Every now and then we crave traveling to a place that feels completely different than where we happen to be. After spending a solid amount of time in Europe, we decided to take advantage of the specific visa rules that apply to Indian passport holders “transiting” via Korea to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Europe. We were in New Delhi and planning to go to Portugal, so this visa scheme worked wonderfully for us.
Korea indeed felt different from Delhi or Lisbon. Koreans seems to be quite… Korean! What I mean to say is, that there are some places in the world that feel more unique than others. They’re not better or worse as destinations or even as places to live in. But from a visitor’s point of view, they seem appealing as they have a lot of unique peculiarities.
Our Korea stay was divided mostly between the capital, Seoul, Busan (zero zombies on the train there, YAY!) and Jeonju. Two weeks might not have been enough to fully immerse ourselves in the local culture. But you bet it was a good amount of time to notice some of these facts and quirks about South Korea and its people:
Everyone is always on their phone. ALWAYS!
No matter where you are in the world right now, you’ve probably had this thought before: people these days spend a lot of time looking at their phones! During our travels, I thought Hong Kong took the prize when it came to face-to-screen ratio while out and about, but Seoul just managed to dethrone HK with honors! Particularly while commuting, folks do not seem to lift their eyes from their portable screens. Chats, Facebook, video games and even movies seem to be the go-to entertainment for Koreans on the move.
People riding the subway are so quiet…
Considering everyone’s looking at their phones and, very often, wearing headphones too, it’s no surprise that it is so extremely quiet inside the metro. No one is doing small talk. But when older people walk in, even if it’s just two or three of them, it feels like a riot! Not because they are being that disruptive, but because the sounds of folks chatting and (OMG!) laughing out loud really does catch your attention in this situation.
Trench Coats are IN
Public transportation is a good spot to notice fashion trends in a given place. We could tell that trench coats were the IN thing in Seoul during winter. Seriously… my puffy Uniqlo jacket stood out as unfashionable and bulky. Everyone in Seoul, especially girls, seemed to be wearing a trench coat, more often than not beige or light brown. Tops and a certain style of skirts that would make even older women look like young school girls were also trending.
There’s no doubt that Korean folks, particularly those in Seoul, are a fashionable bunch! Apart from perfectly matched clothing and accessories, make-up is very important too. Girls look flawless most of the time. The funny part is that retouching your make-up in public is all too common. While riding the subway, you’ll often come across girls taking out a pocket mirror and powdering their noses. The weirdest part? Every girl seems to be wearing the same shade of red lipstick. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sephora was to market it as “Korean Red” or something like that…
But funny enough, the standard look changes quite radically the moment you leave the capital. When we rode the train from Seoul to Busan and finally arrived in Korea’s second largest city, it was as if we had traveled to another era altogether. In Busan, you could tell folks were way more relaxed when it came to dressing up. Suddenly, things didn’t feel as fancy and that actually felt good. I could finally relax too…
Plastic Surgery is the thing to do!
When you explore Seoul and especially the area of Gangnam, which is one of the richer parts of the city, you’ll feel as if plastic surgery is as common as supermarkets. In fact, I actually think I saw more clinics specializing in beauty interventions around Gangnam than stores selling groceries! If you’ve ever seen Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video you might have noticed that this sarcastic song focuses on rich people and their lifestyle in Seoul. These folks Psy sings about are the same ones that made plastic surgery so extremely popular and that have awarded South Korea the title of “plastic surgery capital of the world”! If Korea has about 1500 plastic surgery clinics, about 500 of those are located in Gangnam itself.
It’s fairly common for parents to gift their kids plastic surgery when they enter college, for example. Some Koreans believe that improving their looks with surgery will result in better luck when looking for a job. It’s all too insane to understand from the outside. But once you are in Seoul, even if you’re not a part of the society, you see how advertising and the way other people look can pressure you into believing that this is something that simply has to be done! And, just like in some parts of the world when it comes to looks, women are the primary target of all of this. So much that about 20% of South Korean women have already undergone some sort of plastic surgery. So if you see someone with bandages all over their face walking down the street don’t think “oh, poor thing, she must have had an accident…”. Nah! She’s simply getting a new nose or making her eyes look more like a Westerner.
This article does a good job at explaining South Korea’s obsession with plastic surgery.
Click ‘em Selfies, all day long!
You can tell Koreans are into their looks. Stores selling cosmetics are everywhere. I repeat: they are much more common than grocery stores! You may not easily find a place to buy a banana at 9 PM, but if you realize that your anti-wrinkle night cream has run out, you can still purchase some before you go to bed. With all this attention to aesthetics, it comes as no surprise that clicking selfies is so incredibly common. Whether Koreans are by themselves or, even more so, if hanging out in a group, taking selfies is just one of the things you do. In the metro. With your coffee to-go. In front of a nice little corner of the city. Making duck face. Putting your fingers into a V. Making a heart shape with your fingertips. Touching your hair. Looking innocent. Looking naughty. Doing anything at all… just be creative and keep clicking!
24/7 Eating Joints for the Win!
If there is something to love about Korean food is not just the preparations themselves, but the availability of food joints any time of the day or night. Midnight cravings are easy to satisfy, at least when you are staying at a central location in Seoul. No one should decide what’s the best time for someone else’s meal. So the eateries in the city cater to all! On our very first night in Seoul, we had a small takeaway sushi meal. Hours later we couldn’t sleep with the excitement of being in a brand new place. So we walked out from our hotel, wishing to find something yummy to eat, and we ended up pleasantly surprised with the variety of places we could choose from. The equivalent of Korean diners, serving staples such as noodle soups, bibimbap, and kimbap were open and serving great homestyle food, at decent prices. Seoul won me over on our very first night there!
Korean Food combos are the bomb!
Koreans love food, that’s understood. But sometimes, eating “regular” dishes just won’t do. That’s why Koreans have come up with combos that are understood and beloved by the common hungry people of the country. There are certain food items that are paired with their respective drinks and are meant to be consumed together. Two of these most popular combos are:
- Chimaek, a pairing of Korean fried chicken and beer. When you order Chimaek you get chikin, meaning “fried chicken”, and maekju, meaning “beer”. Chimaek rocked our world in the very first day we were in Seoul, thanks to our friend Chris Wu who introduced us to this Korean specialty that we ordered for delivery at an outdoor park by the Han river. Yes, you read that right: we ordered food to the park, and many other folks did the same too. Note that Korean fried chicken comes in many different flavors and, because it’s normally saucy and sticky, it’s best enjoyed with chopsticks!
- Pajeon & Makgeolli, the combination of green onion pancakes and Korean rice wine with a milky consistency. When you order Pajeon, it’s understood that you’ll drink Makgeolli. It’s just the way it is, and who are we to question that?!
Judge your meal based on your Banchan
A good meal in Korea is often judged based on the Banchan, that is, the small side dishes served with your main dish. Banchan are placed at the center of the table and meant to be shared. Kimchi, is the most common banchan. But, to the contrary of what we may think abroad, kimchi doesn’t always consist in fermented cabbage. While cabbage is indeed the central ingredient in the most common form of kimchi, any other salted and fermented vegetable can also be called kimchi. Apart from kimchi, other prevalent banchan include Oi Muchim (Spicy Cucumber Salad), Mu Saengchae (Spicy Radish Salad), Sigeumchi Namul, (Spinach Salad), Miyeokjulgi Bokkeum (Sauteed Seaweed) and Chikin Mu (Korean Pickled Radish).
Water is always free! <3
It doesn’t matter if you go to a fancy restaurant or a down-to-earth eatery, you’ll always be able to drink clean water for free. I like that! In fact, glasses will be kept inside sterilizing machines, and you can just help yourself to a cup and a never-ending supply of water from a dispenser. Establishments make their money from the dishes they cook, and not from the water you get from the tap – as it should be!
Meat restaurants in Korea love animal images
Korea has such a beautiful and happening food scene. But when it comes to advertising of meat in restaurants that specialize in BBQ and other meaty delights, their game is so off. At least for me! If I won’t find images of raw meat appealing, no matter how marbled the beef is, I sure won’t get hungrier looking at photos of animals grazing in verdant pastures. But this is how it is in Korea. Either you see the raw cuts of meat or the entire animals, alive, looking happy. Not a pretty contrast, if you ask me.
Food Delivery is taken to the next level in Korea
Food delivery is common in many parts of the world these days. But no one does food delivery like Koreans do! Food will come to your apartment in the same plates you’d usually use at the restaurant, and not disposable ones. When you’re done eating, you can place the plates and utensils in the delivery basket and right outside your door. The same person who delivered your meal will come by a little later to pick up the leftovers and take everything back to the restaurant to be washed. Talk about good service!
When I grow up, I want a Korean fridge
Watching local TV channels during our stay in Korea, it was easy to understand how important fridges are in the local lifestyle. This comes across as a little funny when you think that the majority of people eat out most of the time. Yet, at home, you must have a big fridge, with a special compartment for kimchi – this is something fridge ads in Korea tend to stress on! The compartment should be tight enough to preserve your kimchi in good condition, without letting the smell get out. Kimchi or no kimchi, I want a Korean fridge when I grow up.
Korea Food is Cheap.
But Coffee and Fruit prices are insane!
Eating out in Korea can easily be done on a budget. But you better get your caffeine fix at home, because a regular cup of coffee will easily set you back on USD5 in the most common of coffee joints. Truth be told, most coffee places are fancy as f*ck! The same price craze goes for fruits in Korea! And I still don’t understand why. I get Korea is a mountainous country and doesn’t grow a lot of fruit. But considering that it does import other things from neighboring countries, how come imported fruit ends up being so expensive in the country?
Study hard, study harder
It doesn’t matter how expensive coffee shops are, you’ll see that these establishments are often visited by students who sit down to study for hours. Maybe this is exactly why a simple cup of coffee becomes so expensive because students do seem to spends hours in a row using the space. You can tell that Koreans are under pressure to perform well in their educations. They sit down, tune out from the world, and concentrate hard.
Working hours are mad!
We were once walking around late in Seoul thinking of grabbing dinner. Restaurants around one of the touristic areas were mostly shut down, so we kept walking towards a district dotted with office towers. I thought that it’d be hard to get something over there. Maybe, if we were lucky, we’d find a convenience store open. Oh, how wrong was I! Restaurants and bars right below these office buildings were pumping past 11 PM, with folks that had just come down from work to grab a drink and a bite. Yes, Koreans work this late! If there are things to do it doesn’t matter if it’s a weekday or weekend. Especially if your boss is still at the office, you ain’t gonna leave!
Being the youngest at work in Korea is tough, we’ve learned. Even when you go out after office hours. As the youngest of the group, you are supposed to pour drinks for everyone. You’re also supposed to turn the meat on the grill if you’re doing BBQ with your superiors and colleagues. You’re meant to look sideways in a shy manner (like an Indian bride to be) right before you take a drink and, while doing shots, don’t you dare putting your glass higher than the one of your boss. Click it just a tad lower, as a sign of respect. You must drink as much as he/she does, keeping up with everyone’s alcoholic rhythm whether you like booze or not and, even if you start feeling the effects of alcohol, you must not disrespect this basic set of rules. Seems tough to me!!
The most common surnames in South Korea are Kim, Lee, and Park. In that order. More than half the population of the country has one of these names. How come they are so popular? Well, once upon a time in Korea, only members of the nobility had surnames. Around the year 1000 King Wang Geon, founder of the Goryeo Dynasty, decided that those who were loyal to the court would also get surnames. First off, elite families got surnames and as time went by, so did merchants. Those with money could also buy surnames, as they were seen as a sign of social status. By the late 1700s, surnames started becoming even more popular and in 1894 it became legal for anyone to adopt a surname. Kim, Lee, and Park were royals names and, if you want status, what do you do? You get yourself a royal fuckin’ name!
Seoul is in the future!
There are several things that may lead you to think that Seoul is in the future. For starters, the general looks of the city. For us, arriving from New Delhi, it felt like a mega contrast. Tall buildings with good public illumination and LED screens displaying advertising are all over the place as if the entire city was Times Square. There’s internet everywhere, with no password requirement, and it actually works! The city is clean, organized and there’s a network of public transportation that works efficiently.
Even the ATMs look as if they can almost go to work and make that money for you:
Waiting for the subway is like being in the movies
It doesn’t matter how well-organized and clean the metro system is. What really stands out with Seoul’s subway is the cavalry style music they play as the wagons approach the platform. Waiting for the subway was never ever this much fun!
Cleanliness is a way of life
I’ve already mentioned how Seoul, and everywhere else we went in Korea for the record, seems to be pretty clean and tidy. It’s curious to notice how in South Korea you’ll often enjoy very well-kept public spaces, but you don’t often see staff cleaning around. This leads me to think that locals are actually taught to maintain them pretty decently, without needing to have someone clean up after them all the time. Considering how much people eat out, even at parks, it’s remarkable that these spaces are kept so nicely. Funny enough, when you talk to locals, they don’ think Seoul is THAT clean. That just goes to show how everything is so relative. Even speaking with a fellow traveler who has just come from Tokyo, she felt that not only Seoul was dirtier, it was also somehow a little more old-fashioned.
At least when it comes to personal hygiene, you can easily tell that Koreans care. Otherwise, how do you explain folks brushing their teeth in public restrooms or even the fact that some bathrooms have toothpaste dispensers right next to the more common soap dispensers?
Or those free kleenex for everyone to use in the bus?
Or the fact that bus drivers use disposable gloves while on duty?
Or even how food vending machines including a little personal hygiene section with wet wipes, band-aids, and the likes?!
“Smart” toilets are also quite standard and will ensure that you get washed and dried up in luxury, even in a communal washroom. Like I said, this is the future folks, it’s the future…
or how to poop in public shame-free:
I know etiquette bells are not exclusive to Korea. But I have been to more than 50 countries, and I have never had the chance to experience this marvelous invention by myself. When you hit the public bathroom in Korea and you have to do number two, you can press a button that will sound like you are flushing, and that will cover any other less pleasant noises your body may be producing at that very moment. This way, you don’t actually have to flush to cover up your farty sounds. You can let go without wasting water and without imposing your gas on those right outside your cubicle. Genious!
Hotels in Korea have their own quirks
For starters, I found it peculiar that all the towels they give you are on the smaller side. What I would use as a bidet towel in Europe, is a face towel in Korea. What I would call a face towel, is more like a bath towel. I know people aren’t huge in Korea, but it still feels as if you get less cloth to wipe yourself with.
On the other hand, adventurous folks can easily picture themselves as MacGyver in Korean hotels. All the rooms we stayed at in tall buildings, both in Seoul and Busan, featured an unconventional device called “descending line”. After carefully analyzing this tool, I understood you are supposed to use it to “escape” your hotel room using the window, in case of fire or some other tragic disaster. I wonder if the time ever comes if anyone is going to have the guts to actually descend anywhere with one of these!
Korea is safe. Very safe!
Some folks think traveling to Korea is not safe. I know this because people have asked. This is South Korea we’re talking about here and, to be honest, I read reports of travelers who have explored North Korea and made it out perfectly OK too. You have restrictions when you travel north of the border, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. Even the Demilitarized Zone between North and South is open to tourists – see here how our trip around the DMZ was like!
One thing is for sure, in South Korea, you can walk around pretty carefree, as the overall vibe is extremely safe. For tourists and locals. If it wasn’t this safe, you bet stores wouldn’t leave their merchandise outside overnight, just like this store we photographed in Jeonju does.
Great post! thanks for sharing.
This is a great post – and makes me want to go to Korea even more! Those animal images in the restaurant remind me of restaurants in Pakistan, where they’ll have a picture of a cow and the restaurants (usually moustachioed) owner to advertise it!
Korea is awesome! :D
I always read your letters in details. But pls remember that there are many many VEGETARIAN readers too whose first concern is veg food whereever they go and my own experience in many countries like Japan, malayasia, Thailand, Vietnam etc is honndorus. So pls always give tips est for veggis
Hi Ravi! If you travel to Korea it won’t be too hard to come across vegetarian options. Dishes like Bibimbap (Korean mixed rice) can easily be made into vegetarian, even if that is not the default. If you don’t want to have the hassle of communicating to the staff that you are a vegetarian, I’d recommend looking for Buddhist style restaurants, where the food is always pure veg!