I adore living in the ROK … so much so that I’ve recently decided to re-up my contract at my English academy and teach here for another year. Yippee and yahoo!! Honestly, I see myself as a long-term dweller, because I like it here so much, and I’ve had a blast. So now that I’ve expressed my love and adoration for SK, I hope you won’t take this double-edged sword of a blog post the wrong way.
But, let’s talk, South Korea. You and me. Step into my office …
For all the ways you as a country are advanced — as well as considered advanced the world over — I’m afraid to say you’re a little behind the curve in ways that make me want to tear out what little hair I have. I mean … sometimes I’m about ready to pluck my leg hairs one by one. Ha!
So I wanted to let it all out — my frustrations on these five aspects in which you, South Korea, are/are seen as ahead of the curve and convenient, but, on the flip side, also woefully behind. Here I go, separating the hype from the reality …
1. The Hype: Korea’s Internet Is Fast … and Everywhere
We all read about it before we moved here. You could be on a deserted street in backwoods Korea and still pick up a WiFi signal — and a fast one at that. I’d say it’s mostly true. For me, the WiFi is good in the streets and in the subway — I mean, the rail system in my U.S. hometown does NOT have free WiFi, so I rejoice in having that here.
The Flip: Korea’s Website Infrastructure Blows
As it turns out, trying to navigate Korean websites is a headache and a half. Why? Because sooo many companies and organizations still use web designs and inner workings built on Internet Explorer. Raise your hand if you’re still an avid IE user. No one, right? I use Chrome, and that’s after years of using Firefox, because IE is a clunky, unintuitive throwback at this point. And it shows when you’re trying to gain (usually really vital) information from your average Korean biz or government website. Loading a page takes forever, and since so many of these sites are just one big image, good luck doing a copy-and-paste to translate the text from Korean to English! Plus, if you need to perform an actual function like signing in or setting up an account or something, or — heaven forbid — PAY for something using an IE site, you will rue the day you try to do it via Chrome, because chances are the outdated site isn’t super-compatible with Chrome. File under: “Arrghhhhhhhh.”
Sanity-saving Workaround: Install the Chrome plugin called IE Tab. It’s a little button that’ll let you display clunky IE-based websites in proper IE mode through Chrome. It doesn’t always work like a charm (side-eyeing the KIIP site) and sometimes I have to open IE proper, but IE Tab often works well.
2. The Hype: Korea’s Mass Transit System Is Amazing
So, so true. If the subway or speedy train can’t take you there, a bus certainly can. But the trains are the wonder of this country, particularly in urban environments. I love it, especially coming from a drive-or-die city like Dallas. But …
The Flip: Why Can’t I Refill My Transit Card with a Credit Card?!
When I first moved here, I was sure I’d be able to register my T-Money card online or at least be able to top it up on the Internet (probably through an IE-based site, ha!). At very least, I thought I could add value to my transit card by swiping my CC at the reload machines at the train station or at convenience stores. But. Nope. The whole money-refill situation is cash-only. What the what, and whyyy? My guess would be that the cash-only situation is to avoid any kind of fraud, but if the system were set up securely enough, couldn’t that concern be avoided? (Then again, if a possible online refill system were, in fact, based on IE … maybe not.) I seldom carry cash, and I find myself only ever needing it for transit card re-ups. In this day and age, one would think there’d be more options in such a technologically advanced nation. IJS.
Sanity-saving Workaround: If you’re not big on regularly carrying cash, don’t ever let your transit card balance dip below 3,000 won and/or always keep a 10,000 won bill on you!
UPDATE: Thanks to the ladies on one of my favorite Facebook groups for filling me in with this TRUE sanity-saving workaround — you can top up with a credit card, by attaching your T-money transit service to your bank card. I actually had heard this before and asked about it at my bank but was told by my rep (who was probably tired of using his limited English with me) that it doesn’t really work. Not cool, man. Anyway, I’ll be heading back to my bank post-haste to have this done!
3. The Hype: Bank Transfers Are Super Convenient
Maybe this isn’t quite “advanced,” but I really love being able to pay a person or business like Gmarket directly through bank-to-bank transfer, especially since you can do it at pretty much any ATM. What a wonder! And with Gmarket (probably with other retailers, too?) you can take up to a week to submit your transfer. Sure, they won’t ship without receiving your won, but it’s kinda cool that there’s no rush. That said …
The Flip: Banking ‘Security’ Here Is Hella Strange
Maybe it’s just with my bank, but I have this little card full of numbers that I have to keep on my person, and if I want to complete an online transfer, I have to have it handy to enter requested digits before my transfer goes through. Whaa?? And don’t get me started on the bank digital certificate system. This is where if you want to online-bank, you have to download a virtual certificate to prove your computer is secure enough for it. Want to bank from your phone or tablet? Ditto. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue, if getting a digital certificate were easy … but no! If you’re lucky, your bank has all the instructions in English. Or, if you’re like my bank, the first few pages are in English, then the pages with the pertinent info to set up or download the certificate are in Korean. Grrrr. I had to enlist the help of two coworkers to help me successfully download the digital certificate and start online-banking.
Oh! And how could I forget to mention: Unlike back home, where online banking is a given with your checking account, here, you have to specify you want online banking as a feature when you open the account. Soooo many expats have gotten caught on that one, discovering the oversight when they hop online to check their balance.
Finally: As it turns out — similar to the online banking thing — if you don’t specify you want to be able to use your Korean bank card overseas, you can’t. (Think I’m exaggerating this banking mess? Trust Forbes if ya can’t trust me!)
Sanity-saving Workaround: Don’t forget to mention you want the online banking feature added to your account, and, later, have a Korean-fluent friend help you set up your online banking if you need help.
4. The Hype: Health Care Is Pretty Great …
Sure, some other countries may have more comprehensive and awesome health care systems than SK, buuuuut … I’m from the U.S., where accessible health care as a right isn’t really a thing. So, to me, South Korea’s health insurance program RAWKS!! Not only are doctor visits mostly reasonably priced, but prescriptions are quite cheap.
The Flip: … Why Am I Constantly Under-dosed?!
I’ve mentioned before that when I first moved to Korea, I was sick allll the time, as my body adjusted to the air here. Thank heavens my doctor is cool and totally open to my input, because I noticed my first prescriptions for my respiratory ailments were a good mix of drugs … lasting three days. Back home, I’d get an antibiotic for 10 days — why so little here? Sure enough, three days’ worth never kill thoroughly killed my chest infections completely, and I’d be back in another week or two. Finally, I just asked my doc here for a 10-day supply of meds, and she was totally cool with it — I’ve seldom had relapses since!
Sanity-saving Workaround: Take your health care into your own hands and tell your doctor what treatment and/or meds worked for you back home … then a) hope it’s available here and b) that your doc is amenable to providing it!
5. The Hype: Korea Is a Really Safe Place to Live
Generally, South Korea is an overall safe place to live, with major crimes such as homicide and gun-related crimes few and far between. It probably helps that civilian gun ownership is prohibited. In my year of living here, I’ve never felt in peril or unsafe in any one place, though, as a big-city gal, I know to keep my wits about me and up my chances of being safe, to the extent that I can. Overall, I think it’s a wonder to feel as safe as I do in this day and age. That said …
The Flip: Korea’s Got a Major Crimes-Against-Ladies Problem
I hate to end this list on a sour note, but as a woman, I gotta call it as I see it: Korea ranks in the top 3 of ALL countries in rates of homicides against women. And that doesn’t seem to be the only worrying situation: While nothing has ever happened to me, nor have I personally witnessed anything foul, I’m a member of several ladies-only groups on Facebook where I’ve read many, many accounts of alleged crimes perpetrated my men, often on dates (!!!) or against their significant other. As if the crime itself isn’t traumatic enough, too many of these accounts also include women not having their crime properly investigated or prosecuted by law enforcement and the court system, particularly if the victim is a foreigner. I have my speculations about why this is a problem (persistent gender inequality, police incompetence, too many turning a blind eye; this article and this article detail some ideas), but I certainly hope that in my time here, the situation improves. It’s certainly getting attention of late …
Sanity-saving Workaround: My ideas on this are worthy of an encyclopedia. If you have ideas, kindly let me know.
Disagree or agree with this list? Got other ahead-of/behind-the-curve examples to share from your own experiences? Leave a comment below.