Living in South Korea as a British Expat in Daejeon

Living in South Korea as a British Expat in Daejeon

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I’ve been living in Daejeon, South Korea, for over 5 years now and I honestly can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather live in the Land of the Morning Calm, as Korea is also known. During those 5 years I’ve explored almost every nook and cranny of Daejeon I can find. I’ve visited new cafes as they pop up, checked out restaurants selling the latest hot food trend that comes and goes in waves in Korea, and got to know each district and neighbourhood like the back of my hand. Here’s my story of moving to Daejeon and advice for living in South Korea.

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living in south korea expat life

As a Brit, born and raised on the south coast of England, I appreciate natural beauty and the ability to live somewhere peaceful, yet have large cities (namely London) nearby. Living in Daejeon gives me both of these. It’s surrounded by mountains and national parks, and you can reach Seoul in an hour on the high-speed train. These are just two of the reasons why I love living here. 

That’s not to say that Daejeon is a sleepy countryside town, far from it. It’s one of the largest cities in Korea with a population of more than 1.5 million residents. However, it’s spread out over a large area and never really feels like a big city. It has few tourist attractions, and the city is designed for its citizens, not the travelling masses. This means that life is a bit slower, there are lots of parks to sit in and enjoy the long summers, and people are a bit more friendly than you’d normally find in bustling metropolises. 

One of the other reasons I love living in Daejeon include the relaxed, late night culture that’s present here. I’m a night owl, so having cafes, restaurants, bars, and even shops that are open until midnight or beyond makes wandering around at night a lot more interesting. Feeling peckish after a night out? There’s a wide choice of restaurants where I can get my fix of delicious traditional Korean dishes, such as gamjatang, kimchi jjigae, or sundae.  

Landing in Daejeon

Even though Korea is a homogenous country with not that many foreign residents, Daejeon is lucky to have a large international community, mainly thanks to the top universities and research centers that the city is famous for. Daejeon is known as the Silicon Valley of Korea. All this makes it possible to have social clubs and a sense of community, both with the foreign and local residents in Daejeon. 

Living in Daejeon is the closest I’ve got to finding a home since first moving overseas to start my expat life 10 years ago. I don’t know if I’ll live in Daejeon permanently, but I know that I certainly enjoy living here for now and will continue to make the most of life in this modern, safe, beautiful city. 

I didn’t choose Daejeon when I moved to Korea, I was placed here when I applied for the EPIK Program – Korea’s native teacher program that places native English-speaking teachers into public schools. The EPIK Program is an amazing way to experience life working and teaching in Korea and they helped me get my first apartment, sorted out my visa, and also made sure that the little things like getting a bank account and mobile phone were set up. 

If you’re planning to move to Korea and want to try life as an English teacher (a great gateway job to other jobs in Korea and overseas), then I’d really recommend joining the EPIK Program in Korea. I’ve moved on from EPIK and now teach at a Korean university, which is just one of the options if you want to keep living in Korea as an expat.

Expat Life While Living in South Korea

daily living in south korea daejeon

Making Friends in South Korea

As I mentioned, there’s a strong international community in Daejeon that has welcomed me and I’m glad to be a part of several groups for my many interests, including hiking (a big part of my life here in Korea), board gaming (perfect for those long, dark winter days), futsal (the Brit in me loves a good kick around), and many more. 

I started off the way most foreign teachers do in Korea – hanging out with other new teachers who have just arrived and are ooh-ing and aah-ing their way through every restaurant, bar, and night club in town. Daejeon has a lot of these, and the first few months of living in Daejeon saw many late nights and dizzy mornings. I’m lucky in that I live close to the city center – next to a lot of the main bars and clubs. Walking home late at night is so convenient and, in Korea, very safe. 

As time moved on, I made friends in other places. From clubs and events that I found on Facebook groups (such as Daejeon Peeps), or from recommendations from other friends. I explored further afield than the local bars and clubs to find smaller restaurants with cheap all-you-can-eat BBQ, locally made craft beer, and even a chip shop! I went from the usual chain restaurants to finding those amazing restaurants that you want to tell your friends about; the cozy places with the friendliest staff and extra generous portions because they reward their regular customers.

Learning Korean While Living in Daejeon, South Korea

Learning the language has probably been the hardest part of living in Daejeon, and yet also one that hasn’t troubled me too much after my first year. I started learning Korean at the local government-provided language classes, which were free and helped me learn a lot of Korean quickly. However, after a year of those classes, my schedule changed and I could no longer attend the classes. 

I’ve unfortunately not studied Korean as diligently as I did back then, but I’ve been able to keep learning through exposure to Korean in my daily life, as well as through necessity when having to do things with no one around to help, such as when my boiler broke and I had no hot water and had to get it fixed ASAP.

Getting Around While Living in South Korea

Aside from the language issues, which will probably always be something that causes misunderstandings and funny mix-ups from time to time, my quality of life in Daejeon has been awesome. Life is very convenient, especially when you live in the city center. There are lots of great public transport options, you can get pretty much anything delivered to your house when you need it. The cost of living in Daejeon is low, allowing me to save a lot of money each year. 

Daejeon is located in the heart of Korea, a crucial junction that leads to most other cities on a high speed train network that whisks you to Seoul or Busan in no time at all. This has made it really easy to explore lots of other parts of Korea and allows me to take weekend breaks to Seoul when I’ve a couple of days free. 

Living in Daejeon has been comparatively simple to some of the other cities I’ve lived in as an expat (Hong Kong, Sydney, a small town in Japan). Although language is an issue at times, I can navigate my way around restaurants and shops thanks to an abundance of English signs and simple Korean phrases. 

Korea embraces technology in many ways, which makes life a lot simpler, too. I can use my bank card to pay for transportation, order whatever I want to eat with an app, send money back home, book tickets for movies on my way to the cinema, and navigate with map apps even in the most remote of regions.

Adjusting to Life in South Korea

One of the most amazing changes in life is the feeling of security and personal safety that you get from living in Daejeon, and in Korea as a whole. I can put my phone or wallet on a table and know it won’t be moved or stolen. I never feel threatened as I walk around, even when I go down the darkest alleys late at night. I’ve not been mugged, pushed about, worried about theft or abuse, or in any way felt that uncomfortable. There have been a few incidences of xenophobia and prejudice from some of the older generations, I won’t lie about that, but after a while you learn to wave them away and laugh them off. 

Whilst this makes life incredibly comfortable, I’m also worried that it makes me too trusting and that the next time I go travelling or visit home, I might forget to be a bit more careful with my possessions and tuck them away safely. I need to be more paranoid when travelling after living here for so long!

Staying Connected to the United Kingdom

I’ve not been back to the UK for a couple of years now – that’s one problem with living on the other side of the world. Flying from Seoul to London is a big cost in both time and money, and Asia has so many attractive, cheap locations to check out that it’s hard to justify heading back to somewhere you know so well already. Still, I miss my family and plan to travel back when possible, at least once every year or two. 

As mentioned, Korea is technologically advanced (with super-fast internet that costs barely anything), so keeping in touch with friends and family back home isn’t that hard. Regular Skype calls and messages really help when living overseas and seeing pictures of everyone growing up (or growing old) helps to keep me connected to my life back home in England.

Reverse Culture Shock as an Expat in South Korea

"Trying to find your identity as an expat in Korea, or any country, is like trying to interpret the meaning or intention of an artistic masterpiece. You know that there’s some meaning you’re meant to draw from it, some message, but you’re not sure how it makes you feel and whether it’s good or bad."

Joel, on expat life in South Korea

Whenever I do return home to England, I definitely experience both reverse culture shock (the feeling that this culture is new or alien to you, even though you have experienced it for most of your life) and a sense of homeliness. The longer I live overseas, the more acute the shock and the stronger the sense of warmth from being home becomes. I don’t know if other expats feel this, but it’s something that I’ve noticed more as I live more of my life abroad. 

When I return back to England, and all the ooh-ing and aah-ing from trying out the foods that I’ve missed has subsided, it’s usually time to head back on the plane and therefore I never really get to experience that deeper sense of culture shock that comes when you’re forced to assess what this culture means to you and where your place is in it. 

That’s something that I’ve had to work out during my time living in Daejeon. Trying to find your identity as an expat in Korea, or any country, is like trying to interpret the meaning or intention of an artistic masterpiece. You know that there’s some meaning you’re meant to draw from it, some message, but you’re not sure how it makes you feel and whether it’s good or bad. This takes time. Six months. A year. A decade. Maybe even a lifetime.

British Expat or an Immigrant in Korea?

Have I found my identity as an expat? Should I identify myself as an expat as opposed to a citizen living in Daejeon? I don’t know. Maybe it’s too early to tell. I’ve certainly grown to feel at home in Daejeon, and the thought of moving somewhere else makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, which is surprising for me as I love to move around. Will I stay in Daejeon forever? Definitely not. My wanderlust is far too strong for that! 

Do I feel like a local? That’s a tough question. Does anyone feel like a ‘local’ in a large metropolis with over a million people? Maybe not? For me, being local means getting recognized in your favourite restaurants and cafes, knowing lots of people and bumping into them at random times, being a part of clubs, and making regular plans. I definitely have all those parts of the puzzle, so I guess I’m a local. A foreign local.

Working in South Korea

Teaching English in South Korea

Working in Korea as an English teacher seems to be one of those jobs that you do for a year and then return home with a basket of fond memories and experiences to share with your friends, or a calling that turns you into a teacher. I’ve seen a bucket load of the first kind, with lots of friends leaving Korea after a year or two (miss you guys!), but also a few ‘lifers’ who have stayed behind in Daejeon, or moved on to other parts of Korea, and have thrived (or survived!) in this field. 

I worked with EPIK for 5 years, teaching elementary and middle school children the joys of learning English, trying my best to show them that it’s a tool to help them expand their world view, understand other cultures, and to communicate with all of us strange foreigners. It’s not just another subject that they have to memorise and regurgitate to pass an exam. Honestly!

I taught English in Japan and Hong Kong before moving to Korea and I have to say that this was the best of the three experiences. I’ll never forget my time in Japan. It was incredible and the start of my teaching journey and expat life in Asia. The kids were funny, memorable, unusual, and full of life. However, the teaching side of things has been better in Korea. That’s mostly because I had a different position to what I had in Japan and I think if I went to teach in another part of Japan right now, I might have just as incredible an experience.

Work Culture in South Korea

living in south korea temple

The working culture in Korea is similar to Japan – a lot of it is hierarchy based, as well as focused on passing exams. That’s not always conducive to effective learning language, which is one of my major complaints about working in both places. However, that’s part of the culture and something you have to adapt to and understand in order to survive as an expat. 

There is a strong focus on learning and education, which is certainly something I can get behind and appreciate. Korean teachers do a lot in Korea, playing the role of a nanny as much as an educator. That’s not something that expats in Korea have to worry about so much, but as a foreign teacher, it’s something you should be aware of. It’s given me a real appreciation for how hard Korean teachers work and how much society expects from them. I expect it’s the same in most societies around the world. Please show love to teachers if you agree!

There are many other ways that the work culture in Daejeon is different from the work culture back in England. Although I’ve never been a teacher in England, I do know some general cultural norms that I can compare to. For instance, in Korea, people are expected to follow the general consensus (or, more often, the will of your boss), which makes decision making and giving opinions a tricky business. For those who are highly opinionated, this can be one of the hardest parts of adapting to life in Korea.

Fitting in While Working in South Korea

On the flip side, there’s a strong focus on teamwork and the work culture focuses on everyone enjoying time together, with lots of organized work parties and social events to help people gel together. Whether or not those are always welcome is a different issue, but at least there’s an effort to create work harmony. 

There have been many times while I’ve been living in Daejeon that I’ve experienced the Korean hoeshik (work party), leading to some incredible meals (and bad hangovers in the morning). It’s a great way to learn more about your co-workers and experience Korean dishes you might not normally order. During my first one I ate fermented skate – basically super stinky rotten fish. An experience I never wish to repeat, but one that was certainly unforgettable. It’s at these kinds of events that you realise whether or not you’ll sink or swim in the local culture.

Have I ever felt tension between my own thoughts, beliefs, customs, and culture and those in Korea? All the time. Have they ever been a deal breaker about living in Daejeon? Pretty much never. I think all expats suffer micro-aggressions or unintended insults from the locals, more so in a homogenous country like Korea, but they’ve never been of the sort that has left me feeling like I want to pack my bags and head to the airport to fly to another country (or home!).

Daily Life While Living in South Korea

living in south korea expat daejeon art center

Day to Day Life in Daejon

I’ll be the first to admit that I definitely landed on my feet when I moved to Daejeon and started working with EPIK. I ended up living in central Daejeon, close to the subway and main shopping and entertainment districts. Although my apartment isn’t that spacious, something that’s quite normal in Korea, it’s become homely over the years and I’ve learnt how to maximise the space I have available. It’s big enough to have friends around for dinner or drinks and, best of all, was completely free when I was working on EPIK. 

Being close to the city centre has helped me a lot. I can head out to the various different districts of Daejeon and meet friends wherever they are. Not only that, I never have to walk far to find some great restaurants or cafes, which I frequent far too often. I usually try to cook at home to save money, but with an abundance of cheap meals, it can be hard to justify the time and inconvenience shopping and cooking. Tucking into a big bowl of kimchi jjigae or haejangguk for less than $7 is hard to resist. 

Public transport in Korea is awesome and I’ve never felt the need to get a car, which is why I’ve not had one since I arrived. I get around on my trusty bike (which also serves me well for cycling out to the mountains) or else take trains, buses, subways, or taxis. Getting around Daejeon, like most other Korean cities, is really simple. Public transport runs on time, is cheap, and quite frequent. The UK could learn a lot from Korea about how to get around!

The Lifestyle of South Korea

The abundance of cheap meals, good public transportation (even taxis are cheap), and numerous apartments packed closely together help to explain why Daejeon is a city where people are always out in town. Restaurants are busy, cafes stay open late and become surrogate living rooms where friends can meet, couples can stare lovingly at each other, and after-work drinkers can sober up before heading home.

These have definitely all impacted my lifestyle, whether for better or worse, I’m not sure. I enjoy eating a wider range of food now (Korean and foreign) than I have ever done before. I spend a lot of time outside of my house. I go hiking and take part in outdoor activities more than I did in other cities. I ride a bike or take public transport, but that’s how I’ve always gotten around to be honest. The fact that everything stays open late also keeps me out of my house, sometimes until midnight or later. 

Modern technology has evolved quickly since I left England and I’m now used to using my phone or bank card to pay for everything, access buildings, organizing meetups, or playing music while I’m out. Being able to order food and get pretty much anything delivered has made meals with friends turn from cooking at home to ordering in and splitting a pizza with a few beers.

Where Do Expats Live in Daejeon, South Korea?

I live in Dunsan-dong – the heart of the city and home to various government buildings, department stores, and two entertainment / dining areas. To the west of this area are some other similarly popular areas, include Yuseong (where a lot of the newer parts of the city are) and Gung-dong (a popular student area with the cheapest meals and lots of foreign food). I often visit Gung-dong to get cheap, all you can eat Korean BBQ or Mexican food, drink craft beers at The Ranch Brewery, and to play board games at Meca Board Game Café.

To the east there’s Eunhaeng-dong (the old downtown area that’s frequented by Daejeon’s youth) and the older area around Daejeon Station that’s now becoming something of a hipster hangout, with insta-worthy cafés and fusion restaurants creeping into abandoned traditional Korean houses that were left to rot for a long time. The eastern part of the city is the older part, a bit run down in places, but also features a lot more culture than the western side. I like to visit here to nose around the traditional markets, cool cafes, bakeries (Daejeon is famous for its Sungsimdang bakery) and chilled atmosphere.

I said before that Daejeon isn’t really a touristy city, and that’s certainly true. You might see a few popular sights if you stick to the main districts located along the spine of the subway system that runs from east to west, such as the Expo Bridge, Expo Park, or the Yuseong Spa. However, I don’t live in Daejeon because I want to see tourist sites all the time. That’s why I get away from these busy districts and go walking into the lesser-explored parts of Daejeon. For me, the real pleasure of living in another country is seeing the sights that people don’t see when they travel for a week or two.

The Benefits of Living in Daejeon

The benefit of living in Daejeon long-term has been the chance to explore on foot the areas that most people would never bother sticking their nose into. I often get comments that I know more of Daejeon than people who have lived there all their lives. This is probably because I want to absorb the differences, the cultural peculiarities, the way people live that might seem mundane to most, but can be fascinating to me. 

Walking along the river at night and seeing groups of elderly men arguing or joking ferociously over a game of chess while drinking copious amounts of soju (Korean rice wine). Poking my head into dark alleys to find a few old ladies sitting outside on tiny plastic stools chatting about god-knows-what at 12am at night, each protecting their own little piece of the city like guards on ever-vigilant duty. Watching young couples spend (literally) hours setting up a tent and picnic table just to take selfies and then not even eat or drink what they’ve prepared. These aspects of Korean culture can only be experienced (and understood) after living overseas as an expat and getting away from the main sights.

Overall Life in Daejeon, South Korea

living in daejeon south korea expo park

I’d say that Daejeon is known for its peaceful life, as a good place to raise a family or have a steady life. Sure, not everyone is happy and life isn’t somehow miraculously easier than in other places, but it’s a city where things run well, streets are clean, the local sports teams are neither good or bad, there’s an endless supply of great cafes and restaurants, and the biggest news item is usually something escaping from the local zoo.

This peaceful life reflects where I grew up in the English countryside, but plays out in a very different way. Daejeon isn’t a sleepy city, but nor is it a place of scandal or disaster. It’s just… nice. The slogan for the city is ‘It’s Daejeon’*, which pretty much sums it up entirely. 

*They recently changed the slogan to ‘Daejeon is U’, which sucks and I hope they change it back to It’s Daejeon soon!

If I ever move back to the UK, or on to other places, it’s going to be hard to find that same feeling of comfort, convenience, safety, authenticity, honest fun, modernity, peace, and all-round contentment. The reverse culture shock will probably come from finding things aren’t quite as pleasant or convenient as expected. Worse, it could be that I simply miss out on wandering around late at night, watching the city and its people unfold their stories. That would be the biggest reverse culture shock I could imagine right now.

The Cost of Living in Daejeon, South Korea

Living in Daejeon has been a blessing for me as I’ve managed to save a lot of money. Korea is a cheap country in many ways, unless you’re looking to rent an apartment in Seoul! Daejeon, however, is much cheaper and, unless you plan to buy a new apartment, an extremely affordable place to live. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the expected costs you would be expected to pay if you plan to live in Daejeon.

Housing and Utilities

Monthly rent – if you’re living in the main areas of the city, you can rent a decently sized 2-bedroom apartment for about 700,000 won ($620). A smaller, 1-bedroom apartment in the same area can be as little as 400,000 won ($350). 

Expect to pay maintenance, electricity, gas, and internet on top. These can range from 100,000 – 300,000, depending on what’s included with the rent and the building type.

Transportation

Commuting – bus and subway tickets are set at a price of 1,250 won ($1.10) per journey, which makes commuting really cheap. Expect to pay about 50,000 won ($45) per month. If you have car, you can expect to pay more. Expect to pay about $1.06 per liter in Korea for gas.

Drinking and Eating Out

Coffee – prices for coffee can vary wildly from 1,000 won americanos (under $1) to fancy café lattes that will set you back 7,000 won ($6.20). An americano from Starbucks is around 4,000 won ($3.55). Sandwiches and snacks range from 4,000 won (cake) to 8,000 won (toasted sandwich).

Beer – there are two real choices for beer in Korea – local and imported. Local beers, such as Cass and Hite, will cost 4,000 won in a restaurant. Foreign beers are usually higher, starting at 7,000 won and up. A pint of Guinness typically costs about 10,000 won ($8.90). However, if you buy these drinks at a supermarket or shop, they tend to be about the same price.

Takeaway food – There are many options for takeaway food in Daejeon (too many!). Pizza and chicken are the big ones and you can get a decent pizza or chicken set for two people for about 15,000 ($13.30) to 20,000 won ($17.75). You can get takeaway from most restaurants and the minimum order price for delivery is often 10,000 won and up.

Decent dinner for two – Italian restaurants or similar places for a nice meal can be similarly priced to what you’d find in England (and, I imagine, the US). Expect to pay about 20,000 won and up for a main meal and another 40,000 ($35.50) for a half decent bottle of wine. Total cost may be about 100,000 won ($89). A quality sushi meal starts at 40,000 won per person for a set menu that includes various dishes (but not alcohol).

living in south korea expat daejeon bbq

Groceries

Typical grocery bill – most supermarkets in Daejeon are either really big stores that sell in large quantities, or smaller convenience stores where you can pick up essential items for a slightly higher price. Fruit and veg are expensive, especially imported ones. Apples are over 1,500 won ($1.30) each! Eating Korean food is certainly a lot cheaper, but anything with rice, noodles, or pasta will save money. An average food shop usually comes it at around 100,000 won per week if you’re eating fresh, home cooked food. However, it can certainly be a lot less if you’re not eating too many fruits and vegetables (or imported foods from home!). 

Overall Cost of Living in South Korea

All in all, living in Daejeon is not that expensive. Certainly not compared to what I’ve experienced in London, Sydney, and Hong Kong. It’s certainly helped me save a lot of money, even up to $15,000 per year in some years, and that’s without having an over-inflated expat salary like some people get. This is just one of the many reasons that I’ll continue to live in Daejeon this year and next, and probably for a few more years after that, too.

It’s Daejeon, and it really is a lovely place to live.

Joel

joel living in south korea

Joel is a travel blogger and the creator of Joel’s Travel Tips – a travel blog focusing on life, culture, and travel within South Korea. Joel has travelled extensively since he was 16 years old when he first went hiking in the Swiss Alps with friends. After backpacking around the world at 18, he knew that he had to see the rest of the world and has chosen to do that as an expat, living and experiencing countries slowly and like a local. He’s travelled to more than 35 countries and lived long-term in 6 different countries on 3 different continents. You can follow his journey on social media below and visit the Korea Travel Advice Facebook group for Korea travel tips.

If you’re moving to South Korea, currently living abroad or just curious about travel and living in South Korea, leave your questions for Joel in the comments below.

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