Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

The 5 best cities to live and teach in Korea

okpo city
blue dot
Jul 02 2015

When I started this blog, this was one of the first topics I ever thought to write about. It’s an obvious question, and people come here looking for information on this topic. It’s a topic I’ve thought about a lot; in all my travels in South Korea, I’ve always kept a mental list of cities that I wouldn’t mind living in, if I had the chance.

But I’ve never written this post. And the reason is this:

Competition.

If I ever went for a job in one of these places, I didn’t want to be competing with all of you. A good percentage of people interested in teaching in South Korea do visit this blog sooner or later, and I didn’t want to advertise my secret places. Sorry.

What’s changed? Well, at this point in my trajectory I think I’m unlikely to be competing with first-timers who have never been to Korea; I would probably be after different jobs. And anyone in Korea probably has their own list, or at least has the option of traveling to a place and checking it out. So I thought I’d finally tell you all my favorite cities to live in and teach in, in Korea.

But first, a whole lot of disclaimers and qualifications. (If you want to skip straight to the list, click here for my list of the 5 most livable cities in South Korea.)

Disclaimers

1. I haven’t been to every city in Korea

Looking at the Wikipedia list of Korean cities by population, I’ve been to about a third. Some I know well; others I’ve visited only briefly. Still, that’s not bad, and probably compares well to the average Korean.

Also, my percentage is probably better than it seems. When you travel, you choose places that are either large, famous, or scenic; so I’ve probably been to a larger percentage of the interesting cities. By the same reasoning, the higher you go up that list, the more likely it is that I’ve been there; I’ve been to 9 of the 10 largest cities.

That said, there have been some areas that I have explored better than others. While I’ve been to every province, I have spent very little time in Gangwon-do. I hear it’s lovely and a great place to live, but in terms of my knowledge of Korea, it’s a bit of a black hole.

2. I have personal biases

Most particularly, I am Australian, and so tend to like coastal and warmer places. If you feel at home in cold, mountainous areas, your list will be different from mine.

Qualifications

1. Why which city you choose doesn’t matter that much

Look, no matter where you end up, Korean cities tend to be a bit samey. Also, where you will actually live in a city makes at least as much difference as which city you live in. I’ll explain both of those things.

Firstly, the sameyness:

Look! I’m a psychic. I will now describe for you the city in Korea that you will eventually call home. If you already live in Korea – well, I’ll describe where you live now. Ready…?

There’s a downtown with lots of clothing stores and convenience stores and coffee shops. There’s also a Paris Baguette, a Dunkin Donuts, and a Baskin Robbins. The Paris Baguette is on a prominent corner; the other prominent corners are probably occupied by phone shops. There’s an E-Mart (and/or Lotte Mart/Home Plus), but it’s not in downtown; it’s in another part of town. There’s a foreigner bar. There’s a local mountain where you can look at cherry blossoms in cherry blossom season. Somewhere near the city is a body of water where you can rent duck boats. The locals will be proud of their mountain and their body of water. They will also be proud of a particular food that they claim is better there than anywhere else in Korea. There are places you can go hiking. There are lots of barbeque places, fried chicken places, and traditional Korean food places. There is a market area, and probably near it is an Old Korea part of town where all the old people hang out; this place will have lots of run-down looking stores selling second hand goods and ajumma fashion. There is a seedy area with love motels and business bars and noraebangs, some “nice” neighborhoods with lots of married couples with kids and lots of parks, and a City Hall type area that has a somewhat sterile feel to it and lots of office buildings.

The above, more or less, describes every Korean city. There are small Korean cities, medium Korean cities, and big Korean cities. The differences lie only in minor specifics.

Now, here’s the important thing. Korean cities are divided up into dong (동), or neighborhoods. Each of the above descriptions might describe an entire dong, or a dong might have multiple such areas within it.

The character of each dong within a city is much more distinct than the differences between cities themselves.

That is a little confusing. Let me try to explain. A love motelly, noraebang, amber-light district area in one city is likely to resemble the amber-light district in other Korean cities quite closely. It will, however, be very different from the nice neighborhoods with lots of parks and couples-with-kids in the same city.

What I’m saying is that even if you’re in a position to choose your city, it’s still very hard to know what the place you will end up living in is actually like, unless you can also choose where in the city to live. And that is a choice you almost certainly won’t have, if you’re new to Korea.

(If you do ever get to choose where in the city you will live, I recommend all of the following!: The amber light area with the noraebangs, the old Korea area, the downtown area, the sketchy neighborhood around the bus terminal, any university “back gate” area.  This is where Korea tends to be at its most lively and interesting, and despite any misgivings you might have, these places are still pretty safe. Places I’d prefer to avoid: the city hall area, any area with lots of big box type stores, new town type areas and areas in a cul-de-sac off a main highway. All these tend to have a bit of a depressing and empty feel to them. Nice neighborhoods with lots of young families and kids can be nice places to live, but can also be a little on the dull side.)

 Criteria

1. Waegukin’s guide to how the locals perceive foreigners

One thing that can make a big difference to the ambiance of where you live, and which does seem to vary from city to city, is how the locals perceive foreigners. The feeling of being silently despised as you go about your everyday existence will get to anyone after a while. And a minority of places I’ve been to in Korea do have that feel.

I’ve thought a lot about what accounts for this difference in vibe regarding how foreigners are perceived in different cities, and from this have formulated the following highly unscientific chart to explain them.

attitudes to nset

 

Explanation: the horizontal axis reflects the wealth of the city. Is it home to a large Chaebol industry, or is it a rural, farming area? The vertical axis represents the area’s familiarity with foreign English teachers. Have they seen them around for years, acting like dickheads and drinking outside the convenience stores, or are they still a novelty?

This leaves us with four quadrants, and explains, I think, the differing levels of hostility you might encounter. Now, one of these quadrants probably doesn’t exist any more – the wealthy area that is unfamiliar with foreigners. The wealthy people in those places long ago brought in foreigners to fill their hagwons and tutor their children. But when I first came to Korea, these places still existed, and they were nice places to live – everyone beamed at you and was delighted to see you.

Anyone know of anywhere left in Korea like this? Some wealthy island somewhere, perhaps?

This leaves us with three quadrants. Unfortunately, familiarity with the ways of the waegukin breeds a certain amount of justified contempt in many. Still, I think the attitude towards foreigners in wealthy areas in Korea tends to be pretty good, which is why I describe it as “tolerant” – they may have a mix of good and bad impressions, but they have no reason to feel resentment. So the attitude is one of tolerance; whatever they think about foreigners, they don’t feel any deep animosity; they have no reason to. To make an analogy, do the inhabitants of a wealthy gated community resent the immigrant gardeners? Of course not.

Resentment belongs to the upper-left quadrant. These are areas that are both poor and familiar with foreign English teachers. The resentment is not hard to understand. Many people in these places lead difficult, hard-working, unsuccessful lives, and so they resent young, barely qualified foreigners who come to Korea, are paid well for little work, and act boorishly.

The last Korean city I lived in, a rural city in Gyeonggi-do, was an example of this sort of place.  I felt the dislike every time I went to the local supermarket, and I felt it in the looks of strangers. Of course, there were lovely people there, too; but I felt it often enough in shops and on the street for it to bother me.

The city I live in now, in rural Jeollanam-do, is equally poor, but the feel is completely different. There aren’t many foreign teachers here, and the attitude, as illustrated in the diagram, is oblivious. People here tend to have no preconceptions about foreigners, good or bad; they treat you only as the person who appears before them. The way this most obviously manifests is this: around here, I’m hardly ever told I speak great Korean (which I don’t). They don’t have an expectation about how much Korean I probably know; they just accept it.

Anyway – my advice is to choose somewhere wealthy, or somewhere with few foreign English teachers. Avoid poor places that have plenty of English teachers.

2. Transport

Wherever you live, you’ll want to get away from time to time.  Korea’s public transport is good, but it’s not equally good everywhere.

All cities have a bus terminal. But larger cities tend to have larger bus terminals, with buses that go to lots of places. Small cities may just have a bus terminal that goes to local towns, and hooks into a larger bus terminal in a neighboring city. Changing buses is a pain, so having a big bus terminal is an advantage. A subway connection is also nice. A KTX station is great! You can go to big cities quickly. A KTX station on the Gyeongbu line is best – you can quickly go to Seoul, Daegu, Daejeon and Busan, and a bunch of other interesting places.

3. Downtown area

Does the place have a cool, compact downtown with a lot of different shops, bars and restaurants? Wherever you live, you’re going to spend a lot of time in downtown, so it helps if it’s a fun, interesting place, and isn’t spread out into a bunch of different areas.

4. Attractiveness

Is it pretty? Self-explanatory.

5. The Goldilocks factor

Some may disagree with me, but I think there is an optimum population zone: between 200,000 and 1 million people is about right. Smaller cities can be nice, but they’re likely to lack things you’ll miss after a while. The supply of foreigners living in these places, too, can be a bit limited – there might be nobody you would want to hang out with. And the public transport options are usually not great.

As for the biggest cities – many people like them. Their main disadvantage for me is that there tend to be too many other foreigners, and that can impact your experience. Instead of just a foreigner bar and a restaurant or two, you start to have entire areas where foreigners congregate. And those areas can be messy on a Saturday night. You start to be able to live a cocooned, expat-bubble experience in these larger cities, with expat ultimate frisbee teams, a variety of expat restaurants, expat “events”. That’s easy, and so you’ll be tempted to do that, and I think that is a problem. People who do that tend to not get as much out of their time in Korea. Still, I can understand why for some people, that might sound like a good thing and a good place to live.

In addition, with the largest cities you also start to run into an extreme version of the problem discussed earlier – where, exactly, will you be living? In the heart of downtown, or an hour outside of it, off the subway line, with a long bus ride to get to downtown? Find yourself in such a place, and you’re likely to start to resent everyone who gets to live closer to the city’s happening areas.

None of this is to say that those larger, metropolitan area cities like Busan and Daegu are bad places to live; they’re not. But this is a list about the absolute best places, and for me, they don’t make the cut.

Finally, the list

Enough of all that. In reverse order of personal preference, here are what I consider the best places to live and teach in Korea.

The iconic photo of Gumi that everyone takes - the view of downtown, coming out of the train station. From here

Gumi downtown, seen from the train station exit

5. Gumi, Gyeongsangbuk-do

I have a personal bias, here. This was the first city in Korea I lived in. But I do think it has a lot going for it.

Gumi’s downtown surrounds the train station, at the base of a beautiful mountain, Geumosan. The train station is on the Gyeongbu line, and Daegu is only half an hour away. There are easy high speed train connections to Seoul and Busan. It also has a bus terminal that goes to almost anywhere you might want to go. The downtown is not large, but has a nice feel to it, and neighbors the large market. It was the hometown of benevolent-ish dictator Park Chung Hee, and so has historically been the beneficiary of a disproportionate amount of government favor, which accounts for its great infrastructure and the supportive presence of chaebols like LG and Samsung.

There’s nothing spectacular about Gumi, but it’s at the center of everything, you can go anywhere in or outside of the city with ease, and it ticks all boxes. A nice place to live.

Similar options: Pohang, another city in Gyeogsangbuk-do, has a lot of similarities to Gumi. The transport isn’t quite as good, but it has the advantage of beaches.

4. Songjeong-dong, Gwangju

I’m cheating a little bit here by including a dong in a larger city. However, I justify it by the fact that until recently it was a separate city, and it still has that feel.

It is unusual for this list in that it is the only city that doesn’t fall into the top right of my diagram. It’s not wealthy, and furthermore it is a city that is familiar with foreigners, something I said to avoid. So, what gives? Well, the foreigners they’re familiar with aren’t English teachers. They’re Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai people who work in the local factories. Those people must put on a better show than us English teacher types, because this city is amazingly friendly to foreigners; the downtown shops have signs in them saying “We Welcome Foreigners!”

Songjeong is one of the few places in Korea that, to me, has the feel of an immigrant neighborhood that is about to be gentrified. It has amazing, authentic south-east Asian restaurants courtesy of all those different immigrant groups. In a square kilometer or so it has a great downtown, a terrific five day market, and a love motel-y nightlife area.

It also has spectacularly good transportation for a not very large or famous place. It has a KTX station, a subway station on the Gwangju network, and an airport.

Cheonan downtown

3. Cheonan, Chungcheonnam-do

Cheonan is another city which ticks every box. It is on the Seoul subway system and its KTX station is the crossing point for the Gyeongbu and Janghan lines. It’s a wealthy city with a bunch of different universities, and a tech center for companies like Samsung and LG. It has a wealthy-feeling, lively downtown area. For those for whom “how far is it to Seoul?” is a prime consideration, I’d recommend Cheonan as a place to live.

Similar places: Suwon, home of Samsung, reminds me of Cheonan – they’re both wealthy tech cities, close to Seoul, with good public transportation.

gyeongju

Anapji Pond in Gyeongju

2. Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do

Gyeongju is an internationally famous tourist destination, the “museum without walls”. But I don’t put it here for that reason – at least, not primarily. From a tourist point of view, it can be seen in a day or two, and what are you going to do with the rest of the year?

On the other hand, like most places that benefit from the tourist industry, it is a city that is friendly to foreigners. It has a small, attractive train station close to downtown. Even if you’ve seen all the tourist spots, it remains a very pretty city, filled with parks, trees, and history. It has a compact, pleasant downtown area.

In terms of transportation, it is not as connected as some of the other places, however it does have both a train service and a good bus terminal. More than that, it is extremely close to Daegu, Ulsan, and Busan, giving you no shortage of great places to go on the weekend.

The town of Okpo on Geoje-do

1. Geoje Island, Gyeongsangnam-do

Geoje-do is an island of extraordinary beauty off the southern coast, full of mountains, beaches, coves, and tiny offshore islands that look like something from a storybook.

It’s a shipbuilding island, and each of the two main towns, Gohyeon and Okpo, are company towns – Gohyeon home to Samsung’s shipbuilding facilities, and Okpo to Daewoo’s. One of the more interesting sights I’ve seen in Korea is Okpo at seven in the morning, everyone on the streets wearing identical Daewoo coveralls; like something out of a science-fiction movie from the seventies. Both towns have a wealthy feel to them.

Gohyeon’s downtown is great, along a single, bright, busy and wealthy strip running down to the water. The bus terminal is close by. Although it is an island, it is connected to the mainland by bridges, and so you are not cut off from going to other places. While, being an island, Geoje is not as central with regards to transport as some of the other places mentioned here, it does have buses that go to a lot of places, including a super-cool, fast run to Busan along coastal bridges.

It is, however, an expensive city, due to its location and the high average incomes.

Similar options: If I didn’t feel the need for balance, there would probably be more Southern coastal cities on this list. Tongyeong, close to Geoje Island, also has a lovely feel to it. Yeosu in Jeollanam-do is also a great city, although when I was there last it did seem to be experiencing something of a post-Expo slump.

Why some other places didn’t make the list

I thought about including a list of the worst places in Korea, but it didn’t feel quite right. Most of the places I would nominate I don’t actually know very well; I just passed through them. They are also of a type: that sort of smallish, depressed rural city.

I will, however, mention a few famous places, and why they didn’t make the cut:

1. Seoul – I’ve written before about my feelings about Seoul; suffice to say I don’t think it is one of the world’s great cities. A colossal concrete machine, like Ginsberg’s Moloch, devoted to turning people into money, lacking in green space, unpleasantly crowded.

2. Busan – I’m not alone in my hatred of Seoul; it’s an opinion shared by a substantial minority of expats here. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t like Busan, and I’m not sure I would trust someone who didn’t. Busan is great in all the ways Seoul is not: colorful, lively, and bright.

But… it’s really spread out. It actually covers a larger area than Seoul. And its subway system is slow, making a trip from one side of the city to the other something of a trek. And who knows where you’ll end up living, within that city? Personally, I prefer Busan as a place to visit, rather than a place to live.

3. Jeju-do – The island of Jeju-do is rightly acclaimed for its beauty and natural wonders. And experience those wonders you will, if you go to live there, because you’re going to be mostly stuck on that island. Sure, you’ll visit Seoul a couple of times, and Busan maybe once, but ultimately it’s going to be too much of a hassle to go to anywhere else in Korea. It’s also windy for most of the year.

Your thoughts

But don’t stress about it, because it really doesn’t make that much difference, which city you end up in. You can have a great time in any of them, and equally you can make yourself miserable in any of them. If you don’t get to choose – if you just have to roll the dice and go where you find a job – then I would suggest you embrace that randomness. I’ve lived in four different cities in Korea, and only chose one of them. And it didn’t make too much difference, either way. They were all great experiences, in different ways.

A list like this is bound to cause a fair amount of disagreement, and I’d love to know what you think. What are your secret places? Am I missing important criteria? Is there a better city that I happen to have missed in my travels? Let me know in the comments.

I do have a request, though. If you’ve only lived in one place, and want to say that place is super-great, I would ask you not to comment. I’m happy that you like where you ended up, but you have huge amounts of confirmation bias, and nothing to compare it to. When I’ve seen this topic discussed before, I’ve seen the following happen: you get a ton of people saying, “I like where I live!” and it ends up being nothing more than a poll of where foreigners live in Korea. And that doesn’t help anyone.

If, on the other hand, you want to nominate a different city, or if you’ve lived in multiple places, by all means go ahead and tell me where you like, and why.

Waegukin wrote these 3856 words on July 2nd, 2015 | Posted in Living |

comments

12 comments on “The 5 best cities to live and teach in Korea”

  1. Return Visitor says:

    Damn, you really nailed that sameyness!

  2. Waegukin says:

    It helps that I’m psychic^^

  3. Laura says:

    Brand new to this blog, but what a wonderful post to start with – I’m entering my second year of teaching here, staying at the same school – very happy but already thinking about my options for making a change and moving in year 3. Ditto on the sameyness. Korea is simply a very homogenous country all-around.

    I’m very glad I didn’t start out living in Seoul. As you mentioned, it seems very easy to stay in a convenient little expat bubble there. I feel I’ve gotten a far more authentic Korean experience living where I do. And as much as I lament the lack of variety of cuisines in my small town, Mexican food just tastes that much better when it’s a rare treat. Not to mention the higher cost of living all around. I would not recommend living in Seoul to most first-time expats.

  4. John Ramage says:

    While I found your article to be both interesting and entertaining, I don’t agree with all of it. I am glad that you are Australian: Australians were among the most positive and enthusiastic people I met in South Korea!
    I don’t quite agree with this need to get away from the expat bubble completely and see the “authentic” Korea. What if there are no westerners and Koreans don’t want to talk even in Korean? I give advice on that below.
    You mentioned Yeosu as a good place. For SOME people perhaps. But it’s very spread out and has too many hills in awkward places. Perhaps I was in the “bad” part of town, because outside of school I hardly got to know anyone, Korean or western. The expat bar closed soon after I left, because few people came. There were western teachers but they were very cliquey and mostly very young. I rarely saw them. I did try to talk though.
    How did I solve this? Well, having the internet, and Facebook and YouTube and so on helped a lot. The other good thing was that I could escape to the big cities every 2 weeks. If you are in a dull area and need to do this then do it. Don’t worry, travel is cheap and there are cheap hostels in the cities. I took the 4 hour bus ride to Seoul or Daegu and it helped my morale. I met tons of new friends in Itaewon, and in Daegu I met friends I had known previous to coming to Korea. This was amazing.
    Previously, I had taught in Jecheon, in Chungbuk province. It is much smaller than Yeosu but more compact. It was a whole lot better. I did travel to other cities, but less often, because I had met a warm friendly expat group, of different ages. Their philosophy was that we were abroad and needed to help each other out. I also found it easier to meet Koreans-even those who did not speak English. So if the same social life and a decent job were available to me in Jecheon now, I’d put it on the list of decent places.
    I kind of agree about Busan. It IS very spread out, isn’t it? I liked Haeundae beach in May, or June but not in July or August!
    As I said, I really enjoyed Seoul at the weekend. But I was mystified by why some of my friends wanted to LIVE in Itaewon. There’s no need. And being there 24/7 would just get too intense. I know because I spent a week there at the end of my contract.

  5. Waegukin says:

    Interesting comments about Yeosu. When I was there I found the downtown area reasonably compact and walkable, but I didn’t explore much beyond that area. Like I said, I have a bias towards coastal cities, so that might be affecting my opinion.

    We’re definitely in agreement that compact is good and spread out is bad! It makes such a difference.

  6. Nik says:

    Thanks so much for this list! I’m currently teaching English just outside of Daegu, and I’m considering my options for when my contract ends. I’d love a place with a bit less of an American military presence, since it seems to be the root of the hostility towards foreigners. I’ll be checking out Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do; Gumi, Gyeongsangbuk-do; and Songjeong-dong, Gwangju!

  7. Finbar says:

    Nice post, I enjoyed reading it. One thing I don’t think you mentioned, unless I missed it, is the fact that it kind of matters what your goal is while living in Korea. I’m new to this blog, and get the idea that it’s mainly aimed at a teaching audience – which is fair enough. I, however, am planning on moving to Korea in order to learn the language, and then resume my bachelor studies (so probably 3-5 years, depending on how things go), which has me looking at certain factors differently.
    I too, prefer a warm, compact city near the beach, and absolutely loved Busan (Haeundae, in particular). This is why I figured I’d point out the fact that a city like Busan would actually be nice to live when studying: assuming you’re mostly busy during the week, living near an area like Haeundae would be enough to satisfy my living/entertainment needs during the weekends.
    For the 6-12 months or so that I expect to be studying Korean, however, I expect a smaller town would be best, exactly because I’d love to avoid getting sucked into an expat bubble, as this would make learning Korean a lot harder.
    Anyway, I’ve spent about four years living in Shanghai, and might have a completely different opinion because of that, having only lived in Korea briefly after that. This is exactly why I will be avoiding Seoul. As exciting as I’m sure it is to visit the place, I get the feeling living in any large metropolis eventually boils down to the same thing, even outside of Asia.
    (Not an English teacher here by the way – probably shows from my lack of conciseness :p)

  8. Harpocrates says:

    A really good article! It’s difficult to decide the best places in the country. I’ve changed my thinking so many times over the years. I get impressions about certain places, but it’s really the people that you meet that makes the place, IMHO. With that is also the time, as so many are coming and going that it turns into one big blur.

    My favorite spot is Gwangnali Beach in Busan. It is much more magical than Haeundai, thought that is also an awesome place. The Energy around Gwangnali is amazing! Such wonderful memories! I only spent a week there, but I absolutely loved it! (Hired on a Monday and downsized on a Friday~ bloody 1997 IMF crises!!) Have also been back a number of times.
    What I don’t like about Busan is that the roads are terribly narrow and that it constantly feels like I’m going to get hit by a car!

    I love Seoul! Have been here for a very long time. I agree that certain foreign ghettos can be like a fishbowl; but where I live in Itaewon’s East Village~ Hannam-dong, it’s really something! The people are nice, lots going on, but still relatively quiet. Lots going on, bicycle paths along the river only 1 kilometer away. Great transportation, cafes, LIFE! I love it!
    So, now I’m wondering~ what is Gumi like? Geoje is really nice, Gwangju looks like it has some cool international flavor… but Cheonan?! I don’t know.

    Thanks for an interesting blog. Keep it coming!

  9. Cassie says:

    Would Busan be a good place to live for a year?

  10. David says:

    Very informative! Me and my wife are planning to live in Korea for a bit in the future and this article gives good info lesser known cities.

  11. Doug says:

    Taught in Guri, Gyeonggi-do for 3 years, Cheonan for 1.

    Shocked to see Cheonan on your Top 5 as it was not a great experience at all for me. Besides there being a KTX station (to escape Cheonan and go to better places) , I can’t see how it met any of your criteria for being a decent place to live. The air was always dirty, it’s crowded, very “samey” to every other medium sized city, and has little to offer in the forms of entertainment, parks, or otherwise.

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