We spent three weeks in South Korea and have tried our best to understand the culture. We’ve tried local foods, traveled on local buses, and stayed with people who are actually living in Korea. We tried to see as much as possible in this small country with the little time we allowed ourselves. In this blog, we thought we should just give you an insight to how we felt while there; whether you are considering a trip or even a move, or just want to know more about what we got out of South Korea. Here we broke it down into some of our favorite and not-so-favorite things, as well as some weird, but true things that we learned about Korea and its people.
• How small the country is. South Korea is a great destination for travelers because moving from city to city doesn’t take more than a few hours. The country is very small, roughly the size of ( STATE?) and domestic travel via buses is fairly cheap. We were able to see 6 cities on the mainland, and never traveled more than a few hours.
• Really nice buses. We only used two methods of transportation between cities, Buses and Ferries. And the buses are amazing. They have tons of legroom (which is totally unnecessary for the tiny Koreans) and have seats that work like lazy-boys, reclining way back and fold out for your legs. Kind of luxurious.
• The food and restaurant experience. Local Korean food is the way to go. Even for us vegetarians. It is always larger portions for better value (usually around $5 a meal) than any western food you can get your hands on. Plus it’s delicious. Our favorite/the easiest to order was bibimbap. It’s basically a huge bowl of rice with tons of veggies and a raw egg on top. You mix it all together and the egg cooks in the rice. Koreans also have their own version of sushi, called kimbap, and we often ordered that, even though sushi with cheese and tuna salad is a little strange. Koreans do any sort of hotpot meal brilliantly and often we’d have no idea what we were getting when we ordered but were pleasantly surprised with our individual steaming iron pots of spicy tofu and veggies. The best part about Korean food is that you get loads of kimchi and vegetable sides when you order and these are refillable. The whole restaurant experience in Korea is so simple. A menu is posted above the cash register (even though we can’t read it), there’s a water cooler for free water and you don’t have to tip. Plus, it’s fun to sit on the floor.
• Fashion. Coming from China, where the fashions are, erm, interesting to say the least, Korea was a blast of modernity and trends. I would bet some money that Seoul has got as much, if not more, fashion sense than London. Amazing boutiques are everywhere and are often super affordable. You can buy some of the cutest clothes I have ever seen in my entire life in the shops in the subway underpasses. Korean girls wear heels at all times, even when hiking mountains. They dress really feminine but still manage to look chic and streamlined. Also, even in the pouring rain, they never looked wet and their clothes never looked rumpled.
• National Parks and Nature reserves. For being such a small country, S. Korea is positively covered by National Parks. It boasts well over 15 and has some really amazing hikes for beginners, amateurs and hard-core hikers.
• Jjimjilbangs. Funny name for a public bath and spa. There are baths and saunas of varying temperatures. It’s separated into mens and womens sections because you are required to take off all your clothes. It’s really different at first, but also fun and relaxing.
• Noraebangs. Our first experience with private room karaoke and instantly, we were addicted. Sneaking some crap beer or soju in our purse and crooning to anything you desire is a fabulous way to bond with new people you’ve just met or proved to be a good way to pass an evening, just the two of us.
• Seoul– One hell of a fun city. A place that is both modern, but not overrun by tourists or tourist sites. We enjoyed our time, mingling with locals over Makelli in outdoor night markets and rubbing elbows with the Korean socialites at hipster bars.
• No Smoking indoors- A nice change from China!
• Safety. Ellie and I felt as though we could walk outside in the dark in small alleys and never fear our lives. I suppose, it’s pretty hard to fear a race of people that are so much smaller than you, but the men don’t seem to have an aggressive bone in their body.
• Lack of fear for North Korea– I appreciate how unfearful or worried South Koreans are about their crazy Northern neighbor is constantly threatening to nuke them or kidnap the entire Korean peninsula for their own. I guess because N. Korea makes so many empty threats, South Koreans have learned not to pay attention or care.
• Confucianism. Enough said.
• Xenophobia. Although not something we experienced first hand, many of our Western friends living in Korea conveyed that xenophobia was alive and kicking in S. Korea. Along with bad yellow journalism about the foreign impact on their society, many Koreans seemed to view those from the Western world who move to Korea as “running away from something.” We speak about this only from many second hand accounts, because we were treated lovely most of the time.
• Beer. The worst beer I have ever tasted in my life. It makes American domestics seem exotic.
• The lack of other travelers and tourist infrastructure. The entire time we were traveling, we met only one other group of people traveling around S. Korea for the sake of traveling. Everytime we met someone in our hotel, they asked us “What city do you teach in?” It’s lonely to not have other travelers around to share tips and frustrations with. Also, most Korean web pages don’t have an English page or clear cut information on how to get from point A to point B.
• Lack of addresses. When in a cab in Korea, especially Seoul, you need to know how to tell your cab driver to arrive at your final destination. Either give the driver a subway stop, you would like to be let off around or tell him/her to turn left, turn right. This is pretty annoying for a traveler who speaks little S. Korean.
• The sheltered nature of Korean youth. Our friend Bob who teaches English had an adult female student who said “Mudfest scared me because there were lots of big foreigners, drinking beer and being loud.” It just strikes me as odd that someone 20 years old could be scared of someone drinking beer and yelling. Apparently because schooling is so long everyday, often student studying for more than 10 hours a day, this really stunts social lives, making them more immature at older ages. For example, in Jeju, the teddy bear museum is one of the biggest attractions with newlyweds. After the age of 12, I don’t think I would have wanted to step foot inside of a museum devoted to teddy bears.
• Weird obedience rules. S. Koreans only cross the street when the light turns green and only swim between the buoys in the ocean. They follow the rules exactly and never question authority and this drives me insane.
• Lack of diversity. We saw only one black person the entire time we were in S. Korea. Also, S. Korea believes that gays don’t exist in their nation so therefore there is no “out gay population” because the backlash would be too intense.
• Wanting to keep it in the family. Many traditional Koreans believe that mixed race dating is incredibly wrong, forcing many “different” relationships to be kept secret or to be divulged, much to the parents horror and disgust.
Weird but Fun Facts:
• Koreans eat their pizzas with sweet pickles and sometimes, sweet potato in the crust which is actually less delicious than it sounds.
• They use scissors to cut their food, instead of knives.
• They use metal chopsticks instead of wood
• They sleep on the floor with a thick futon and the floor is normally heated.
• It is incredibly offensive to hand someone something with only one hand. You must use two hands or tuck your arm under your elbow to show your respect.
• Korean age is different than “Western age.” Basically, when you’re born, you’re one years old and on January 1st is when you turn another year older. Therefore if you were born on December 31st, then you are 2 years old even when you’re just 1 day old.
• Women wear high heels, even to go hiking up mountains.
• Women are not supposed to smoke on the street, so most smoke in bathrooms.
• Many of the Northern beaches contain barbed wire fences to keep North Koreans off their shores.
• Hardly any girls wear bathing suits, but rather choose to swim in their clothes or very modest one pieces.
• Bathtubs do not exist. Instead, there’s a drain on the bathroom floor and the shower is on a wall of the bathroom. Make sure to put the toilet paper somewhere dry!
• Number one rules: No shoes in the house EVER.
Overall: Korean culture can appear to be a little cold and shut off towards foreigners. However, once they realize you have only the best intentions, they can be incredibly welcoming and kind. Once they chat with you for a few minutes, they are normally incredibly helpful and lovely.