The Good

The greatest thing about Korea by far is the food. Undoubtedly so, I’d even go as far as to say it’s the best in the world. That may be over stretching as I haven’t really travelled to all that many countries but I just will not believe that food can be better than this. Growing up I was a picky eater and I’m sure anyone who knows me can confirm that. But as I delved into Korean life I was forced to cast aside all apprehension as the menu change so drastically that I went from deciding what I can eat to what I had to eat. Every Korean dish is so delicately prepared and contains such a range of ingredients that no common person could just easily whip-up one, a far cry from mashed spuds, boiled cabbage and a slice of bacon. The food is normally quite heavily flavoured (spicy, salty, onion, garlic) but the intricate methods of preparation don’t permit this to override the dishes.  Prospective travellers should be weary that if raw squid is dipped in soy sauce it will move and that most meals can be served and eaten quite hot, sometimes even boiling!

One thing that has really surprised me in the last six months is the weather differential. I arrived to well below freezing temperatures to depart to some of the hottest temperature I’ll ever experience and in the meantime witnessed some very violent rain and thunderstorms. The landscape is mountainous and the surrounding ocean is deep. Good thing? Well this variable climate and harsh environment gives rise to unimaginably beautiful scenery, I can’t put into words. This environment I think also is what historically made Korean people so endeavouring and strong, the qualities that allowed them to fend off invasion from heavyweights and still allows them to punch above their weight in many different fields (being Irish, I can relate.)

One aspect of Korean culture that is extremely hard to define is 정(jeong). It doesn’t really translate but the closest (and still way off) word would be affection. 정 is, I guess, like the bond between two friends, family members or co-workers. It exists in a positive relationship and is evident when people just do nice things for you for no apparent reason and you aren’t really obligated to do anything in return. And if there is a situation that you need help or a favour that person will just help out and won’t even ask a single question. I recognise it as a type of ‘pay if forward’ (like the movie.) I haven’t been here long enough to really experience this and I’m still not really sure if it’s something that is really common or uncommon, it’s just such a nice idea.

The Bad

While Korean culture can be fascinating and appealing I have some serious criticisms of it. The first bothersome complaint I have is people are actually really rude, you may have a sterotype of Japanese people carefully making their way through crowds and constantly apologizing at the slightest of occurrence. This might be true, unfortunately I don’t know for certain, but not for the Koreans. They’ll push and shove without as much as glancing at you, many Korean people have tried to justify this to me by arguing that if they said ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’ at every instance it became available they’d spend most their day apologizing. If you are courteous when moving through crowds, I can tell you that oddly enough they will think that you are the weird one!

Korean (and Japanese) people love sterotypes, it can make them seem a little racist but it develops from how it’s part of their language. For example, in English we use adjectives to describe a man however in Korean there is a whole separate word for a man in a certain age group that has a family and a job ie. Ajoshi. This has even developed further to Ajoshi’s been seen as drunks and abusive towards people especially young women in public places. Now, believe me when I say, work and life in Korean society can be taxing and most people here really do deserve to blow off a little steam and get a couple drinks after work. But the Ajoshi’s have taken this to a whole new level, they’ll openly cheat on their wives, frequently stay out all night and cause disturbances in public places often hovering over women while drunk. This actually isn’t what really annoys me though, what is really disappointing is how they are enabled. In Korean culture if you are older or if you are a man you are always right (even when you are wrong) and younger people and women should listen to men. This is something in Korean culture that I hope to see change without the natural respect that people have for the old being affected.

So, I’ve addressed some of the good and bad things about Korean culture and I can proudly say I’ve tried to live in Korea as Koreans do. But when you come here there is another option, you can fight the culture difference and attempt to ignore it’s even there. Unfortunately a lot of people take this option and they tend to be drawn to an area of Seoul near one of the U.S. army bases called Itewon. I thought that’d be pretty awesome to hang out at the Irish Pub in Itewon from time to time but I’m sorrowful to say even on St. Patrick’s Day it’s a depressing place. The people there are miserable and count the days until they return to their ‘home.’ Itewon has many American’s their due to the army base, and generally the U.S. officers in Korea don’t cause too many major problems but some of their children have been known to. In an otherwise extremely safe country Itewon is a place to avoid. And, for me, to add insult to injury it’s a place that’s on most top 10 must visit in Korea.

Lastly, while I’m complaining I’ll take the chance to mention pollution, noise and yellow dust. And for some reason my allergies can’t handle spring even though I grew up in the Irish countryside without any problem.

The Strange

I don’t even know where to start. There is so much in Korea that’s different from Ireland but there are some things that really made my head turn. Korean people especially women are really engrossed and almost stimulated by all things cute, cute pictures and ‘stories’ always feature in newspapers and on national news. If someone is walking a particularly cute dog or even baby on the street you bet that the surroundings will resonate with “aaaawwwweeeee” and even sometimes have a crowd following.

Another thing I noticed is that Korean people don’t just casually follow a football team, listen to K-pop or play games, they become overwhelmingly obsessed. Evidence would be Park Ji Sung is a mega celebrity, Koreans are the highest rated in the gaming community (at least in the games they play) and K-pop, K-movies and K-drama are quite popular across all of Asia. Also, some things are extremely popular here that really aren’t in other countries and vice-versa but I suppose this is again due to the cultural difference. People here, young and old, really embrace technology sometimes I feel like I travelled to the future with finger-print scanners, electronic toilet seats (which are awesome,) ridiculously fast internet, organised transport systems, everyone uses these credit cards all the time and every tv channel comes in HD as standard (and a lot of houses already have 3D tv’s.)

Ok, so I talked a bit about Korean culture but one last thing that really is weird for me especially when you consider how dense the population is. Korea is so safe, nobody confronts anybody else. Even if someone was playing music really loud at 3am, it’s unlikely someone will tell them to turn it off (unless there is a westerner around.) If someone did tell them off they would immediately be very apologetic. So sometimes Korean people can do some really odd things in front of other people and never get called up on it, at first I didn’t really understand this and even threatened one guy who spat in front of me but I could see his shock and realised that it wasn’t a threatening action, he just had to spit. They can also lecture you on how to live and do things and again this can be perceived as an insult by us but it’s just people never tell them to fuck off and mind their own business that they don’t know any better.

Very last subject which I think sums up people here, in Korea because there are so many people and with pollution and dust when people are ill they wear cloth surgical masks. I’m sick, I’m determined to go to work but I’m considerate to not infect anyone else. ( and they look pretty awesome!)
Well, it’s awesome but would you think so? If I told you it’s vibrant, advanced, exotic, dynamic, very affordable and has delicious cuisine. You’d be compelled and agree with me, especially when I use flashy words. But I don’t think it’s actually a place that everyone would actually like. My personality assimilates with the culture. Would yours?

 To understand what it is like in a place that can seem to be upside down you have to examine the inhabitants. Korean people are without doubt the most diligent and focused people I’ve ever known and yet they can be quirky. Every day from when they awaken (normally very early) to when they rest (normally very late) they are in a constant pursuit of a type of perfection. Perfection where the goal is not to be the best but something else, something that might not be defined in western culture but it does stem from pride.

You may know Korea as an economical success and with shops on every street, back alley, basement first and second floor I immediately seen why. Even homeless, few that is, are busy collecting recyclables. Although this economic powerhouse boosts that culture drives it always forward, there is a dark secret. Korea has no social welfare, the idea of money for nothing is like a bad joke to Korean people. They portray society as hard but fair which can give an impression of no grey area. I ask you, is it fair that an entire family commits suicide if the family’s only support was to lose their job? Or, is it fair that tax is being raised on the hard working because some people have no intention of ever working? Grey is not a colour that Korean’s want to know about, but we may know it all too well.

In a socio-cultural environment that can reject individualism, your hobbies can become more part of who you are. There is evidence of this everywhere, especially with more PC rooms than pubs and almost all of the younger generation owning a “world of warcraft” account. These PC rooms are buzzing with activity, not only a social outlet but somewhere that you go to get away from the pressures of Korean society. Some more extreme players will often spark debates and even though I can’t tell what they are about I do know they are intense. Martial arts classes of every kind can be found in most districts, with some of these upholding the highest standard, I’ve experienced it first-hand.   

The fear of unemployment is met with some unique responses here. If you have something that you enjoy doing, you’d ideally make a living at it and self improvement is the only improvement. These are universal principles of life. In Korea, this is a well respected view with tea kwon do as a degree and pro gamers earning more than some pro soccer players and some of these pro gamers lift sandbags with their fingers and meditate to focus and play better. B-boys bounce and flip to a bizarre hip-hop in parks and in competition. People learn more and more languages. Taking up of classical instruments and archery just to improve co-ordination and running a marathon to improve your endurance are common occurrences.

One thing Korea isn’t really known for, but should be, is food. I’m normally a picky eater but I had to expand that part of my routine to survive here. And from a friend’s recommendation I ordered Kimchi pancake my first day here (at 4.30am.) It looked disgusting. My western vision hadn’t yet adjusted, seeing only “a giant onion ring that had bits of squid and leek in it.” The woman who prepared it in front of me and with great effort seen the look of apprehension I projected it so violently. In broken English she encouraged, “Korean pizza!” I gulped some small part of it down. (I also swallowed my picky nature.) And she smiled, when she seen the look of realization that my face now portrayed. I can’t begin to explain the complex taste this simple dish gave me, it was amazing.

 Most housewives here, approach being a housewife the same way a great neurosurgeon approaches an aggressive disease. This tradition has given rise to some of the most delicious and well prepared food I’ve been lucky enough to savour. The rich spices and herbs are added in stages to the careful preparation of vegetables and meat. And each stage has a delicate and unique procedure. Any fatty oils are sure to have been dissipated away, producing healthy delicious food. As a westerner the strong and powerful flavours had eventually overpowered my unambiguous stomach and I’ve conceded defeat on occasion and eaten the from the American food selection here.

If you judge Korea on cost of living alone it will surly win you over.The huge number of shops in this small area dictates that competition is high hence prices are low. Shopkeepers are more than friendly and some restaurants are often known to give extra food and drinks for free, this is known as “service.” Shop-owners will offer extra and put a lot of effort into making a sale. One thing I found odd at first but made more sense in time was that most shops are closed in the mornings but don’t normally close until 9pm or 10pm. Korea learned from their own property crash that they underwent in the early 90’s if you couple that with the fact most families are small, property is reasonably priced. Seoul (and the other major cities) has excellent subway systems allowing you to travel from any point in Seoul to another for less than 70 cent.

 Cost of living, transport and eating the most delicious food in the world is very cheap and life here is always moving. Sound good?