Five things to love about living in South Korea

South Koreans in costume performing an outdoor dance.
South Koreans in costume performing an outdoor dance. PHOTO: KOREA TOURISM BOARD

SEOUL - I have a talking rice cooker. I live in a villa. I get to enjoy cherry blossoms in spring.

Life is good... or maybe not.

I can’t eat my favourite Singapore food whenever I want. I can’t leave the house without makeup. And I miss my family and friends. 

No amount of FaceTime and WhatsApp can make up for the fact that I now live in a different time zone (albeit just an hour ahead) and the most direct flight home will take over six hours. 

It has been a year since I was posted to Seoul, and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my life here. 

Here are five things that I love - or have learnt to compromise - about living in the land of kimchi and K-pop. 

1. My talking rice cooker

Look ma, my rice cooker can talk! It goes like that: "Your delicious rice is ready, please enjoy... cuckoo, cuckoo..." No kidding.

Cuckoo rice cookers, which can be found in almost every Korean household, are intelligent machines programmed with a voice function that tells you what to expect and when it is time to eat. Its pun-worthy name may seem ridiculous, but is actually a clever combination of "cook" and "Koo", the surname of the family that founded and runs the business.

The model sitting in my kitchen not only cooks rice but can also make stews and even samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup). But the main reason why I love it so much is that it tickles me every time it talks. And it does make delicious rice that can remain moist and chewy for hours. 

2. My villa, my home 

I live in a villa, but it's not what you are thinking. The Korean definition of a "villa" is a low-rise apartment block, usually up to five floors, and some are nicely themed. My villa's main attraction is its European interior - even the fittings and fixtures are European imports. So why is it called a villa? I’m not sure, but it sure feels good to say I live in one, even for a cheap thrill.

Don't be too quick to judge a Korean address though, as "Royal Palace" is not where the queen lives but the name of a villa, and "Lotte Castle", although a luxury apartment brand, is more of a modern skyscraper than a fairytale chateau. That's why I would sometimes leave the word "villa" out when writing down my address, so as not to give the wrong impression. 

3. The joy of spring

If I were born in South Korea, I would have been a spring baby. April marks my birthday, and my name, written in Chinese, means Beautiful Spring. I also use the online nickname Mayspring. But it was not until I moved to Seoul that I truly understood the meaning of spring and the joy of embracing the warming weather as flowers start to bloom. The cherry blossom trees that line many streets and parks are a beautiful sight, and people seem happy just strolling under falling flower petals dancing in the wind, myself included.

I can't wait for spring to be here again, even if it means having to endure the long months of cold winter first. 

4. Thrill of finding a taste of home 

When a fellow Singaporean living in Seoul shared her experience dining at a newly-opened bak kut teh restaurant helmed by a Malaysian chef, I quickly rounded up a few friends to head over for lunch. Finding a taste of home is not easy in the land of kimchi and gochujang (red pepper paste), but the thrill of a new discovery can keep us excited for days or even weeks. I have also embarked on a kitchen adventure with my friends, whipping up dishes like nasi lemak and chicken rice. Nothing beats going to a zi char stall back home, but for now, it's also enjoyable to  make our own hawker favourites.

On the days we feel lazy, there's still Ya Kun kaya toast, Crystal Jade dim sum restaurant, Wee Nam Kee chicken rice and a Singapore-themed restaurant called Yummy Kampong to count on, and we hope there will be more in the future. 

5. Dressing up with confidence

Once, when I was walking home with my daughter, an elderly Korean woman stopped in front of us and said disapprovingly to me: "How can a mum's dress be shorter than her daughter's?" Too stunned to react, I just excused myself and walked away. Koreans are painfully aware of how the society judges them based on appearance, and that insecurity manifests in an unhealthy obsession with beauty and plastic surgery. While foreigners are spared the agony, I have been subject to the same judgment when Koreans mistake me to be one of their own. To blend in, I don't leave the house without makeup and I make effort to not to dress sloppily, even if I'm just going out to throw the trash.

But it's not necessarily a bad thing, as it forces me to improve my fashion style and dress myself more confidently. Plastic surgery is not for me though, as I'm happy just the way I am, whether in Seoul or back home in Singapore.