What to Expect When You’re (NOT) Expecting Korea: Kids in Korea


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A military move is always a challenge, but make it an international move and throw kids into the mix? That can make it pretty darn complicated!  I think one of the worst parts of any PCS is the unknown about the new duty station. It always helps to hear from others who have been there: the good, the bad AND the ugly. Military kids are super flexible and strong, but stepping into the unknown can be especially hard for them, and I thought it would be helpful to have a post just for them so they will know what to expect when their mom or dad comes home with the “We got Korea!” announcement!

I’ve been thinking in retrospect a lot lately about our Korea moves (this is our second tour) and thinking, “If I could go back and tell myself in 2006 what I know now”… and voila, the idea for this post was born! Mainly because one of my biggest mistakes in packing for our first time over was to give away my hiking framed kid backpack carrier and bringing a stroller instead. Let me just let you in on a little secret: Korea is full of stairs. (I really should write a post on the amount of stairs in this country.) And stairs do not like strollers. I really wish I had known or made contact with a mom who was here/had been here to find out what I should expect/pack/prepare for with coming over with a then-two-year-old.

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In order to help other families who are finding out they are coming to Korea with children, I have enlisted the help of several friends here.  I asked them to ask their kids for input on likes, dislikes and surprises about Korea. I also polled a few moms of babies and toddlers to get their input and advice for people coming over with kids that age.

*Ages are accurate for the children’s quotes, but some names may have been changed to protect the identity of minors.

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What were you expecting Korea to be like when you found out you were moving here?

Alex (14)
: “I expected it to be really rainy (her family arrived during monsoon season), and to be more in the middle of the city; Yongsan is like a sanctuary in the middle of the city.”

Victoria (11): “I expected to always have to bow but that is not the case; it is much more modern. I was surprised that everyone was scared of our big dog (but don’t let that stop you from bringing your doggy).”

Arthur (8): “I expected the PX to be smaller, and I was surprised at how few people speak English here. It’s very crowded and easy to get caught up in the crowd if you are not careful.”

Danielle (7): “I thought it would be all Korean food and no American food.  I also thought that there would be no place to live on post and we would have to live in a Korean apartment.”

Graham (7): “I expected big tall buildings and lots of cars.”

Xavier (9): “I was expecting fun and adventures.”

Ashton (9): “I was expecting it to be polluted and smelly, because it is a big city with a lot of cars.”

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What are some things you like about living in Korea?

Xavier (9)
: “I like the museums, aquariums and the zoos.”

Lily (15):  “I like living on post because I can have more freedom to go where I want/need to go.”

Ashton (9):  “I like living on post because of the playgrounds, yards and there are a lot of kids to play with. I am glad that we get out of school on some of the Korean holidays too.”

Beau (8): “I like the new language, kids’ cafes, parks and museums.”

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Bradley (7): “I like the parks, that people eat snails, people take pictures of me and give me candy.”

Pro Tip: I should specify here that even though that may sound creepy – pictures and candy – it is one of those things that will become completely normal to you if you come with young children. Koreans go crazy over kids, especially foreigners, and really especially over blondes!

Claire and Kim (sisters, age 15 & 17): “We like that we can run around Seoul on our own because it is so safe.  We enjoy the cat cafes, shopping, theater [Korean movie theaters and live shows], museums, and biking on the Han River.”

Richard (10): “I like the youth sports program on post because most of the kids are at about the same ability level and they aren’t as competitive as the teams in the states.”

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Spencer & Chase (brothers, age 4 & 6): “We like the food here, and the Koreans give us candy.  We like to play at the EMart playground so we don’t have to shop with Mom! We like modeling because we can make money!”

Pro Tip: Another item to clarify: American kids can make serious bank modeling here! Many of the agencies for kids’ clothing are looking for the fresh faced American kid! So don’t hesitate to send pictures of your cute kiddos! I have two friends here who got some awesome trips out of a photo shoot on location for their kids – one to Japan and one to Saipan!

Jacob (6)
: “I like riding the subway and the KTX [express] train. It is super-fast. Korea is so beautiful!”

Gabi (10): “It is very easy to make friends here.  I love having so many friends!”

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Drew (9): “I like that there is always cool stuff to do and we can travel to other countries. I like living on post and being able to walk to school by myself. I like that in our school we have more specials than just music and PE.”

Garrett (8): “I like that there are lots of teddy bears, candy and getting to see the giant duck.”

The world traveling giant rubber duck made an appearance in Seoul this past fall!

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Spencer (10): “I like that there is wifi everywhere, high rises and the amusement parks!”

Alex (girl, age 14): “I like that everything on post is walking distance. I like the traditional beef & leaf restaurants where you sit on the floor and grill your own meat.  I like the travel opportunities (in and out of the country) and all of the sports here.”

Victoria (11): “I like going off post a lot; it’s more fun than what is available on post.”

Arthur (8): “I like the teachers at the elementary school; they are nice. There are a lot of good playgrounds on post.”

Logan (7), brother (5) and sister (2):  “We like the fun special events on Korean holidays like Chuseok and Lunar New Year.  You get to make fun stuff and do a lot of activities.”

Miette (8): “I like the Korean food, kids’ cafes and museums. I like the off-post movie theater too because the popcorn is better and you get a cute container you get to keep! There are two playgrounds at school and lots of kids in our neighborhood.”

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Dalton (6): “I like the Lego Café, Lotte World, and Everland. Camping here is cool and there is a place you can go canoeing. Yaki Mandu and rice is good.”

Finn (4): “I like the ice cream; they have yummy flavors. I like playing in the fountains in the summertime and there are lots of places to play. I like all the attention I get from the Koreans.”

Danielle (7): “I have a lot of friends and Koreans are very nice. I get to try new things like beef & leaf, rice cakes, Korean candy and kimchi.”

Tucker (3): “I like Toy Alley!”

Tyler (8): “There are a lot of shops for doughnuts and ice cream near our apartment. There is a lot to do in winter like skiing, sledding, ice skating and snowboarding.  I like the museums, and our apartment building has a field at the playground.”

Logan (9): “We have a great view of the city from our apartment and we have a good playground and lots of friends. There are a lot of places to visit for kids: museums, palaces, beaches, amusement parks, etc. The BBQ places are fun; you get to cook your own food and when you are done you can put it together however you want.”

Graham (7): “I like that I get to have most of my toys and [nerf] guns, and get to go to my dad’s office sometimes.”

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What are some things you dislike about living in Korea?

Beau (8)
: “You have to walk… A LOT!”

Bradley (7): “I don’t like having to wear a swim cap at the [Korean public] pool.” (Swim caps are not required at the on-post pool)

Miette (8): “The ‘big city smell’ (the sewers) is gross, and I didn’t like walking everywhere before we got our car.”

Dalton (6): “I hate waiting for things I want really bad in the mail! I don’t like that all the strangers stare at me and try to touch me!”

Pro Tip: Mail can take anywhere from 1 week to 2 months to arrive; personally, our average is two weeks for most places; Amazon Prime* is the fastest shipper.

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Tyler (8):  “We don’t have a garage here so I couldn’t bring my Go Cart.”

Logan (9):  “I don’t like the pollution because on days when it is bad, we aren’t allowed to play outside. I don’t like living in an apartment because I can’t run and I have to make sure I’m not too loud, and there isn’t enough room to build forts. I don’t have anywhere to shoot my BB gun or bow.”

Graham (7):  “Our apartment is too small, we don’t have a backyard, and the sewers are very stinky!”

Richard (10):  “It’s very annoying to have so many Korean signs.”

Xavier (9): “I don’t like the air; it smells like smoke and poop.”

Jack (10): “I don’t like the crowds and noise and not being able to understand what people are saying.”

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Ashton (9):  “The traffic is bad, it is very crowded, and it smells bad here. When we lived off-post we didn’t have a yard so we had to stay inside all the time.”

Gabi (10): “It’s very dirty here.”

Drew (9): “I don’t like not being able to understand and speak the language. “

Garrett (8): “I don’t like that everyone smokes, there are motorcycles/scooters driving on sidewalks, and the air pollution.”

Spencer (10):  “The smoking, littering and air pollution bother me!”

What are some things that surprised you, and what advice would you give to a kid your age coming to live in Korea?

Woods (4)
: “[It surprises me that] people touch my hair a lot.”

Logan (9): “If you get involved, you make friends quicker.  If you’re a couch slouch, you’re not going to have any friends!”

Danielle (7): “Be prepared for Koreans to touch your hair because they love blonde hair.”

Graham (7): “I was surprised to land on a military base instead of an airport.”

Pro Tip: If you fly over on the Patriot Express, you will land at Osan Air Base rather than landing at Incheon Airport if you come commercial.

Alex (14)
: “Don’t bring a telescope; you won’t be able to see the stars.  I expected shopping to be more enjoyable, but [the clerks] are kind of pushy. Don’t bring all of your stuff because your room will be really small and there is not much storage. Get Netflix or Hulu Plus if you want to watch current shows, and get a texting app like KIK or Kakao to talk to your US friends.”

Xavier (9): “Try to make friends over the summer when you first get here, and get used to old ladies giving you fruit!”

Lily & Emma (sisters, age 13 & 15): “Go to the pool in the summer before school starts to meet all the kids. Go to the school as soon as you get here and ask about classes. When we got here [in the summer of 2012] classes were first come, first served.”

Beau & Bradley (brothers, age 8 & 7): “We were surprised at the different money, and people were nicer than we thought they would be!”

For Moms, By Moms

And now the final section: some helpful tips from moms who have walked the walk. I will not list their ages; just assume all are Forever 29!

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Jennifer: “As a mom of a two, now three-year-old, I was not prepared for how not stroller friendly Korea would be. I also wasn’t prepared for how much Korean people love little children! I was surprised and very pleased to discover how safe Korea is; I feel very comfortable venturing out with the kids without my husband.”

Pro Tip:  This is pretty much word for word what I would have said myself after our first tour here. The Soldiers work pretty crazy long hours, so the spouses need to be prepared to do a lot with the kids alone or with friends. Don’t worry! This country is super safe, and you will be just fine venturing just about anywhere alone with the kids or with other friends & kids!


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Katherine: “Seoul is difficult to navigate with a larger family of small children. Be prepared for crowds. Temporary tattoos with your phone number would be helpful for your children when you go out, especially on public transportation, and make a ‘get lost, meet here’ plan. If you have blonde children, be prepared to be a zoo attraction! We have had lines form of people wanting pictures of and with our children. The people are very friendly, but it’s a little weird!”

Kelly G: “The people are friendly and very helpful, and the cost for a lot of things is very minimal.  There is so much to do here, but sometimes you have to think outside the box and get out of your comfort zone. Something to get used to on post is sharing a car; life is not always convenient like in the states!”

Nakia: “If you are coming over with a toddler, get them used to the time zone immediately, even at the risk of no nap. Get a good sturdy stroller because umbrella strollers are not good here. Be prepared for people taking pictures of your children, and have lots of patience. Everything is a waiting game here!”

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Kelly D: “Pack bicycles in your unaccompanied baggage; it takes a long time for cars to arrive. When you arrive, expect to be exhausted and overwhelmed at first. When you arrive at the Dragon Hill Lodge, it feels like you walk a mile to get to your room with all of your luggage (it’s not really that far, but it feels like it after a 24-hour trip from the states!). I was uncertain about being able to call back home, but once you get phones set up, there are several free apps available for communicating with friends and family in the states.”

Alexis:  “If you are expecting a baby, go ahead and get large items like cribs & car seats early and have them shipped in your household goods. There are limited options at the furniture store, and a lot of places won’t ship due to weight and size restrictions. Amazon Mom* is your friend for monthly automatic deliveries of smaller baby necessities. Invest in a good baby carrier. Babywearing is popular here, and a lot of places are not stroller friendly.  Be prepared for Koreans to want to touch your baby… A LOT… and they will get mad at you if they feel like your baby is not dressed warmly enough. Many restaurants are tiny and do not have high chairs. Invest in the table clip-on high chairs if you plan on eating out a lot with your little ones.”

Pro Tip: Your Korea Ye editor, Heather, recommends this portable booster seat*; we purchased the same one in 2004 when our daughter was old enough to sit upright, and it worked perfectly for keeping both our kids contained and happy, not only in German, American and Okinawan restaurants (particularly when eating at traditional on-floor seating in Asian eateries) but also at home in place of a bulky high chair. Having the same familiar seat for them everywhere we ate as a family helped keep the “restaurant crazies” to a minimum… I know you know what I’m talking about! This seat lasted through two kids each up through age four, three countries, five moves, and we still have it in our closet for when friends bring their wiggly toddlers over to visit.

As a parent, what other questions do you have for moms and dads who have Been There, Done That in terms of moving to and living in Korea with kids? If you’re already here, what surprised you most about the experience? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

*Amazon affiliate link

This post was originally published on Okinawa Hai, but we think it relates to life here as well. Overseas Yes and Okinawa Hai have no legal or managerial affiliation; please see the Legal Page for more information.

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