Farewell, Korea. 안녕히 계세요.

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View of Changdeukgung (on a bad air day)

After more than three and a half years, Alex and I (and our cat and Baby M) have left Korea. It was a wonderful experience and we’ll always cherish our memories and friendships.

We left Korea amidst the rising tensions between the North and South (to the relief of our family and friends). But honestly, being in Seoul, there was NO indication of any tension or change. Everything was… normal. Life went on, as usual. South Koreans are used to the rhetoric from the North.


During my last months in Seoul, I started brainstorming a list of all the things that I would miss about living in Korea, and of course, all the things that I was eager to escape. Writing these down are mainly for my benefit, but I’m sure anyone who’s visited or lived in Korea understands at least a few of the points here!

I’ll start with the negatives, and end with the positives…

Things I will NOT miss about Korea:

The traffic: We didn’t own a car in Korea (just rented a car when we wanted to get away), and for the most part, it was a good decision. Why? The horrendous traffic. Most of the time, it was faster to take the subway than to take a cab. During the week, traffic was often at a standstill during the morning and afternoon commutes. I’m still not sure why people (who have a choice) decide to drive versus take the subway. I had a friend who drove to work every day, and it took her 40 minutes to drive what would take 20 minutes on the subway… My conclusion? Must be a “prestige” thing.

(Also, as Alex’s mom and Baby M not so fondly remember: it took us 10 hours of driving, from Seoul to Boseong Tea Plantation, during a holiday weekend — when Google and Naver maps estimated 4.5 hours!)

Taxi drivers: They don’t know how to drive. They really don’t. Besides weaving in and out of traffic and running red lights, it also feels like they drive with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes: you’re constantly lurching to the front and then immediately falling back into your seat. I’ve never once taken a taxi and gotten out and thought, ‘Wow, that was a pleasant ride.’ It was always, ‘I survived another ride. And while I almost threw up in the cab, I didn’t. Hooray!’

Complete disregard for pedestrians: Across the street from our apartment, there’s a Homeplus (supermarket). All I had to do was walk by the entrance/exit to our apartment parking lot, the entrance/exit to the adjacent apartment parking lot, and cross the street (at a crosswalk). Simple, right? Well, cars just fly into/out of the parking lots. It doesn’t matter if there are pedestrians crossing. It got so bad that our apartment building added a gate at the exit (… but not at the entrance), which only slightly solved the problem. Cars were still zipping up to the gate, braking for the gate to lift, and then darting onto the street. Pushing a stroller in front of you? Be extra careful. Those cars will stop for no one. Oh, and that crosswalk (with a light)? Cars will just drive through the red light. When we first moved to Seoul, I was almost hit a few times because I assumed (silly me) that I had the right of way since the light was red and the ‘walk’ sign was lit green.

I know two people whose kids were hit by cars — and the drivers didn’t even bother to stop and check to see if the people they hit were injured. My friend’s son was hit while riding his bike (and he had the right of way). Her son sat dazed in the middle of the road, and the driver drove around him, peered out of her window to see that he wasn’t… what, dead? and drove away. Oh, and she had a kid in the car with her. Presumably her own son.

And, the last example I’ll give is a horrific video that appeared all over Korean media a few months ago of a pedestrian who was hit by a car in Busan (Korea’s second largest city). The driver didn’t bother to stop and check to see if the person was ok (she was still alive). Several cars drove around her, and then one car drove over her, killing her. That car also didn’t stop.

Mopeds: It’s not legal in Korea to ride a motorcycle on the highway. But, it is legal to ride a moped on the sidewalk. Mopeds (usually used for delivery) drive awfully close to pedestrians and strollers (!), weave in and out of traffic, go against traffic, and (also) don’t obey traffic rules. I was crossing a right turn lane because cars were yielding, and was almost hit by a moped, that was driving between the line of stopped cars (not wondering, ‘Hmm, why are all of these cars stopped?’) and the curb! I often thought about how wonderful it would feel if I could clothesline a moped on the sidewalk…

Spit: There’s spit all over the sidewalks. People who hack up in front of you and spit. I’ve even seen people spit on a subway platform (inside!) and on a subway train (definitely inside). (And yes, I know this seems to be pervasive across much of Asia, but it still grosses me out.)

Poor (toilet) water pressure, prevalence of septic tanks, and the smell of sewage: When we first arrived in Seoul, during an especially hot and humid day in the summer of 2013, the first thing I noticed when we began walking around Gangnam (that posh neighborhood, south of the Han River, made famous by the song, “Gangnam Style”) was the smell. Warm and putrid, the smell wafted up from sewer caps and street drains. You could walk by a super expensive department store selling fancy perfumes on the ground floor, and before you even opened the door to smell all the floral scents, be greeted with a smell of poo. The smell is especially bad in more populated neighborhoods, and during the spring and summer months.

After living in our Seoul apartment for the better part of four years, we almost got used to the smell of sewage, wafting up from our shower drains and bathroom drains (and kitchen drains). Almost. At first, since it was a brand-new apartment, we complained to the landlord, who put in a request with the maintenance department. After several ‘grey-water’ leaks (yuck!) and fixes, our bathrooms still smelled pretty terrible. The culprit, we were told, was the wrong size return-line pipes the builder had used, so that at certain times of the day and most nights, our bathrooms smelled like sewage (and our master bedroom, with vents coming from the same place, smelled like poo).

And, for anyone who’s been to Korea, and used a public bathroom (although our extended stay bathroom in Gangnam also had a sign), you will have seen the wastebaskets next to toilets, full of used toilet paper. Most places have signs that say, “Do not flush toilet paper into toilet — toilet paper will clog the toilet.” (But even in places like Incheon International Airport, where the signs specifically say to flush used toilet paper down the toilet, people still put it in the adjacent trashcans… In fact, we just came back from a trip to New Zealand, and the signs said in Korean, “Our toilets are designed to handle toilet paper. Please flush used toilet paper down toilet!”

Read this article from The Korean Herald: Unusual problems with Korean public toilets

(Almost) No One Holds Doors for You: In general, I think Koreans are really friendly and helpful, if they either a). know you, b). are in the service industry. But if you’re expecting someone to hold the door for you (even if you’re a). immediately behind them AND b). pushing a stroller and could really use the extra hand, and/or c). they see you, walk in front of you, and then just push the door open a tad, enough for him/her to walk through), you’ll be shocked and peeved when that door slams in your face. Yup, it’s happened to all of us.

I’ve had (young) people walk in front of me, through the door Alex was holding for me pushing Baby M’s stroller. I’ve had people run from behind me, open the door a sliver, and walk through, as if they wanted to distance themselves from me so that they wouldn’t have to hold the door. I’ve had to ask a mom to hold the door for me pushing my stroller, after she was about to walk away right after I held the door open for her and her stroller. And, this one is the worst for me, personally: I saw a mom frantically trying to carry her stroller (with child inside) up a flight of stairs, so I parked my stroller at the bottom, and helped her carry her stroller up, thinking she’d offer the same help to me. Nope. She just walked away. And the worst thing I’ve heard: my friend Janna was 40 weeks pregnant, on her way to the hospital to deliver, and carried her 40-lb sleeping toddler in his stroller all the way up 2 flights of stairs. People stopped and stared at her. No one offered to help. She cried (I would have screamed). Maybe it was the fact she’s a foreigner who is foreign-looking, and sometimes people are afraid of foreigners or in their own English-speaking abilities? But, I look Korean, and still (most) people don’t help!

General attitude towards safety: There was a kitchen fire, which started in a ground floor restaurant in our apartment complex, when our apartment was less than six months old. Smoke rose quickly through ALL elevator banks, getting to ALL floors of both apartment buildings. The fire alarms failed to work. I smelled smoke, and when Alex opened the door to our hallway (32nd floor!), we could barely see a thing, the hallway was filled with so much smoke. We knocked on our (Korean) neighbors’ door to inform them we should evacuate. The mother proceeded to press the elevator button. (Not many people know that you should NOT take the elevator in the case of a fire… and it’s not posted in many places, either.) Following us, we ran down the stairs, and into the open air. The alarms in the lobby weren’t working. The guy at the front desk didn’t know what to do. There apparently was an announcement (only in Korean) for both buildings, saying ‘Everything is ok. Do not evacuate. Stay inside.’ Moments later, with the smoke getting worse, the fire department started going up and evacuating people. Several people, who didn’t know any better, were trapped in the elevators, and had to be sent to the hospital for excessive smoke inhalation. After the fire, we were told the smoke rose so quickly because the builder hadn’t used proper insulation. Smoke never should have gone up through those elevator shafts. To this day, I’m still not convinced anything was ever done to fix it. And I’ll never know if they fixed those smoke detectors in our apartments (there was one per room — for… what, decoration?). We immediately asked Alex’s parents to ship us a carbon monoxide/smoke detector.

That’s just one example of the poor safety standards!

Poor hygiene: I was pregnant with Baby M during the whole MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak the summer of 2015. How did MERS spread so quickly in Korea, killing so many people? I’m convinced it’s the poor hygiene. Even in the midst of MERS (where each hospital patient/visitor had to sign a form saying they hadn’t been exposed to camels or traveled to the Middle East, and had to have our temperature taken at the door), I saw people not washing their hands after using the HOSPITAL bathrooms. I’ve seen nurses barely rinse their hands off (with only water) in the sink. I’ve seen people spend more time brushing their teeth in the bathroom (Koreans are really into good dental hygiene) than washing their hands (in fact, more people seem to brush their teeth while on the toilet, spit in the sink, rinse off their toothbrushes and walk out, than actually wash their hands). It made me cringe every time!

Air pollution: To be quite honest, this was one of the main reasons we decided to leave Korea. When we arrived in 2013, rarely was there a day when we couldn’t see blue skies and the North Seoul (Namsan) Tower from our apartment window. The air pollution became noticeably worse with each year. The summer of 2015 was when I started checking the air quality (PM2.5, those fine particles that can get lodged in your lungs and cause health issues — including heart and lung disease, asthma, bronchitis, even years later) before leaving the apartment. (To give you an idea: a fine spec of sand has a diameter of 90 microns, whereas the PM2.5 particles are 2.5 microns in diameter. They are tiny!) We started wearing fine-particle face masks if the PM2.5 level was higher than 100ish.

After Baby M was born, and in 2016, the air quality became worse. Rarely were there “green” days with good air. I started wearing a facemask when the PM2.5 level was over 150. But of course, it’s impossible to get a baby to wear a face mask. We have many good friends in Seoul whose kids have been hospitalized numerous times due to asthma and bronchitis caused by the poor air quality.

And even though we only spent a few months in Seoul this year, everyone could tell the air quality had gotten even worse. Since Baby M is now a toddler and needs to expend her energy by running around (ideally outside), we decided it was time to leave.

The air quality definitely affects everyone’s quality of life. In recent years, the Korean government has finally started acknowledging that 50% or more of the pollution is caused by the coal plants, traffic congestion, and construction, within Korea, whereas previously they put the blame 100% on China. No matter who’s to blame, it’s definitely depressing to wake up to grey skies on a ‘sunny day’ and sad to have to keep your toddler indoors for several consecutive days due to the poor air quality.


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Wearing a traditional Korean hanbok

Things I LOVE and will miss about Korea:

Cheap transportation: The basic fare for the subway is 1,250 KRW (~$1.25), and this is after a fare hike (when we arrived in 2013, it was 1,050 KRW). Compare this to the subway fare in New York City (when we left in 2013, it was $2.50 per ride; now it’s $2.75!). Cabs in Seoul start at a base fare of 3,000 KRW (~$3.00) AND there’s no tipping!

Low crime rate: I’ve always felt safe walking by myself in the middle of the night. There’s such a low crime rate in Korea, and even in a big city like Seoul!

Also, you can leave your valuables at your table in a coffee shop, use the bathroom, walk outside for a smoke, chat with your friends outside, and then come back, and nothing will have been touched. Korean students studying abroad have to be taught that you can’t do that outside of Korea — your things will be stolen!

I’ve heard this too: In Seoul, you’re more likely to have someone chasing after you trying to return your wallet that you left at a restaurant rather than have someone chasing after you trying to steal your wallet.

Supermarket right across the street: Yes, there were times when I hated living right next to a grocery store (more out of self-pity that I was at Homeplus for the third time in one day), but let’s be honest, living right next to the grocery store when you have a baby is kind of amazing. Forget something? No problem! Just dash across the street. Can only work out at night after baby is asleep and hubby is home? Sign up for 9 PM fitness classes! (It was so unbelievably awesome to be able to take Zumba and kickboxing twice a week at 9 PM and only have to leave the apartment at 8:55!) Want to take baby to music/play classes nearby? Homeplus offers all kinds of classes for all age groups.

{Sigh} I REALLY miss Homeplus. Not only do I now feel completely out of shape, but going to the grocery store is such a chore. Having to strap Baby M in a carseat and then drive to the store, and have her scream because I’m not in the backseat with her? Not fun. I really miss strapping Baby M in a stroller and walking to Homeplus.

Free and quick delivery: Need toilet paper/diapers/almost anything in one or two days? Order it online (I used gmarket, a Korean website that’s a mix of eBay and Amazon) and have it delivered (usually free!) within two days. Ah-maze-ing!

Free wifi, everywhere: Alex and I used Olleh (SK, the other carrier also does the same thing), and our phones automatically connected to the free wifi available at (almost) all subway platforms and subway cars. And our phones connected to anywhere with Olleh wifi. Almost all restaurants, and definitely all coffee shops, offered free wifi. Pretty nice!

Clean bathrooms at all subway stations: Being pregnant with Baby M in Korea, and just having a small bladder in general, having access to a clean bathroom (at almost all times) was awesome (except for the aforementioned bins of used toilet paper). I’ve never been in a subway station bathroom stall and not had (plenty) toilet paper! And, there is always soap (although 95% of the time, it’s bar soap… but it’s soap, right?).

If the toilet is located inside the paid area, no worries: just tell the attendant you have to use the bathroom, and he’ll let you through. Likewise, for if you’ve already paid and realize the toilet is outside the paid area.

물티슈 Mool Tissue (moist toilette): I love that at every restaurant and cafe, you’re handed individually packaged moist toilettes 물티슈 (pronounced m-oooo-l tissue). They are so useful for cleaning your hands before a meal, after a meal, and good to carry in your pocket (ahem, you never know when you’ll be out with your toddler, and realize to your horror that you are OUT of wipes and oh, it’s a poopy diaper, but good thing you stashed away the extra 물티슈 from lunch!).

Incheon International Airport: Oh, Incheon, voted best airport by Airports Council International every year since 2005, how I will miss you. Alex and I’ve flown out of/into Incheon (i.e. roundtrip) more than 30 times! I’ve never used it, but my friend Renee swears by the spa (“best massages in Korea!”). Incheon is also home to Korea’s two largest airlines, Korean Air and Asiana, and the service on their flights is excellent (you really can’t beat Asian airlines’ hospitality)! If you’re pregnant, or traveling alone with kids, there’s a special (shorter) check-in line for you. If you’re traveling with young children, you get a pass for the accelerated security line.


And in parting, here are some photos from a very fun tea ceremony and hanbok 한복(traditional Korean outfit) dress-up session that I participated in, with many friends, during my last week in Seoul.

Alex and I are incredibly thankful for our experiences in Seoul, Korea, for the opportunity to travel around Asia, as well as for all the wonderful friends we made along the way.

안녕히 계세요, Korea.

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Where we enjoyed a traditional tea ceremony (next to Insadong, in Seoul)

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We were able to choose our a ‘dress’ color and then were given a ‘matching jacket.’

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So many choices…

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My friend Tricia getting dressed

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Ready to go!

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Start of our tea ceremony: presentation is an important part of it, as is showing respect to the host

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Matcha tea (yes, it came from Japan) and traditional Korean snacks

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When in Asia… gotta do some cute poses

The photos below were taken courtesy of my friend Tricia.

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Feeling pretty in our hanboks

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Tricia and I kind of match…

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Sipping our tea: even though it’s hot, you’re supposed to finish the tea in one-go, to show appreciation to your host.

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Enjoying our tea

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Taken with our host

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Taken on the rooftop with Changdeukgung Palace in the background

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Goodbye, Seoul!

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2 responses to “Farewell, Korea. 안녕히 계세요.”

  1. Wilde, Johnetta Kay says :

    Thank you! This is absolutely Incredible. I have enjoyed your journey and wish you well in your next adventure. I would love to be included in your next blog. You are creating a wonderful diary of memories.
    God bless!
    Johnetta, teacher friend of Marcia

    _______________________________________

  2. stepsinseoul says :

    I completely agree with your list of negatives and positives of living in Seoul/Korea! So glad I got to see you one last time before you left during that fun tea ceremony. 🙂 Looking forward to when our paths cross again. Keeping you and your family in my thoughts and prayers as you begin this new chapter of your life!

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