Monday, September 27, 2010

The Affordability of Korea

Judging from my last post, you'd think I walked around Korea in a funk all the time, full of ennui at being alone. But there really is a lot here I like. I'm working in a great school with fun students and supportive co-teachers, and I make a great salary. And my salary goes far because Korea is splendidly affordable.

Before living in Korea, my experience with Asia was exclusively Japanese. And compared to Japan, anywhere on the planet is affordable. (Well, maybe not Norway.) But Korea is affordable pretty much anyway you look at it. A co-teacher remarked the other day that she heard movies were expensive in America. Still thinking in terms of Japanese prices (which range from $15 to $25 a ticket) I tried to say they weren't. But when she quoted the price of $7, well, I had to agree that that is cheaper than America.

Movie ticket prices are only the beginning. Public transportation is affordable too. Although my local bus is about what I'd expect ($1.50 a ride) I can take the express bus to Seoul for around $10. In fact, I could take the bullet train the length of the country for around $50.

Eating out is cheap as well. Unless you eat off the value menu at McDonald's, you'd have a hard time finding a good meal in America for less than $5.00 these days. But that's the rule here, not the exception. One of my favorite cheap meals is gimbap (like a sushi roll) from the supermarket. For only $2.00 I can buy way more than I can eat. Of course, these prices are for Korean menu items. If you want any kind of Western food, the price goes up a bit but it's still affordable. (Unless you're in Seoul, where the price automatically doubles. A good rule of thumb: no kimchi = twice as expensive.)

Even little things, like bottled water, are cheap. What would cost $1.00 at home is half the price here. The Korean version of onigiri (rice and meat wrapped in seaweed) is less than a dollar, half the price of Japan. And Japanese candy that would cost $3.00 in Japan is $.75 here. Granted, it's invariably a knock-off but it tastes exactly the same.

Electronics are affordable too. In Japan, prices are kept artificially high by the government, holding the consumer hostage. There are no low-priced Chinese goods, only locally made items. Korea keeps out the competition as well but thankfully offers lower priced items as well as luxury ones. I'm thinking specifically of rice cookers. You cannot live in Korea or Japan without a rice cooker but good luck finding a new one in Japan for less than $100. Here, I've got my eye on one for $50.

Of course, not everything is cheap. Going to the supermarket can put a good-sized dent in the bank account. And I don't mean just imported foods, which I would expect to be pricey. Chicken, which is the cheapest meat here, is about twice the price than at home. And toilet paper, my God. It's no wonder no public bathrooms stock TP when it's $15.00 for a family pack. We're spoiled in America in terms of grocery shopping, particularly for fruits and vegetables, which are hilariously expensive here. But if you want to buy locally made alcohol, you're in luck. A beer-sized bottle of soju is less than a buck, and makgeolli, something akin to nigorizake (unfiltered sake), is similarly priced. You can see where the priorities lie.

It's a pretty good deal all around. Korea may be one of the world's fastest growing economies but the prices are still low. Now if only they could get some decent beer.

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