One. Dirty streets: There is a lot of spittle on the ground. Not as bad as in China, but coming from a clean and green city like Singapore, the lack of hygiene was difficult to get used to. You can't take your eyes off the ground if you're a germaphobe.
On the weekends, you'll catch the stench of vomit along certain stretches of road, as people get themselves way too drunk.
Although recycling is strictly enforced, with threat of litigation for non-compliance, you'll still see this on the streets:
Two. Rude chauvinistic men & other clueless people: I've had men purposely turn and spit in my direction, purposely walk head-on into me although the walkway could fit another 3 people abreast, and kick my foot on purpose in the train. These were all perpetrated by middle-aged men, who clearly belong to a different era where women were not respected.
Outright discrimination aside, there are a lot of clueless people when it comes to appropriate social behaviour. A pet peeve of mine was the opening of doors in public places. 8 out of 10 times, instead of letting the person who opens the door pass through first, the person on the other side of the door would walk right through as if you were the doorman. Also, be prepared to wait an extra 15 seconds each time the elevator stops at a level, as the person who walks in does not see the need to close the elevator door after them. The words 'thank you' (for holding the door open) and 'sorry' (for bumping into you or stepping on your feet) are almost unheard of.
Three. Korean programming: Web programmers do not follow international coding, and their online security is obviously foreigner-phobic. A special ID (i-pin) is required, in order to register oneself on most Korean websites, or to apply for membership cards. Foreigners do not have that unique ID, although the government would have you believe otherwise. Even if you manage to obtain one as a result of long-term residence, try getting the application form to load correctly, or at all. It's wasn't a Mac, Java or Flash problem. Don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be a part of their online community.
Four. High cost of living (except for accommodation and transport): Rental for my brand new studio apartment cost me S$1000 per month, excluding utilities and maintenance, which was an additional S$200. A similarly-sized apartment would probably cost upwards of S$2000 in Singapore. Transport to almost anywhere within Seoul via subway is a dollar or two at most.
Other than transport and accommodation, the cost of everything else is on par with Singapore. Eateries, many home-based, charge a minimum of $5 for a bowl of noodles or rice. The price of groceries is equivalent to that in supermarkets in Singapore. A cup of caffeine or a fast food meal costs about the same, from S$6 upwards.
A S$6 meal, similarly priced at air-conditioned food courts in Singapore..
Five. Smelly Subways: While tropical climates might have to contend with the stink of body odour in a packed train, the subways in Seoul have a very unique stench of kimchi on the weekdays, and kimchi mixed with alcohol on the weekends. I guess the smell doesn't bother the locals as I've even come across makeshift stalls selling fresh vegetables and fermented stuff in an underground subway station.
Six. Airconditionitis: Yes, you read that right. Koreans believe that such a condition exists; where you get sick from too much air-conditioning. Hence, poor air circulation and resulting discomfort when shopping in warm stuffy shopping complexes during Summer is the norm. In fact, it made shopping complexes seem kind of primitive during the Summer season.
Seven. Poor service at some places: Staff are more interested in having a conversation among themselves than in preparing your latte. I see the same thing happening among foreign service staff in Singapore these days. However, there are a great number of Mainland Chinese and Japanese tourists, and shops employ foreign labour to cater to the foreign crowd, so in that aspect, I get served reasonably well.
Eight. Not as international as I hoped it would be: Few Koreans speak English, making it difficult to get to know them on a personal level. The ones that do, have usually studied abroad for a period of time, and I got to know them via Meetups, or when asking for directions.
You would be hard pressed to find authentic international dining outside of Itaewon, except for maybe Outback Steakhouse, which I frequented, just because there were 2 outlets within walking distance of my apartment. I was also grateful to find familiar Chinese food at a Crystal Jade branch in Myeongdong, although it was pricey. For Japanese food, there was CoCo Ichibanya Curry House in Sinchon, and for the daily dose of caffeine, there is Starbucks, or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Oh, there's Dunkin' Donuts and Krispy Kreme too, but nothing beats Donut Factory and Chewy Junior in my opinion. I still missed the luxury of being spoilt for choice when it came to eating out.
Finally, there is the rather well-known problem of finding Western bedsheets, as a lot of Koreans still sleep on traditional mattresses placed on the floor. I spent a lot of time hunting for bedsheets for my queen-sized bed, and was horrified by the thought that I would have to spend a thousand dollars on a 'luxury set' from France. Yes, a thousand dollars for a bed sheet, 2 pillowcases, and a quilt cover. In the end, I got mine from a Muji sale, where it was marked down from S$80 to S$25 for a single lousy sheet that didn't quite fit.
Paradoxically, there are a lot of foreigners in Seoul. It is as international a city as Singapore, if not more so. The service industry just needs to catch up and cater to the huge international crowd.
Disclaimer: Posts like this tend to attract controversy and spur arguments. Most probably because people are not aware of, or too egoistic to accept, that opinions depend on a person's personal experience of a situation, their background, and the values they hold. Know that your mileage will vary, because everything in the world is relative to something. I'm not hating on Seoul because there are things I do love about the city.
Click here to read about what I love about living in Seoul.
Click here to read about applying for a D4(1) student visa.
Click here to read about applying for an Alien Registration Card in Seoul.
Click here to read about studying the Korean language at Hankuk University and Sogang University.