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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Coming to Korea? Getting Acquainted

(Updated August 2013)

It’s that time of year again. Every weekend there’s another leaving party, and soon there will be a new crop of fresh English teachers, engineers, and students ready to explore all that Korea has to offer. Some who arrive will be eager to experience the inherent contradictions that make this country such an interesting and challenging place to live. Others will balk at the differences from home, choosing either to make a midnight run, or bitterly complain for the rest of their year abroad.

We all complain from time to time, but here are some tips from someone (me!) that’s lived here a while now (8 years!) that will hopefully help you minimize the negative experiences and make the most of your time here, whether you stay for a few months, or a few years.

The most important thing to remember is that for the duration of our time here, we are members of Korean society. This is sometimes forgotten, and some people treat their time here as an extended vacation, with little regard for the permanent residents. Because Korea has a history of being a hermit kingdom, and until recently was a poor country, it is only within the last 20 years that there has been much interaction with foreigners. (This is why people will often seem surprised to see you, or openly point at you and exclaim, “Waygookeen! {foreigner!}”).

Many of the restrictions we face, from tighter rules for work visas, to difficulty getting cell phone plans, are directly linked to previous foreign workers behaving badly. Why should a cell phone company trust you when their last non-Korean customers ran up huge phone bills, and then left the country without paying?

The impressions you leave here as a foreigner are lasting ones. Consider yourself an ambassador of your country, and of Western culture in general; if you are polite and respectful of Koreans,  their culture and property, you will leave a favourable opinion of foreigners behind. Act like a hooligan, and we all bear the brunt of the repercussions.

On a lighter note, one of the best ways to not just survive here, but to thrive, is to make friends. This may sound basic and simple, but I don’t mean just people you can go out drinking with. It’s important to find people who do things that you enjoy doing, be that spending a weekend shopping in Busan, playing Ultimate Frisbee, biking, photography, or whatever it is that floats your boat. Look for groups on Facebook (compiled in a handy article), or put a posting on Ulsan Online Facebook group, if needs be.

It’s easy at first to just hang out with coworkers, or the first people you meet at a bar, but just like at home, it’s important to have good friends as well as acquaintances. Ulsan has always been known for having a vibrant, active foreign community. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have the outlets available to foreigners in Seoul or Busan, but it’s always meant that there are groups of people getting together to do things. If the thing you want to do isn’t on offer, consider creating the event. There are probably others interested in joining in. The foreign bars are good places to start asking around, so check out Cima, JJ’s, Sticky Fingers and Royal Anchor.

If you want to immerse yourself more in Korean culture, join a Korean club. This is the way most of my fluent friends learned to speak Korean so well, and they have become part of the family, whether in a martial arts group, a cycling club or a rock-climbing gym. Everyone I know who has attempted this has always had a fantastic time and made great friends. Just be prepared for a lot of Makkoli (a rice alcohol) at the end of the activity. There’s also the Language Exchange Table group, which gets together in a social atmosphere, for Koreans to practice their English, and non-Koreans to practice their Korean.

Life in Korea gets easier for expats every year. When I first arrived it was pretty much impossible to find Western food outside of the main city centres, very few Koreans spoke any English (including my coworkers and bosses), coffee shops were all frilly and pink and only served the pre-mixed packet stuff, and the Taehwa river was polluted, with undeveloped land on either side.

Now, there are coffee shops on every corner (between the SK Telecom shops), there are numerous non-Korean restaurants, bakeries that have a basic understanding of non-sneaky-bean-filled breads, and the Taehwa has become a sparkling ribbon of parkland through the heart of the city. There are also plenty of Western groceries to be found in the bigger department store grocery sections, a Costco, and places like the Bakery Supply shop and Foreigner Town to find basic ingredients for non-Korean meals. And chocolate! There’s real chocolate here now, not just stuff that tastes like melted brown crayons mixed with sand!

If you arrive in Korea with an open mind, knowing you are literally on the other side of the planet from home, and that things here are going to be different from what you’re used to, you’ll be more able to handle the challenges that are inherent to living in a foreign country.

For practical information on things to bring when you come, check out previous articles on Ulsan Online, back issues of the Ulsan Pear (available on Ulsan Online under the City Information section ), and Go East Recruiting‘s info page. For information on where to buy things that are difficult to find, the “Where to Find…” database is useful. And if you find something yourself, you can plug it in for others to easily find, too.

Another thing that will make your life here easier is to learn to read Hangul (written Korean). It’s surprisingly easy to learn, as it’s phonetically based, unlike Chinese, in which you have to memorize everything. Each letter in Hangul makes a sound, and they are put together to form syllables and words. For example, makes a sound similar to “g” or a soft “k”, sounds like “ee” and sounds like “m”. Put them together, and you have , or “kim”.

The easiest way to practice is to write out the Hangul alphabet (or print out the chart below) with the equivalent English sounds, and then go to McDonalds to read the menu. It’s easy to puzzle out the phonetics when you know what the word is supposed to sound like. For example, 함버거 is ham baw gaw (hamburger).

Knowing how to read, even if you don’t know what all the words mean, will be endlessly helpful. You’ll feel more confident getting around, and it will even help you be a better teacher, if that’s why you’re here. By knowing how Korean and English sounds don’t match up, you can address your kids’ pronunciation difficulties more easily.

Korean is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn (only Chinese and Japanese are harder), but if you put in a little effort, you can learn enough to get by. These days, many Koreans speak a little English, at least in the bigger cities, but as with traveling anywhere, making an effort to speak their language will help people be more receptive to assisting you.


Reading Hangul – a beginner’s guide:

Consonant sounds

– a soft “b/p” sound like a cross between “bubble” and “puppy”

ㅃ – “P” pronounced strongly

ㅈ – “j” as in “jump”

ㅉ – “tch” as in “watch”

– “d” as in “delicious”

ㄸ – “D” pronounced strongly

ㄱ – a hard“g” or soft “k” as in “gum”

ㄲ – a hard “K” sound

ㅅ – “s” as in “sand”, sometimes “sh” (when next to )

ㅆ – “ss” as in “hiss”

– “m” as in “mom”

– “n” as in “no”

– “ng” as in “song”, unless before a vowel (see below). Then it’s silent.

ㄹ – “l/r” – almost impossible to pronounce properly in English. It has more of an “r” or “l” sound depending on where it is in the word, and is the cause of the students’ confusion with “l” and “r” sounds.

ㅎ – “h” like in “hat”

ㅋ – “K” as in “Kite”

ㅌ – “t” as in “top”

ㅊ – “ch” as in “church”

ㅍ – “p” as in “pop”


Vowel sounds

– “aw” as in “awful” (anglicized as eo, like Mugeodong)

– “yaw” as in “yawn” (anglicized as yeo)

– “ah” as in “apple” (anglicized as a)

– “yah” as in “yah, I like pie!) (anglicized as ya)

– “ay” as in “day” (anglicized as ae)

ㅒ – “yay” as in “yay!” (anglicized as yae)

– “eh” as in “I know, eh?” (anglicized as e)

– “yeh” as in “yet” (anglicized as ye)

– between the “ee” and short “i” sound (anglicized as i)

ㅗ – “oh” as in “oh my goodness” (anglicized as o)

ㅛ – “yoh” as in “yo, dawg, wassup!” (anglicized as yo)

ㅜ – “oo” as in a long “u” sound – “fruit” “tune” (anglicized as u)

ㅠ – “yoo” as in “you” (anglicized as yu)

ㅡ – “euh”, more like the short “u” sound, like “under” (anglicized as eu)

When you combine vowels, you get the “w” sound:

ㅘ – “wa” as in “water”

ㅙ – “wae” as in “way”

ㅚ – “we” as in “we”

ㅝ – “wah” as in “wander”

ㅞ – “weh” as in “wet”

ㅟ – “ wi” as in “will”

ㅢ – “ooih” as in “wit” *

Some of the sounds are so similar, that it’s difficult for non-native speakers to hear the difference.

So, can you read this?

울산 언라인

(hint, it’s the website you’re on)