white cabbage with hot chili pepper paste, soaked in vinegar and left to ferment for several days in enormous clay pots. It is reportedly good for digestion and very high in vitamin C. For many, this dish has an acquired taste, but if you are eating a truly Korean diet it will be served at 3 meals a day, every day, and you will learn to distinguish homemade from store-bought, which ratios of garlic and chili pepper you prefer, and so on. Personally, I wasn’t too enthusiastic at first, but after a little while I learned to love it, to the point that I now make it at home in New York City.
Grocery shopping can be done at large chains like Homeplus (owned by the British company Tesco), Grandmart, or E-Mart. They are a lot like Walmart and offer a mix of clothing, housewares, and food (Mostly Korean with a bit of foreign produce). In smaller towns such large chains may not be available, in which case you will probably find a small H-Mart or other grocery store selling mostly Korean products. A great way to try out local food and get fresh produce is to shop at outdoor markets. NamDaeMun (pictured below) is a big one in Seoul. Most other cities have similar outdoor markets for food, clothing, gifts, and other miscellaneous items.
Korean culture is collective. Family, social connections, and a feeling of oneness are extremely important in Korean society. Most Western cultures by contrast, are individualistic. Growing up in New York, I was taught to value uniqueness and creativity, so the Korean emphasis on sameness did not appeal to me right away.
Language can be one of the more daunting parts of living in Asia. If you are in or around Seoul you may find some signs in English and some Korean English-speakers, not to mention a large community of English-speaking expats, but if you are outside the capital city, English usage can be quite sparse. Most teaching jobs do not require any knowledge of Korean, especially programs that favor immersion-style learning. Many expats live successfully in Korea for many years without ever learning any Korean, it IS possible, but a cursory understanding can get you far in your day-to-day life.
I arrived in Seoul around midnight on a Friday, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived with two bags of what I deemed my most important possessions at the time.