1 August 2016

Yvette Bezuidenhout - Expat in South Korea

Yvette Bezuidenhout - Expat in South Korea

We’ve had the chance to talk to Yvette Bezuidenhout, 38, a British expat who moved from South Africa to London and subsequently, Korea. While there is a language barrier, Ms. Bezuidenhout actively tries to make like-minded expat and local friends by joining sporting clubs. In her two years of stay, she also found the country safe and rich with heritage.

Working in the country as an English teacher now, Ms. Bezuidenhout said the cultural difference is the hardest to overcome. “Westerners prefer straight-down-the-line honesty whereas Koreans prefer a more subtle, roundabout approach. Koreans don’t like conflict and they don’t like losing face. Foreigners are often frustrated when the plan changes last minute or when they are informed of a teachers’ dinner or class last minute and are expected to attend/ be prepared without any notice. You may encounter layers of seemingly nonsensical bureaucracy here,” she explained.

Read more about Ms. Bezuidenhout’s experiences as an expat in South Korea, in her full interview below.


Q: Where are you originally from?

A: South Africa.


Q: What made you move out of South Africa?

A: I wanted to get some post-university work experience so I moved to London. I ended up staying and adopting the UK as my home country.


Q: Where are you living now?

A: Korea.


Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I originally applied for JET (Japan) but thought it would be a good idea to have a back-up plan (EPIK). I knew nothing about Korea (except that it’s North Korea’s neighbour) but once I started researching the country, I realised that it had a beautiful cultural heritage and fascinating history. I wanted to learn more so I chose EPIK over JET.


Q: How long have you been living in Korea?

A: Two years.


Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in Korea?

A: The first month is tough because you’re surrounded by a language you are completely unfamiliar with. You also feel a bit isolated because it takes time for your internet and mobile phone to be sorted out and you will be the only foreigner at your school (public schools). It’s very important to connect with other foreigners in your area to tide you over this period.


Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance was particularly difficult in Korea? What was your experience with these?

A: My case is slightly different to most people. I had to get police clearance for South Africa and the UK. I had to send some of my documents to South Africa to be notarised and apostilled so the courier fees were high. The UK side of things was straightforward enough so don’t let the bureaucrats get you down! Make sure you collect your documents early on so that there’s no last minute stress.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: I live alone, which makes a nice change from having to share a house with people in London. EPIK provides housing and I’ve been very happy with my accommodation here.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Korea? How did you manage to find a social circle?

A: It’s easy meeting other expats but it can be harder to integrate into established expat cliques. The best way to meet people (expats and locals) is to get involved in sports and English clubs. Sport is a good way to meet others because it’s a) not a bar so it’s less likely to be a hook-up situation and b) you won’t feel like people are using you just to improve their English. I only have a small number of Korean friends since the language barrier prevents many friendships from blossoming. My Korean friends tend to be teachers or people I share sporting interests with. Whilst it’s important for you to have your expat base, it’s a real shame when people leave Korea without ever having made local friends. I don’t see the point in living in another country if you’re not going to try to integrate somewhat. What’s the point of coming halfway across the world to eat a hamburger, eh?


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: I like exploring and I have found many places that people didn’t know about just by cycling and getting lost. This is the best way to learn about your area. Pohang has a few sports going for it: volleyball, softball and frisbee are the main team sports. There is also surfing, triathlon, climbing, wind-and kitesurfing, sailing, scuba diving…. Everything you can do at home, you can do here! My favourite experience has been cycling the 4 Rivers Trail.  


Q: How does the cost of living in Korea compared to your home?

  • How much is a cup of coffee?

Marginally cheaper than London but usually $4.5-5/ GBP2-2.50

  • How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

Around $10/ GBP5 (including 1 beer)

  • How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

Around $30-50/ GBP15-25

  • How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

The average price of a bottle of red is $10/ GBP5 but cigarettes are ridiculously cheap here. I stopped smoking before I came to Korea (it’s frowned upon for women to smoke). Beer is cheap too ($2.50/ GBP1.25), as is makkeoli (rice wine- $1.50/ 75p and soju ($1/ 50p)

Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: The younger generations are not as wary of foreigners as the older ones. People may stare at you or touch you which you just have to get used to! Koreans are extremely generous and once you flash them a smile and a bow, they do open up. Just be respectful of the culture and be aware that your actions don’t just represent you, but all foreigners. You might have to contend with stereotypes so be patient. Overall, I trust Koreans and I’ve never felt this safe in any other country. I hope Korea always stays safe for everyone. For me, the true essence of freedom is to be able to walk or cycle along in the middle of the night and not fear for my safety.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Korea?

A: Let’s start with the positive: the life of an EPIK teacher is generally very easy. Bills are low and your rent is included in your contract. Your school life is pretty low stress and your salary is pretty good. You can either save heaps, pay off student debts OR save nothing and travel and party loads. Food-wise, it depends on where you live. You will have a great variety of choice in Seoul and Busan but almost none in rural areas. Most Americans lose piles of weight when they come to Korea, whereas other foreigners put on weight because of too much rice (and booze). I think the worst part of living here is that there are a few cultural differences. Westerners prefer straight-down-the-line honesty whereas Koreans prefer a more subtle, roundabout approach. Koreans don’t like conflict and they don’t like losing face. Foreigners are often frustrated when the plan changes last minute or when they are informed of a teachers’ dinner or class last minute and are expected to attend/ be prepared without any notice. You may encounter layers of seemingly nonsensical bureaucracy here. Be flexible, patient and always be prepared. Also, for most teachers, it will be our first real gig after completing our TEFL course. The reality of teaching is often very far removed from the textbook and you will either sink or swim, depending on your ability to adapt your lesson plans. We get thrown into the deep end here and there won’t be much to guide you so expect a steep learning curve!  Finally, Korean driving unleashes my Tourettes.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes?

A: Yes, of course. I try to focus on where I am though.


Q: How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Skype is obviously useful but don’t spend all your time trying to live in another time zone. If you’re only here for a year or two, immerse yourself in THIS country! Spend time with people here, don’t hide in your room. If you feel homesick, talk about it to your expat friends- everyone goes through the same emotions so it’s easy to find support. Time can pass very quickly or slowly depending on how you choose to spend it.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: I will teach in China next year to see what their drivers are like.


Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: For me, it’s tough being older-than-the-average teacher (most teachers are 25- 28 years old). Relationship-wise, most guys here either have “yellow fever” (I hate that term) or they are not interested in a serious relationship. You become very aware of the temporary nature of friendships here, although you will definitely make some friends for life too.


Q: What tips can you give other expats living in Korea?

A: Learn Korean (even just the alphabet since so many words are actually just English words written in Hangeul) and learn how to use Naver maps- it’s much better than Google. Be open to new experiences and stay positive. 


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Korea?