An inside look on Cherie Alexis' life while living abroad in Seoul
Cherie Alexis’ modelling career in Korea includes works from various brands such as Visla Magazine (LMC x Millet Classic), OPEN THE DOOR Korea, Holyof, Tanpopo Salon and she even appeared in G2’s music video. Currently managed by Mannequin Studio in Singapore, the twenty-three-year-old talks about her experiences and bold move to Seoul, South Korea last year by herself and how she got started in modelling.
How long did you live in Korea for?
Around a year and three months.
Why settle for Korea?
I was studying linguistics and for personal reasons I took a break from University. In that time, I decided to do something related to my major and learn a language. I have friends based in Seoul, so it was kinda logical to move somewhere with a level of familiarity.
Was this move something planned?
It kinda just happened.
I talked to my parents into it because they thought I should have finished university before going to pursue other things.
I wanted to do something different for a change – something I wanted.
I then applied to the school and got a confirmation, paid the school fees and did my visa all the boring stuff, proceeded to book the flight and went over. I remember I had to crash at a friend’s place for the first two weeks as I was still trying to settle in and find a property agent to get a place of my own.
Being away in a foreign country for an extended period of time, how did you support yourself financially?
My parents helped me out a lot cause I was studying and I did jobs on the side to supplement that income. I wasn’t living lavishly at all so…
What were some culture shocks you had?
A common shock factor for foreigners would be the Korean taxi drivers. They’re vastly different from taxi drivers back in Singapore. How do I explain this, you’ll meet some interesting characters like I had those ahjussis 아저씨 (middle-aged man) and some of them are pretty talkative so they keep talking to you. If they find out you’re a foreigner, in my case, they’ll ask you questions like the geography of Southeast Asia and Colonialism and there are other ahjussis who just drive really fast so they just don’t care but they don’t mean to be rude. That’s something a lot of foreigners have told me, “Yo taxi drivers are crazy in Korea”.
Another thing is the drinking culture, I’m pretty sure people in Singapore just order their drink and order whenever they want to, and people say cheers and drink, nobody is obliged to wait. Whereas in Korea, you have this thing where the eldest person in the group will mandate when you have to drink cause once you get the cups and soju, you open it and mix the drinks, you have to pour it for other people and they have to pour it for you. You can’t order a bottle and pour it for yourself, you have to wait for the other person to do it for you and when the eldest person goes like “짠 (Cheers)” everybody has to drink, so everyone ends up really drunk really fast, but all these really depends on who you’re drinking with. That was something I was not really used to.
When I tried pouring a shot for myself they reacted to it telling me not to do it, which is something I had to get used to.
The whole hierarchy system, it’s especially cause when you speak Korean and you’re not fluent but sound Korean enough, people don’t really know. And if you use banmal 반말(informal/casual language) they could get offended but they tend to go easy on foreigners.
How did you get started out in modelling?
It was during my first month in Korea, and my friend sent me an Instagram post from one of my favourite Korean brands at that time that they were looking for models and I was like ok why not try it out cause I love their brand and image, it was very edgy, so I gave it a go and I got the job and it was fun.
Fashion week is busy, because for one it’s at Dongdaemun Plaza, which has a lot of open space, so there’s this layout that I don’t know why the way it is but one hall is on the top of the slope and the other is down and when you’re going for 2-3 shows consecutively, you’ll find yourself running from one show to another. It doesn’t help that the ticketing booth is far from the halls. While going up and down on the slope there are also so many people posing and want photographers to take street style photos of them. At some point, someone will be like “chamsimanyo” 잠시만요 (hold up) asking if they can take a photo of you, and all I want is a smoke break but you have to say hi and move on and run to the next show, sit down watch the show and it’s the same thing. After the day is done, there’s an afterparty for the individual brands for their new launch, so you basically start from Dongdaemun and you end up in Cheongdam which is near Gangnam, so it’s a lot of travelling. I had a lot of fun cause the street fashion scene there is crazy, my friends will decide the what theme to dress in and be like “Let’s go in Neon today” and that’s how they get the nice street photos taken.
Korean’s perceptions of Singapore?
Some Koreans are not necessarily aware of Singapore, but some of them have heard about it but don’t know where it is, I’ve gotten the “Singapore? Where is it?” I’ve had people who are like “Oh Singapore, it’s exciting…” or I get “Singapore is also very competitive or expensive” and things like that. For those who have visited, they would say “oh Singlish.. lah” but generally they don’t have a negative outlook on Singaporeans. However, foreigners in general it’s hard to say cause you have a lot of Chinese immigrants who are there for work and study but if you’re looking at the employment point of view, they might not be too happy but I think in general if you’re Caucasian (white), they’re like “Oh wow they’re white, they’re more mystified” but if you’re just another asian, “Oh wait you’re not Korean” and if you’re African American, you can see the Korean people are just like shocked, especially the elders. In Itaewon, it’s the expat central so you can find foreigners from all over the world gathered there, literally.
Is it easy to make friends in Korea despite the language barrier?
When I first got there, the language barrier was strong, so making Korean friends who speak zero English will be very hard.
Once you get better at the language, it’s easier to make friends.
In Korea, there’s this culture where if you know a person, they tend to introduce you to their friends, so a lot of it is through connections and that’s pretty much how they get to know more people. There are a lot of foreigners and Korean Americans living in Korea, so it’s not like you’re going to be completely alone if you don’t speak the language, you just have to put yourself out there more and start with someone who has connections if you are a person who needs social interaction to live.
How did you occupy your free time in Korea?
I went there to study, so obviously I was in school. I had a cat as well, so I spent a lot of time with her too. Most of my free time was going out with friends and drinking. Not many people know this but in Korea, you can get to party hard without paying much if you know the right people. Frequent hangout spots would also be the Coin Noraebang 노래방 (Karaoke Room) and PC Bang 피씨방 (Internet Cafe), that’s my shit. Noraebangs are like KTV and that’s my heaven and I would usually go there with my friends and sing. They also have those Coin Noraebangs which are also known as Kono 코노 which comes from the “Co” in “Coin” and “No” in Noraebang where you get a number of songs for whatever amount you decide to put and you can just top up if you still want to sing more. And for PC Bangs, this is not a joke but I’ve stayed there for 12 hours before, the gaming addiction is crazy.
What’s one major difference between Seoul and Singapore?
Korea adopts a more 24/7 lifestyle and like I said the Noraebangs, PC Bangs and a lot of restaurants open till late or don’t close at all. The food is different as well, in Korea a large majority is Korean food but they do have quite a number of Japanese and Western food as well but when it comes to a diverse variety of cuisine, that’s where Singapore is different, we have cuisines like Thai and Indonesian. In Singapore you get more diversity and I think that also shows in the attitude towards foreigners. In Singapore, we gotten used to living with expats or learning if your friend’s parents were from a different country cause we’re used to diversity. However, in Korea they’re still at the point where they’re trying get out of that mindset cause they’re homogenous but they’re progressing.
Any words of advice for anyone planning to live in Korea for an extended period of time?
Honestly, don’t go just cause you like K-Pop cause that’s not a good enough reason to keep you living there, cause it’s very different to live there compared to being a tourist and living there for a few days.
I’ll say if you genuinely want to like try living there or overseas in general, doesn’t have to be Korea – learn the language, get into the culture and understand the historical origins cause that affects a lot of things in their language, culture and mannerisms. Do that so you don’t feel like you’re completely out of place when you go and you kinda know what to expect.
What is something that Singaporeans don’t know about Korea?
Oh the dating culture, it’s so different. You’re not gonna get what you think. Korean dating culture is really strange to me and I didn’t know about it before I went cause I thought that dating should be the same everywhere. In Korea, they have this thing where the guy pays for the meal cause they wanna show they have status or money and you’re like “what?” Cause you might be used to paying dutch but they’ll be like “it’s okay, buy me coffee next time” and there’s still this stigma that Korea is all about plastic surgery and not everyone is real (physically) but contrary to popular belief, there’s a lot more tourism based surgeries done.
So don’t go thinking you’ll find a whole street of just people bandaged up, unless you go to Gangnam or near the clinics.
If you’re going to areas like Hongdae, everyone is normal, you won’t find people who are all bandaged or masked up.
What is one thing you love about Korean culture?
I think I like the fact that everything starts off formal at first and as you get closer to a person, you use banmal 반말 (informal/casual language) and see your friendship grow as you become a lot closer and tighter, more solidified in a way. For Koreans when it comes to the tonality of the language, switching from formal to informal is a big deal and there are some people who think that the person who is older than them is the scariest cause they would want to be regarded as senior just cause of the year difference. However, I found that not to be true, a lot of people are like “it’s okay, speak comfortably,” they’ll tell me in banmal, so it makes me feel welcome.
Most youths that want to visit Korea have this notion and idea that it’s similar to what they see in K-Dramas and MVs, what are your thoughts?
Korea is not like the dramas, it’s not so picturesque. Hell no gurl, Korea’s streets are dirtier than Singapore’s because the laws on littering and smoking in public aren’t as strictly enforced. I’m not comparing but you will see people throwing cigarettes and spitting everywhere, and if you’re walking down a normal street it won’t be like walking in a park and holding hands with your partner. I personally don’t watch dramas but I know what people think and it’s really not like that.
On the flip side, yes, you will also see very pretty boys and girls who look a lot like K-pop Idols but it’s really not everyone, only a portion of people who do that, and if you like that, you can go to Hongdae. There are groups of people who are doing covers of their favourite group dance and people gathered there to watch. If you’re like me, just walk along and I would say that Korea has a really exciting nightlife scene so have fun and be safe.