I know this is super cliché, but time really flies. I am about to start final exams and I realized I only have a little over a week left here in Seoul! Can you believe it’s been 4 months already? It really doesn’t feel like it.
I also realized I’ve been telling you all a lot about what I’ve been doing, but I think I’ve been slacking when it comes to Korean everyday life. A lot of things that have become really commonplace for me might seem weird to you, and I think it’s time you all know the good, the bad, and the weird about living in South Korea. Let’s start with the good stuff.
The food. I don’t think I can stress enough how amazing the food is here. I love it. When I come home I’m going to make myself Korean food all the time, or at least pour gochujang sauce on all my non-Korean food. Everything here is spicy, but it’s a flavorful spicy, not just burn-your-mouth-and-make-you-cry spicy. I’m actually worried about how I’m going to adjust to bland American food when I get home. My parents were here for two weeks – only two weeks! – and they said the food tasted overly bland for a while after they got home.
Also, the food makes you skinny. Literally. It’s very hard to get fat on traditional Korean food, and there are very few fat people in Korea. Most of the foreign students I know lost weight after they got here.
The people. Koreans are super friendly. You can tell that sometimes people are a little reluctant to deal with you because you’re a foreigner, but I think it’s mostly because of the language barrier (sometimes when I hang out with the art club they will all be talking really fast and then someone goes “what about the foreigners?” and then you can tell everyone is thinking “oh crap, how do we explain that in English?”) My host family and everyone I’ve ever met here has been nothing but incredibly polite and just super wonderful in general. Not to mention Seoul is the safest city I’ve ever been in. Several times I have been completely lost in strange places and I’ve never felt scared or threatened. It’s because of the whole Confucian society thing where the group comes before the individual: everyone sort of lives by the old “do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you” motto. I’ve even seen girls fall asleep on the subway because they don’t have to worry about anyone stealing their purse. Now, I’m not saying that you should completely abandon all common sense if you come to Seoul, but you don’t have to worry about stumbling into the wrong alley and accidentally walking into a gang fight or something.
Super adorable babies. And really well-behaved children. During my entire time in Korea I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid throw a tantrum. Kids here are not as spoiled as some American kids; they work hard, study hard, and have healthy extracurricular lives. And they turn into pretty good adults too (see above). I think this is definite proof that the world could use a few more tiger moms.
Seoul’s amazing public transportation system. Clean, efficient, fast. The only problem is that the trains and buses can be REALLY crowded sometimes, but Koreans are polite and try and make room for everyone.
Inherent fashion sense. All the people here dress very fashionably, girls and guys, and NO ONE wears sweatpants in public (sorry American college students!) I think if you did, someone would ask you why you are wearing your pajamas outside. Having amazing style seems to be something that Seoul-ites are born with. Maybe there’s something in the water. Actually, I know there’s something in the tap water because everyone says not drink it, but does it cause extreme fabulousness? I’m not sure, but Koreans always dress classy.
Korean dating. This goes under the “good” category because it’s sooooo cute! When you go out to coffee shops or patbingsu shops you can always see lots of dating couples. Often there’s a lot of hand-holding and cuddling without too many PDAs. Also, sometimes couples will dress up the same when they go out. You’ll be walking down the street and all of a sudden a guy and a girl walk by in matching pink t-shirts or identical bright yellow baseball caps and you’re just like, “aww… look who’s on a date!”
Korean TV. Everything on TV is generally pretty family-friendly. Korean shows range from romantic comedies to crime dramas to those soap operas that my host grandma really like, but you can be sure that nothing is worse than PG (okay, maybe a mild PG-13). In America when people talk about “Korean dramas” they usually mean the 20-episode romantic comedies. They’re very predictable and really sappy but super cute, so it’s no wonder they’ve become popular over there. Even Korean reality shows are nicer than ours: usually they show a bunch of people having fun and doing goofy things, instead of a bunch of people fighting and swearing, like in our reality shows. On the other hand, Korean movies can be pretty mature (think gritty thrillers like “Oldboy” or “I Saw the Devil”, though I haven’t actually watched them, or horror films like “A Tale of Two Sisters”, which I watched late at night in a dark room: bad idea!) but their TV is very wholesome. I like “Running Man” and “Gag Concert“. For movies, I recommend this one, especially if you like westerns and Quentin Tarantino movies (but make sure you watch the Korean version, because the international version cuts out the ending and totally changes the movie!)
Also, I’ve discovered music that is not mainstream Kpop. Meet Busker Busker and enjoy some happy music:
Public spitting. Yes, you read that right. In Korea, people– okay, not people. Men. It’s always older men – spit on the street willy-nilly. It’s almost become an art form: first he has to spend a little while hocking it up, drawing up as much phlegm as possible as noisily as possible, and then he has to find the perfect spot on the sidewalk where the most people are going to accidentally step in it, take aim, and fire! I don’t understand why this is okay. I mean, Koreans don’t even let you wear your shoes in the house, but they’re okay with snot all over the sidewalk (though maybe snot all over the sidewalk is why they don’t allow shoes in the house. Hey, I know how we could fix both problems at once!) To me, this is the least socially acceptable thing outside of murdering someone in broad daylight or playing the bagpipes within 50 miles of another person, but hey, if you’re going to hock a loogie on the street you might as well put some effort into it, I guess.
Infrequent post-potty hand washing. Along with badly-stocked public restrooms. It’s not uncommon that you’ll come out of the stall and discover that there is no soap in the dispenser and no paper towels. It’s also not uncommon to just see other people skip the hand washing process altogether, even when there is soap. (My host family always washes their hands though, so don’t worry!)
Lack of public trash cans. There are just never enough trash cans around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought street food and then when I have to throw away the cup or the wrapper I absolutely cannot find a trash can. A lot of streets have trash lying around too.
Beauty standards. People here put a lot of effort into their appearances and it’s expected that you always look good. It’s not that uncommon to see girls whip out a mirror on the train and fix up their hair or makeup. Even guys will be checking their reflections in the train windows. I said before that Koreans are always well dressed, but they sort of take personal appearance to an extreme level. There are mirrors literally everywhere (cafeterias, elevators, etc) so that you can always check your reflection. Also, in the younger neighborhoods there are like a dozen makeup stores on every street. I understand wanting to look good, but in Korea you’re pretty much obligated look fabulous all the time no matter what.
Also, you may have heard this before, but Korea is the plastic surgery center of the world. People from all over the world come here for a little “fixing up.” A lot of girls get plastic surgery, and pretty much anyone you see on TV (guy or girl) has had some work done. The most popular procedure for girls is supposedly getting their eyelids “fixed” so that their eyes look bigger. Nose jobs and getting your jawline chiseled into a V-shape is also pretty popular. Koreans aren’t shy about plastic surgery either: there are ads for plastic surgery or Botox or liposuction or weight-loss programs on every bus. You may have seen this picture of the Korean beauty pageant contestants from last year. No, that’s not the same girl with different outfits and makeup: those are 20 different girls who have all bought the same face.
The weight standard here is also a little shocking. It is easier to stay thin on a Korean diet, but people here are almost too thin. Guys and girls (especially young people) are obsessed with being really skinny (which is weird because Koreans are always eating.) I don’t know, all the beauty stuff doesn’t actually bother me all that much, but I guess growing up in this kind of culture might be kind of stressful.
Being 5’6” in a 5’3” country. I could never live in Korea permanently because I literally cannot buy shoes in this country. I can find clothes without too much difficulty, but I would either have to get all my shoes specially made or order them from abroad. There is an international district called Itaewon that’s supposed to have foreigner-sized shoes and clothing, but the shops there are mostly for the American guys at the nearby military base, so I guess it’s nice if you like army fatigues. (Though Itaewon has a lot of foreign restaurants, which is kind of fun!)
Korean group culture. If you’re in the group, you are totally accepted. If you are out of the group, then it can be really lonely. Korean culture is very group centered, so being an outsider (or an introvert) can be kind of tough. I generally don’t make friends quickly (I’m not a psychopath or anything, just sort of introverted) and as a foreigner it has been really hard to make friends with Koreans. I realize this is sort of a contradiction because I’ve been saying how warm and friendly Korea is, and that’s still true, but making lasting relationships with anyone other than my host family has been really difficult.
Squatters. No, not homeless people squatters (I’ve actually seen very few homeless people in Seoul.) This kind of squatter:
It’s always a bit of a surprise when you walk into a stall and find one of those waiting for you. I thought they might have been left over from the days when squatting was the popular way to go, but you can see them in the newer buildings too, so I don’t really know what their reasoning is. Maybe they’re saving money on porcelain? I found it to be a bit uncomfortable and difficult to uh… balance yourself when you’re uh… you know. Perhaps that’s why there are little help buttons in each stall. I wont lie: I’ve been seriously tempted to push one, but I’ve never done it because I don’t know who will show up. The cleaning lady? An ambulance? Ghostbusters?
Also, I’ve never seen this but my dad told me that the cleaning ladies don’t close down the public restrooms before coming in to clean. He said that they just come in and start cleaning, even if there are men using the bathroom.
Everyone does everything the same, and they do it together. For example, on Children’s Day my parents and I were walking through Gwanghwamun Square and not only did hundreds of families bring their kids to the park on the same day, but every single one of them brought paper and crayons and all the kids were drawing pictures of Gwanghwamun Gate. Every single one. When we went hiking on Bukhansan, everyone was dressed in the same hiking gear and they all brought kimbap for lunch. Also, I’ve had kimbap all over this city and 99% of the time it has the same ingredients. No one ever changes the recipe. When you go to a restaurant, all the silverware is the same. The dishes are the same (from the hot-bowls for stew to the little silver, metal water cups and rice bowls.) The napkins are the same. The brown plastic boxes they keep the chopsticks in are the same. Even the Tupperware that people keep kimchi in is the same: clear with blue lids. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.
Fruit is always eaten a specific way. My family always cuts up apples and peels the skin off. Under no circumstances may you eat an apple any other way. (My Taekwondo friends have told they do the same thing in Japan too. In fact, one of the little Japanese girls saw a foreign student taking a bite out of an apple while on our biking trip and she told me it looked really weird.) Also, even though we like avoid the seeds in a watermelon, some Americans will just eat them if we come across them, no big deal. However, Koreans go to great lengths to pick out all the seeds before eating the watermelon. They absolutely will not eat a watermelon seed. I confirmed this with my Japanese friends too. They told me that eating the seeds will give you a stomach ache.
Lots of touching. In Korea there is a lot more physical contact between people of the same gender, and very little guy-girl touching (unless you’re dating, of course, then they get very cuddly.) In general, there’s a lot more touching of arms and shoulders and faces than we are used to. For example, girls who are friends will hold hands or link arms and walk down the street while shopping. Okay, that probably isn’t that weird for girls, but Korean guys are the same way. Guys who are friends will walk down the street with their arm around their buddy’s shoulder. They’ll grab each other on the arms or shoulder or hug their guy friends and it’s not considered weird at all. It was a little hard for me to get used to the girl-touching. Sometimes I would be talking with a Korean girl and she would just start playing with my hand and I would be thinking “I barely know you why are you touching me???” but that’s just how people bond here.
Although everyone is very fashionably dressed (see above), the unspoken dress code is a little strange: girls can show off scandalous amounts of leg and it’s still considered classy, but showing off too much shoulder, back, or cleavage is “too sexy.” Korean girls will wear skirts that are so short they can barely walk up the stairs but they will always wear a cardigan over a tank top, even when it’s 85 degrees out. In America it’s almost the opposite, isn’t it? We seem to be okay with showing off your shoulders, but really tiny shorts are considered kind of slutty. But it’s hardly like Korean women are “oppressed”, and no one will ever stop you on the street and bother you about what you’re wearing (Koreans are so nice!), it’s just that girls have figured out that they would rather look “cute” than “sexy” and it works pretty well for them (see below.) Also, being able to walk down the street and not be subjected to the fleshy, jiggly parts of large people is a huge plus (my goodness, American girls could learn a thing or two here!) Hmmm… I should have put this under the “good” category.
Aegyo. Pronounced like “egg-yo”. Aegyo basically means “the cute thing Korean girls do when they want their boyfriends to do something for them.” This video sums it up pretty nicely:
(Just so you know, “oppa” is what a girl calls her older brother, but the term can be used for your boyfriend or any close guy friend who is older than you, like your older brother’s friend, your friend’s older brother, your older sister’s boyfriend, etc. Basically, it’s any guy you can pull aegyo on.)
To me, the thought of doing aegyo to a guy is absolutely horrifying. First of all, it would be just ridiculously embarrassing. Secondly, I could never pull it off anyway. Though Korean girls do it so well that it’s basically a super power. Or creepy mind control. Either way, once an aegyo-pro starts working her magic she can get a guy to buy her anything!
And finally, the weirdest thing is just the fact that this guy exists:
Yes, that is a Korean reggae singer. His name is Skull. That is all.