So what is it like there? – Cultural observations on Korean people, food and beliefs
Reading time 10 min
It’s been two months since I moved to Seoul, South Korea as an exchange student at SKKU.
During that time, I’ve had the opportunity to witness how Korean people behave, eat the local cuisine and get to know what beliefs run their lives. Compared to Finland, life is surprisingly different. Maybe you’d be interested in hearing a detailed look into Korea? I’d like to share my observations with you. Let’s dig in!
I – PEOPLE
Let me preface all this by saying I really appreciate and admire Korea as a nation. Living here has been extremely comfortable and enjoyable. This is mostly because of the people here. Having said that, let’s look at a few key characteristics.
Koreans tend to be extremely hard working and aim to give memorable service experiences. Did you know, Koreans work the second-longest hours out of all OECD countries at 2069 hours per year? Try comparing that to the German equivalent of 1356 hours. Almost 53 % more! And this shows: napping in public is almost encouraged and facilitated by a range of businesses. Go to a popular library and I guarantee you will see more than a few faces literally buried into a pile of books, napping away peacefully. Typical rush hour is around 8 and then 19, displaying the length of the work day in traffic.
Using various services here is a delight. From 7/11 cashiers to spa masseuses, Koreans seem to be willing to go the extra mile to make customers happy. What thoughts are brewing behind the customary smiles though, remains to be discovered.
Where courtesy is apparent, is the traffic. Participating in Seoul’s traffic is a pleasure, keeping in mind it has more than 10 million occupants. The local metro is the best I have been in Especially compared to Paris, but even better than Japan. Why? Because not only is it designed well, locals follow the design to the letter. Seats are always reserved for those in need, waiting in line is sacred and making room for others is the norm – not the exception.
Cars almost never use their horns, though some regions are infamous for rowdy drivers. In Seoul cars tend to make some other noise to warn jaywalkers or others in the way, though still conveying an impatient message. The biggest exceptions are the aggressive scooter couriers, which are figuratively everywhere. Even the walkways. Only barely avoiding collision, they navigate masses of people usually without the horn, opting for precise maneuvers. A feeling of danger is ever present, though I’ve managed to survive without confrontation. So far…
Koreans are also intrigued by both fashion and cosmetics. Walking the busy streets of Seoul, one might be tempted to think every local is a style enthusiast. Especially when coming from Finland. And not just a single, universal style. Everything from typical menswear to edgy streetwear occupies to locals’ wardrobes. Cosmetics stores are almost as common as convenience stores and host a wide range of beauty products for both women and men. Latter of which is a rare commodity at my home. Did you know, that Chanel’s first men’s makeup line was launched in Korea?
RECYCLING IS IN
Passion is present in how Koreans recycle. Almost no trash cans are “general purpose”, but instead are divided into food waste, paper/cardboard, plastic/bottle, and cans. A tourist seen misplacing his trash might even get chewed up verbally by a local witnessing said act.
At the same time, Koreans don’t shy away from plastic and disposable products. During rain each umbrella is bagged to avoid bringing water inside. Plastic coffee cups with plastic straws are the norm and the thread of choice is polyester, not cotton.
One surprising factor was how nice of a festival crowd Korea has! Having been to several festivals in Finland, Hungary, Germany, and even South Africa, the crowd here definitely takes the cake. Even while drunk, personal space is respected and piles of bags amidst are considered holy. In addition, even during the biggest performances you can make your way to the front lines. Not to mention how excitable the crowd is – go to anyone with the phrase “hey might I show you a dance move?” and you most likely will get the green light and admiration.
Seoul is one of the safest cities in the world. This is evident especially during the nighttime. Walking home from a festival around 2am I’d though the parks would be riddled with sleeping homeless people and drunks. To my surprise, benches were mostly occupied with cute couples spending well deserved quiet time while the city sleeps. I don’t think I’ve felt unsafe once, other than around the scooters of course. Though an increasing number of Korean women are reporting feelings of being threatened or unsafe.
Still, Koreans have got to be the slowest walkers. I’ve met. What’s up with that?
II – Food
Coming from Finnish food culture to Korean one has been a welcomed change in routine. During the past summer in Finland, eating had become more of a way to receive nutrients rather than an enjoyment. Additionally, I had been doing it alone, instead of sharing memorable moments with those close to me.
Starting a new life in Korea turned that equation around completely. Meals are long, eating is slow and both portions and bills are shared equally with the dining group. Same group might go to several establishments throughout the night. It might be hard to say which is more important in the food culture: the social or nutritional aspect. Regardless, I’m loving it. And no, I haven’t been going to McDonalds.
So, what’s the food like? Well spicy for one. Almost every meal has a little bit of spiciness to it. And if a portion is mild, it’s accompanied by a bowl of kimchi, a spicy, fermented cabbage or other vegetable.
Thinking about spending in Korea? Better get used to having kimchi on every, single, meal.
RICE & SEAFOOD
Staple foods are in addition to fermented vegetables rice, noodles and seafood. While you also see pork and chicken, beef doesn’t enjoy the same popularity. Even less so salad and pasta. Then again, with more than 80,000 restaurants, you’re guaranteed to find more than local cuisine.
With as many food establishments as Seoul, eating out seems to be the norm. No wonder, since groceries are one of the most expensive I’ve yet to encountered. 500 grams of grapes which would be a tad over 2 euros in Finland, goes for 6 euros here. Fresh vegetables and meats terrify me with their price tags. Only reasonably priced products seem to be instant noodles and kimbap, a sushi-like snack roll with rice, seaweed and various fillings. At the same time, you might get a warm cup of noodle soup for 2 euros. A portion of mixed rice and meat with 3 euros. Or a whole meal with pork cutlet and rice for 4 euros. No wonder I haven’t cooked once while staying here. And I aim to keep it that way.
A THIN NATION
The next interesting discussion would be: how Koreans stay so thin? Their diets seem to be high in carbohydrates, low in fresh fruits and veggies and include sugary snacks throughout the day. Opposite to what western nutritionists like to preach. More research needs to be done! Though, Korean male obesity has been on the rise, topping 40 % overweight level recently.
SIDE DISHES GALORE
In addition to kimchi, local cuisine is dominated by side dishes. Never has ordering a pork cutlet from the menu, gotten you just a piece of meat. Usually it’s accompanied by a bowl of rice, a cup of kimchi, a pile of pasta salad, pickled cucumber and miso soup. You will experience variance in side dishes from one establishment to another, of course with the exception kimchi. It’s everywhere.
One of my favorite aspects is the fact that everything should be handed with two hands. Pouring a drink? Two hands. Holding out the glass? Two hands. Receiving payment receipt? Two hands. Small gesture, but consistently conveys a sense of mutual respect and hospitality.
So, we had a look at Korean people and their food culture. Next let’s try tying to narrative together with an attempt explaining the beliefs for both. During the final part, we will have a look at the beliefs that founded contemporary Korean culture.
III – BELIEFS
CONFUCIANISM & BUDDHISM
Korean culture has strong roots in Confucianism and Buddhism. The observations I have will support both. How so? Let’s dig in.
One of the biggest values is harmony. As a collectivist society, Koreans are the opposite of individualistic Finns. Whether it’s going out with a group of people, engaging in business negotiations or just enjoying services, saving face and maintaining harmony are the top priorities for all parties.
TRADITIONAL GENDER ROLES
Another example of a Confucianism is gender roles. Men and women are unfortunately still as having different purposes in Korean society. Only 3 % of top Korean companies have a female CEO. While men are typically the breadwinners in a household, women tend to make decisions regarding purchases. Men are literally the man of the house, regarding most decision-making. In the unfortunate case of the father passing away, responsibility is transferred to the son, regardless of age, rather than the wife. I suspect it will take a long while for gender equality to form on the Korean peninsula.
Luckily, things are changing as we speak. Korea has a notable feminist movement going on, who are trying to move the nation away from traditional gender roles. Interested in hearing more on this topic? I will have another write-up with interviews from locals coming up – stay tuned!
LEARNING IS NEVERENDING FOR EVERYONE
An example of Buddhist worldview is Koreans emphasis on education and attaining wisdom. The locals believe that learning is a lifetime mission, not limited to formal education and degrees. One should seek wisdom throughout their lives, regardless of age. As evidence, Korean students work one of the longest days in the world. An average household with children might spend up to 30 % of their income on private tutors, cram school and other methods for teaching their kids outside school.
Learning is a tool of course to beat the competition while applying to the best jobs and universities. And boy is the competition tough. Young Koreans are facing an increasingly difficult task of finding a job, even after completing university degrees. Around 12 % of Korean youth is out of work – three times the national average.
STRONG SOCIETAL PRESSURE
Surrounding all the talk regarding learning, competition and harmony, it’s only logical to find a nation with incredibly strong peer and group pressure. Latest fashion trends are being followed to the letter. Around 30-50% of Korean women aged 19 to 29 have had plastic surgery. Cosmetics industry is booming. And Korea’s biggest companies, called chaebols, have their pick of the best graduates for new jobs, with hundreds lining to fill up every vacancy.
The pressure to be smarter, prettier and more stylish than your peers is massive. Even I could feel it after just a couple of weeks of living here. Every day when I went out to the street, I found myself staring the better (and more expensive) clothing, fancier sneakers and clearer skins that almost every passerby seemed to own. Shortly, I found myself maxing my credit card on said things. And I’m just visiting!
The pressure to succeed (at least to look like it) is at the same time exhausting. To the point that students who don’t get accepted to the universities of choice, are incredibly disappointed. Sometimes, to the point of committing suicide. This is due to societal and family pressures. No wonder, South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates of the world.
That’s about two months of observing Korea. What do I think, you might ask? Well, I absolutely do love it. Not many things I would change, at least from a foreigner’s perspective. I have loved my time here in Seoul and will continue to do so – for at least two more months.
Bear in mind, this is all from a perspective of a visitor. Adapting to societal norms and pressure isn’t as much of an issue, since our university has more than 500 exchange students. If I so choose, I could form a social circle with mostly Europeans. Plus our “Finnish exchange students in Seoul” WhatsApp group has 28 like-minded Finns to keep the homesickness away.
But for a local, I can only imagine the societal pressures raising up to be the biggest motivators for daily routines. Study hard, get the best degree and job, disappoint and disrespect your family if you don’t succeed. Compare that to Finnish individualism: choose your path, enjoy your life, and whatever makes you happy. A stark contrast, to say the least.
At the time of writing South Korea is the 14th richest nation in the world, measured by GDP (PPP).
Meanwhile, it scores the lowest 33/33 position on OECD’s Better Life Index,
a middle 57/156th position on UN’s World Happiness Report Life Satisfaction Index,
and a low 102/178 spot on the Satisfaction with Life Index.
Is it time for Korea to change their focus from riches to happiness? How might a nation do that? Will we ever see a once more united Korean peninsula, no more divided to North and South? How would an individualistic Korea look like? Only one thing remains true – exciting times of change are ahead.
What about you? How do these observations sound? Disagree? Intrigued by Korea? Let me know!
PS. I’m also working on another longer post on Korean culture, where I try to examine the culture a bit closer, exploring the idea of moderation in Korean lifestyle. Interested? Tune in November to hear more!