Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to South Korea

Seven traditional Korean pots sit in a courtyard inside Suwon Fortress, Suwon, in March 2020. Photo by Rooftop on the Hanok.

Often, people don’t know the lessons of life until after the fact. The same goes for living on the Korean peninsula. Many aspects of living abroad are not evident until after they have been experience. American Alex Hyewon has lived in South Korea for six years. During that time, she learned many things about life on the peninsula. In this article, Hyewon discusses useful things for expats like furnishing a small room, housing issues, visiting home, eating out, making friends, and learning about Korean culture.




Figuring out how to make each space multi-purpose is huge when adjusting. Figuring out how to rearrange furniture to maximize a certain function or to make space for specific activities takes some trial and error, but with careful storage and having multi-functional furniture, small-space living can be quite comfortable. 

You should also think about what the most important space you personally need should be. If you’re a big chef, you may want more surface area for cooking. If you like hosting, furniture that can be used for seating and sleeping is good to look at. If you need a workout space, make sure you can stack storage and clear a space comfortable for your activities. 


What To Do With Stuff


Getting rid of stuff is dependent on what stuff you have and how small of a space you’re moving into. If you have a full-sized dining table, you probably won’t want it in a small space. If you have a futon or couch, you may be able to make it work depending on your arrangement. It really depends in each case on what stuff you have and how small you’re going. Furniture that functions as storage space is great for being able to store things without letting a space get too cluttered. 


Shopping For Groceries In A Small Kitchen


It can be done in any way you feel is most comfortable. Bulk buying is the one thing that can be risky since most small spaces don’t always have a lot of kitchen cupboard space. Personally, I do both weekly and monthly shopping trips online and shop at local small and large marts. I always make sure I have cupboard or fridge space and work my shopping list around that. 


People walk by historic old hanoks in Ikseon-dong in Jongno-gu, Seoul. Photo by Rooftop on the Hanok.


Kitchen Appliances As A Necessity 


If you’re like me and hate eating out a lot, especially when you’re alone, you absolutely want one or two appliances. A stove and a microwave are a must for easy meals. Other convenient appliances are air fryers and rice cookers, but only if you have surface space for them. Luckily you can get them in small sizes. Your appliances should match your cooking habits. 


Buying Kitchen Appliances Or Eating Outside


I love having a blender. I have a countertop blender, but my friend has a handheld blender they can store after use more easily. So if you like to use a blender it’s definitely a possibility!

Ovens usually require too much space and require their own outlet so you can’t have them on a surge strip. You also want proper ventilation with an oven, so it can be risky. That’s why an air fryer is a great supplement. Be careful with the wallpaper though. Appliances that get hot can burn or discolor your wallpaper if you’re not careful. 

Some foods are always easier bought but if you’re creative you can cook a lot at home with very little. 




Cleaning is both super easy and a pain. Since there’s a lot less furniture and stuff, the dusting isn’t so bad; but if you’re room has bad ventilation you may need to dust pretty frequently. Vacuuming is super easy since everything is in one space. The bathrooms and kitchens are pretty straightforward too. The worst part is cleaning the little nooks and crannies that can gather dirt or dropped food if you’re not careful.


Eating out 


Eating out is always cheaper with friends. If you eat out a lot when you live alone, the bills rack up. I usually save eating out for the weekends and meal plan during the week. I find it’s much more budget-friendly. 


Visiting Home


Visiting home can be a great way to assess your comfort and happiness. The first time I visited home, I was relieved to come back to my personal space back in Korea and to get back to what I considered a new normal. Visiting is a good way to decide if living abroad is really what you wanted by checking how you feel in both places, and when leaving and returning to them. 


Expat Friends and Korean Friends


It’s easier to make friends if you already have an outgoing personality. If you’re someone who keeps to themselves, it’s harder. Being friends with an extrovert or being extroverted yourself usually opens more doors. Joining meet ups, sports clubs, fitness classes, or even sometimes getting to know the folks at work can be great ways to meet new people face-to-face. For me, my Korean lessons introduced me to many other expats, and once my Korean was stronger, I became more approachable to Koreans and was able to make friends with them as well. 


Korean Culture


Korean culture is fascinating outside the city because it’s so different region to region, and social group to social group. Dealing with inner-city hagwon moms is one type of culture, going to the mountains in the country and stopping by a local run restaurant is very different. Traveling is a great way to constantly refresh the outlook on Korean culture. I feel like there is always something new to learn, or at least to experience.


Alex Hyewon has lived in South Korea for six years as a graduate school student and instructor. She currently lives in the Seoul region.

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