We were based in South Korea for a few weeks shy of 3 months. It’s crazy that we now think that that is really not a long time to spend in one place. I guess it depends where you are but I really love how staying in one place for a while really gives you an understanding of the place you’re in and also it’s amazing how much you learn. I spoke about Koreans’ love of food in my previous post but here I’ll write some of the other things that we’ve learnt…
Appearance is a major theme in Korea. Plastic surgery is SO common among both Korean guys and girls that Kel and I cannot always predict who has or hasn’t had surgery. The answer is, most have. Some teenage girls get a double eyelid surgery for their graduation present. Others will then get their nose injected so that there is more of a bridge to their nose instead of their nose being more flat between their eyes. Both relate to looking more westernized and more Caucasian-looking. 90% of skin care products are about whitening the skin and it is quite hard to find make up that’s for darker than pale skin! Even if some Koreans have darker skin, they use whiter make up. It’s interesting because for me, I’m used to people trying to find foundation that matches your skin colour. Here they purposely wear make up that’s much lighter.
Speaking of makeup, at the hostel in Seoul I lead conversation classes with a mother and her daughters over a period of 6 weeks. There was one time where the mum asked me if I didn’t like make up. I replied yes and told her that I usually wear it when I go out somewhere nice and not every single day. She was quite surprised and I laughed to myself. My friend, Rafa, has a Korean girlfriend and he learned through her that it’s considered kind of rude to go to someone’s house or a place and not have any type of make up on. Imagine that! It’s not like I had tattered clothes or that I looked like I lived on the streets, I just didn’t wear make up! Anyway I thought that was an interesting moment.
Apart from wanting to look more western, a major reason most Koreans get plastic surgery is for employment purposes. You are obliged to put your photo on your resume when applying for a job. Yes, obliged!!!! And! Employers will do their first cull purely on what the person looks like. The demand is for more westernised-looking Koreans, hence the surgery for those features is extremely common. Many Koreans have told me they have much more of a chance of getting a job if they have the eyelid and nose surgery or more. It doesn’t even matter if they have gone to the top university or got the best grades. That is second to how they look. This isn’t just for Koreans in Korea. When we were onion picking, we met a Nigerian guy who actually has a working visa but cannot get any jobs due to his appearance. He will get contacted when he gives his academic background but when they ask for a photo or he supplies his photo, he never gets the job.
Selfies are majorrrrrr in Korea haha. The other day when we were at the beach, we were in awe of all the selfies taking place. Camera clicks were louder than the waves crashing on the shore!!!! Really!!! It was also so funny because there was a really tanned Korean man in nothing but a G string. To see him in Korea where most people dress conservatively (except for the mini butt shorts) was great haha. For women, it’s considered showy or revealing to show your shoulders so most girls/women wear tops/dresses with sleeves and if someone sees a Korean woman wearing a singlet or sleeveless top, ahjummas (older Korean women) are not pleased! There are stories of ahjummas coming up to women who aren’t from Korea who perhaps are showing cleavage and they stick their finger in that person’s cleavage and then gesture no! Ahjummas are not subtle.
Study and work are both major pressures in Korean life. I can really understand why there are many Koreans in Australia and this fact alone made me really appreciate growing up in Australia. Like in China, students here study A LOT!!!!! A ridiculous amount. Even one of my Korean friends who is at uni will go to sleep at 3am from studying and then wake up at 7am to continue again…. And students are told that 4 hours of sleep is good and that 5 hours or more is a fail. Even in high school it happens. One Korean girl we met said she became sick from the stress of high school where she was being forced to study until 1 am every night – well morning – and spending hours and hours at school. Most school students will go to school at 8am, finish school at 3 or 4pm and then go to an English/Math/other subject Academy from that time until 9-10pm. I think their brains need more rest time!
Work-life is a similar thing. A lot of Koreans definitely work way more hours than in Australia. When I tell Koreans that the average working week in Australia is 9am – 5pm they get very interested and ask me more about life in Australia. These pressures and stress from both studying and working perhaps lead to the next topic: drinking!
Korea is number one in the world for drinking alcohol. Yes. You can read more about it and watch a video on it here. Even sales of Soju (Korean alcohol) are the highest selling spirit (and it’s only in Korea). The owner of the guesthouse we worked at in Seoul told us that before he started running his guesthouse, he owned a company and that every night he would drink 3-4 bottles of Soju a night just to relax and that that is common. What’s also common is company’s taking employees out for meetings that involve drinking. In Korean culture, there is a whole ritual and customs when it comes to drinking; things like the youngest person there has to constantly refill everyone’s glass, if you are drinking with people older than you or your boss etc you must use two hands on your glass and turn away from them while you drink it so that they can’t see you drinking it. Also when you ‘cheers’ or say gun-bae, your glass must be below the older person’s glass and must not ‘chink’ the glass. Of course not all Koreans must act like that and some have told me that some people care about these rituals and others don’t but one friend of mine says he just avoids going to a restaurant/bar with people who do because it’s just too much pressure being the youngest!!
A new one since we’ve been by the beach recently is to do with swimming! A lot of Koreans don’t know how to swim! Crazy, isn’t it? Kel and I really take it for granted having swimming lessons and doing swimming activities at school. We kind of just assume most young people know how to swim. But, with most assumptions, we were wrong. There are no swimming lessons in schools and so it’s up to parents to give their kids swimming lessons but of course, especially in Korea, there’s no time for that – that means less study time! Our friend Vivien who we were with at the beach said that she was talking to a Korean guy and he had asked her if she knew how to swim to which she replied yes. He then asked her ‘and can you swim at the beach?’ to which she laughed and replied well, yes I just told you I can swim haha. He said that they are very different and that most Koreans only know how to swim in swimming pools and so just stand around in the ocean.
On our first day at the beach, we noticed some red buoys in the water and most people were within the border. There was also a jetski with two lifeguards going up and down the beach, blowing their whistles and waving their hands about trying to move people back towards the shore. This is all well and good and keeps people safe yet the area I’m talking about is probably 3-5 metres from the shore. That’s not much freedom to swim around in! The water is probably waist deep before you get whistles screaming at you. Another thing is that the beach is ‘open from 9am until 6pm’. There are actual announcements saying that the beach is closing in 10 minutes and to get out of the water. Thinking back now, I guess it is important for these measures since many don’t know how to swim. But, for us swimmers it’s a bit annoying!
Another notable point for me is they use scissors instead of knives to cut up food! For example, when you are at a Korean BBQ restaurant where the grill is in the middle of the table and you basically cook your own meat/veggies, the meat isn’t cut up into bite sized pieces so before it’s nearly cooked someone cuts the meat using scissors. It’s actually quite convenient because you don’t need a chopping board. Another example of when they are used is when you order a bowl of noodles, to cut them they just chop them up using scissors.
What we love about Korea is the food culture. I mentioned before that food is SO important to Koreans and one thing I really like is the sharing of food. Dishes are put in the middle of the table and shared using your chopsticks. Side dishes are another awesome thing. Along with your chosen meals come free side dishes! Depends what restaurant but the minimum number of side dishes we got was three. These side dishes are usually different types of kimchi, onions in a delicious sauce, and many other things but one I really loved was garlic stems in this browny red hot sauce – so good!!!! Kel also discovered his absolute LOVE for Kimchi. He is a kimchi fiend haha although his stomach didn’t always agree with it!
Our chopsticks skills have improved a lot haha and I love that I eat slower because of them instead of shovelling food into my mouth via a fork or spoon. Our really kind friend, Grace, gave us our own pair of metal chopsticks (in a cute little package) which I thought was the perfect souvenir!
I really can’t believe our time in Korea is up. We have made some of the best friends here and had some amazing hospitality shown towards us, as well as experiencing unforgettable moments! Gamsamnida!
Next stop: Japan
A video of our time in Busan. The song to this video is called ‘Cheer up’ by Korean K-pop group, Twice. This song was played EVERYWHERE and ALL the time haha Kel and I know the whole song apart from saying the words right 🙂
These are the remaining photos of our time in Korea