Koreans have no sense of moderation
Reading time 9 minutes
I went to South Korea for student exchange in the fall of 2018. I lived and breathed Seoul in all of its busy beauty for 4 months. I went there because I hadn’t been to Korea before and I thought I could experience something modern, yet exotic. And boy did I get more than I bargained for.
The Koreans have a unique life. Many of the things that aren’t popular at all in Finland, are taken to extreme lengths at the Korean peninsula. Whether it’s work, shopping or dating, immense differences are to be found.
So much so, that as a Finn, I would like to say that the Koreans have no sense of moderation. They tend to frequently go the extreme lengths while building good lives for themselves. What do I mean when I say that? Let’s dig in to a couple of anecdotes! I will look at five, dominant aspects of life and describe exactly how Koreans stray from the average. We will look at work, studying, Samsung, the beauty industry and alcohol consumption.
A day at the office.
First example is the insane working culture and seemingly endless amount of weekly work hours. Only recently did the maximum weekly work hour go down from 68 (!!!) to 52, which is still super high compared to Finland. The average Korean works about 2,024 hours annually, compared to the Finnish average of 1628. To put that into perspective, after a Finn has worked his annual hours, a Korean would still go on for a whole ten more 40-hour weeks! While this alone sounds extreme, what if I told you that Koreans are satisfied with their long working hours? And that after implementing the Korean Five-Day Working reform, reduced working hours didn’t increase job nor life satisfaction?
Koreans are not to shy away from napping on the job, which can indicate commitment to his work. While working in Korea, one should expect working overtime and still head to the bar with one’s colleagues for afterwork socializing. This is especially important to do with your boss, if you aim to climb the corporate ladder. A far cry from the individualistic working culture of Finland, where many don’t even want to talk to their co-workers, much less spend time drinking after hours!
The implications for the Korean lifestyle are massive. Everything seems to be open 24/7 or at least close – whether it’s bars, cafes, spas or shopping malls. Social events usually start at very late hours, often after 8pm. Some clubs are even open till 7 am! Employees are forced away from the friends, loved ones and reasonable bedtime hours. In Korea – work is life.
2. Study culture
Yet another day.
So, what else has gone overboard besides working? The next obvious example comes from schools and studying. Koreans are one of the most competitive and hard-working students in the world, thanks to the importance of having a degree form the right university. Top universities also known as SKY (Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei University) are extremely difficult to get into.
This article by Atlantic eloquently describes the hardship faced by university applicants. For a single day every year, the country effectively shuts down to let hundreds of thousands high-school students take the College Scholastic Ability Test. This interdisciplinary test holds the keys to all Korean universities and if you fail, you have to wait a year for retaking it, since it is only organized once annually. During the tests, regular radio programming and even flights are suspended, to remove distractions from students’ test experience.
Though just getting in doesn’t guarantee success. Courses in Korea are graded on a curve, meaning there is only a certain amount of A’s available for students. In a country where grades truly matter, competition can get fierce. Grading on a curve means you might be incentivized not to share your notes nor otherwise help you course-mates, leaving you with a better chance at a better grade, better job, and thus – a better life. So much for team spirit.
In addition, Korea spends about 8 % of its GDP on education, compared to the OECD average of 6 %. 75 % of children go to private tutoring schools. The economic cost of competition in education is apparent. And the effects of competition extend outside economical realities. The pressure to succeed is immense. No wonder the youth suicide rate is second highest out of OECD countries, being the leading cause of death for ages 15-24. The struggles in finding a better life.
Obviously, we cannot talk about studying and working in Korea without mentioning Samsung – one of the biggest national companies in the world that has gone global. Originally founded in 1938, this company does anything from the usual smartphones and TVs to life insurance and armored tanks. Yes, I said tanks. One of the many subsidiaries, Samsung Techwin produces surveillance and weapons technology – including these Howitzer badboys.
So, what’s the lack of moderation part? It’s the sheer size of Samsung! The company made up of 80+ subsidiaries has $300+ BILLION annual revenue, which makes up more than 17 % of South Korea’s GDP and one fifth of their total exports. If you thought Finland relied on Nokia or Angry Birds, Korea and Samsung are on another level. Thus, it is no wonder people have gone to extreme lengths to maintain Samsung’s global domination and profitability. Some say the Samsung chairman is powerful is more powerful than the Korean president. Anything for economic growth and prosperity, right?
We’ve talked a lot about business, what about the finer things in life, like beauty? Even that is extreme! Beauty industry has two big players: cosmetics and plastic surgery.
Korean women spend more of their money on cosmetics than any other. And in Korea, the beauty and personal care market has doubled between 2010 and 2018. Due to the collective nature of Korean society, people not only pressure themselves but also others to take care of themselves and their beauty. Beauty is seen as something to help you achieve a better life.
While chasing rainbows, demanding consumers have forced companies to compete hard and as a result, created an affordable cosmetics market with high-quality products available for everyone. Now, they are going global. A “Korean skin routine” is deemed to be top of the line even outside Korea. This could be anything from 7 steps to 18. Surely, this is something in excess!
And it’s not all just lotions and creams. South Korea has widely been dubbed “the plastic surgery capital of the world.” Depending on who you ask, estimates state that anywhere from 30 to 50+ % of Korean women aged 19 to 29 have had plastic surgery. A high school graduate wouldn’t be surprised to receive a plastic surgery gift card as a graduation present. Beauty is seen as another stepping stone to a better career and love life.
Typical ‘soju’ advertisement.
Did you know, that Koreans are quite the drinkers? Finally, something similar to us Finns! Have you ever heard of the Korean, fermented rice spirit called Soju? Something like the Japanese sake, it is the drink of choice of Korean alcohol lovers. So much so, that the average South Korean consumes 14 shots of it each week! That is more hard liquor than anyone else in the world. You can compare it to the Americans average of 3 and Russians’ 6 per week.
And when you look at how Soju is being advertised in Korea, this overconsumption doesn’t come as such a surprise anymore. Almost impossibly attractive celebrities encourage you to drink $2 dollar bottles of Soju. Each of these contain up to 5 portions of alcohol, almost the equivalent of a six-pack of beer. You can buy them at any local 7/11, which are open 24/7 and found on every street corner. How big of a problem alcohol is seen, is however unclear. In Finland, the government has an active role in trying to reduce alcohol consumption. In Korea however, they try to remain neutral. Whether this “neutral” is actually encouraging, is up for you to decide.
One thing is certain. While hangovers are real in Korea, so are their solutions. The hangover-cure industry in Korea grossed more than $165 million in 2014. Most of this comes from hangover curing drinks, which are also available from most corner shops around the city and are in high demand. Having tried them I can attest to their usefulness! They are said to help metabolize alcohol and thus recover more quickly, from extensive and excessive drinking. So much for moderation.
I could go on and on about how Koreans have no sense of moderation and take everything to the extreme.
I could talk about the Korean obsession with showing of luxury goods.
I could talk about the extreme lengths Koreans go to stalk their favorite K-pop celebrities.
I might talk about how some Koreans make a living by eating food in front of a live online audience (mukbang).
I might tell you about the Koreans’ vigorous sense of nationalism and xenophobia towards foreigners.
I could talk about rampant hyper-consumeristic, yet recycling-oriented shopping culture, frequent political protests and the lengthy two-year, mandatory military conscription.
I might tell you about obsessive behavior in romantic relationships, e-sports careers and upskirt photographers.
Every time I learn something new about Korean culture, extremities seem to be the norm, not the exception. From my Finnish perspective, it’s easy to say the Koreans have no sense of moderation.
So what? What if Koreans have no sense of moderation? What is moderation really? To me, moderation is just a construct built on all the life lessons and experiences I have had. Just because I see it as some outside moderation, doesn’t mean it really is.
While my first reaction to seeing and living all of Korea was “wow – that is extreme”, it didn’t take long for me to say: “hey, that’s just another way to live.” After all, it is easy to criticize other means of living just because they differ from what you are used to. It takes time and compassion to see the validity in alternative lifestyles.
What I mean to say is, I guess life is not so different after all. In Korea the economy is booming, democracy is taking over, people are educated, and culture is lively – regardless of their affinity for the non-average. Maybe that is their secret.
Maybe we are the ones who stand to learn from the Korea lifestyle. Maybe we should take something to the extreme or realize we are extreme in our own ways. At least jumping from a steaming hot room to ice-cold water is hardly normal outside the Nordics!
What do you think? What is in moderation and what is extreme in our lives? Could we stand to change our lives? Is it time to change the muted colors of Finland to vibrance of Korea? Let me know.
In the meantime, I will gladly wear my Korean wardrobe, use the skincare routine and listen K-pop, no matter the extremities behind them!
PS. Another thing that goes to the extreme is the sheer catchiness of K-pop. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, here’s a playlist of my catchy favorites.