Category Archives: Korean Life

I miss Ikea.

If you’re moving to Korea soon and hope to swing by Ikea  for some good inexpensive things for your home you might be waiting a while.  When I officially moved here in 2012 and had to furnish an entire apartment, I was nervous that without an Ikea, it would be expensive and a long process.   Ikea is slowly making it’s way to Korea, after having already been in Japan for years, and it’s first store is set to open by the end of 2014.  I suspect though, that even once it opens it’s doors the crowds will be so outrageous that you may still be searching for alternative.

Although there are still things from Ikea that I crave and find hard to find substitutes for such as Ribba frames and those storage boxes of all shapes size and colors, there are plenty of alternatives for shopping in Korea for anything household related; even if you don’t read or speak Hangul (Korean).   Here are some of my favorites:

GMarket: I like to say this “GMarket” as if it’s the name of a hip-hop artist, it just makes it more fun.  Think Korean-Amazon (because no, Amazon is not available in Korea unlike Japan).  They have a “global” site which reads in English, and although it can still be a bit tough to navigate because a lot of the item descriptions are still in Hangul, it’s a treasure trove of anything you can think of, and all reasonably priced too.  You can buy anything from groceries, furniture, clothing, electronics, etc on this site.  I furnished my entire apartment for under $1500 here.  Some stuff will even be delivered to your door on the dame day!  Word to the wise those, check those measurements, as Korean furniture tends to be ultra small.  Although I’m totally used to it now, when my couch arrived from GMarket I swore it was child-sized.

Modern House:  This place has a bunch of brick & mortar stores all over Korea, and they are adorable.  The physical store isn’t that large, mainly being located in malls, but they pack a lot into a smaller store.  The best way I can think to describe this is a smaller mix of Crate & Barrell and Ikea.  The prices are some of the most reasonable I’ve found in Korea and it’s actually quality stuff, unlike most things in Korea that are cheap for a reason.   The website is all in Hangul, however if you use Chrome, the translate function works well enough for you to navigate, however I had to had a Korean friend help me when it came time to setup an account and checkout.

EMart:   This is like the Super-Target/Wal-Mart of Korea.  Beware going here on weekends, as it could easily take you an hour to get a parking spot, then hours to ram your way through the crowds of people, and another hour to get out of the parking garage.  Weeknights work best for me, or I’m sure weekday mornings would be good if you aren’t working.  You can find anything you need for a house here, and then go shop for groceries too.  They even have a descent selection of clothing if you’re not looking for anything with a designer label.  Some things are overpriced, probably because of the convenience factor of the big store, but most items are competitively priced.  They have a website where you can buy anything and have it all delivered even the same day (hello grocery delivery); but the site doesn’t translate to English well so I just go to the store.


Real Real Estate

When I arrived back in Korea in late January I immediately began the search for a new apartment. Since my roommate from the Fall didn’t return back to Korea the apartment I was living in was just too big and too expensive for me to maintain on my own. Although having a roommate for three+ months was fun, it definitely made me realize there was a reason I’ve lived alone for the past seven years. The search was on for the elusive two bedroom in Seoul. Cheap studios and micro-sized one bedrooms are plentiful, as are three bedroom/two baths, but two bedrooms/one bath are a bit rare.
In Korea the easiest thing to do is use a realtor and there are plenty that speak enough English to help you out. My
previous realtor, although nice, was a bit flaky so I decided to do a little research and reach out to some other ones. I’m glad I did, since I found a great young realtor, with good English, and ultra quick responses. I was sold, then I gave her the impossible task of finding me a two bedroom apartment, with a strict budget, in a small radius surrounding the train station which is a pretty high end and desirable area, especially for expats. After a few late evenings viewing apartments after work I finally found the two bedroom I was hoping for. It wasn’t furnished and at the top of my budget, but the finishes were great, not tacky like so many other places, and the location was prime. Still within walking distance to the best pizza in Korea was a major plus (I love you, Pizza Heaven).
After some strange, all in Korean negotiations, and lots of signing and stamping on papers covered in pretty symbols that meant nothing to me I had my apartment and moving day scheduled for a few weeks later. Sure I realized a week after signing my lease that the appliance under my stove was not an oven but a kimchi fridge instead, and I had a minor freak out thinking about all the laundry I’d be doing without the convienence of an American style clothes dryer, so much so that I almost forfeited my 1 mil Won deposit (roughly $1,000). In the end, I decided to suck it up, living like a true Korean without Western appliances would make the expat experience more authentic.
Most of my friends/coworkers live near the Army base in Pyeongtaek where apartments are almost always fully furnished, come with western-style; sometimes American brand; appliances, and even have both 220v and 110v power ouets throughout. I like to consider this “cheating” and living in what I refer to as “Little America”. Where is the true expat experience?
Some things I will never get used to in Korean apartments or rental ways include kimchi fridges, windows into public hallways, and key money. Yes, any respectable Korean household has a separate refrigerator, normally in the form of two drawers resembling a high end dishwasher, solely for the storage of kimchi. My second bedroom has a window, however it’s not to the great outdoors, but to the common hallway outside my unit. The owner placed contact paper on the window, with fun little clouds on it, for privacy but it doesn’t block out the light. Sleeping in there is ultra confusing since its always the same brightness no matter what time of the day/night it is. Key money is a deposit system used widely in Korea. In the US we put down security deposits, usually equal to one month’s rent or less. In Korea, the deposit which they call “key money” is a large sum usually anywhere from 10mil to 200mil+ Won. This money is fully refundable. The more you put down the less you pay in monthly rent. In some cases Koreans will put down a large sum of money and live rent free, then get all their money back. I’m still unsure how this really benefits the landlord/owner but its the way it’s done. For my apartment the key money was 10 million Won, which is equivalent to a little mess than $10,000.00 depending on the exchange rate. I can’t tell you how nerve racking it is to go to a bank with almost $10,000 cash and tell the Korean banker to deposit it into an account number provided to me by my landlord/realtor. I still get nervous just thinking about that amount of money just given away. I can’t wait till I move out and it’s given back…in full hopefully (*fingers crossed).
My realtor helped me scheduled movers to pack and move all my items for a nominal fee, they spoke English and were awesome and so fast, and everything went smoothly. I’m getting settled and navigating the process of purchasing furniture for my new place but it’s coming along. I’m hoping to make some progress this weekend and then Ill post some pictures. Lets hope I stay for a long long time…not sure I want to do the Korean real estate process again anytime soon.

Snow, Snow, Snow!

10 bonus points if you can sing the title and know what movie it comes from.

Today I woke up way too early on a Saturday and climbed in a cute little hatchback armed with roof racks and 3 awesome people for a little road trip to the ski slopes.

This was my first venture to the snowy slopes in Korea and maybe my last. I enjoy skiing; mainly for dressing the part; but will never try to oversell my abilities.

The bunny slopes are my home! This fact was proven to me as I wiped out on my first run on an intermediate slope since I was in middle school at good ‘ole “Mass o’ Nutten” in VA. Virginia is definitely not known for their skiing.

As I type this on my iPhone I’m lounging in the lodge food court with my battered knee, foot, and pride as my friends brave the freezing temps for some ultra cool night skiing.

Being the perpetual beginner skier that I am, I’m probably not the best judge of slope conditions, but I miss the shin deep powder on the slopes in Washington. The slick icey slopes camouflaged with a thin dusting of powder don’t seem like optimal conditions. Hoping to heel up quickly and try again, but maybe next season when the snow is fresh and plentiful.

I’ve been skiing on/off for 4 years now. Will I ever graduate from the beginner slopes. Maybe snow sports just aren’t my thing…is it boating season yet?

Besides the general conditions of the slopes I find it a little funny how the whole scene here is different. In WA the slopes are dominated by snowboarders and the over abundance of black and neutral toned ski clothing makes it virtually impossible to pick you your friends on the slopes. Korea seems to be the opposite as the slopes are highly skewed to skiers over boarders and the fashion here is bright bright colors and head to toe patterns. I thought my friend in the bright orange coat would stick out like a sore thumb but wrong! every 5th person was wearing the same color. Oh and the best is the matching couples and families. I saw an entire family of 4 in matching head to toe pink leopard print. Wish I got some pictures. Oh Korea, you never cease to surprise me.

But Baby it’s Cold Outside

BRRRRR!  When I moved to the PNW from Virginia in 2008 my body acclimated very quickly to the more mild climates.  A breezy 72 in the summer and anything below 40 degrees in the winter was cause for extreme winter gear.  Well, now that I’ve moved even farther west (or far east if you care to think the opposite direction) to Korea, my body is once again trying to acclimate to some extreme weather.  A few days ago; as I climbed into bed in flannel pajamas and fleece socks; I checked my weather app to confirm to me that the temperature was a blustery -8 degrees F with a windchill of -15!  So, all you east coasters who complained a few weeks ago about the windchill being in single digits..try walking home from the subway when the windchill is in negative double digits.  Today it was 25 degrees, but the sun made it feel like 32, and as I walked out of eMart (Korea’s version of Target) I didn’t even put my gloves on, or my hat because it felt “warm”.   I’m still not sure my body will ever kindly endure a -15 windchill, but I’m embracing the fleece hooded footie onesie I purchased for myself as a joke last fall as perfect lounge wear on these cold chilly evenings.  I still haven’t 100% figured out to maintain a temperature in my own apartment, but have learned layers is the best option.  Forecast for tomorrow, high of 29, low of 20 (real feel 24/17).  Snow on Tuesday.  Puxatawnee Phil may have decided spring is coming early in the U.S. of A, but I’m beginning to doubt his premonitions stretch to Korea.  Bundle up ex-pats, it’s cold outside!  Enjoy this video from my favorite movie, “Neptune’s Daughter”, it’ll keep you warm inside.


I’m rebranding!  Welcome back to the blog, with a new name, a new look, and coming from a new location.  As the new title points out, I’m in Korea, South not North.  The undeniable rhyme of my name with the country I now call home lends itself to such a great blog title that was 100% inspired by my favorite 4-year-old and BFF, Amelia.  Here she is singing Happy Birthday to me back in December where the title was born…

Isn’t she the best?  A big shout-out to Amelia, and her awesome parents Phill, Kristen, and her brother William (who made a cameo in the video) for inspiring this new “brand”.

More posts to come, but in the meantime, follow me on instagram for all things @mariainkorea.