Studying, Surgery and Soju: Life in South Korea

I’ve now spent the best part of a year and half in Korea in two stints stretching back to May 2014, and I think it’s time I write a little about what life is like in this curious corner of the world. In no particular order, here are some of the more unusual things I have picked up on in my time out east.

Monoethnic – Korea is an extremely ethnically homogeneous country, more so than virtually anywhere else in the world. There is minimal permanent immigration, and no real indigenous ethnic minorities- everyone is simply Korean. There’s a very strong sense of patriotism that sometimes verges on nationalistic superiority. And racist thinking is supposedly quite prevalent, though I’ve never really noticed it myself. But the good news is that, with ever increasing exposure to foreigners, South Korea is gradually becoming more multi-cultural and tolerant.

Age and Poverty – The issue of age in Korea is a strange one. On one hand, the Confucian beliefs that shape society mean that increased age is linked to social status. Apparently, the first thing a Korean person must do when they meet someone is ask their age, so they know how respectfully they must address them! Older people seem to be able to call the shots, and age is often prioritised over ability when filling the top jobs in a company or organisation.

However, the large proportion of elderly people living in poverty flies in the face of their supposedly respected position in society. Many elderly people are said to be abandoned by their families, who cannot afford to care for them, and have to scrape a living by cleaning, collecting recyclable materials- and even prostitution. It’s really quite heart-breaking to see a frail, hunchbacked figure digging through piles of rubbish in the dark on a cold winter´s night…

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Korea’s entry in the World’s Longest Place Name competition

Unique Alphabet – Korea has its own alphabet, totally unrelated to Chinese or Japanese script. It’s an artificial creation dating back only a few centuries, and was designed to be as easy to learn as possible. Some say it’s beautiful, but to me, it looks a little creepy somehow, with all its straight lines and angular shapes. It’s kind of what I’d imagine an alien civilisation using.

Incidentally, the guy who was responsible for the alphabet, King Sejong, is still arguably the most popular person in Korea. All sort is named after him, including a city. One of my students wrote an essay about him just yesterday, and he put it better than I ever could: “Korea without Sejong is like toast without butter.”

PC Rooms – With the ubiquity of personal computers and mobile phones in the UK, internet cafes are quite a rarity back home. But in Korea, “PC Bangs” are everywhere thanks to the national obsession with online gaming. They’re open 24 hours a day, full of young people sat in front of huge wide screen monitors bashing away on keyboards.

Spicy Food – For a person like me brought up on mild British food, having to adapt to spicy Korean cuisine is quite a challenge. Half the meals seem to be flavoured with gochujang, a chili infused spicy sauce, which at best gives me a runny nose and hiccups, and at worst leaves my mouth in agony for some time afterwards.

Studying Culture – Children in South Korea have well and truly drawn the short straw, at least relative to other developed countries. When school finishes in the afternoon, their work has only just begun. Most are required to head to hagwons, places where they might study English or Maths, or take music classes, practice Taekwondo, or in many cases, all of these things. And then they go home and do a load of homework.

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“I’m Free”… A poster one of my students made about going on holiday.

The drive Korean parents have to educate their kids is in one sense admirable, but also quite short sighted- the children have so much on their plates that their ability to actually enjoy their youth is very much limited. And by the time they are at secondary schools some teenagers have a lifestyle that contains virtually no free time in their waking hours that isn’t spent studying. Getting into a top university is seen as the be all and end all- unsurprisingly, the pre-exam stress and pressure can be intense.

Spare a thought for the boys in particular. When they’re finally through with all that they’re forced into a couple of years of thoroughly unpopular military service, thanks to the presence of the noisy neighbours across the northern border.

Cosmetic Surgery – Beauty is everything in South Korea. Plastic surgery is remarkably common, and socially acceptable. A huge proportion of young people undergo operations, particularly women. This article explains the phenomena better than I could: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/about-face Women are regularly applying make-up, and apparently male beauty products do a roaring trade, too. People must include their picture in job applications- whether that’s the cause or effect of the beauty obsession, I don’t know.

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Bukhansan: An 850m mountain just a few km from Seoul’s city centre

Mountains – The Korean peninsula is almost entirely covered by mountains. While few of them are particularly big- no mountain in South Korea surpasses 2,000m- they are on the horizon virtually everywhere in the country. All of South Korea’s major cities have sizable mountains in or around them, their suburbs often clinging to the sides of their foothills.

Dokdo Islands – Coming from Western Europe, where nations generally live harmoniously with their neighbours (at least until that referendum last week…), it’s quite strange to live in a country that really dislikes its neighbour as South Korea dislikes Japan. To be fair, the Japanese did occupy the country for about 40 years until 1945, but relations haven’t truly been normalised since then. The main sticking point these days are the Dokdo islands, 46 acres worth of bare rocks protruding from the sea roughly between the two countries. Both countries claim them, but it is Korea that has control, and this means an awful lot to the Korean people. It’s all a bit bizarre.

Korean Ages – The Korean ageing system is very unusual. Children are aged one from the day they are born, and everyone grows a year older not on their birthday but on New Year’s Day. This means that a child born on December 31st would be two years old on the second day of his life.

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I was handed this on the street once: a pack of tissues with a bible verse

Churches – It’s quite surprising on arrival in this country to realise quite how overtly Christian South Korea seems. The faith was exported by American missionaries over the past century, and their evangelising zeal must have rubbed off on some of the locals- most expats here will have been subjected to at least one attempted conversion! At night, city skylines are lit up with Neon crosses. Thankfully, the symbol of the competing religion, Buddhism’s swastika, is not displayed quite so prominently…

People Everywhere – South Korea is the world’s twelfth most densely populated country, but because the 50 million people are packed into the small slivers of land along the coasts and between mountains, it feels even more crowded than that! There are people everywhere- here in Seoul, with a metropolitan population of around 25 million, public space is constantly packed. However, South Korea’s birth rate has plummeted so low that, if the trend persists for long enough, the entire population will be gone within a few centuries.

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There must be thousands of these identikit blocks in Seoul alone

Tower Blocks – The majority of city dwellers in South Korea live in high rise tower blocks, which are found throughout cities. The ugly grey blocks stand in rows and are usually numbered on the side- this always reminds me of a kind of dystopian, Orwellian future landscape of giant prison blocks…

Surgical Masks – A peculiarly ubiquitous sight in Korea are surgical masks. During the winter in particular, I saw them worn every day by people of all ages: on the streets, the subway, and even in the office. Their use has been explained to me for a variety of reasons- avoiding illness, not giving other people your own lurgy, protecting against air pollution, and staying warm.

Soju – Korea has a surprisingly big drinking culture, and at the forefront of this is the omnipresent soju, a 20% strength spirit that is essentially like watered down vodka, costing less than a pound for a 330ml bottle- and it’s available on pretty much every street in 24 hour convenience stores. No matter where you are in the city, you can probably drink yourself into a stupor within ten minutes if you so desire. On the other hand, I read a hangover-easing ice lolly has just gone on sale here, so I suppose everything’s gonna be ok.

The Kims – I once met Kim Jong Un. She was a 19 year old student… Let me explain. All Korean names consist of three syllables, the first being the surname and the latter two the personal title. Kim is the most popular family name in Korea, used by over a fifth of the peninsula’s population, while Jong Un, it would seem, is a unisex appellation. So it is quite likely the tubby dictator across the border has plenty of unfortunate namesakes.

Engrish – Despite the huge amount of time and money ploughed into learning the language, amusingly mistranslated English corporate slogans proliferate in Korea. My own employers are in on the act, proudly declaring “Success in Global Leader”. But let’s give them a break, it’s not like English proficiency is particularly important at a language school…
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Tiny Dogs – Contrary to popular belief, dogs are far more likely to be seen on a lead than in a cooking pot in South Korea. Dog meat is still eaten, but from what I understand it’s now very much a niche meal and it certainly isn’t on the menu in any restaurant I’ve come across. Dogs are now popular household pets, but because most Koreans live in relatively small high rise flats, they generally choose tiny little yappy things, which they proceed to dress in dog clothes and carry around everywhere.

The North Korea Issue – It’s interesting how little the people of South Korea seem to be concerned by the tyrannical dictator constantly threatening them with nuclear weapons just north of the border. Of course, locals hate the North Korean regime, but having lived with its belligerent presence for sixty years, they aren’t exactly losing sleep over the possibility of conflict. The border is so comprehensively sealed that South Korea actually has the feel of an island nation. It’s actually quite amazing to think that less than 100km from me as I write this in Seoul is a dirt poor, repressive dictatorship.

Looking back, this list seems rather negative, but don’t get the wrong idea. Just like the news is disproportionately full of unpleasant events, the strange or negative aspects of South Korea are much more interesting to read about than the good ones.

For the record, though, Korea is by and large a very comfortable place to live, a friendly, largely law abiding country with nice scenery, an interesting culture and plenty to see and do, somewhere refreshingly different to my home country without being too alien to handle- and a great example to the developing world of what a poor country can become with enough drive and determination.

Oh, and if any Koreans or fellow expats disagree or have anything to add, please let me know!

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