10 Things Korea Gets Right

January 13, 2014

Happy Tuesday everyone. I’m sorting things out in Uljin and making plans for my Philippines trip. I’ve said it before, but it’s weird just how not weird it is to be back in a foreign place where I lived and worked for over a year. It doesn’t feel like I never left, because I definitely feel the passage of time (and I’m staying somewhere else), but there’s no culture shock, no stress. In a way, this is positive, because it makes the adjustment to just living and writing much simpler. However, I worry that I won’t be uncomfortable enough to try and experiment with new cultural experiences… probably not a big issue, as I’ve already tried new foods, met new people, and experienced a Korean baby’s 1st birthday.

In the meantime, what makes Korea a great place to live and work? I’ve talked about the negatives, now let’s look at the positives.

1. Internet and Wifi

This is listed as #1 for a very good reason. Korea has the fastest Internet on the planet, and one of the highest connectivity per capita. You can stream movies in a matter of seconds, carry a cheap 4G hotspot with you, and find wifi nearly everywhere.

2. Food

Korean food is, in a word, awesome. Although there is the stereotype to overcome – “foreigners can’t eat spicy food” – most Korean food isn’t even remotely spicy. And unlike Thai, it’s simply savory and social. Eating as a group is common, and street food can be insanely addictive. The side dishes alone are worth a mention.

3. Heating

I wouldn’t even consider going to a country like Korea in the wintertime if it weren’t for the ondol. Out of all the countries I’ve visited, Korean floor heating is the best method for staying warm. Why heat the air, dry yourself out with a heat lamp, or settle for hot water when marvelous inventions like ondol exist?

4. Health

This is probably biased in my favor, as I’m sure people are capable of gaining weight with Paris Baguette and the plethora of carbs (monster 떡볶이). Nevertheless, Korea remains one of my favorite countries for maintaining and improving health. Mountain climbing is a national pastime, most of the food is free of butter and low in fat, and there are unique ways of exercising, like the vibration belts in gyms. Soaking in oncheon just makes me feel purer and stronger.

5. Public Transportation

Although there are certainly cons to go with such efficient transport, they all pale in comparison to the positives. Korean buses are cheap and on time, and offer spacious seating in a quiet environment. Incheon has been named as one of the best airports in the world, with free wifi, numerous areas to eat, sleep, and relax in and out of security, and convenient access from the city. The Seoul subway system requires only a song to sell itself:

6. Convenience Stores & Cafes

Even though Family Marts have been surreptitiously replaced with CUs in my three-year absence, the fact remains there’s not a corner of Korea to which one can go without finding a 24-hour convenience store and a decent cafe with wifi. Granted, some may question the quality of the coffee there, but even in my town of less than two thousand, there are at least three cafes.

7. Delivery

In addition to EZ Shop Korea and Gmarket, I’ve discovered some other sites that allow foreign residents of Korea to get their food fix: iherb and High Street Market (knew about the retail location in Itaewon, but I don’t think they did delivery before).

Korea is a mecca of delivery services. Although Amazon hasn’t quite worked its way into the market, there are several other companies offering comparable services. Just a click a button, and your item will be at your door the next day (unless you happen to live on Ullengdo or Jeju).

8. Attire

I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Korean winter puffy jackets, but for the most part, the fashion is nothing if not presentable. You would never find a site like “People of Emart” here, because 99.5% of the population (all Koreans, and half the foreigners) take pride in their appearance. I see far more children and young people in suits and uniforms even when not in school. Koreans generally don’t use deodorant because they rarely smell like foreign residents. The shear number of public baths and hot springs means a cleaner hoi polloi. Even when climbing mountains on days off, there’s a uniform, per se: brand-name shoes and North Face pants and jackets, with gloves and climbing poles (even when they aren’t necessary).

9. Dumpster Diving

This one is a mixed bag. There’s such a culture surrounding appearances in Korea (as there is in many other countries), that to have anything old or used is to place oneself in a lesser standing in society. I happen to believe most Americans operate this same way – buying the latest iPhones, cars, clothes, etc. – but it’s more widespread in Korea. For example, there are very, very few thrift stores with used clothing and furniture for those looking to save some won. More than likely, when someone buys a new couch, the “old”, perfectly good one, is put out on the street instead of being given to a friend, donated, or sold. What this means for opportunistic waygookin is the chance to scoop up all the cabinets, chairs, even beds they might want for their Korean flats for free.

10. Safety

Korea is the second-safest country I’ve ever lived in, the first being Japan. Although I don’t have the perspective of a solo female traveler, and crime isn’t impossible, violent behavior and intimidation really doesn’t happen that often over here. There are gangs of school kids in the parks at night, but they mostly keep to themselves (and they’re generally much smaller than your average foreigner, anyway).

Disputes on the street or subway, fueled by alcohol, do occur, but this is where cultural differences come into play: words are tossed, loudly and up close and personal, but seldom does it ever become physical. This is where many foreign residents have gotten into trouble, as they find themselves being shouted at and, assuming a punch is forthcoming, throw the first one. Newbies have been known to try and break up fights between two shouting ajussi only to have them turn on them. Machoism aside, starting a fistfight here is sure to attract the attention of the police, but a shouting match will rarely get a glance from passersby.

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4 Responses to 10 Things Korea Gets Right

  1. Meagan | LifeOutsideOfTexas.com on January 14, 2014 at 12:07 am

    You make some really good points. These are also some of my favorite parts of living in Korea. I’ve been here for nearly 3 years and it’s really made me take how safe Korea is for granted. I’m really going to miss that when I leave. I also love how the doors swing both ways and lock in place… and how the escalators only move when people are on them.

  2. Chris in South Korea on January 14, 2014 at 12:42 am

    A quick protip regarding the dumpster diving: the best stuff is rarely in or around the dumpster. Someone in an apartment complex, for example, may simply dispose of something at the side of the building instead of schlepping it all the way over to the ‘proper’ place. Use your brain to determine whether someone is coming back for it (like a bike or a grill) or has left it for anyone to grab (like a couch or indoors chair).

    Also, shell out for the strongest ajumma cart you can buy. The cheap-o ones won’t stand a chance.

  3. Chris in South Korea on January 14, 2014 at 12:49 am

    Oh, and there are Beautiful Stores around, which are the equivalent of Goodwill stores or the Salvation Army stores. There’s one a short distance from Insa-dong (Anguk station on line 3 – go out the *opposite* side from where you’d head to Insa-dong). Selection varies greatly by location, and skews towards women’s clothing. You never know what you’ll find, though 🙂

  4. Turner on January 14, 2014 at 4:31 am

    Heh, dumpster diving isn’t always literal. I meant by the curb.

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