Seoul versus Busan

A reader asked me to compare Seoul and Busan. Readers who plan to teach here want to know where to live in Korea. I asked the same question when I applied to teach in Busan. Now, that I am here, I have a better opinion.

Which is Better Busan or Seoul?
As of today, March 12,  2009 I have only been to Seoul twice, but I plan to spend more time there. Busan is the 2nd largest city. There are buildings everywhere, and most people live in apartments rather than houses, so there is a developed skyline. I believe this is true of even the smaller neighborhoods, however I have not been to all the areas in Busan. It’s a sprawling city. Yes. I would say that it is a big, busy city with a lot of people.
Busan and Black People
I have long locs and people freak out about that in Busan. They always want to touch my hair. I run into people, in this large city, who act as though they have never seen a black person before in person. I was told that in larger cities like Busan and Seoul, Koreans do not give foreigners a second look. That may be true of foreigners, but it was not true for me in Busan.

One of my Korean friends said that she had never met a black person before. She is 28. I was the second foreign teacher to teach in my school. Most Korean people do not speak English beyond hello in my school and community. The Korean people who speak a little English are usually younger, in their 20s or 30s, and they may have lived abroad or visited abroad. Although everyone studies English in school, I think that they only learn it for tests. Even if they can speak a little English or understand simple words, they will say that they don’t speak English well or they don’t speak English at all. Most Korean people will avoid talking to me because they are shy or afraid that they do not speak English perfectly. Perfection is a big deal here. My two co-teachers at my school speak broken English; they struggle with it. In my case, they have not invited me to hang out or anything. Every case is different, however, some co-teachers hang out with foreigners.

My Korean friends are people who approached me, and began talking to me. Usually my communication with Korean people is a struggle, and I have to my Korean dictionary and hand signals. Even when I pronounce Korean names of areas (besides Busan) they do not understand or I have to repeat it over and over again. Remember, we have an accent.

The first teacher at my school was a Korean-American. In class, I have had instances where the kids jump as though I scared them when I passed by. I really hate that!

I walked into a booth in one of the gigantic multi-level malls (Milligore) and the salesgirl was on the phone; she was startled and screamed (a short scream, like eek) when I walked in. She scared me!! I catch people staring at me on the street. It could be because of my hair or because of my hair and my complexion. I really don’t know. I think that if you are black, and do not have locs, people will stare at you in Busan. In fact, I believe that foreigners in general, are stared at to some extent. It’s really hard to know what people are thinking when you don’t speak their language, and they don’t speak your language.

Seoul and Blacks

In the short time that I spent in Seoul, no one tried to touch me or stared. There are also actual hair salons in Seoul that braid and weave black hair. Africans run the shops. There is a random person who does black hair in Busan, but most women travel to Daegu, which is an easy trip, an hour away by train. There’s an army base in Daegu.
There is also an army base near Seoul, so if you can meet someone from the base who can sign you in, you can shop and easily get American-made products. I think that person is responsible for you while you are on base, so I wouldn’t just choose a random person and ask. If you happen to be in a sorority or a fraternity, it’s easy to get a connection on base. I didn’t know this when I came here, but there is a fairly large community of folk from black fraternities and sororities from the different bases.

The Weather in Busan
The weather in Busan is a lot milder than Seoul, but it’s not warm in the winter. We have had days when it’s 20 degrees (F). I think that most days, it’s around 30 or 40. It’s a wet-cold, here. It feels like the air is wet. Some people say that it’s humid and cold. It only snowed here once this winter so far, and the snow stuck for a day. I am from Miami, and the winter is not warm like it is in Miami. In my humble opinion, I would say that the winters are similar to Georgia or South Carolina. Speaking of Miami, popular beaches are in Busan, so people from Seoul like to come down to go to the beach.
The Weather in Seoul
In Seoul, it snowed several days. They got what I would consider to be a lot of snow. I believe that they had feet of snow, and teachers still had to go to work. In the summer, it’s hot in both Busan and Seoul.

How Does it Feel to Live in Busan or Seoul?
I have heard that the atmosphere in Busan is different than that in Seoul, and people are more laid back. I’m not sure about that, really. I just haven’t spent that much time in Seoul, and I have not worked there. Maybe people mean that Seoul is like New York, and Busan is like Cali. I recall a friend telling me that people were friendlier in Busan than in Seoul. In Busan, I have had a couple of instances where random strangers would come up to me and try to talk to me. What your name? How long you been here? You English teacha? and my favorite. Where are you going?

There are plenty of black people in Busan. It’s easier to meet friends here if you come through the EPIK program, because you will meet people in orientation who are going to areas throughout Korea, including Busan. If you teach in a hagwon (private school) and meet one black person who has a Facebook page, you will probably get connected with other friends thorugh FB in Busan.

Socializing in Busan
Just like in the states, people are in their cliques in Korea. So, you may know 40 people or more in Busan, but hang out with five or 10 people regularly. Busan is spread out, but Seoul is even more. To get to your peeps in Busan,you may have to take a subway for 45 minutes depending on where you live and where they live. If you live farther out in Busan, you may have to take a bus and a subway. When I say farther out in Busan, I don’t mean out in the country. I mean that you may not be close to a subway line. Most people do and can walk to the subway.

Black People Teaching in Seoul
There are a lot more black people teaching in Seoul. So there are more social events planned by and for black people. Brothas and Sistas of South Korea is a huge Facebook group with mostly black people in and around Seoul. Check it out. In the Seoul area, I also noticed that there were more signs in English on buildings, and think that more people can understand English (and help you out) in Seoul. People also said that about Busan, that people speak English here, and that is not true.

Seoul or Busan
Weather was a big deal for me. I hate the cold. After spending the winter here, I think that experiencing culture shock and a frigid winter in one year is too much. I wouldn’t mind living in Seoul, only if I was near a military base. I like the laid back atmosphere of Busan, and I like that I am near the beach, Jeju Island, and Japan. I don’t like the idea of being near North Korea, either. Now that I have been to Seoul, I see the benefits of being there. Seoul is the it spot for socializing and having an American hook-up while abroad. Busan is for socializing with a smaller network, but also chillin’, going to the beach in the summer, and plenty of canceled classes. So, it’s your personal preference. I’m so glad that I came to Busan for my first year, but I wouldn’t mind spending more time in Seoul, too.

Oh, and it’s easier to catch the subway in Busan. I didn’t even get lost here, and people came up and helped me when I looked lost. They may touch my hair, but they are usually friendly! The Seoul subway map looks complicated, like spaghetti.

21 comments

  • Ash

    Greetings fellow Floridian! I’m from Ft. Lauderdale, born and raised, but have been living in NY the past 2 years. Now I am on my way to Busan the end of this month to teach English. Thanks for the blog, it was very insightful!

  • Wow! I enjoyed your comparison of living in Seoul vs. Busan. Personally I have only ever been to Seoul, and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t feel that it was that much different from Taipei (where I was teaching English at the time). Next time I will definitely have to go to Busan and enjoy the sites there!

    Take care,

    Andrew

  • Avalon

    Hi and thank you again for your thorough blog posts.

    I understand that being black and living in Korea is significant. I was wondering if you normally only or mostly associate with black people or if you felt the need to seek them out in order to feel more comfortable with your surroundings. Maybe I’m wrong but being black in Korea seems like a hyper focus for you. Would you say that this is typical of blacks living in Korea?

  • Thank you for your post. I actually have been spending most of my time, locally and on the phone with good Korean friends. Hmmm I have only one post with a predominately black group, and I spend time with people I like or love, so I need to spend more time with them, too! I also write about what interests me, and I answer questions from others. Often people who are black find my blog, and ask me questions. Here is a question that you sent me before:

    I’ve been reading your blog as I am a black woman who is interested in going to SK. Thank you for writing in such a concise manner. Was it an absolute chore to find work there once people found out you were black or was it no different than the states?

    I do my best to answer legitimate questions, but I can’t speak for all black people in South Korea. I don’t have a manual on typical black behavior.

  • Shawn

    Hi there!

    I recently discovered your blog~ love it!

    I am in the process of strategically mapping out the next 6 to 9 months of my life, in hopes of heading to SK to teach English as well! And while I am leaning towards Seoul because of my brother’s recommendation (previously stationed there while in the Army), your posts regarding life in Busan have been quite convincing. That said, I’m pretty flexible.

    I do, however, have two concerns that I am hoping you can help me with. The first has to do with the popularity (or not) of older ESL teachers in SK. I am a Black woman in my mid forties (though I’ve tried my best to knock off at least 7 to 8 years, on the surface… Ha! ), and want to be sure that the Asian country chosen will be the best fit for someone like moi. And while SK is my first choice, I have also considered China, Taiwain and Japan.

    My 2nd concern piggy-backs on your earlier comment about the cold weather as I, too, HATE bone chillin’ winters! Especially after experiencing the recent, horrible and historic snow storm here in Washington, DC!! Anyway, since I have learned how to bundle up somewhat appropriately, to brave the outdoors, I might be able to get by on occasion.

    However, my GREATEST concern is what happens behind closed doors, so to speak. In other words, unlike Shanghai (and some other Asian cities), is there a central heating system…are buildings insulated in SK, or are space heaters allowed/used in lieu of? If not, then this could really present a problem for me as I simply must have heat indoors.

    Thanks in advance for your reply.

    Keep the great posts comin’!

    Shawn
    P.S. Oh, one more question~ what type of fee should I expect to pay with Footprints Recruiting? Thx.

  • Hi!

    The age depends on you, I think. Most of the teachers who come through the English Program in Korea to teach in the public schools tend to be in their early to mid 20s; they are usually right out of college. Very few are in their 30s. I am in my very late 30s and it was hmmmmm interesting being in orientation with a younger group. You also share a room during orientation in EPIK, and I was not feeling my roommate at all. I have my ways.

    I am not saying that there are not people in their 40s who are foreigners teaching ESL here. There are a few ways to teach and live here. Remember, there are international schools, private schools, and universities. If you are a certified teacher you can work in an international school. If you have a master’s degree look into the universities. I don’t know even most of the foreign teachers here. I know a teeny, weeny, tiny portion. So a lot really depends on how you feel about yourself and in the case of EPIK, being in orientation with young teachers. That said, there are around 10 military bases in South Korea (maybe more, IDK for sure) and of course there are soldiers and their wives who are in your age range. There is no base in Busan, though. I wish!

    There is no central heating system in most of the schools. You may luck out and have a heater in your classroom. Your apartment may have heated floors, but may or may not be insulated. So, you may have heat, but still freeze at home and at school. Some schools allow space heaters; some do not. So, that’s hit or miss. Here’s more info about What Living Conditions are Like in Busan.

    There is no fee to work with Footprints or most other agencies for SK. They are paid by the schools or the government. Most schools require a year-long contract. There is one program that has a six month contract, but I don’t have any info about it. I don’t even know the name of the program.

  • Ken

    I luv your blog! very imformative. I can relate to some of these things, being an african-american who recently moved from near seoul to busan. I found there to be more hair places for us in seoul especially. when i had my hair braided up near seoul, concerned ajummas would come up to me and ask how i wash my hair. i think you can run into these kinda unexposed people everywhere in both cities.

  • Avalon

    I’m not sure why my question made you feel defensive, but I will apologize anyway. I’m sorry. I’m also well aware of the other question I asked you, but don’t see how it precludes me from asking my most recent one. I say that because you included my past post as if this one didn’t make sense in relation to it.
    I’m going to Korea to teach and save money, but I am primarily going because I am interested in Korean culture and Koreans. I was concerned that my experience would mostly include foreigners or black people because of Korean attitudes toward them. I wasn’t accusing you of anything. From now on I will make sure my questions stick to things no deeper than hair, the weather and heating.

  • Shawn

    Thanks for the detailed info!

    I suppose I’ll simply need to keep my options open (e.g. SK, various cities in China, etc.) to improve my chances due to my particular demographic concerns.

    In addition to Footprints, I will alsoj be making use of the placement services offered via the TESOL program I intend to partner with ~ Oxford Seminars. So far, Oxford appears to be fairly together with a decent reputation. We’ll see!

    Thanks, again!

    Shawn

  • Shawn

    Just checked out your link on “Living Conditions in Busan…”. Very helpful! Thank you.

    Wondering if your new apartment is subsidized by EPIK? Or, are you paying out of pocket? I will DEF need something with heat, like you described having currently. So, I suppose this might mean needing to pay for myself? Hopefully not.

    However, should that be the case, what sort of monthly rent range should I realistically expect for something new and with HEAT? I’m a Realtor here in DC, so I should have an OK time connecting the dots…finding my own place, if necessary.

  • My new apartment still has the floor heat like the apartment before. It is smaller ( a lot smaller) and it’s better insulated. EPIK pays the rent. I have never had to deal with the rent, so I don’t know how much nicer ones cost. I think that in the contract they pay up to 400,000 won for an apartment, so more than $400 a month. In EPIK you don’t know what you get until you are already here. With private schools you can choose the school and the apartment (I think that you can choose the apartment).

    I want to add that most people do not speak any English, and the contracts and everything are all in Korean. So if you don’t speak or read Korean, you have to rely on someone from your school who speaks English to help you.

    Honestly, just like anywhere else, some people will go out of their way to help you, and some people won’t. I don’t know what can happen, but you will need to have someone to help you look for the place and translate everything for you, looking out for you. I have been a part of many situations where people were speaking Korean and I had no idea of what was being said. I’m sure that everything was not translated. Sometimes nothing was translated.

    People get their own apartments here, but I don’t know how they actually go about it, so if anyone can help, chime in.

  • Shawn

    Heated floors and insulation would work for me! 🙂 That’s what I’ll hope for…

    Regarding the language issue, did you happen to study basic Korean either b4 your assignment, or along the way? I plan to take a beginners course, as well as purchase the Rosetta Stone software (not sure if this really works, but I’ll give it a shot!).

    Also, I stumbled across another recruiter last night ~ RTT (Reach to Teach) out of Albany. Wondering if you’re familiar with them as well? And though I’ll likely contact them to do a comparison/contrast of sorts, i’m pretty sure that I’ll be partnering with Footprints because of your very informative, candid and encouraging posts.

    Thanks also for the recent YouTube vid regarding voltage, gadgets, etc.. Like you, I am so not a tech head, but suppose I’ll have to figure out what’s necessary in order to survive/do the bare minimum to reside comfortably in a foreign country. 🙂

  • @Shawn I took an informal class from a guy who established a club to teach people Korean in the U.S. I haven’t been successful at learning Korean, beginning with hangul. The symbols freak me out, although they are supposed to be the easiest thing to learn. A lot of people do learn basic Korean. I just haven’t been good at it. I haven’t applied myself to it as I should. I’ve been too busy blogging.

    I have only used Footprints, but I’ve heard of RTT. There are probably dozens of recruiters. I had an okay experience with Footprints but it all depends on the person that you work with at these recruiting firms. My only gripe was that it took them a long time to send my acceptance package with the documents that I need to get my visa. Check out Dave’s ESL Cafe. for recruiters.

  • Shawn

    Thanks for the Dave’s link. Really good stuff!

    Forgot to ask one other thing ~ when there’s time, how can one stay physically fit while in Busan? Aside from walking to and fro….are there gyms, various classes, etc., that you’ve either participated in, or heard about? Hope that question didn’t sound a bit trite, considering how busy everyone must be with teaching back-to-back classes each day. But, I honestly feel 100% better & mentally on point after a good sweat. Just curious. 🙂

  • Shawn

    Oh ~ thanks, also, for sharing your thoughts on the language!

    I’m really not too motivated to learn it either…If I must go for one of the Asian tongues, would rather focus on Japanese or, maybe Mandarin (though I hear it’s pretty difficult! ).

  • @Shawn Please don’t let my post discourage you from learning Korean. A lot of people learn hangul (the symbols) and go on to learn basic Korean with no problem. I love to learn languages, but for some reason when I can’t look at alpha letters and sound them out, I get frustrated. I am going to keep trying, though. I need to get some better tools, not these Korean guides. They were awful, all in Korean. I didn’t even know what page they were on from the dialogue on the CD.

  • Shawn

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll give hangul a try; see if anything blossoms…:)

    Oh~ what about opportunities to stay fit while there? Are gyms, or maybe classes of some type popular?

  • Missy PooPoo

    Hi there! I found your blog very helpful. My boyfriend and I are looking into Japan, Korea, Costa Rica and a few other places to apply to teach English. I have my bachelor’s and he has his Master’s. Like you, he has very long locs but my hair is permed. We both have been wondering about the whole process, how we will be perceived, will we be respected and if we should even apply. We were give a website called Teach Away and will be applying soon. Can you give any advice on couples getting to work or at least live together, what the culture is like, food, shopping, overall racism towards blacks, what areas to go to or stay away from and anything else you can share about your experience. We are both from the northeast so the weather sounds pretty close to what we’re used to. I am worried about being homesick, the flight over, food, understanding the culture so as to not be disrespectful and living accommodations. Any help or advice that you can give would be much appreciated.

  • Well, I’m not a with anyone here, so I can’t give advice on what it’s like for couples. I have no idea. I do know that EPIK (English Program in South Korea) places married couples together. I don’t know about boyfriend/girlfriend. Please see my the FAQs on what it’s like to live here, in Busan. There is a link in the sidebar.

  • L'Erin

    As the original person who asked the Seoul/Busan question, I just wanted to thank you for your in depth response! It’s all super helpful and informative. L’Erin

  • I luv your blog! very imformative. I can relate to some of these things, being an african-american who recently moved from near seoul to busan. I found there to be more hair places for us in seoul especially. when i had my hair braided up near seoul, concerned ajummas would come up to me and ask how i wash my hair. i think you can run into these kinda unexposed people everywhere in both cities.

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