Impressions of Korea: The Good, The Bad, and the Both

During my last hours in Seattle before flying out to Korea, I sat down next to a table of Korean businessmen to eat an airport hamburger . One of these businessmen, Mr. Kim, was eager to introduce himself to me. He became visibly excited when he found out that I was going to be living in Korea for the next year, and was more than happy to offer me some advice about the country.

When I asked him “how does Korea compare to America?”, his response surprised me. “Everything there is just better. You’ll see. Everything is faster, and cleaner, and costs less money.”

Though I took Mr. Kim’s words to be patriotic hyperbole, he really wasn’t kidding about everything in Korea being faster, cleaner, and costing less money. No, Mr. Kim, not everything in Korea is better than America, but I’ve truly enjoyed my first month here more than I ever could have hoped for. Even though I had spent my last few months in America eagerly anticipating my move to Korea, this country has lived up to all my expectations and more.

Throughout my first month in Korea, I’ve been writing down my initial impressions of the country in little bits and pieces as I continued to gather new experiences and meet new people. The best way I could think to organize what I had written into one (very long) article was to categorize my thoughts on Korea under “the good”, “the bad”, and “the both”, mostly as a comparison to life in America.

Let’s start with the good.

The Good

My Job

My biggest concern about my move to Korea was whether or not I would enjoy my job as a teacher. If I was spending 40 hours a week doing something I couldn’t stand, I probably wouldn’t enjoy my stay here matter how well everything else was going.

I can happily report that teaching English has been much more fun than I expected. Unlike my last couple of jobs, I’m genuinely happy to head into work every day. I’m never counting the minutes until I can head home or waking up in the morning with a sense of dread for the workday to come (like I did at my recruiting job). I honestly look forward to seeing my students every day.

Though I can’t really speak to what teaching is like in America, teaching Korean children is a delight. More than half of my students seem to genuinely enjoy their time in my class – they raise their hands in the air as high as they can for every question they know the answer to, yell with excitement during all of the English learning games we play at the end of class, and bombard with me questions about my personal life and living in America. Koreans are much more forward than Americans, especially the kids.

Though the majority of my students are very energetic, about a third of them are quite shy. The shy ones neither actively participate in class nor do anything to distract the other students, they politely perform their duties as a student and pray that I don’t call on them during speaking sections.

The rest of the students I have are a mixed bag, ranging from lovable class clowns to the actively uninterested. Out of the 120 or so students I teach every week, there are far more kids I totally adore than bad eggs. My students are the best part of my job, and they’re a big part of the reason that I enjoy teaching English as much as I do.

The Food

I still haven’t had a bad meal in Korea. Korean food is one of the biggest reasons to visit this country – it’s delicious, it’s healthy, and it’s shockingly inexpensive.

Korean cuisine is quite different from the other varieties of Asian food you’ll commonly find in the states (such as Chinese, Thai, and Japanese). Generally speaking, it uses simple ingredients, is much less saucy than other Asian cuisines, is very spicy (which I personally enjoy), and is served unlike anything I’ve encountered before. The best Korean restaurants I’ve been to have special equipment built into your table which used to cook the food you ordered right in front of you, such as the famous Korean barbecue setup or the shabu shabu table.

My favorite part about Korean food is the number of small, complimentary dishes you’ll be served when you sit down at a restaurant. Free with every meal, you’ll almost always be served Kimchi (the most popular food you’ll find in Korea), pickled radishes (my personal favorite), and Miso soup’s Korean cousin, in addition to a wide variety of house specialties. Some meals can be made up entirely of these small, delicious dishes – the Asian equivalent of Tapas. A meal I ate last week came with 12 different small plates, some rice, and a delicious sweet rice drink called “shikke”. The price? Roughly 13 USD for two people.

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Much to my surprise, the food here is shockingly cheap. It’s actually more expensive to buy ingredients at the market and cook it at home than it is to eat out at a moderately priced restaurant. Here is an order of Bibimbap (meaning stirred rice) at a restaurant near my apartment. It came with complimentary Kimchi, radishes, and Miso. As you can see on the menu, there isn’t a single meal at this restaurant which costs more than 3,000 won (roughly $2.75). You can easily eat two quality meals a day at a restaurant here for 12,000 won or less (roughly 10 dollars).

Korea has many delicious bastardizations of classic American foods. The most popular meal in all of Korea might be fried chicken, Koreans are completely obsessed with it. There are actually more fried chicken restaurants in Korea than there are McDonalds in the entire world! I’ve had the fried chicken here a couple of times, and like everything else I’ve tried in Korea it was delicious. Koreans also love their Pizza (or “Pija” as they pronounce it, as there is no Z in the Hangul alphabet), which is totally different from the ‘za back in the states. The pizza here is much closer to Italian style than American style, it’s much lighter on the cheese and tomato sauce, far less oily, and comes with some peculiar toppings. Every pizza I’ve had in Korea has either had corn or sweet potato on it – which really isn’t as bad as it sounds.

There are a few downsides to eating in Korea though. Many traditional Korean dishes are made very spicy – if you’re not a fan of spice like I am then you probably won’t get to enjoy a significant number of the best Korean dishes. Its also quite hard to find good food here that isn’t Asian or American. Though you won’t have to look too far to find a Thai or Japanese restaurant, I haven’t seen a single South American or non-Italian European restaurant in my time here. If I want a burrito in the next year I’m probably just going to have to make one myself.

Cost of Living

With few exceptions, the average cost of goods and services here is notably cheaper than in the states. Here are a few examples (I’ve converted everything into USD):

  • Average cost of a meal: $5.00
  • A bottle of Soju (2 of these and you’re quite drunk): $1.25
  • My monthly internet bill (100 mb/s download speed): $28.00
  • A quality t-shirt: $8.00
  • A bus or subway ride: $1.00

There are also a few things that cost more over here. Their coffee is a little weaker in Korea than in the states, but a regular sized Americano at Starbucks will still run you $5.00. Imported American goods (such as designer jeans) are also quite a bit pricier. Rent can get a little high considering the amount of space you’re getting, but I can’t speak to this with too much authority as the school I work for pays my rent.

Overall, my money goes much further in Korea than it does in the states. Even though I’m making a fair bit less teaching English than I was at my last my job in America, I’m able to save much more of my paycheck in Korea than I was able to in the states.

No Tipping

When I tried to tip my waitress for the first time in Korea she returned the money to me several times. I eventually left the money on the table (assuming it was some form of Korean politeness), but this simply wasn’t the case.

The cultural norm here is not to tip. Every restaurant bill and bar tab becomes 15% cheaper without a tip, so this is a norm I can get behind. They simply pay their servers and bartenders enough that they don’t need to be tipped, which is a win-win for consumers and service industry workers alike.

Despite this, one Korean girl told me that Koreans travelling in China tip graciously so the Chinese will think Koreans are loaded! Tipping is certainly a custom that Koreans are aware of, it’s just one they choose to do away with.

“Bang” Culture

No, not that kind of bang.

In Korea, the word “bang” means “room”. There’s a wide variety of fun places to go to in Korea where you can rent some kind of equipment or space by the hour, all of which end in the word “bang”.

The most popular of these in Busan is the “nore bang” (nore means song), where you’ll get a private karaoke room for you and your friends to sing songs in. You’ll get a big couch, a huge flat screen TV loaded with songs, and plenty of fancy lights and disco balls for you and your friends to enjoy. Though I enjoy karaoke in America, I always felt pressured to sing something I knew very well since an entire room of people would have to suffer through my song while waiting for their own turn to take the mic. At the nore bang, I’m free to go wild and sing and all kinds of crazy stuff that I wouldn’t dream of choosing at an American karaoke night. Visiting a norebang is a must-do experience for any tourist stopping by in Korea.

norebang

Another favorite of mine is the PC bang. From reading the name, you can probably guess that it’s a room where people go to use PCs. For just 1,000 won an hour (about 90 cents) you can use a state of the art gaming PC equipped with an ultra-comfy chair, huge monitor, and top of the line mouse and keyboard to play a wide variety of popular PC games. Even if you’re not a PC gamer, the rates for just using their computers to watch movies or browse the internet are far cheaper than an internet cafe in Europe.

There are many other kinds of “bangs”, including the video room (a place to watch movies or play console games on a big screen TV while servers bring you snacks and drinks), game room (a place to play pool, air hockey, Foosball, .etc) and jimjil bang, the Korean equivalent of a spa. The point of all of these rooms is to provide a place for you and your friends to enjoy the best equipment and technology Korea has to offer without having to buy it yourself. I really can’t help but feel that many of these types of rooms would would be quite popular in the US, especially the nore bang.

Technology

Simply put, the amount of technology per square foot in Korea is much higher than it is the US. The average electronic device here is just slightly newer and nicer than a similar one in the US. Every elevator I’ve been in talks to you and has a much sleeker and more modern button panel what you’ll find in America, my cheap-ass apartment has a small screen in the wall which is connected to a camera at my front door, and every bus stop in my city has a flat screen TV.

I haven’t sent a single text message my entire time in Korea thanks to an app called Kakao Chat, a third-party messaging application that I hope to bring back with me to the states. After using Kakao for a month I’m honestly shocked that Americans haven’t adopted a third party application as their messenger of choice. The difference between the number of features in your phone’s default messenger app and Kakao is enormous. Though I’m sure there are other apps out there that do the job just as well, the bottom line is that third-party messengers are where it’s at for daily messaging. Though I was skeptical at first, the Koreans really have us beat on this one.

kakao

I have to give a brief nod to the internet service over here. I pay less than half the price for 100 mb/s internet over here than I did for 24 mb/s Comcast internet in America, and I haven’t once had a disconnection of service. Even when I’m outside my house, half of Busan is a wifi hotspot. Every major cell carrier has wifi service available on the metro, and most restaurants and coffee shops have faster internet than I ever dreamed of having at home in Seattle. Shockingly, the download speed for my phone’s data is sometimes faster than my home internet connection. Most websites load faster for me over data connection than they do over wifi.

That said, outside of Korea’s internet there really aren’t any life-changing technological innovations in Korea that you can’t find at all in the states. Their modern infrastructure was simply laid down much more recently than in the US, which means that the average electronic device you’ll encounter in Korea is probably nicer but not fundamentally different from a similar American device.

Transportation

It should come as no surprise that Korean transportation systems are much faster and cleaner than what you’ll typically find in the states. The subway and bus systems here run like clockwork, are very high tech, kept spotless, and are much cheaper to use than American public transportation. A trip on the subway or bus will run you about 1 USD any time of day. You can also purchase a single card (called the T-money card) which can be used to pay for fare on any subway, bus, or taxi in every major Korean city. The only downside to public transportation in Korea is that the last subway boards at midnight, meaning that you’ll have to catch a cab home if you stay out late (and you’re going to want to stay out late).

It’s probably a good thing that I’ll never need a drivers license here though, because everyone drives like a madman (especially the bus and taxi drivers). Standing up on a moving bus is an exercise in extreme balance, as bus drivers will brake, turn, and accelerate on a whim. Its definitely a “car first, pedestrian second” system here as well. If a car is driving through a one-lane street with no sidewalk, they fully expect to you move out of their way and will not slow down for you.

Safety

Korea is one of the safest countries I’ve ever been to. Crime is incredibly low in major cities and its citizens do a great job of looking out for one another. People here will leave their brand new cellphones and wallets on the table in a coffee shop and go to the bathroom, something I’ve never seen in a big American city.

Pet Cafes

As a dog lover and total sucker for Corgis, I could barely contain my excitement when I first visited one of Korea’s many pet cafes.

For a little more than the price of a coffee, a dog cafe is place you can go to hang out with the employee’s and visitor’s dogs for as long as you like. You’ll be provided with some treats to help you make new friends, and the staff will happily bring you a lapdog if you’re shy about picking up a pooch yourself. Though I’m still missing my dogs back home, dog cafes will go a long way in helping me get my dog fix during my stay here.

Though I much prefer dogs to cats, its worth noting that cat cafes are even more popular than their canine counterparts. I’m sure it won’t be too long before I cave in and visit a cat cafe as well.

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The Bad

Views on Sexuality and Gender

Despite Korea’s modern approach to nearly everything they do, their views on gender and sexuality lag far behind those of America. The gender pay gap in Korea is the largest of any OECD nation, their views on homosexuality are about equivalent to that of America in the 1950’s, and the Korean sex industry is endemic to male culture of all ages. Let’s start with gender inequality.

Korea was an impoverished nation as recently as the 1960s, during the period shortly after the Korean War. This means that the average member of the older generation in Korea (people currently in their 50s and over) grew up in a time where the biggest issue their family faced was getting enough money to put food on the table. During this postwar era, men were the bread-winners and women stayed home to take care of everything else. Mothers and fathers from this generation have since tried to raise their kids to hold these same values, which has lead to some obvious conflicts with career-oriented women.

Even in homes with two parents working full-time, the expectation for most for Korean mothers is to do all of the cleaning, cooking, pick up/drop off at school, and child-rearing, since that’s what their mothers did before them. Beyond this, women in Korea make much far less than than their male counterparts and face much more sexism in the workplace than an American female would. They have a saying here which roughly translates to “get plastic surgery to get a job”, since employers openly discriminate based on looks when it comes to hiring. The culture here doesn’t tell women to “study harder than everyone else to get the job you want”, it says “be prettier than the other women applying to the same job”. This might be part of the reason why Korea has more plastic surgery than any country in the world.

asianeye

Advertisements for plastic surgery can be found at nearly every subway stop. The most common surgery by far is the Asian eye surgery, which makes your eyes open wider and appear more Caucasian. One of my Korean friends told me that over half of Korean girls get this surgery in their teens, most commonly during high school summer break. As I was explained, “older women don’t get as much surgery because it isn’t as important to be pretty when you’re old.” Another Korean told me about a customer at her nail salon who’s daughter had received 3 plastic surgeries on her face before she turning 23.

Let’s move on to prostitution and the sex industry. Prostitution was made illegal in Korea in 2004, but you wouldn’t think it was still illegal from how prevalent it is today. I’ve been solicited by pimps more during my one month in in Korea (twice) than in my entire life in America (once). A very interesting Vice documentary on the South Korean Love Industry said that as many as 1 in 10 Korean women have at one point in their lives worked in the sex trade.

One. In. Ten.

With such a high number of prostitutes, it stands to reason that the number of men who regularly visit them is quite high as well. I couldn’t find the exact numbers for “number of men who visit prostitutes in Korea”, but Wikipedia claims that 20% of men in their 20’s visit a prostitute at least four times a month. The anecdotal data I’ve heard from Koreans I’ve talked to is that there is almost no stigma attached to seeing a prostitute in Korea, and that it’s relatively common for bosses to take their employees out to brothels for company outings and foot the bill for everyone. One girl said that three of her ex-boyfriends had cheated on her with prostitutes at “company outings” like I just described, but that they didn’t consider it cheating since the girl was payed for her time.

The final (and perhaps most troubling) part about sex and gender in Korea is their view on homosexuality. Though I have no doubt that there are just as many gay people per capita in Korea as there are in the rest of the world, you simply don’t see gay culture here at all. The best example I can give of this comes from a girl I met named Hyun Joo – she was very surprised to hear that I knew many gay people back in Seattle because she was sure that she had never seen a gay person in her entire life. I asked her several times if that was what she actually meant, and she assured me it was. That’s right, gay culture here is so far back in people’s minds that a college-educated and well traveled 25 year old can believe that they have never encountered a gay person in their life.

From what I can tell, the younger generation doesn’t seem to have a strong opinion one way or another on homosexuality, they just choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, the older generation is still actively against homosexuality. A gay Canadian I met in Korea told me that he has never came out to a Korean in his nearly two-year stay here because he worries that it might get back to someone he worked with, potentially resulting in him getting fired.

All of these examples were a long-winded way of saying that Korea has far fewer sexual freedoms than the majority of cultures in the Western world. The good news is that I wouldn’t expect it to stay this way for much longer, as there is a massive changing of the guard happening right now in Korea from the old and socially conservative generation to the young and liberal one. Several people have told me (both in Korea and outside of Korea) that the country is currently undergoing a “sexual renaissance” of sorts, not unlike what Americans underwent in the 60’s and 70’s during the hippie movement.

The other piece of good news, as least for me, is that Korean women seem to really like tall white guys. I’m sure it has something do with supply and demand (white people and tall people are few and far between in Busan), but one Korean told me that many women here are simply getting fed up with all the infidelity from Korean men and have decided to date only foreigners. What a shame!

Porn

I felt this deserved its own section outside of the previous one, as I’m assuming that many of you will glossed over the previous one and would have missed out on one of Korea’s strangest quirks.

Even though prostitution was legal here as recently as 12 years ago, porn is completely illegal! It’s illegal to watch, own, distribute, create… you name it. That obviously doesn’t stop people from watching it anyways, but it does mean that you have to jump through some extra hoops to find it. Accessing any porn site the Korean government has flagged (which was every site I bothered to check) will return this screen:

warning

That said, where there’s a will there’s a wank. You can use a variety of chrome plugins to mask your IP address and get around the block, search “free proxy servers” on google and poke around until you find one that works, or just use a VPN (virtual private network) to get around the censorship. If I wasn’t a law abiding citizen who would never dream of watching pornography in Korea, I would probably use one of the many free VPNs (such as TotalVPN which has free connections to Singapore) to get around Korea’s absurd pornography laws.

 

The Smell

Though the average home or business in Korea doesn’t smell any worse than one in America, an average day in Korea consists of about 5-10 more wafts of something dreadful than a day in the states.

Every long walk in a Korean city means at least a few chance encounters with a questionable odor. I’m not sure if the sewage here is untreated, but walking over a sewer grate always provides a waft of something unpleasant. Though Busan has some incredible outdoor markets, the smell of fish on a hot day vastly overpowers the smells of fruits and vegetables, which leads to a very distinct and fishy “market smell” which you’ll find on certain streets.

Koreans also don’t like to flush their toilet paper in the toilet, which is more of a problem for Americans than you’d think. Every public toilet has a bin where you are supposed to put your used toilet paper, which obviously means that public bathrooms smell pretty awful. It’s also not a huge priority for people to replace toilet paper in public restrooms here, which means the onus is on you to bring TP with you everywhere you go. Pro tourist tip when visiting Korea – never leave the house without some TP in your back pocket.

No Garbage Cans

It baffles me how clean of country Korea is given the shockingly low number of garbage cans you’ll find here. You’ll often have to walk 4 or 5 blocks to find a bin, and when you finally find one its likely going to be less than half the size of one you’d find in the west and overflowing with trash. When I was at an international festival in Busan Citizen’s park, I could only locate one trash can at the event of over 1000 people.

Apparently, when Korea started charging households higher waste management fees in the 80s Koreans responded by throwing all of their trash in public bins. The Korean government removed most public bins to combat this, and hired a veritable army of old ladies to clean garbage off the streets every morning.

Korean Age

By setting foot in Korea I became two years older. Korean’s have their own system for age here which I find quite stupid.

Take the current year, subtract your birth year, and add one to get your Korean age. This means that a baby born on December 31st is 2 years in old in Korea on their 2nd day of life. They still celebrate individual birthdays here (and use international age to determine voting eligibility), but I don’t really understand the need for a separate age system. Whenever somebody asks how old I am, I reply with two numbers.

The Both

Racism

You’d probably expect that I’d put a category called “Racism” in the bad section, but racism here works in both directions. Being white here is much more of a positive than a negative, but its certainly both.

I’ve never had a male stranger buy me a drink in all of my years in America, but it happened twice in the same day to me last weekend. Younger Koreans are very interested in my views on Korea and the western world, are genuinely curious about American culture, and English-speaking Koreans seem to seek me out whenever they spot me at a bar or club. Its very easy to make native friends here and most people have been incredibly nice to me.

Unfortunately, the older generation isn’t quite on the same page as the younger one. I’ve had older taxi and bus drivers blow right past just me because I’m a foreigner, or make up a lame excuse for why they couldn’t give me a ride. One time, a taxi driver made a point to stop for three Koreans before me on the street who weren’t flagging down a taxi before speeding past my raised and waving arms. Apparently its much worse for black people over here, as several younger Koreans have told me that they could never date a black person solely because their parents would never allow it.

I wish I could comment with more authority as to why the older generation doesn’t like foreigners, but I honestly haven’t had a real conversation with a Korean over the age of 40. Younger Koreans speak English very well, but older Koreans didn’t have the same luxuries as the younger generation. This isn’t to say that all Koreans over the age of 40 hate foreigners, the majority of older Koreans I interact with are actually quite friendly. It’s just that my communication with them has been entirely limited by my terrible Korean speaking abilities, which means that I haven’t been able to ask them any meaningful questions about Korean culture.

Drinking Culture

Koreans love to drink, and have far less stigma attached to drinking than Americans do. As there is no open container law, both the younger and older generation alike can be spotted stumbling down the street any night of the week, hand-in-hand with their friends. Drinkers who are and minding their own business don’t attract the attention of other pedestrians, and I’ve yet to see a drunk Korean harass somebody in any context.

Though I appreciate their relaxed views on drinking here (and how cheap it is to drink!) I can’t help but feel that Koreans drink a bit too regularly. Its pretty common for someone to have drinks every night of the week, and drink in excess on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The bar for alcoholism in Korea is set much higher than it is in the states.

Korean Architecture

One of the things that surprised me most about Korea was how well they take advantage of the limited space they are provided. Korea is smaller than my home state of Washington, but has 7 times the number of people! This is even more surprising when you consider that over half of the country is mountainous terrain where you can’t even put a building. What do you do when you can’t build sideways? Build up and down.

A friend of mine joked that you couldn’t dig a hole in Korea without hitting a shopping mall – a joke which isn’t far from the truth. The connection between the two nearest subway stations to my home in Busan is a massive mall called the “Seomyeon underground shopping centre”. Hundreds and hundreds of clothing stores, boutiques, and other various shops line the long walking path between Seomyeon station and Bujeon station, all entirely underground. This isn’t unique to my neighborhood either, you’ll find mall-sized shopping centers connecting the majority of subway stops in major Korean cities.

In addition to building down, Koreans aren’t afraid to put their business in the sky. Many popular bars, restaurants, and shops require an elevator ride to get to. I can’t think of a single popular restaurant which isn’t at ground level in my hometown, but last week I had an incredible meal on the 7th story of a building overlooking Gwangalli beach. I never really thought about what constitutes a “ground level business” in the US before coming here, as Koreans aren’t afraid to any kind of business on any floor of a building.

seoulapartments

The other side of the coin in the strive for space efficiency is the cookie-cutter approach that Korea has taken to housing. The entire country is dotted with identical apartment buildings, commonly arranged in a circular pattern to form a village-style apartment mega-complex. When I took the high speed train from Seoul to Busan these apartment complexes were a major eyesore on an otherwise beautiful Korean countryside. Though I understand the the need for space efficiency in a densely populated country, it has certainly led to some very ugly architecture. Even though I the natural surroundings of my home in Busan are gorgeous, the city’s skyline is certainly nothing to write home about. For a country with so much history and culture, a long walk through a major Korean city has nothing on a stroll through Paris or London.

That’s all for now!

Thanks for reading about my experiences abroad. Korea is an amazing country and I hope to share much more with you all throughout my stay here. Until next time, 안녕하세요!

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