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The cost of living in Korea

안녕하세요

When I left the UK to come to Korea I was horrified to discover that the £500 I had ordered for collection at the airport, which equated to around 900’000 Korean Won, had been given to me in denominations of ₩10’000, ₩5’000 and ₩1’000  notes. I was left holding a ridiculously large sized wedge of currency and baffled as to how they could operate with such measly denominations. The ₩50’000 (£27.52) Won note was released into circulation in 2009, but still remains to be relatively rare and only specially marked cashpoints dispense it. After a period of time in Korea I came to realise why. It is unnecessary to have anything much larger. Due to the low-cost of living you very rarely need a note bigger than the ₩10’000 which is worth around £5 . Inevitably as soon as you do acquire a ₩50’000 it is rapidly broken down into its various smaller quantities. That being said, I have thought that at times that a ₩20’000 note (about a tenner) would be more appropriate and useful.

Koreans are also very good with their money. When I inquired this week about what Korea was doing to help people caught up in the earthquake and Tsunami crisis in Japan, after giving me details of how to donate my money the Korean red cross relief effort, a teacher in my school also casually suggested that perhaps my money would be more wisely spent investing in the recently depleted Japanese stock market. That is not to say that she did not think I should donate it of course, merely an observation of a window of opportunity.

The amount of goods that are imported into the UK is quite incredible. You’d do well to be able to purchase a UK manufactured car nowadays, Rover being a recent example of defunct British manufacturing with its discontinuation in 2005. The exact opposite is the case here, and an imported car on the roads is a very rare sight with most people driving either a Kia, Daewoo, Hyundai or Samsung. An imported car is a symbol of stature, and the principal at my school is the only teacher I have seen with an import, proudly driving in his shiny new Ford Taurus (and I always thought Ford stood for ‘found on road dead’). The most amazing thing is the amount of production that happens in Korea. The two major companies LG and Samsung make so much stuff it is mind boggling, from TVs to computers, mobile phones, fridges, water filtering systems and cars.

Due to the fact that a lot of things are produced, grown or made in Korea, it helps to keep the cost of living low. A loaf of bread will cost you about 80p, a small carton of milk 16p, 1L milk 60p,  a 500ml glass of beer £1.38, dinner at a typical Korean restaurant £2.75, dinner at an expensive Korean restaurant £8.26, a tin of tuna 66p, a can of coke 50p, a 2.5 litre bottle of beer in the supermarket £1.65-£2.75, a bottle of Soju (national drink) 61p, a packet of cigarettes £1.37, a large pizza anywhere from £3.30, fried chicken £2.75, a burger set meal £2.48, a  cafe latte £1.38, a toasted sandwich £1.10, taxis start from £1.21 and go up at a steady rate of around 11p every now and then, and a hotel room is around £27.50. School lunch in the canteen is also a snip at £1.10  a day, although the food can sometimes be a gamble! Many things are so much cheaper than the kind of prices I am used to in the UK. Naturally, as with most things, premium goods increase in price, but overall the day to day cost of living is far lower. Anything that involves a labour charge is dirt cheap. A taxi costs peanuts in comparison to the UK, a 5 hour luxury bus ride £13.20 and a haircut is £5.50.

Naturally as with all countries, costs inevitably increase as you approach the major cities. Many things in Seoul are comparable in price to western nations, with a high premium for imported goods such as alcohol and food and wherever you are in Korea western food comes at a price. Petrol prices remain high, consistent with oil prices globally. Fruit and veg can also be expensive in the supermarkets (cheaper on the local markets) and fluctuate in price quite a lot. The are usually sold in bulk which can present a disproportionate price, but inevitably leaves you buying far more than you actually need, and can usually mean it is just cheaper to eat out than stay at home to cook. The subway however, as with all public transport in Korea remains relatively cheap in Seoul and a single journey will cost you around 49p.

When I return, adjusting back to the price of economy goods at premium prices in the UK worries me. Sometime in the future I can see myself walking into a newsagents and buying a can of coke, only to be horrified when the pleasant man at the counter informs me that it is £1.20, and shaking my head I’ll begrudgingly hand over the cash and walk off muttering about how I remember when a can of coke was only 50p! Back in my day…

The Korean Currency

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My school is falling down…

…well actually only a few things. I arrived back at my school yesterday after my spontaneous week off (cheers Mr Principal) to discover that it had not managed to escape the recent bombardment of snow (obviously). Apparently some of the school structures were not able to withstand the weight of the snow and collapsed. This included the stage outside the front doors of the main building (I’m not really sure what the point of this is except to house the top dogs seating area  on sports day) and the covered walkway between the main building and the English centre. Fear not, I heard rumours that a new stage area is to be built. Phew.

The stage

The (previously) covered walkway

Snow go Korea

The east coast of Korea has just been hit by the biggest snowfall in over a century.

It has to be said that they have dealt mightily well with the events. Whereas we witness Britain annually grind to a rapid halt under the weight of a couple of inches of snowfall, Korea has taken no less than 5 feet within the space of a few days. It was quite a thing to watch as it fell rapidly and covered the entire Eastern coastline in a mountain of snow.

Not to be defeated by the extreme weather, the Koreans attached their snow tyres and snow chains to their cars and attempted to foolishly carry on as normal, many resulting in becoming stranded and being forced to abandon their cars.

The army was drafted in to try and restore some normal service to the area and for days every civilian has been out with shovels digging out their cars and paths. Late into the night trucks and JCBs have been digging up the snow covered roads and attempting to reconnect the transport links. You had to feel a massive sense of compassion towards all of the people who went out on Saturday to clear the roads, paths and cars only to wake up on Sunday morning to yet another huge downfall.

So big was the news that it gained news coverage as wide at the UK and USA. Locally problems increased yesterday during the start of the ‘big thaw’, as some of the snow was starting to melt, many poorly constructed buildings started to buckle under the weight of the snow. This climaxed, as reported in the Telegraph, with the collapse of the roof of the local indoor market, trapping many under the snowfall but thankfully, contrary to early reports, it did not result in any deaths.
Happily, the continued snowfall that was predicted for today seems to have not come to pass and now we can begin to (hopefully) look forward to getting through the rainy season and onto the Korean summer, which is quite spectacular. This country really does experience the extreme of all seasons, non stop snow and rain that will be followed with stiffing temperatures in the summer months. I know which season I prefer. In the mean time the roads are finally clear and the buses are back running so what else is there to do but head to the ski slopes?!

Day one of the snowfall

 

Digging out the car

 

Tokyo and the modern world

I’ve just returned from a brisk 6 day trip to Japan’s capital city Tokyo. Claiming the title of ‘The world’s most populous metropolitan area’ with a population estimated at between 35 to 39 million, it is fair to say that Tokyo is not on the small side. I went through mixed emotions before heading off for Tokyo, having been initially full of excitement at the idea I started to question whether or not I was really as bothered as I had originally thought. I heard a few people say that it is ‘just like Seoul’ but very expensive. I had prepared for it to cost a lot and thought it would be worth the expense, this would not be the case however if it did in fact turn out to be just like Seoul which is obviously closer, cheaper, a bus ride away and actually not that exciting.  You can imagine my relief when I found out that this was simply not the case at all.

Obviously having been under the colonial rule of Japan for 36 years (S.Korea being liberated at the close of WWII) and successfully preventing invasion between 1592 and 1598, Korea shares many similarities with its neighbour. There were many similarities too, I noticed when I visited China in September. The temples are almost identical, as are the palaces, each one however striking in their grand design and colours. Sake, The national drink of Japan, even tastes remarkably similar to the popular and previously blogged Soju.

There are however many more differences than there are similarities. The most obvious and important one is food. Japan has it all, from traditional food of sushi and noodles to restaurants that can make even a burger seem exotic. I could not fault the food on many levels, and there was usually something to be found for every budget. The yakisoba noodles were to die for and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why Japan is famous for sushi! Even the wasabi packs a flavour and punch that seems superior to everywhere else. The beer was crisp and refreshing, which was a welcome break from the below par and chemical rich Korean beers of Cass and Hite. This does however come at a price and you can expect to pay around 800 yen (around 6 pounds) for just over half a pint in most bars.  There are of course ways to drink slightly cheaper such as in supermarkets or karaoke rooms with some offering deals of unlimited beer, however don’t expect many of the high street bar prices in Tokyo to drop much lower.

Another thing that many people will associate Japan with being famous for is its technology, be that cars, televisions, computer games, robots, whatever. There is no question that Japan is a world leader in the technology of tomorrow and they are also superb at holding on to the good technology of yesterday. Tokyo is a fantastic showcase of all things modern and contemporary in the technology world. You’ll find the district of Akihabara buzzing with shop after shop of top of the range technology, 3 and 4D tvs, games consoles from the modern Playstation 3 to old school SNES, cameras and sound systems, everykind of electronic device you can imagine you can buy here. The big Japanese companies Sony and Panasonic also have offices that they use as a showcase for their future technology where you can go in and test out the equipment of tomorrow, demonstrating their striking new HD 3D capabilities and eco-friendly systems on every level. Even the taxis are a hidden luxury, looking like something that was deigned in the 70’s, at first glance they appear to be outdated and old-fashioned, until you look a little closer and see the glisten of the lights of Tokyo shining off of their flawless metallic paintwork and the automatic doors that open at the touch of a drivers button, filled with all the latest gadgets these are just another example of how technology has worked its way into everyday life in Tokyo, from toilet seats that lift themselves when you open the door and flush themselves when you leave to a tv screen imbedded into the wall at every seat in a restaurant. If you want to know what life will be like in the future then look no further than Tokyo.

All in all I can only find a few reasons to fault Tokyo, or indeed Japan in general. The subway system can be quite confusing offering several different companies, lines, stations and conflicting maps. The price of most things in general can too be enough to put some people off. In every other aspect it is simply fantastic. Japanese people are in my experience very friendly and helpful, the food and drink is spectacular and  the lights and sights of the city by day or night are truly fantastic. The view from the tops of the high rise buildings can be breathtaking and there is so much to do you can really never get bored. Every day was packed full of fun and excitement and I really left very satisfied and eager to return again. You’d go a long way to show me a city in the world that I prefer to Tokyo, and to top it all off they drive on the left. Perfect.

Tokyo taxi that looks like it was designed in 1970

The best of the net yet

I thought I would share with everyone (especially those who are doomed to a month of deskwarming) what I consider to be the greatest discovery I have ever made on our beloved world wide web. The jewel in the crown of websites. Let boredom be a thing of the past. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

http://www.stumbleupon.com/home/

This is essentially an intelligent search engine that tailors to your preferences. You don’t however type anything in. Sign up and list a few things that you are interested in (you can install a toolbar into your browser for the seriously addicted like me). Then hit the ‘stumble’ button and it will throw at you random websites that it thinks will interest you. Like what you see? Hit the ‘like’ button and it will remember the kind of things that float your boat. Don’t like it? Hit ‘dislike’ and you won’t see anything like that again. The thing that makes this so good is I’ve seen websites such as the ‘I’m bored’ widget on my mac do a similar thing, but they are pretty awful. This is pure gold. Doubt me? Prove me wrong. But I give you warning, once you start stumbling you won’t be able to stop…

Also in the news, kimchi now available as a (not so) refreshing drink. Sick. (brought to me by stumbleupon)

Korea, a summary.

So I’ve been here just over 6 months now and I always wonder, how am I going to explain ‘Korea’ to everyone when I go back home? That might sound like a strange thing to say, but it is quite difficult to portray some things well enough to anyone outside of Korea in order for people to comprehend exactly what it is like.

5 Things I’ve learnt about Korea

  1. Men rule. Top dogs. Especially the school principal, aka the ‘king’. Korea is founded on the principles on Confucianism, and many of those beliefs are still deep rooted in today’s society. Having said that, cross an ajuma (Old Korean woman) at your own peril! See http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=38850805078 for further reference.
  2. Work work work (or sleep) I find myself with lots of spare time at work, as many of the EPIK teachers do. The syllabus is planned in books, there are no lessons until March and it’s still school vacation, but we are here. There is no work. But yet I find myself in work. I don’t think people fully grasp how frustrating desk warming can be. I turn up and spend the entire day in front of my computer exhausting facebook and  flicking through multiple youtube videos. Having said that, when school is back in, things kick into gear and we are all systems go, so I might as well just enjoy it whilst it lasts I guess!
  3. Drink your soju and eat your kimchi, naturally.  Two big things in Korea, you can’t go to a Korean restaurant without seeing both at nearly every table. Soju drinking is encouraged and the more you drink the more they love you. So much so that I can stay out until 5am, roll into school at 9 looking like death and one of the teachers will look at me and say ‘oooh…Soju?’ I nod, they laugh, it is totally acceptable. If I turned up to work in the UK like that I would be fired, and rightly so, I’m useless with a soju hangover, it is like nothing else on Earth. Devil juice, and way too easy to drink.
  4. Salute the flag. Randomly and frequently, including many mornings at work over the tannoy system you will hear the Korean national anthem, at which point teachers and students stand and salute the flag. This happens at sports days, winter camps, summer camps, any opening ceremony, official trips, sporting events…the list goes on.  They must really love that flag the amount of attention it gets…
  5. Koreans can’t drive. I don’t even know if there is a test, but if there is I imagine it consists of three questions: 1. Can you watch a tv show and negotiate a junction at the same time? 2. Do you prefer to swerve around speed bumps and 3. Do you think red lights and stopping for pedestrians is optional? If you answer yes to all of these questions you get your licence. Getting in a car in Korea can sometimes feel like taking you life into your own hands. Don’t they know you’re supposed to drive on the left?

 

Time for the blog

So I’ve done it and actually gone and launched my own blog. I’m so 1999…oh well. You can find out what I am up to around Korea and the world here. More to follow soon.


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