What is it like to live in Gwangju South Korea as an expat?
In this Expat Interview, Lianne shares her moving procedure, good and bad things about Gwangju, where to visit in Gwangju, the cost of living in Gwangju and more!
About Gwangju, Korea
Gwangju, Korea’s sixth largest city, is located in the southwest province of the country, about a three-hour bus ride from Seoul. Though the city doesn’t draw as many tourists as Seoul and Busan, Gwangju is a pleasant place to live that isn’t too big of a city nor is it rural.
There is truly something for everyone – a thriving art scene, a foodie’s paradise, mountains and valleys for outdoor lovers, a thriving international community, sports, and an interesting history.
Gwangju’s location makes it easy to take day trips to traditional temples, islands, beaches, various national parks, the Damyang bamboo forest, and the Boseong green tea fields.
Also known as the City of Light, Gwangju is known to have one of the friendliest expat communities with clubs and events that make it easy to make friends.
1. Would you please tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Lianne. I was born in Korea but adopted to an American family when I was a baby.
In 2012, I moved to Korea to experience life abroad, but also to reunite and foster the relationship with my birth family. I taught English in Gwangju for three years and have since lived in Australia and Japan as well as backpacked through Asia for the past two years after leaving Korea.
2. What was your moving procedure?
I first visited the motherland, Korea, after graduating university in 2010. During my month there, I met many English teachers and learned about the world of expat life, and it sparked my interest to go overseas to teach before going to graduate school.
It wasn’t until August 2012 that I actually moved to Korea. The process took about 9 months including getting a TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), applying to EPIK (English Program in Korea), and sorting out the visa and endless paperwork.
3. Why did you choose to live in Gwangju?
With EPIK, you don’t get to choose where you live. I was randomly placed there and boy, was I lucky!
4. How did you prepare to move to Gwangju?
There wasn’t a lot of information about Gwangju online, so I would recommend the following for those moving there: Check out the Gwangju Blog, read some editions of Gwangju News, and join the Gwangju Facebook group to get a better feel for the incredible community.
You may want to pack your favorite kinds of products that may be difficult to find such as deodorant. Also depending on the person, bring enough clothes/shoes because sizes are small in Korea. There’s always Uniqlo and H&M, though.
I also highly recommend learning as much Korean as you can before coming, or at least learning how to read Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. There isn’t a lot of English in Gwangju, so it makes a huge difference to know the basics.
5. How to deal with difficulties while living in Gwangju, Korea?
EPIK walked us through the process. After orientation, we were taken to our apartments with our Korean co-teachers. It was a painless process.
The day I moved after I moved in, though, there was a typhoon! I luckily lived near a bunch of supermarkets and two steps away from a convenience store, so I was able to get necessities in case of a power outage. I obviously survived and it didn’t damage Gwangju badly.
6. Did you experience discrimination in Korea?
I have a special situation in that I am a foreigner, but I am 100% Korean by blood. I didn’t have a Korean upbringing, so I couldn’t speak the language. There were pros and cons of “blending in”.
I never got stared at, but I was constantly asked questions about where I’m from, disbelief that I’m American, and ask why I don’t speak Korean and why my parents didn’t teach me. Having the same conversation and explaining myself over and over become burdensome.
Blatant discrimination won’t be met on a daily basis, but it does exist as Korea is a homogeneous country and with that comes xenophobia. Though rare, there are certain clubs that don’t allow non-Koreans in.
We were all required to get HIV tests. Some people may be afraid to talk to you because they are not confident in English. Others might not want to sit next to you on the bus. Again, these are not common.
Most Koreans are friendly and will go out of their way to help you. They are curious about your country and may want to speak to you to practice English. Kids will often say “hello, thank you!” and any other English phrases they know.
7. How to overcome culture shock in Korea?
It wasn’t a giant culture shock for me since I’ve been to Korea twice before, but there were always little differences that I would notice.
One difference that I didn’t like was the trash piles and litter. It got to the point that my boyfriend and I decided to stop complaining and start doing.
We put on gloves and went out to pick up trash in our neighborhood. People would stare at us and others thanked us. This turned into a social media campaign called #CleanGwangju, which is still active today.
8. What do you like about Gwangju?
It’s balanced well. Gwangju isn’t overwhelming like Seoul, but it’s still a big enough city to always have something to discover.
A national park is within the city and there are plenty of hiking trails and streams where you can go swimming. The beach is a bus ride away and the countryside surrounding the city is stunning.
The international community is tight-knit and super supportive. There’s always something fun to do! Most important of all, Gwangju has the absolute best food in the country!
9. Is there anything that you don’t like about Gwangju?
Can’t think of many things besides summers are horribly humid. That’s countrywide. There isn’t as much available of international products as Seoul, but that wasn’t a problem for me.
10. What are your favorite things to do in Gwangju?
Hiking at Mt. Mudeungsan, going to the vegetarian buffet afterwards, riding my bike down the river path, meeting up with friends for drinks and Noraebang (karaoke rooms) downtown, going for a run at Chonnam University, having rooftop potlucks at friends’ houses, attending festivals, and the Daein Art Night market.
11. Where do you recommend to visit in the Gwangju?
Mudeung Mountain, Sajik Park Observatory, Asia Culture Complex, Chosun University campus, Yangong market, Daeing Night Art market, Chonnam University back gate, downtown Gwangju.
12. What is the cost of living in Gwangju?
Life in Korea is cheap compared to western countries, but more expensive than say, Southeast Asia.
Apartment in Gwangju
A simple apartment can range from $250-400 a month with utilities being $20-60 depending on the season. A night in a guesthouse can range from $20-50.
Transportation in Gwangju
Going by bus is the best way to get around. Each bus ride costs about $1 USD. The subway is the same, but there is only one line. Taxis are cheap. You can get across the city with less than $15, but buckle your seatbelt and hold on!
You can get a quick kimbap lunch for $1.50 or more substantial meals for $4-6. Dinner meals can be $10 at a casual barbecue restaurant or $15-30 at fancier places.
A great thing about Korean restaurants is unlimited side dishes! If you opt for western food, it will be more expensive. Beers and soju are usually around $3 a bottle. Coffee can range from $3-6. There are plenty of adorable coffee shops!
Food is about as much as you would pay in the U.S. Fruit can be outrageously expensive, so stick to what’s in season.
It’s best to buy produce at the street vendors or traditional market. Home Plus (owned by Tesco) is a good place to get other groceries and carries a bigger variety of western products.
13. Is it easy to make friends in Gwangju, Korea?
Yes, it is so easy to make friends! I met people through my intake with EPIK, but once in Gwangju, I made the greatest friends. You can meet people by going to events run by the Gwangju International Center, volunteering, taking Korean classes, and going to the foreigner bars/restaurants.
14. Do you hang out with locals or foreigners mostly?
I hung out with mostly foreigners, but I did have a handful of Korean friends. It was more difficult to become good friends with Koreans due to the language barrier and just the concept of friendship is different in Korea.
In America, you can meet a person a few times and call that person a friend, but in Korea, you should have a deeper relationship before you call someone a friend.
15. Where is your favorite place in Gwangju to hang out with friends?
We hung out at each others’ apartments doing dinner parties, hiking on the weekends, and eating out downtown.
16. Do you interact with any expat communities in Gwangju?
Yes, I was active with the Gwangju International Center, rock climbing community, and running community.
17. A memorable experience in Gwangju, Korea
A great memory was organizing a huge clothing swap event for a group I started, Gwangju Freecycle. Hundreds of people attended all day and there must have been thousands of items filling up the huge room at the Gwangju International Center.
So many perfectly good items went to new homes for free instead of going to the landfill. Everyone was grateful and the day was full of positivity.
18. Did you change your perspective about Gwangju after living here?
I loved it for the first two years, but the third year, I was starting to become jaded. Many of my friends left and I didn’t want to bother making new friends knowing that I was going to leave soon. The city becomes kind of small and a bit boring after a while.
19. What are your advice and tips for moving/ living in Gwangju?
Become involved in the community! There are clubs for everything – books, sports, writing, performance, art, knitting, chess, web design, etc. And if your passion doesn’t have a club, start one! People are supportive and open to new ideas.
20. Would you recommend others to live in Gwangju?
Absolutely! It’s a friendly and easy place to live. There are a lot of resources for expats!
21. What have you learned from living abroad?
Oh, this could be a whole post on itself!
I’ll keep it simple. I learned how much I don’t need in order to be happy. I became a minimalist and own the bare minimum.
I learned so much about how the world views my home country; that has really put things into perspective.
I became more grateful for my upbringing – Having an American passport and being a native English speaker makes me far more privileged than most people in the world and I want to use this privilege to do good.
Last, I learned that no matter what cross-cultural differences there are, we have more similarities. We are all human and just want to thrive in this world.
More about Lianne
Lianne is a Korean-American adoptee who has been traveling and living abroad since 2010. She’s taught English in Korea, Australia, and Japan, and has backpacked all throughout Asia via CouchSurfing, HelpX, and housesitting. She is a simple girl who loves the little things in life: mainly leaves and cats.