by Chris Kadlec | Published January 10, 2015 | Updated May 15, 2018
Download: this full 18-page article can be downloaded here with additional formatting.
Every country has its own culture and customs, the ones we follow without question because… well, “that’s just how it is.” But what happens when you leave the comfort of your own culture and drop yourself in the middle of a country that sees the world in a nearly opposite fashion? From the minor everyday habits that are small thorns in the side of an acute observer to everything the natives take for granted, you note the mere cultural curiosities, those things that nobody can quite explain the origins of, while more keenly noticing the major societal issues that any other country might face. From my own personal views from having grown up in a multicultural household in the United States, since first setting foot in Korea in 2009 until the time I left in 2016, here are the thoughts that come to mind when I think of the country, people, and society of Korea, including any commentary on the history or origin of some of the cultural behaviors I’ve questioned over the years. Of course, it’s appropriately followed by 10 amazingly advantageous points about Korea that more than make up for the 15 shortcomings.
15 cultural oddities explored, from a foreigner’s perspective (and things Korea could probably work on):
1. Everything in Korea is standardized and homogeneous. I think it’s the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Korea. Go to a school today and another school tomorrow and you’ll see that all the wooden lockers are exactly the same, the floors, the windows, hallways, signs, and almost everything down to the smallest possible details are near exact clones, though oftentimes in different colors. Test papers are all oversized and official, every school uses the same student number system, most have the same dirt playing ground (some newer schools are nicely equipped with turf fields), and every school has pretty much the same website layout merely with a different logo or name all through the Ministry of Education.
It’s not only in schools though. Advertising banners (see photo) are all the same standard size everywhere, everyone obsessively uses the same few photo poses (which sometimes have quite different meanings outside Korea), the country’s entire Internet presence uses the same coding system, same coding for pop-ups which are embedded in the website, and is entirely government-regulated specifically to a standard. Every website has a banner with a physical street address and registration information on the bottom and citizens rarely own personal domains in any anonymous fashion, though it is not forbidden to do so.
Elsewhere in the “homogeneous” department: half of all brooms (see photo below) are bright green and often used to clear snow too, while the other half have wooden handles less than two feet long. Now, nobody has really come up with an explanation for the latter aside from perhaps being designed for the pre-war Korean ladies who were malnourished in their youth and are all of 4½ feet tall with the appearance of something that fell off a charm bracelet. In reality, nowadays Korea is full of 6-foot tall men  who often need to clean with these brooms that make for quite the ideal business model for a chiropractor. Along with the brooms, almost all roofs in Korea are painted with green waterproof paint. This is frustrating to many foreigners only for the simple question of “why?” and what is often a true lack of answer to the question, though the real reason appears to be based more on cost. When it comes to construction, this green color of waterproof paint is said to be much cheaper than other colors, meaning that just about every single roof in the country ends up being green. Not only roofs, but also parking garages and anything painted. There’s more on cost-saving and building practices below as the issue extends far deeper than green paint. In a country as small as Korea and one run by only a few “chaebol”  (large family-owned corporations such as Samsung, Lotte, Hyundai, and LG) which essentially make products more or less in a market monopoly fashion, you end up with a lot of green paint, green-colored tape on every street corner, or having the exact same washing machine, or even entire kitchen down to the exact details, as your friend, her friend, and her friend’s boyfriend… all of whom are wearing the same black and white striped shirt that has been popular this summer. Koreans have a tendency to conform to what is popular or mainstream: almost all cars are the same three colors – black, white, and gray – black coats are the overwhelming norm in winter no matter the style of the year, the same few hairstyles and thick black-rimmed glasses are prevalent for everyone, the same two or three sauces (honey mustard is the most widespread) are used for everything, the same style of sandals, called “slippers” in Korea, can be found everywhere, and if you’re male and have nails that are even a millimeter too long, there is a public outcry. Koreans feel safe when they match their surroundings and will expect you to do the same.
These standardized and homogeneous restrictions also have truly positive aspects within Korean society as a whole, which really can’t be ignored, and that’s covered further in the great things about Korea.
2. The government can track your every move, though that could be said elsewhere in the world as well. The large majority of Korean websites are accessed only with a government-issued ID number. To download, post, or have an account on most websites, you need to enter your official government ID number (the equivalent to an American social security number) and actual given name. In the past, this has locked most foreigners out of participation in any Korean sites, as most sites don’t allow more than 4 characters to be entered as a name, which is the usual maximum of any Korean name, while if the name and ID number don’t match with the government database, you don’t get access to the site. The situation has improved somewhat so that some sites offer the option of just a username and password, but almost nothing is anonymous. Slander laws are strict in Korea, so writing anything bad about an employer or especially anyone with more power or money than you, even if it’s true, can result in being sued and ultimately losing. With that said, with the government having that ability to watch over your online accounts, there is also a bit of a lack of freedom of speech that tends to be somewhat concerning. Consistently ranking as one of the two most wired nations in the world  does mean that you can find just about anything you want through some other means and quickly at that… except porn. Stay tuned for that.
3. It’s nearly impossible to find a good pair of socks, shoes, pants… well, the list could go on. Korean stores often sell things individually as a way of having a (perceived) high-end product. A single pair of socks, while there are many adorably cute designs, often sell as a special item and may cost a few dollars. Finding a package of 8 or 10 plain white socks for a few dollars like back home is quite rare. Furthermore, the very large majority of socks are ankle-high socks only. Wearing longer socks, even if turning them down to be shorter, will often result in some odd looks; I state this from a lot of experience. While there are plenty of shoes, selection is often limited to certain sizes and the latest trends and the cost isn’t always great. For example, when a super-bright sneakers trend hit Korea in 2012, I photographed nearly an entire shoe store full of almost only those, which I didn’t want since I’d look like a jackass upon returning to the states where the trend wasn’t present. Pants, especially of the more formal variety, are typically sold in uniform length, requiring a tailor for proper fitting. Belts are much the same, all the same long length, which is a tough deal when you have a 28″ waist. You can always find proper-fitting items if you truly search for them, but the selection will be quite limited and truly causes some headaches in the process, even for those who know the ins and outs of shopping. Depending on your body size and preference, your experience may naturally be quite different, but most foreigners could admit they’ve had some struggles.
4. Couples shirts. I don’t have to say much on this topic to really get the point across, but relationship habits are often a cause of saying “ack!” among foreigners who have lived in Korean society and/or have many Korean friends or have been involved in a relationship with a Korean. I never really get used to this sort of thing. Koreans have a very fairy-tale like notion of what love is or should be and idealize it in the media, in conversations, and in the relationship itself sometimes, which is measured in periods of 100 days, though a lot of it ends up being mere cultural differences. Couples sometimes wear the same outfit (see photo), whether it be just the same coat, same shirt, or the entire outfit outright head to toe, to say “I’m with this person” in a sense of either pride, ownership of that person, or whatever their personal reasoning may be. Many middle schoolers and high schoolers have a tradition (for lack of a better word) of making signs with brightly-colored letters and a black background – they’re homogeneously the same in almost every school everywhere on their annual sports day events – and many will make signs to say “With…” to broadcast that they are in a relationship with that certain person, a tad reminiscent of an “I’m with stupid” shirt, but I digress. “Aegyo,” a rather Korean behavior of girls acting childish and cute, often to get something they want or be more appealing to the male, is another cultural habit that is thought of by many foreigners to be more negative than positive, and is a main cultural difference in relationships and social interaction.
Now, not all Koreans go for that sort of thing – i.e. couples shirts or “aegyo” – and some are equally disturbed by it as I am, but it’s pretty hard to not see an instance of this if you go out on the town daily. Likewise, some foreigners may like it for the fact it’s different or cute. It seems a bit cute to a tourist, but believe me, it can really get to you…
5. Sexual-related issues tend to be something that Korean society, and especially the government, have a real need to improve. Government censorship has become especially rampant in recent years , whether it be the common practice of editing online maps and aerial images or deciding what citizens can watch or write. Nearly every porn site is blocked (see image below) on a government level with reasons of being considered indecent to societal norms (or expectations anyway), though Korea is among the world leaders in prostitution of both the poor and the very rich, the prostitution of which apparently “doesn’t exist” in Korea according to the government which is in charge of enforcing the laws (and doesn’t, because of course, it doesn’t exist), and as a likely result of the male frustration created by this situation, also has a somewhat high rate of crimes of the sexual nature that are rarely reported due to inaction of the police and courts. I’d like to say the situation has improved, but at a very slow rate. While that’s all to be expected in a country that has grown at a ridiculously fast rate and turned in a quick Western-facing direction in a mere few years while still being led largely by an older Confucian male generation, it’s still a rather serious societal issue .
The more concerning issue is lack of sex education in schools   as most of this curriculum is also government-created or sponsored. While some teens are having sex in high school, many convenience store clerks will often not sell them condoms without showing an ID . STDs are often thought of as a “foreigner’s disease”  and condoms are still not the preferred method of protection; the pulling-out method is still considered the way to go. I’ll leave any commentary on that one up to Laci Green, known for her sexual issues commentary, but effective or not, education is the way to go, especially for a country that holds it in such high esteem. Naturally, this preference along with the lack of education leads to many unwanted pregnancies. The most common solution is the quite common abortion (which more than one Korean friend of mine has had done and none of them have yet graduated college). To make matters worse, all of the above are matters considered not very suitable for open discussion. Divorce is another, though those rates are recently through the roof as well. This means that the problems continue on unsolved due to long-held beliefs. Though education is improving, it hasn’t been keeping up with reality, especially amongst the youth.
6. Korean bathrooms can be one of those things that really never fail to provide the foreigner with a complaint, whether it be a major issue or just being homesick for lacking a “normal” shower. Due mostly to space issues with some neighborhoods having 30-50,000 people per square mile (that’s 10-20,000 per square kilometer), the common bathroom in a smaller apartment, such as a one or two-room apartment, lacks a shower (see photo below). Instead, it usually consists of a very small bathroom, sometimes as little as 5×5 feet (1.5×1.5 meters), with a toilet and a sink. There is usually a shower head and it’s attached to the sink, meaning you turn a knob to switch between the faucet and the shower. There is occasionally an option to put the shower head on the wall, but it’s not especially common or expected anyway, meaning you have to hold the shower head while taking a shower every day. A drain is usually found in the middle of the floor. This, however, can be a real pro when it comes to cleaning your bathroom. Because there is no shower, there is no curtain, meaning water from your shower covers your mirror, toilet, door, and anything else within splashing distance, which is usually everything. Squeegees tend to be rather common in this instance. Larger apartments, such as those for families, often have an actual tub though the idea of the shower curtain is still somewhat slow to catch on in Korea. Some families have them, but many – perhaps still a majority – don’t. Koreans seem to hold this long-entrenched belief that water should flow freely wherever it wants (no official word on such a belief, but you’d have to assume), and in a country with serious mold and moisture problems, this can make for a headache for any renter or homeowner.
In the category of public bathrooms, the squat toilet is slowly being phased out, especially in urban areas. When I first arrived in Korea, this was the more common type of toilet, particularly in the more rural area I was living in, but most new construction uses Western-style toilets. However, there is still a disturbing lack of toilet paper in some public bathrooms when you least expect it and most need it, which is why women often carry toilet paper in their bags. School bathrooms can be especially horrendous  as many public schools don’t have a regular janitorial staff, opting instead for students to half-heartedly clean the school on a daily basis. In addition, the concept of washing hands with soap has yet to catch on for what may still be a majority of people, thus not improving the situation.
In a half-related note to Korean bathrooms, while washing machines are very common in Korea, dryers are still incredibly rare. Most people still hang their clothes to dry, either draping them across their one-room apartment or wherever they can. In my first apartment that had poor ventilation, it took all of 5-7 days to dry a pair of jeans. Those who reside in American military areas or have their own home, often in more rural areas, seem to have much better access to dryers, though they aren’t seen as an essential household appliance. Not everything about Korean bathrooms is bad though. I’ve included at least a good point in relation to subway bathrooms.
7. Korea tends to be a society of blankets and gender roles. Some girls, almost exclusively, carry blankets around almost year-round, while men can be criticized for doing the same due to what is a culture rather separated by specific gender expectations . Part of the reason is surely because they’re soft (and who doesn’t like that?), but in the winter, schools and after-school academies – seemingly any place related to education, which is one of the biggest business sectors of Korea – are often unheated or heated very inefficiently due to poor construction habits and lack of insulation. While classrooms and offices are heated, hallways typically are not. I had many experiences in Korean high school in which the water in the toilets froze for a month and the urinal cracked and fell apart during an especially cold winter, in a new school nonetheless. Nowhere else have I ever come across a place that carries and uses their blankets like Linus on Charlie Brown.
I’ll throw in the unique habit of openly brushing teeth at work and school, which seems to go hand in hand with the blankets. Unlike many places where brushing your teeth tends to be a more personal bathroom matter, Koreans often walk around the building or down the hallways, especially in school, brushing their teeth while talking with their friends. Older people, especially guys, guzzle the Listerine mouthwash like it was a bottle of Mountain Dew (though spitting it out, naturally). It’s a bit of an obsessive cultural trait that differs from other places but is something that is still hard to grow accustomed to.
8. The country doesn’t especially shelter its children like the United States has in the past decade, but it does very often use lullabies and children’s songs anywhere it can. From official tones to warning tones, school bells to music played when your washing machine load has finished… they’re seriously everywhere. Korea is a real “cutesy” country as is common in other East Asian countries with even the official military and police logos being cute cartoons. Stickers, letters, computer fonts, and more all include cute-looking things or are outright cartoons. It’s like a country that is afraid of the appearance of anything being serious… except when it comes to education (a more passionately hostile topic that will be entirely omitted from this narrative) where students are in class up to 14 hours a day with minor tests written to look and feel like a college entrance exam, in the very place that children’s songs should instead be used   .
9. Everything in Korea is tiny! Heck, Korea is tiny. Drinks are pint-sized but very expensive, just as they tend to be in Japan as well. In all fairness, Koreans regularly complain about this same point, especially those who have seen typical American sizes and USD $1 gas station drinks that are so large you can barely hold them. Variety is extremely lacking (in all aspects of society, including the stores). While the local Wal-Mart back home has over 200 different types of cereal – I counted them – you’re lucky to find 10 or 15 in most Korean stores and all very expensive, usually from $4-8. Garbage trucks are like Micro Machine versions of those back home, fire trucks are a little cute, and ambulances are often merely mini vans with the back seats missing that blare sirens but drive slower than the average traffic. Many tow trucks can be seen with race car numbers or logos on them, have their own police-like sirens (police lights and sirens can be found on multiple personally-owned vehicles on the roadways and are not illegal) and are quite tiny compared to the monsters on the roadway elsewhere. They tend to be typical pickup-sized trucks with some extra weight on the back and quite powerful engines. But they’re small. When you have 50 million people packed into a tiny peninsula with nowhere to go, things are cramped and you don’t have space to park and navigate large vehicles. As for juice, which is greatly expensive no matter the size, a little extra size would be appreciated for the money spent, and most larger drink sizes top out at 1.5 liters instead of the typical 2 liters overseas.
10. Koreans put corn in everything. On pizza, in pasta, in bread, places where most Westerners would firmly believe it just does not belong… if you can eat it, you’re likely to find corn in it. Corn on pizza (see photo) is very common and is one of those things many foreigners often attempt to avoid (pizza in Korea is also quite Koreanized and personally tends to be far too rich for me to attempt). Sweet potatoes are everywhere (especially on pizza), Mandarin oranges are provided obsessively during their harvest season, but not as if that’s always a bad thing as they are very tasty. The situation is much the same with apples, which typically go for about $1 per apple on average at the store despite being locally-grown. Fruit is extremely expensive  due to a lack of the free trade agreements that North American countries have, and Korea often exports much of its crop while forcing citizens to pay high prices for the little that remains domestically. Pickles are ridiculously common and are said to be used to neutralize foreign foods that some Korean stomachs are not used to, though have perhaps long outgrown that purpose and become a standard in itself. Cakes in Korea, which can be obtained from any chain bakery, are almost all identical (due to being from the same sources). They very often have fruit on top and most often have the exact same tall candles, though the quality of the cakes are good and the sugar content is, like most things outside the U.S., quite tame, which is no doubt beneficial to the health.
11. Korean medical and health culture is a weird one. While government insurance is good and costs are extremely cheap – dirt cheap even – it’s not a perfect system. Have a cold? Better go to the hospital for antibiotics or get a shot! (An old English textbook I was teaching from actually had the answer for “What do you do when you get a cold?” as “Get a shot!” causing me great confusion). Of course, antibiotics don’t help viruses, but it is a common Korean belief that they do, leading to doctors handing out pills like candy to please nagging patients and an eventual side effect of resistant bacteria, though the “hospital” is far more likely to be the common local clinic, which can be found nearly anywhere.
A side note on commonly held beliefs: many Koreans still firmly believe in “fan death,”  the idea that leaving a fan on in a closed room with the doors and windows shut will result in the fan sucking the oxygen out of the room, thus leading to death. It is a myth believed to be purposely spread by the then-dictatorship Park Chung-hee government during the 1970s energy crisis, which is a reason all fans have timers on them and are insanely expensive nowadays. He was assassinated in 1979, thus leaving the mystery of the origins of “fan death” unknown. His daughter would later become president, eventually impeached in 2016.
As cheap as they are, pills prescribed in Korea are often organized into plastic pouches including all the pills you should take for that specific meal. However, they are not labelled, include no warnings or side-effects, and most doctors do not take medical history at all for new or existing patients. Medical history is not protected, so employers can request your information in many circumstances to uncover any conditions you may have. Along with that, mental disorders, whether it be depression or bipolar, are looked down upon with shame, so many do not medicate as employers can choose to not hire a person found to have used medicine for such purposes, though in fact, it’s more likely that they’ll refuse to hire you because you’re too chubby or not beautiful enough, both legitimate reasons in the Korean workplace. Korea has among the very highest suicide rates in the world and such shaming of mental issues is one main reason, along with school stress for teens  .
An oddity to any foreigner: because Koreans go to the hospital for the tiniest hiccup, they are also given an IV for the tiniest reasons. It’s not uncommon to see people hooked up to IV drips walking down the sidewalk, through the park, or even at the supermarket in their hospital gowns (see photo above). There are at least a handful of fantastic things about the medical system, which are discussed in the good points of Korea, but as efficiently as things are run as compared to the United States, my experiences among multiple doctors and hospitals and a potentially-fatal medicine reaction that caused years of problems, indicate there are some aspects to be leery of.
12. The cosmetics market, though having a vibrant presence, is a little different. Nail polish colors may be unappealing from a Western perspective, ranging from shades of pumpkin and puke to pine tree and gourd. It’s not to say there aren’t the typical more American colors available almost anywhere, and brighter colors that were nearly entirely non-existent when I first arrived in Korea have started to catch on as the market has opened up, but there are always those distinct Korean colors that make me vomit a bit in my mouth. Hey, we all have our preferences, right? “BB Cream,” typically applied to the face to make the skin look sometimes abnormally white or pale, is also a very popular product. However, it’s not usually applied to other visible body parts, thus causing a rather unbalanced appearance. Beauty is seen differently everywhere, but… these are shades of color I have seen nowhere else in my journeys.
13. English hasn’t always been great in Korea, especially when I first arrived . Just in a matter of five years, things progressed from people selling and wearing the most abysmally counterfeit English shirts (see photo below) to laughing merely at misspelled menu items, which says a lot about how far Korea has come. But there are still those words that Koreans borrow from English and use strangely, not to mention the ones that they grossly overuse. English education is a huge business in the country and most people have at least a working knowledge of English with some teens nearly fluent in it by high school, so English is widespread nowadays.
The word “story,” seemingly originating from the direct Korean translation (which makes it overused in the Korean language as well as English), is used everywhere, all the time, constantly. The story of this or that, or even StoryWay, a commuter rail and subway-based convenience store, and the list truly goes on and on, whether it is being used in a meaningful fashion or just completely random so as to have a name in English.
“Premium” and “grand” are two more words that are very much overused in the country for their own reasons. Koreans as a whole are a very superficial population – society is based largely on the outward appearance of things, whether you’re beautiful or not. Getting plastic surgery to some people is like getting a burger, I swear, and many Korean teen girls get eyelid surgery for their birthday gifts or during school vacation periods in middle or high school. But it’s also about how much money you possess, or your social status as well. The reality of your situation matters far less than how you are perceived by others, so advertising “premium” products is a way of promoting this idea that you are buying the very best, though it may only be baby food or nicely-packaged fruit. Speaking of nice packages and social status, greatly overpriced Chuseok and Lunar New Year’s gift sets really are closely related to “premium” products. Because of this, you really do see this word everywhere you look.
Lastly is the word “grand“. This can go hand in hand with premium, but is often used to show that something is wonderful, but more often used as an indirect translation to the Korean word (or perhaps prefix) “dae,” whether it be “daegyo” (large or major bridge, as opposed to a smaller crossing), “daegongwon,” (large park, as opposed to a smaller one in comparison), or “daero” (large or major road, such as the common 10-14 lane thoroughfares in most cities, which differ from the smaller “ro,” a word of Chinese origin meaning “street” or “road”). This results in translations that sound rather exaggeratory to a non-Korean speaker, such as “Children’s Grand Park,” or “Incheon Grand Bridge,” among dozens of others, when in fact they are indirect translations. So, while I say these words are very much overused, there are underlying reasons for all of them.
Two exceptions to this rule are the suffix “-pia” and “-holic,” which Koreans have used with increasing frequency plainly out of popularity though have somewhat changed the meaning. The former originates from “utopia” while the latter is from words like “alcoholic” but ignores the fact that the majority of its English uses are for conditions provoking very negative connotations, whereas the Korean version is used more as a general addiction term, usually positively while adding almost any word before it. I want to scream every time I see these, but it’s really no different from other common “Konglish” words and abbreviations such as netizen and UCC that Koreans have borrowed from English, mostly via the Japanese, just as Americans have borrowed from French and German, although as native speakers of the language, we are often unaware of the origins, which isn’t the same case when learning another language.
14. There is a large amount of waste in Korea. I mean, every country has its own wasteful practices. Many Americans still don’t recycle and they waste a lot of water and drive large gas-guzzling trucks simply because they can. While pickup trucks don’t even exist in Korea (though the typically blue Kia Bongo and Hyundai Porter are like an ever-multiplying plague on the roadways and come somewhat close to the American-style pickup truck), Koreans have other ways of wasting resources, while at the same time, trying very hard to conserve other things. I won’t even wander into the territory that is the life-consuming parasite that is the Korean workplace environment .
First, the recycling program in Korea is obsessive. They do a good job with it. However, the trash issue is a little lacking after the government began selling small color-coded bags specific to each city district for food waste and general trash, among other purposes, in an effort to create a garbage and food waste tax several years ago . In the process of creating these bags and making it a [rarely but increasingly enforced] crime of disposing of trash without them, the government also removed just about every public trash bin in sight, meaning nobody has a place to throw away trash on the street. Though this was to prevent people from using them as personal trash dumps, it instead has led to everyone throwing their trash on the street, thus worsening the already dire situation of trash in public places, an issue many Koreans who have travelled abroad are ashamed to see in comparison when they return home. The older population often individually picks up these pieces of trash for rather low pay, further increasing the thoughts among younger people that it’s alright to throw their trash out their window or leave it on the sidewalk because “there are people to pick it up.” With the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea, one would hope it’s a habit people are hopefully anxious to change, though likely with mixed consequences. It wastes local resources and because the laws aren’t widely enforced and many end up throwing their trash away in their own bags, the government doesn’t reap the benefits of the tax that was supposed to solve their problems.
While the trash situation is possibly Korea’s worst, there are other things that can be noticed quite easily while walking around. Koreans waste a disturbing amount of gasoline and worsen the already poor air quality by leaving their cars running when either unoccupied or while waiting for long periods of time. This, despite gas prices exceeding $6 a gallon at times, is very common behavior. With the Western-style drive-thru arriving at suburban McDonald’s locations in Korea where they otherwise didn’t exist a few years ago, the problem of idling cars is even more encouraged.
Because of a lack of insulation, in many buildings that were built cheaply, which consists of most of them, Korea already wastes a great deal of energy on heat, perhaps worst seen in the aforementioned school issues. Despite the Sampoong Department Store disaster that killed 502 and injured 937 in 1995 due to structural failure from cutting corners and in addition to bridge collapses during the same time period, the government only strengthened building requirements on large public buildings, but not the smaller apartment buildings that still go up and open in a matter of months. As part of a cost-saving measure, Korean construction companies often construct these buildings quickly and cheaply and insulation is rarely included in the deal (though no reasoning or excuse can be found for schools).
The government has complained many times about electricity overuse from heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, but fails to create or enforce adequate laws that get to the root of the problem. Making matters worse is the fact that Korea is a very moist place year-round. It’s a very common practice to leave windows open in the dead of winter while the heat is on inside, though very few Koreans can or will give you the actual reason behind doing so when questioned aside from often stating that it’s what other people are doing or oftentimes saying that it promotes air movement to bring in clean air (“clean air” is a relative term in Korea) and push the viruses out of the building, contradictory to the fact that the majority of Koreans also very firmly believe and also teach in school that being physically cold has a direct relation to getting a cold. More likely explanations involve the moist air causing moisture to build up on the inside of the window that leads to mold. The lack of insulation promotes moisture on the wallpaper and the inside of concrete walls behind the wallpaper in the winter; cooking and taking showers in the common one-room apartment where the large majority of vent fans lack any actual ventilation doesn’t help matters. I experienced this in one apartment where moisture would soak the wallpaper on the outer walls in winter leading to terrible mold within a day or two (see photo above). Opening windows relieves this problem and is necessary on a near-daily basis, resulting in sub-freezing temperatures in the apartment or office and wasting an immense amount of heat, which is thankfully very cheap in Korea, to offset this. Another explanation comes from space heaters used in the 1970s that were known to give off fumes. The windows were opened to prevent those fumes from building up inside the room. Whatever the true reason, and Koreans couldn’t even tell you, the amount of wasted energy is absolutely massive and can create rather harsh and uncomfortable living and working conditions, especially in winter.
There are naturally other little snippets of waste-related thoughts. In my old neighborhood in Seoul, a street cleaning truck would pass by at 11 o’clock at night and spray water on the road. The roads in the area are four to ten lanes wide and this one truck often sprayed enough water to merely annoy the cars with wetting the road on an otherwise dry day (thus wetting their windshields as well) but the water never made it to the edge of the road, therefore never actually cleaning or washing anything off the road. But every night, that truck full of water would pass by to wet the roads. Of course, best of all in regards to waste: individually-wrapped cookies and snacks and the resulting foot-high piles of 30 plastic wrappers from late night snacking binges.
15. Lastly, Korean weather, especially winter, is a bitch. Coming from an area known for being walloped with large volumes of snow and having just 3% possible sunshine in the winter months, I’m no stranger when it comes to winter. However, the moisture in the air during the winter months in Korea is a whole other beast, meaning that 35°F (2°C) can feel like 0°F (-18°C), hands uncovered for just a few minutes can go red and become numb, and that wind is always there, just enough to not be visually noticed or felt, but enough that it hits the skin and really burns with that extra moisture. Comparatively, winter is often still rather mild in recent years, but regardless of the temperature, it doesn’t feel like it.
Koreans are perhaps best known to visiting foreigners for stating in an excited tone that they have “four distinct seasons,” something that has been passed on in government-promoted education for many years and simply regurgitated by many who haven’t quite yet realized that many places all around the world experience the same four seasons, and naturally grows incredibly old to non-Koreans who have heard it so many times over the years . This same belief and excited proclamation tends to be found in Japan as well and may originate from a few different sources, namely that of historical Chinese poetry. Both Korea and Japan share cultural heritage from China and a main theme in this poetry tends to be nature and the specific feelings the four seasons evoke. Another reason is simply nationalism, the feeling that your people and country are exceptionally better than others, a thought that is both extremely common and very mainstream in Korea, Japan, and China as well.
This does, however, leave out the fact that with recent changes of weather, Korea hasn’t been experiencing four distinct seasons quite as often and who’s to say that monsoon season (see photo above) isn’t a fifth season in itself? With that said though, there is monsoon season that tends to really wipe out the most enjoyable part of what many foreigners believe summer should be, followed by a head-in-the-oven experience otherwise known as August. While the spring and fall seasons tend to be ideal, March, April, and November can be extremely plagued by dense smog, cutting down the “enjoyable” factor of those seasons. But there is plenty more to say about the great points of Korean weather as well.
… stay tuned for 10 wonderful things about Korea!
10 reasons Korea is among the world’s leading countries in which to live, from a foreigner’s perspective:
While it would be seemingly simple to list all the great things about living in Korea, it can be quite difficult after so many years of living in the country to separate emotion, friends, and years of experiences from the basic facts needed to accurately depict Korea as a wonderful place to live. Simply put, the facts alone don’t always give Korea the benefit of the doubt over other better-known countries in the world and contrary to popular belief, its popular television dramas very rarely portray Korea as the place it sincerely is. Instead, here’s a look into the reality of Korea and why it’s not the place you always thought it was, but is actually exceptionally better.
1. Public transit is omnipresent. Unless you grew up in a large modern city like Hong Kong, Tokyo, or well… the list tends to be very small and very Asian these days, the first thing most foreigners genuinely love about Korea is its superior public transportation system. When it comes to transit, Korea – even the most rural of areas – truly puts all others to shame, and that starts with the Seoul subway system (see map above).
Even the smaller metro areas in Korea, including Busan, Daegu, and Daejeon, have a minimal subway system at the very least, but Seoul’s system really shines brightly. Consisting of 21 lines and nearly 600 stations, with more and more every year, the system and everything connected to it will get you nearly anywhere you want to go comfortably, fast, and cheap. How cheap? Travel the entire length of Line 1 aside from the Incheon spur, a distance of 104 miles (167 km.) spanning 75 stations over the course of four hours of travel and you’re still paying a mere $3.50. A single ride costs about a dollar and includes free transfers to buses and more perks than the average rider truly realizes on a daily basis.
So what kind of perks does this system actually offer? If you’re lucky enough to get a seat, many of them are actually heated. Those wonderful heaters under your seat that often make your feet sweat in winter are also heating your behind, and most of those seats tend to be very comfortable to say the least, depending on the subway line you happen to frequent. If you’re the type who enjoys musically tuning out the world with your headphones, you’re almost always within sight of a digital board or computer screen announcing the next station, upcoming stations, and which side of the train to exit on, not to mention the news and weather. Even if you can’t see the boards well, announcements come in at least two languages – Korean and English – and include Chinese and/or Japanese for the major transfer stations and tourist areas such as Gangnam, Seoul Station, Gwanghwamun, and Myeongdong, among others.
Trains are almost always on time exactly as scheduled and schedules are quite often posted in many stations, and even more accessible by phone apps, including the first and last trains of the day, which on the main urban lines is typically around 5 a.m. and midnight respectively. Whether you’re on the SMRT lines, KORAIL commuter rail lines, or the privately-run lines, you’re more likely to fall victim to a landslide, lightning strike, or rabid raccoon attack than you are to find your train running more than five or ten minutes late. While KORAIL is most prone to run a few minutes late due to its above-ground tracks susceptible to weather, freight trains and KTX express trains running on parallel tracks, along with longer overall rail lengths, underground line delays are incredibly rare; even the shorter Sinbundang Line, recently extended southward into Suwon and eventually west to Hwaseong and north to Yongsan, is entirely driverless and automated by computer, only the fifth such subway in the world to do so. If you ever find yourself late and you’re in the right place at the right time, a handful of lines have express train service, including Line 1, Line 4, Line 9, the Bundang Line, Jungang Line, Gyeongui Line, and of course, the Airport Railroad and Sinbundang Line are express lines in themselves. And speaking of express, Korea is home to the KTX, the ever-expanding and affordable service of express trains with infrastructure designed for speeds of over 200 mph, making Korea one of only a few countries worldwide capable of such high-speed rail transit.
The subway system is always connected to something. If you have the right service provider, you have free WiFi access in just about any subway train. Even if you don’t, you can always pay a fee to obtain it. You’re never without cellphone service even in the most underground of stations and tracks (or even atop the highest mountains and in the deepest of tunnels in Korea for that matter). Listening to over-the-air radio is rarely an issue, and DMB, over-the-air TV channels broadcasted specifically to cellphones in Korea, virtually never has a break in reception. And with the subway trains being as quiet and calm as they almost always are, hearing your program or conversation partner is rarely a concern. They’re not only connected electronically though; they’re also connected physically. Many subway stations double as underground shopping malls full of restaurants, cafés, and clothing stores, or at the very least, are directly connected to them. It’s even possible to do virtual shopping by electronically ordering items by clicking on life-sized products right in front of you. On the most blustery of winter days, it’s entirely possible to have an entire day of shopping and almost never step foot outside.
Even if you don’t feel like dealing with the often-crowded subway trains at rush hour, just hanging out in the stations can be an enjoyable experience. Because so much of Seoul’s expanded system is new, many stations are beautifully clean and modern. It’s not uncommon to come across stations that have been operating for only a matter of months and some of the newest can be an incredibly impressive sight to behold. The stations, both new and old, often have greatly detailed subway line maps full of information such as how many minutes it is to different stations, plus schedules, transfer information, and much more. If digital and interactive is your thing, many stations also have large digital touch screens with street and aerial maps, tourist and dining information, and even the ability to make phone calls. For safety, the majority of stations now have screen doors that open only when a train has entered the station and come to a complete stop. The addition of these doors began in 2009 and has quickly spread since and become the standard, though they were in fact added to prevent suicide, an epidemic issue in Korea. Additionally, in the most unlikely place to shine, the bathrooms in the subway stations are typically some of the more impressive in the city. While bathrooms are still bathrooms – not all are entirely well-polished – many have beautiful paintings depicting flowers and nature on the wall and are kept incredibly tidy and clean, not to mention their often-pleasant odor. Best of all, if you’re taking a walk outside, a subway station is almost always nearby and many of the bathrooms are on the outside of turnstiles, meaning they can be accessed free of charge. And for a little extra technology in the bathroom, some highway service areas are equipped with TV screens showing which bathroom stalls are occupied and unoccupied.
But speaking of turnstiles, the subway system makes good use of transit cards, most commonly the T-Money card. Not only are these cards useful for transit – including trains, buses, and taxis – but they can also be used to pay for many other things like purchases at convenience stores, admission to some tourist attractions and amusement parks, and discounts on items including bus fares. Phones with a T-Money chip can also be swiped to pay for all the same things as opposed to handling a physical card.
Because some areas are still outside the reach of subway service, though fewer and fewer these days, there are still amazing benefits to the remaining transit options, such as taxis and buses. Buses are color-coded, often including yellow, green, blue, and red, the latter of which can be very spacious and often includes high-speed WiFi access with still dirt cheap rates. Similar to red buses, metropolitan buses (M-Bus) also connect outer suburbs to the city with comparable amenities. These buses, no matter the color, can connect you to almost anywhere you need to go for about the same price as using the subway, if not cheaper and more direct. When the city’s subway system stops running after midnight, night buses, marked with an owl symbol, are available with multiple routes across the city. When it comes to longer-distance travels, express buses, which are separate from city buses, provide service from one city to the next for what is still a very cheap and affordable service. Buses are comfortable, run very often, and are very easy to reserve. Most neighborhoods, even in rather suburban or rural areas, have easy access to airport buses as well with frequent service to and from Gimpo and Incheon. Taxis are nearly everywhere and will fill in the gaps of service where no buses or subway lines exist. Best of all, compared to other countries, taxis are still very cheap in Korea. Most drivers are very kind and there are always free services available to help translate when you truly need it.
When it comes to transportation in Korea, there are numerous websites and apps to help navigate these systems, especially if you don’t speak Korean. Bus route, subway line, or taxi, you can always find a resource to tell you how much, where, or when, making Korea one of the best places to live when it comes to public transit.
2. Convenience stores are everywhere and sell almost everything. Most convenience stores are open 24 hours and sell a smattering of just about everything under the sun (see photo), be it single rolls of toilet paper, ice cream, pre-made sandwiches and meals, hot dogs, fruit, alcohol, or cigarettes. Such stores are most valuable after the larger grocery stores have closed for the night or are forced to close by government policy twice a month on Sunday as part of the Distribution Industry Development Act passed in 2012 to benefit family-owned shops. What’s the best thing about these stores? They all have at least one microwave, some with even more, and an ATM. Don’t have a microwave at home? Borrow one at the convenience store! These stores, both big and small, can often be found on just about every city block. And let’s not forget frozen dinners, which can also be found at any major store. While they have a very poor reputation in many other countries, frozen meals in Korea can be absolutely affordable, high-quality, and delicious, therefore rarely disappointing.
3. Korean floors tend to be a lot cleaner. Why? Shoes are forbidden in homes and Korean-style restaurants and carpets are extremely rare as most homes and apartments still use a variety of the traditional “ondol” floor heating, albeit electric these days. While this rule can easily be considered a bit of a burden for those of us with lace-up shoes, and I’m certainly no exception to that, there are some great benefits to it. While times are quickly changing in Korea, Koreans still do many things on the floor, including eating during large gatherings. While the influx of Western-style restaurants has been changing this habit out in public to some degree, traditional Korean restaurants where sitting on the floor while eating at a rather low table are still very much alive and still require you to remove your shoes. It’s also a cultural faux pas to wear your shoes around the home. So, if this is such a burden to so many (especially those moments where you’ve forgotten your keys and have to once again remove your shoes and put them back on again), why would it be such a positive trait? Many Western countries firmly believe that not wearing footwear inside a restaurant or store is highly unsanitary, hence the idea of “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” However, a look at what is typically a rather disturbing statistical analysis of what actually lies on the bottom of one’s shoe might make a person think twice. In this regard, this is one thing that Korea certainly has gotten right.
4. There is always someplace and something to eat. Restaurants and cafés in Korea can be found pretty much anywhere you look (see photo below), even in the smallest of towns. While it may look like all Koreans really ever do in their free time is go out to eat at restaurants and take photos of their food… uh, well, no, that’s actually pretty accurate. It’s not much of an exaggeration at all. Why? It’s because there are so many options everywhere you look and often at very affordable prices. Those who enjoy Korean food can eat an entire meal for next to nothing and if you go to the right place, you may very well find yourself swimming in a dozen side dishes, some of which you can’t even identify. They’ll likely cut the noodles or meat with a large pair of scissors too. Cafés tend to be rather pricey, but it never stops anyone from ending up there. You’ve got your dog and cat cafés as well, specialized cafés where you can let your pets socialize as you drink a cappuccino or just enjoy the company of others’ pets or resident pets. If you find yourself in Hongdae, you can even sip a drink inside a café with grazing sheep, though unlike the cats and dogs, they don’t roam so freely.
In the past decade, previously seedy areas such as Itaewon along with other previously less-popular Seoul neighborhoods have transformed into popular restaurant districts offering a large variety of foreign options and specialty foods from Turkish to Egyptian, Australian to Nepalese, and Mexican to French Canadian. Formerly small local chains such as Tomatillo, popular for Mexican and southwestern American food, have recently spread across the city. Foreign fast food chains such as Taco Bell, which first arrived in 2009, have continued to expand and gain traction in the market, while other already-existing chains like KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Japanese-based Lotteria continue to have affordable menu items, though sometimes different from the items offered elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, Korea has more nearly 1,000 Dunkin’ Donuts locations, thus meaning it has more locations per square mile than Boston, its corporate home and brand stronghold. Co-owned Baskin-Robbins is seemingly present in every neighborhood in Korea as well, so even the brands that may require you to drive an hour to experience back home are always a short bus trip or walk from home in Korea.
In addition to restaurants and cafés, there are plenty of bars (a variety of which is commonly referred to as a “hof,” originating from an unrelated German word), anything from beer to soju – always the cheapest alcoholic option – to hookah bars, though the bars often result in the commonly-seen but not as commonly enjoyed sight of piles of vomit lining the streets, a side effect of Korea’s drinking culture. It is worth noting though that businesses tend to come and go rather quickly in Korea if not especially established. The restaurant you love today may be gone tomorrow. Likewise, the quiet peaceful café you enjoy today may be absolutely mobbed next week and forevermore if word gets out that it’s the place to be.
5. The crime rate in Korea is ridiculously low. When it comes to Korea, many around the world assume that trenches, bunkers, and military observation towers are a way of life and that fears of Kim Jong-un riding into Seoul in a tank dominate the minds of all South Koreans, who are actually… with their friends at a coffeehouse in Sinsa-dong, singing in the noraebang in Gwangmyeong, dancing in the clubs in Hongdae, or studying for tomorrow’s test without caring a bit or losing a wink of sleep over any such thoughts. Simply stated, crime in Korea is very, very low. Fear of war with North Korea is extraordinarily lower (see photo below). Sure, crime exists, but in a very different fashion when compared to other countries.
Going to a concert and thinking of your bag being checked? It rarely ever is. Concerned that your metal belt might set off the metal detector when visiting a government office? Why, I’m not even sure I’ve come across such a device outside the airport! Worried that the person who bumped into you on the subway has lifted your sunglasses from your purse or backpack? Doubtful, though they may be thinking that of you, the foreigner, instead. Though often crowded, the public transit system is actually extremely safe. Scared that the police, which can be quite militarized in many countries, will beat you down and pull a gun on you? Well, in fact, guns are outlawed in Korea and only the military is allowed to carry them.
While guns are legal for hunting, hunters must register their firearms and keep them locked up at the local police station at all other times. Not even police carry guns. Many foreigners compare Korean police officers to Boy Scouts, and while that may sound like a rather demeaning observation to make, it is actually one of the utmost appreciation with many expats who arrive in Korea being genuinely frightened of encountering the police in their home countries. Knowing that your local police officers are more often than not simply friendly, unarmed, and not looking to write you a ticket for an unthinkably minor offense creates a very happy and trusting population. And what about those large masses of hundreds of police officers who arrive to Gwanghwamun in police buses, often found menacingly lined up complete with riot gear? While the area is very popular for anti-government protests, the majority of the police involved are college-aged men enrolled in police service to fulfill mandatory military service and are merely training in a public environment. In addition, police are rarely seen pulling over cars on the roadways. Much like neighboring China, Korea prefers the CCTV approach to issuing traffic tickets, though those with GPS systems get advanced warning of upcoming cameras if their speed exceeds that allowed for the roadway, avoiding the police altogether.
In short, the most crime the average person comes across on a daily basis is a pair of old men wrestling in the subway car; as police get involved only when a punch has been thrown, it often becomes a highly entertaining yet rarely violent public wrestling match. Furthermore, those who lose their wallet in a public place often quite remarkably see it returned to them in a matter of days with all cards and money intact. There is crime everywhere in the world, but when it comes to Korea, by taking the normal precautions you would at home, you can feel more than just safe, but very comfortable indeed.
6. The literacy rate in Korea is very high, though it presents itself as a very sharp double-edged sword. Putting aside the amazingly atrocious state of the Korean education system  , the overall lack of creativity it promotes, and the country consistently bottoming out in the worldwide rankings for teenage happiness , none of which can be easily denied and none of which Koreans should be proud of in the least, there has been at the very minimum one considerable by-product of this: Koreans are smart as heck, though in a very Jeopardy contestant sort of way.
As an American, it can be very hard returning home to my country after so many years in Korea as such a large number of people appear very under-educated, unaware of the world around them, and statistically speaking, in many parts of the country, dropout rates are amazingly high and the percentage of those with a college degree tend to be strikingly low, even more so when compared with Korea. Koreans regularly study at a level an average of three years above their actual age and grade level, meaning that high schoolers are studying college-level math (see photo) and elementary school students would no doubt crush non-Korean students in nearly any subject if placed head to head. On the other hand, while not as book smart and spending only a fraction of hours per week in school as compared with their Korean counterparts, American and European teenagers are far more versed in everyday life situations, whether it be holding jobs, conflict management, handling finances, doing the laundry, or actively thinking for themselves, all things many Korean students struggle with due to what can be 12 hours of classes a day, up to seven days a week with no true vacation periods throughout the school year, allowing for little to no practice with such life situations, no matter how much they may know about the situation from their studies.
While not all statistics will show it, Korea’s literacy rate is near 100% overall, and the younger generation no doubt nearly tops it out to the max. While the same generation pays a very steep price for this statistic, both their brilliance earned from this system and their disdain for the situation their society’s competitive education has placed them in will no doubt lead to a generation of extremely competent and bright future leaders with the ability to help not only change this system for the better, but keep Korea near the top of the pack internationally.
7. Korea is becoming an increasingly desirable place for foreigners to reside  . While the statement in itself may not be a surprise to those who have more recently lived in Korea, Korea wasn’t always as friendly to those of the foreign persuasion. In fact, it was still quite recently that Korea wasn’t the best of places to be a foreigner. There are still terribly unfair injustices in that regard. For instance, it’s still hard to walk the streets with a Korean girlfriend without experiencing the disapproving glare or nasty comment from an older Korean man with the still-prevailing cultural tendency to control women and who they date and marry for the good of the nation and you’ll always be treated differently from a Korean no matter how much Korean you speak or how long you’ve lived in the country. Despite this, Korea has come a very long way in a very short period in reversing these negative trends and becoming a more multicultural society that at the very least tries to be accepting and helpful to those it plays host to, even when not fully understanding the cultures of those groups.
For one thing, Hangul is a rather easy script to learn. The writing script is rather straightforward and can be picked up in a matter of a few weeks. Many Korean words these days are direct transliterations of pre-existing English words, meaning those with the ability to pronounce Hangul words will understand the meaning to be a word from their own language. Speaking and understanding the language itself, however, is a bit of another challenging matter. But with this said, it could be worse: imagine learning Chinese as a foreigner.
Despite the fact that the Korean alphabet is a piece of cake, Korea has still bent over backwards to translate nearly its entire country – albeit it somewhat small – into English for the sake of tourism and a more favorable view on the international stage. Don’t forget those single-adjective English tourism slogans   that make you giggle inanely; they really are that funny to consider, though solely for their misguided approach. With all giggles aside though, the Seoul city government and Korean national government has gone to great lengths to improve English throughout the country, be it on restaurant menus, at tourist sites, or highway signs, encouraging and even paying foreign tourists and residents to report these errors for correction, and that in itself is truly commendable. Apart from the government, the private sector has embraced English as well. Popular English-language magazines and newspapers have sprung up or become more popular, meaning businesses that cater to foreign and Korean interests alike can advertise and have a wider base of foreign customers they otherwise would have had to rely on word of mouth to obtain. Such publications also allow the foreign population to more actively participate in Korean society as the day’s news and happenings are published in the English language, the new international lingua franca, making it more widely accessible to foreigners from many cultures and countries who reside in Korea.
In addition to the spread of English in Korea, the past few years have given the foreign community a great deal more access to products from home. Numerous foreign establishments – and foreign-owned at that – have sprung up throughout Korea, especially in the foreigner enclaves of Hannam and Itaewon in Seoul as well as Ansan and military-heavy Pyeongtaek. Those markets that have previously existed have been successful enough to even expand and gather support from local Koreans who have also learned to appreciate the foreign palate and access to what had previously not been available in their cities. Foreign restaurants (see photo) have popped up consistently and foreign chains, such as COSTCO, have become even more popular and opened new locations. TESCO-owned Homeplus, though recently struggling, routinely offers foreign products at its stores at affordable prices, and with the expansion of the subway system, many who had limited access to such perks can now more easily purchase them. Lastly, numerous Internet sites have made the purchase of such items quite effortless, meaning those who have come to live in Korea are more connected with the things they love from their home country, while living within and contributing to Korea’s society in a positive manner.
8. Standardized and homogeneous isn’t always a bad thing. While the two, along with Korea’s often-criticized Confucian-based culture, promote nearly everything that can actually make Korea an incredibly boring place, they are in some cases the glue that holds Korean society together.
Take the public transportation system for instance. A passenger on an American subway train often notices that fellow passengers tend to be incredibly loud and sometimes rather disrespectful of others. In the same situation, the unspoken rules of Korean society – basically the cultural “standard” – dictate that you talk quietly on your phone or cover your mouth while doing so, give up your seat for your elders who truly need it more than you, and not sit in the seats reserved for the elderly, handicapped, or pregnant women, even if they’re empty. Foreigners, more often those locally stationed at American military bases, meet the scornful eyes of Koreans when these rules are violated by playing music, speaking very loudly, or being rambunctious on the subway trains. Whereas multicultural nations such as the United States and Canada, where individualism is valued over the group, don’t have sets of shared standards like Korea’s largely homogeneous group culture does, the fact that all Koreans know what is expected of them in such a basic everyday situation keeps the peace for everyone.
In addition, because most, if not almost all, Koreans are raised with the same cultural norms, they can often generally understand each other with fewer actions or words than would be necessary in other multicultural nations. This “nunchi” as it’s called – literally meaning “sense” or “wit” – allows Koreans to gauge the emotions and moods of others through tone of voice, body language, social cues, or just a general sense without necessarily needing words and is perhaps the most important aspect to interpersonal relationships and saving face in Korean society. It’s one important way to avoid conflict, and maintain Korean society’s need for social harmony, which allows such a Confucian-based group culture society to function smoothly. Though many Koreans dislike this cultural requirement of sorts and would prefer to simply openly state their thoughts and emotions, it is nevertheless one impressive fashion in which being so homogeneous benefits society, though not particular the foreigner in this case. In comparison, countries without such homogeneity, especially those with many cultures and ethnicities living within a single set of borders, require verbalization or actions to properly convey emotion or thoughts for the fact each culture or subculture has their own distinct ways of communication, whereas this concern is rather easily avoidable in Korea and creates a sense of peace and harmony, even if it’s only on the surface.
In other such cases of everyday life in Korea, while almost every city and street corner looks the same in passing, the habit of using the same symbols for businesses can be extremely beneficial to foreigners. Spas generally use the same logo or symbol all across the nation, though many who are less familiar with them may view it as a steaming bowl of soup as opposed to resembling a spa. While you may indeed have the exact same washing machine, or even entire kitchen down to the exact details, as your friend, her friend, and her friend’s boyfriend… all of whom are wearing the same black and white striped shirt that has been popular this summer, as a foreigner who may not read Korean, you’ve probably already translated and become familiar with the knobs, buttons, and special functions of your washing machine and kitchen, thus encountering a carbon copy of them is nothing but helpful, albeit awkward in a very déjà vu-like way. And as for that shirt, at least you know you’ll be popular if you wear it, even if you feel like you’ve confronted a zeal of zebras (yes, a group of zebras are in fact called a zeal).
While it’s potentially easy to criticize Korea for its homogeneity, realizing the true size of Korea in comparison to other geographic areas effortlessly explains why so many things are the same nationwide. After all, superimposing the nation of Korea on places you are more familiar with may truly blow your mind: Korea fits inside Texas nearly seven times, is 40% the size of the United Kingdom (see image), and is comparable in size to the nations of Iceland, Portugal, and Guatemala. In any place so small, it’s quite hard to expect a great deal of variety, especially when trapped on such a small peninsula and one where only a handful of large corporations control a majority of the market for goods.
9. Korea can be very affordable, if you know how and where to shop. While it’s true that some things in Korea – fruit, housing, education, and more – can be extraordinarily pricey, like living anywhere in the world, that’s not particularly true of everything.
Not forgetting restaurants, convenience stores, and public transportation, as previously mentioned, the government can also be somewhat generous. In the workplace, income taxes average around 3% of your paycheck. Medical costs and government insurance, which most workplaces offer, can both be extremely affordable. While an average doctor’s visit in the United States may cost you $100 or more, you can sneak by on as little as $3 with insurance and only $15 or $20 without while living in Korea and medicine is just a mere fraction of the cost it might be elsewhere, meaning you could get sick every week and still pay less for a month of doctor’s visits and medicine than you might pay in a single week back home, assuming your health care isn’t already free at home. With a decent availability of English-speaking and even American-educated doctors in Korea, even with its disadvantages, rarely do you not financially come out on top.
If you’re a smoker, you’re in great luck. While nearly half of all Korean men smoke, Korea has come a great long way in discouraging this habit in the past few years, including making it illegal to smoke near bus stops and in many public areas, and in 2015, doubling cigarette prices from a very cheap $2 a pack to more than $4, comparatively still cheaper than the prices in most industrialized countries.
Accommodations aren’t always the cheapest in Korea, but when you know where to look, you can find fantastic bargains. Smaller motels, known as love motels as they are often used by couples, can be reserved for exceptionally decent rates for the whole night and oftentimes at a discounted rate for just a matter of a few hours. While the idea of such a motel may sound somewhat sleazy, these motels can have some extremely impressive and even romantic interior designs and will save you a good chunk of money in the process. In addition, when compared to other international cities of its size, Seoul is home to a large number of guesthouses and hostels, mostly clustered in the Hongdae neighborhood, and have very affordable rates and offer wonderful tourism advice. Not only can these be found in the large cities but also in many tourist areas outside the city.
10. Korea is an unbelievably modern nation. As broad as the term “modern” may be, Korea truly is a very modern place. Because the country was quite decimated by the Korean War in the 1950s, a building boom, especially in the 1980s, meant that the majority of what you see in Korea today is rather new by foreign standards. Though what was built in the 1980s actually appears to be 100 years old and soot-stained from smog nowadays in many respects, Korea continues to develop more and more at a very rapid pace, meaning that in addition to this older development, there is a great deal of very new and very modern construction that has ensued in recent years.
Like a lot of East Asia, China perhaps coming to mind for its similar massive construction projects, Korea has been in the business of building new cities from scratch. While unthinkable in other countries, the Korean government tends to be very efficient in pushing forward with these plans by uprooting decades-old family homes, annihilating everything in sight for the good of the country and its citizens, and building entirely new cities or districts in its place as was done in rather recent projects such as the Seoul suburban district of Bundang (early 1990s) and satellite districts of Dongtan and Songdo (late 2000s). Because of this, these cities are both beautiful and run in an efficient manner. For example, an entirely new city means that land is developed in an organized fashion, of which old Korean developments are unquestionably not. In Dongtan, major streets form massive semicircles, so impressive that they can be easily picked out on satellite imagery. Parks, sometimes with beautiful cherry blossoms and loudly humming with the sound of cicadas in the summer, are centrally developed from scratch, including artificial or pre-existing streams, skate parks, rock climbing, and additional facilities. A shopping mall is centrally located to be easily accessible to those living in the tall apartment complexes that surround it, including a series of four upscale residential skyscrapers that are among the tallest in the nation. Such a setup also allows for fantastically accessible public transportation and traffic that effortlessly flows on 10-lane thoroughfares with bus lanes and median bus stops. Even outside of these newer cities, existing cities are clearing land to replace the old with the new, resulting in modern and beautiful apartment complexes that are now hardly a few years old. With these aforementioned advantages, these areas have become both great and desirable places in which to reside, offering further opportunity to expand and modernize.
Korea’s transportation system is also very modern, as previously mentioned. The country has been expanding its expressway system, most of which is toll-based and operated by individual expressway corporations, the largest being Korea Expressway Corporation. Bus-only lanes are common in urban areas, toll gates are beautifully and aesthetically lit, and massive multi-colored digital highway signs as tall as 15 feet (4½ meters) in height are very common. Sidewalks and roads look new, almost all the cars on the road appear to be recently purchased, and even the trees are often newly-planted. Because infrastructure in other countries such as in North America was developed a half-century ago and is no longer being expanded, improved, or maintained, it often pales in comparison to that of Korea’s, where returning home often results in the feeling of a time warp or a trip to a developing country where the roads are crumbling, lights (which are often of a wide variety of brightly flashing colors in Korea) are merely a few dim shades of white and yellow, public transit is dirty, loud, unreliable, expensive, and outdated, and the bright two and three-story digital television screens that crowd Seoul’s skyline are completely absent. Likewise, returning to Korea feels like a time-travelling expedition into a futuristic era, making it increasingly difficult to take that trip back in time upon leaving again.
Those who have never stepped foot outside Korea take this modernity greatly for granted, but among all things positive about Korea, this is one that fuels a great deal of Korea’s success and everyday life. It’s what makes Korea great and fascinating in comparison to most other industrialized countries in the world.
About the Author: Chris Kadlec
Chris Kadlec resided in Korea from 2009 to 2016. As an amateur photographer and urban explorer traversing as many as 20+ miles (30+ kilometers) a day on foot, he set out to visit every museum, shopping mall, tourist trap, historical site, and park in the Seoul area, as well as walk the entire riverfront, cross every Han River bridge on foot, and explore and photograph 50 area universities, all while asking the questions few other foreigners or even Korean residents inquire about in order to gain a better understanding of how things are in Korean society and why. In 2017, Kadlec also published a three-hour audio documentary, the Seoul AM Radio Listening Guide, covering the state of radio and propaganda on the Korean peninsula. All photographs in this article were taken by the author.
- Korea Herald Staff. Average height of male Seoulites grew 10 cm. in half century. The Korea Herald. August 3, 2015.
- Hockmuth, Kevin. One Nation Divided Under the Chaebol. Korea Exposé. March 1, 2016.
- Mosher, Alexandra. Superfast internet? South Korea wins, U.S. lags far behind. USA Today. June 30, 2016.
- Choe, Sang-hun. Korea Policing the Net. Twist? It’s South Korea. The New York Times. August 12, 2012.
- Baer, Drake. Why Westerners and E. Asians have polar opposite understandings of truth. Business Insider. May 21, 2015.
- Noh, Jin-ho; Baek, Min-gyeong. Experts offer tips on navigating the ‘sex talk’. JoongAng Daily. July 18, 2015.
- The Korea Herald Staff. Editorial: Sex education in schools. The Korea Herald. August 27, 2015.
- Park, Gina. “Show Me Your ID,” Youth and Condoms. Huffington Post. December 16, 2014.
- Kerry, Paul. Korea scraps mandatory HIV tests for English teachers. The Korea Herald. July 7, 2017.
- Shin, Jin. Last place Seoul’s students want to go is to the toilet. JoongAng Daily. April 1, 2014.
- Ok, Hyeon-ju. South Korea 118th in gender equality ranking. The Korea Herald. November 2, 2017.
- Verville, Jacob. Korean Education Producing Good Numbers at a Great Cost. Korea Observer. May 18, 2015.
- Koo, Se-Woong. An Assault Upon Our Children. The New York Times. August 1, 2014.
- Park, Se-Hoon. Why the Korean School System Is Not Superior. New Politics. Winter 2012.
- Choi Sung-jin. Koreans pay sky-high prices for imported fruit, drinks. The Korea Times. January 21, 2016.
- Heaney, Katie. Is My Electric Fan Going to Kill Me in My Sleep? The Atlantic. May 26, 2017.
- Kuo, Lily. Suicide rates are falling almost everywhere in the developed world but S. Korea. Quartz. November 22, 2013.
- Kim, E.J. S. Korea’s suicide rate ranks first among OECD members. Yonhap News. August 30, 2015.
- Kang, Jin-kyu. Korea gets B- on English proficiency. JoongAng Daily. November 6, 2013.
- Kocken, Michael. Seven Reasons Why Korea Has the Worst Productivity in the OECD. Business Korea. March 17, 2014.
- Jones, Lauren. S. Korea Experiences Success with Pay-As-You Go Food Disposal. Red Duck Post. May 6, 2016.
- The Korean. Four Distinct Seasons. Only in Korea. Ask A Korean! October 6, 2011.
- Santandreu Calonge, David. S. Korean education ranks high, but it’s the kids who pay. The Conversation. Mar. 30, 2015.
- Yun Min-sik. A quarter of young people have suicidal thoughts: poll. The Korea Herald. August 23, 2013.
- Phillips, Matt. Korea is the world’s top producer of unhappy school children. Quartz. December 3, 2013.
- Hankyoreh Staff. Seoul’s foreign neighborhoods take root. Hankyoreh. January 17, 2007.
- Kim, Hee-jin. City adapts to constant rise in expat residents. JoongAng Daily. September 6, 2011.
- Lee, Tae-hoon. English logos popular, but often humorous. The Korea Times. July 2, 2010.
- Chun, Su-jin. Slogans aim to be catchy, but convey no meaning. JoongAng Daily. December 24, 2013.