Korea. A land of obscure things in your plate, ironed cotton and upturned rooftops reflected in skyscrapers. It was the land that left me with complex impressions, few new things I comprehended and a lot to remember.
My acquaintance with Asia started in Hong Kong two years ago. I haven’t seen much of that part of Earth yet, but I feel like Korea brought me many steps closer to comprehending eastern cultural differences and their roots.
To make it clear from the beginning, my impressions of Korea will be based on what I saw in Seoul and Songdo. The country developed and changed so rapidly that I am sure there are parts of it that differ gradually. In this first part, I will try to focus on feelings the Koreans rather than landscapes gave me, not forgetting those concrete jungle of new Seoul that are important for understanding the nation, too. I decided to break the story into 2 parts, where this beginning will be more abstract and contain mostly my thoughts and observations, whereas the second part will be more about specifics places I recommend to visit and pictures.
So, let me start with what shocked me the most:
Cleanliness. It’s surgery room clean everywhere. What is shocking is not people taking care of their home (where I hope most of developed countries are already getting by now), but a total absence of trash bins. There are just none on the streets and in shops. I am not exactly sure why, since this is not a country with high terrorist threat which could be a reason for eliminating trash bins. Neither am I sure where all the trash goes. It wouldn’t ever come to any Korean mind to drop anything on the floor, but what they do when they have some trash in their hands and whether they simply carry it home – I didn’t find out. I had a clutch full of packages, bills and tickets all the time.
You can’t smoke on the streets either, there is a fine for that and you wouldn’t see anyone with a cigarette. Smokers go to smaller empty streets not to disturb by-passers with smoke and smell, even if there is no police on the horizon.
Fashion. Of course everyone nowadays knows that Korea is about to lead the world of fashion on Earth. It’s not only how good people are dressed in their simplicity what astonished me, but how natural it goes in Korea. No fancy boutiques with golden stairs, no “high class” brands (I mean of course there are luxury goods from the west, but Korean things are all quite within the same niche), no flashy shop windows and model-looking sells managers: all simple and minimalistic. I loved how they sell. Everything I ever learnt about marketing during my studies or in my girly life full of brands would be completely useless pieces of information in Korea. Some might say they don’t know how to sell and attract customers. I can’t tell, not knowing whether the shops that charmed me were considered successful or not. But I fell in love with their absence of marketing in our understanding. The well-known all over the world brands like Stylenanda, for example, adopted the western ways of advertising. But most of the best fabrics and finest styles are to be found in underground crossings (no kidding) or very humble tiny shops with empty walls and simple or no decorations. It’s relatively cheap for the quality. I bought cotton blouses of amazing quality for 5 Euros each. Either this accessibility makes the crowd looks good, or Koreans have a natural feeling for style. I loved watching people in subway and on the streets, how simple and elegant they are. Sometimes you look at a girl (or a guy as well!) wearing a white cotton robe and think: “Maaaan, in Vienna you would be a fashion icon!”
Another bit shocking thing: very often you can’t try things on. It’s a rule in really many shops. You can touch it, examine it, but you can’t try it on. I am not sure how to explain that, since when you buy something you always get a new packed and sealed piece from the stock, they never wrap you that thing you saw on the hanger. Maybe it’s some hygienic reasons, Koreans are quite determined with those.
Beauty. Well, this blew my mind even though it was extremely ready to be blown. It’s not just the most developed beauty and care products industry culture in the world, its a real cult. There is a wide range of any product for anything you can and can’t imagine. But be careful when beauty-shopping, our unspoiled mind tells us to grab every cute package, in fact half of them are not very useful. In the next post with recommendations, I’ll note a few shops and brands worth checking out 😉 Also, a lot of products have whitening effect. Koreans are crazier than 18th century aristocrats about not getting a slight sign of tan on their skin. Which is not that easy since the climate is quite sunny, so there are all variations of whitening napkins and creams in any tiny store.
What I found a bit weird is that most of products are for face skin. Ok, Korean girls have good strong hair and might not need much care for it, but why is there so little for the body? Europe is more crazy about body lotions, shower gels, mists and sprays. You also won’t find any Lush-like stuff like bath bombs, most likely because Koreans don’t have bathtubs. But they have toilets that maintain the seat warmed up for you.
What is also quite shocking for a western person is men wearing make-up. I mean, we accept it fine if its just a style of a certain guy or some event like Life Ball. But in Korea really a lot of guys wear quite visible makeup on a daily basis.
Beaches. To continue with the whitening topic. Koreans don’t go to beaches at all, I guessed for obvious from the paragraph above reasons – a desire to be white. Completely empty sea lines shock a European that had ever been to Barceloneta or on Italian coast in summer, where you can hardly see the sand. The most beautiful beaches of Jeju don’t attract the locals at all. Policemen wear uniforms with long sleeve under a short-sleeve shirt, not to get tanned I was told. So, my skin tone is not considered noble or fashionable in any way I guess.
Eating and drinking culture. Their complexity, to be more precise. From the technical side, i.e. metal chopsticks that even kids can cut kimchi with (guys, it’s impossible, I am telling you) to the dishes themselves. Korean cuisine is very interesting, unusual, rich in various flavors we can’t even imagine together! I will write a separate post on my favorite foodie topic, of course. But I’d just advise to be curious and brace and to try things, even though most of the time you will have no clue what you are eating. No English and no pictures on menus. Forget about consulting waiters as well. Just forget about English and life will become easier if you try other ways.
Streets never sleep. Seoul is so dynamic, with people in expensive suits walking Gangnam with serious faces; everything running, pizza being delivered even to parks at any time, that it comes as no surprise that there is a very intense nightlife. But, guys, I have never seen anything THIS intense, and I used to be quite a party animal. Going out is another cult. Teenagers are out all the time. I don’t know how they manage to combine that with Korean schooling which is one of the toughest in the world, this I didn’t put together yet. But clubs of Itaewon seem to never shut the music down. We were leaving at 6, 7 in the morning, and the party didn’t even start to calm down. You can drink pretty much anywhere, we enjoyed our soju from the bottle already at the supermarket. Walking with a bottle through party streets is fine, no paper bags and crap needed to cover up the obvious. And it’s just fun! People run from one club to another, socialize on the streets, everyone is super friendly, we as foreigners attracted A LOT of attention, but I didn’t see any typical drunk aggression once. Which is also a mystery to me since Koreans do get quite drunk and not everyone can take as much alcohol as a huge Scandinavian guy can, for example, but they still don’t give up. Drunk people are drunk people all across the globe I would think, but I didn’t see any fights, rudeness or harassment. A guy may try to get your attention, I got grabbed by my elbow few times, but if you look away and don’t express interest they leave you alone immediately.
I will write more about specific clubs and areas that I liked the most, but in general I wanna say that I was fascinated and shocked by Seoul nightlife. No Ibiza compares. It’s madness and it’s a must-experience in life!
No pin on credit cards. And the general highest level of social trust. Doesn’t matter what your bank is, you don’t insert pin, sign or show documents when you pay. If your card is lost it will be either returned to you or destroyed. You can leave your personal belongings anywhere and just leave. People occupy tables in restaurants leaving their cell phones, no kidding! I don’t know if they don’t steal at all and the crime rate is so low because of the regime, their values or cameras everywhere. But as a matter of fact, in Korea you don’t have to watch your purse.
Convenience. Putting stuff away in bars, clubs and restaurants – there is always somewhere to place it no matter how tiny the place is: puffs and seats which open up, boxes above your head, storage beneath tables. If you give something to garderobe in clubs, it’s gonna be wrapped in disposable bags.
Convenient packages for literally everything, from snacks (unwrapping a gimbap is a pure pleasure) and napkins at a supermarket to newly purchased accessories. Everything is thought out.
Social pressure. It’s very high. You have to meet the standards if you are Korean.
Schools are tough. Getting into universities is the highest pressure for Korean teenagers. If you don’t get in – your life is considered a failure. The suicide rate among school kids is high, so are the expectations of their performance.
You have to be skinny, so Korean girls starve themselves a lot. Have to look good in a certain universal way, that’s why makeup industry is so developed, and Korea is famous for its plastic surgeries on each corner. If a girl doesn’t fit into that standardized beauty image, she is not considered pretty. Fashion wise people try to stand out (still keeping up with the mass trends), but it didn’t seem to me as if being of extraordinary non-standard appearance will make you beautiful and unique in the eyes of the others. They admire Western appearance a lot.
Dating culture is quite weird, too. You have to have a partner. I heard stories how cab drivers were immediately trying to set guys up with their nieces when they heard guys were single, it was not normal for them and they felt like they have to help. A lot of dating clubs, apps, platforms and stuff. It seems like everyone dates just because it’s a must, I really hope the reality is different.
There are many more things that seemed obligatory in society to me, like you have to have that little white dog everyone has, etc. Koreans are constantly under high pressure, but they respect their traditions and values a lot, which makes them such a strong independent and solid society.
Some tough sides and a piece of advice for a foreigner:
- Forget English. Better learn a few phrases in Korean, they are going to respect you a lot for that.
- No cabs available in clubbing districts at nighttime. After 3 a.m. it’s really not easy to get out of there. Such Russian thing as all cab drivers gathering around crowded places tripling fares you won’t see. So we had to walk few times.
- People are gonna look at you. Especially if you differ gradually from their appearance. Just accept it, they are all very kind and friendly, but they express interest a lot.
- No heels in clubs outside Gangnam. It would just look weird. Korean girls wear very simple comfy shoes.
- Try transportation apps. It’s very complicated since everything is in Korean only, but if you somehow manage – you are gonna love the ideal effective transportation system around Seoul!
- Walk slowly in temples. It’s considered disrespectful to rush there. You can also rent traditional Korean costumes and then be admitted for free into any temple.
- Don’t sit on seats designed for older people or individuals with limited abilities. Even if the train is empty, nobody does that unless they belong to the group for which that seat is designed.
Be respectful to everyone and you will get enormous respect and hospitality back. It is an incredible country that takes you on a trip to the past and to the future at the same time.