What I’m Really Doing in South Korea

I’ve been in South Korea a few weeks now and a lot of people have been asking me questions about what I’ve been up to since moving here. Have I seen all the tourist attractions? Eaten all the Korean food? And most importantly, have I been to Gangnam yet?

Well, the truth is, I haven’t done any of those things. But, here’s what I have been up to.

Going to Work

I have a job here meaning I go to work Monday-Friday from 9-6 just like any other normal human. I’m working at the Green Climate Fund as a Climate Information and Early Warning Systems Intern (yes, I’m STILL an intern – but at least I’m paid now!).

The GCF is an operating entity of the Financial Mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Basically, the organization helps developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change while promoting a paradigm shift towards low-emission, climate-resilient development. It does this by channelling billions of dollars into sustainable mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries. The GCF Secretariat here in Korea is responsible for rigorously reviewing each funding proposal received, checking for technical soundness, feasibility and appropriate safeguards to ensure effective, efficient and sustainable use of funds. My role here is to assist with strengthening the climate rational of funding proposals (i.e. Are they based on accurate climate science? Is the data adequate? Is the model resolution sufficient? etc.). Additionally, I’ll be helping to improve hydro-meteorological services in developing countries through capacity building and the establishment of partnerships with regional and international organizations, such as the World Meteorological Organization and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example.

The first couple of weeks have been a big learning curve, but I’m finally starting to get the hang of things and am really loving the work I’m doing here, which perfectly blends my passion for meteorology and my goal of using that passion in the context of international development. I can’t wait to see what opportunities are ahead!


My office is in the building on the left

Apartment Hunting, Moving and Settling In

I had been warned that it’s quite difficult to find an apartment here in Korea, especially one that allows a short term contract and a reasonable deposit. So when I moved here, I was planning on spending a few weeks in an Airbnb while I looked around. However, my supervisor connected me with great real estate agent who lined up an apartment viewing my first week. As soon as I walked in, I knew it was going to be my new home. The next day I signed a contract and I moved in the day after. I couldn’t believe how lucky I got!

The apartment is small, but perfect for just one person. I have a very small kitchen, a small bathroom (there’s no separate shower – I literally shower with my sink and toilet) and even an enclosed patio with a washing machine. Plus I have air conditioning, which is really important considering the last couple of weeks here have been the hottest in over a century. It’s located in a nice residential neighborhood with lots of restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and even a market with everything from hats to cow hearts to baby alligators. It’s about 40 mins away from work by bus (so much traffic) and about 30 minutes by bike. However, the best thing about this apartment is the price tag! At only $340/month, even an intern can afford to live here!


Figuring Out How To Do Normal Everyday Things

I’ve been lucky enough to live all over the world and in most places, it’s been pretty easy to figure out how to do normal things like laundry, grocery shopping and taking out the trash.

But not in Korea.

I literally spent THREE HOURS googling how to take out the trash here and I still don’t know how to do it. I successfully translated all the buttons on my washing machine, but still had to Skype my dad who helped me figure out how to actually turn it on from 7,000 miles away. And grocery shopping has perhaps been the greatest challenge so far. I attempted to buy groceries three times and got so overwhelmed that I walked out with just a box of cereal. However, on my fourth attempt I came prepared with a list of common groceries translated into Korean, Google Translate (my savior) and a determined attitude because I was tired of eating cereal and bread from 7-eleven. I created quite a scene in the grocery store as curious Koreans were fascinated by a dumb American taking pictures of a can of tuna (I was using Google Translate in my defense), but after a few hours, I left with enough groceries to cook some basic meals, which I considered a success.


It took me several hours to translate my washing machine into English and get it to turn on

Learning How to Eat

Overall, I have found it pretty difficult to eat here in Korea. Not because I don’t like the food, but because it often feels inaccessible to me since I don’t read or speak Korean. Very few menus here are translated to English so I just have to blindly guess when I order anything. Normally, this doesn’t bother me, but here if you blindly order something, you could end up with a live squid on your plate (not my thing).

On my second day here, I walked through the streets of Incheon looking for a restaurant where I might have a shot at ordering food and eventually found one where you ordered at a kiosk that displayed photos of each menu item. Perfect for a jet-lagged American who doesn’t know of word of Korean! I planned it carefully so I walked into the restaurant right after someone so I could watch how they ordered. I was proud of myself for being so resourceful and everything was going fine…

until I broke the kiosk.

An embarrassing disaster ensued, but eventually I got some food and thought everything was going to be okay. That is, until I remembered I don’t know how to use chop sticks. It took me 45 minutes to eat that damn bowl of noodles as everyone in the restaurant stared.

After that ordeal, I stuck to bread from 7-Eleven for awhile.

However, now that I’m working, my colleagues occasionally take me out to lunch and teach me how/what to order here, which has been really helpful! So far I’ve familiarized myself with several Korean dishes and have learned how to ask for a fork (although I am getting much better at chop sticks). I’m planning on writing more about the food here in a later post, but so far, my favorite dishes have been gimbap, pajun and Korean BBQ!


My first Korean meal! Noodles, leaves and little bits that reminded me of goldfish food


So there you have it, my first few weeks in Korea have been full of me struggling to do very average things as I try to figure out how to do life here. However, I’m finally starting to feel settled in – I know how to go grocery shopping, I have clean clothes and I can order a few Korean meals. And although I still find many things here quite difficult at times, I absolutely love the way Korea challenges me and am really excited to build a life here over the next few months!



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