10 Things Korea Gets Wrong

December 3, 2013

I just know this series is going to land me in trouble with some travelers or nationalist netizens, but I’m feeling unusually prolific this week as I sit at home and stare out the window, so I might as well incur someone’s wrath. I lived in Korea for just over a year before moving to San Francisco. In that time, I found it to be a comfortable country in which to live. However, like Japan, some aspects just struck a nerve from time to time, as an American, as a man, and as a traveler who has seen other places across the globe. Decide for yourself. I welcome dissenters.

1. Respect for the elderly

Some people might put this under the “right” category, but in my opinion this is based on limited experience in Korea and only seeing deference to the older generations… not how they abuse this respect, sometimes reaching behavior in line with bullies and sociopaths.

Although this is certainly not a minority of the population, it would be a mistake to say all older Koreans act with such arrogance; the worst I’ve seen personally is ajummas shushing me on a bus and an unstable ajussi going off on a racial tirade. And I’m just a foreign resident. It’s worse for younger Koreans who actually believe they have to listen to them. This can be as personal an attack as an older woman walking up to a random university student and telling her her skirt is too short, or yelling at someone in disgust because she’s dating a foreign man.

This is what most foreigners see outside a Korean work environment, but when the relationship between older and younger is placed in a professional setting, where livelihoods are at stake, it becomes much, much worse. Younger company employees may be asked by their superiors to stay out all night and sleep with prostitutes to show “respect for them and the company”. Blatant, sometimes fatal errors by superiors may simply go unchallenged because of the status quo.

2. Alcohol

I’m not only referring to the quality of drinks in Korea, but how they are drunk. Bokbunja, soju, makgeolli, Cass or Hite beer… no one would drink these things if something better were available, despite the growing worldwide trend of soju cocktails. Now, I’m a fan of makgeolii, bokbunja, and the two mixed together, but that was simply due to the lack of options. Give me a decent scotch, whiskey, or wine any day of the week. The advantages these spirits have in Korea are their cheap prices and absence of laws concerning public consumption and intoxication.

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Which brings me to my second point: Korean men love to drink. I used to think Japan was a work hard, play hard culture when it came to getting drunk at company outings and university students getting plastered on the weekends, but Korea takes the cake across the board. Just walk though the streets of Gangnam on a Saturday or Sunday morning and count how many people you see passed out on the sidewalk.

3. Wasting resources

Rather than waste my time hashing out the trivialities of the territory disputes in Korea, I’d like to focus on how Korea handles its Dokdo and East Sea propaganda. For the sake of argument (and to avoid incurring the wrath of netizens), let’s say Korea’s claims that Dokdo belongs to them and the rest of the world should call the Sea of Japan the East Sea are 100% reasonable and legitimate.

Bearing that in mind, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Korean government invests a significant percentage of its budget on propaganda: Dokdo-brand water, Dokdo Marathon, Dokdo t-shirts, even a permanent display of the history of Dokdo in a public elementary school. No one is challenging their position. Dokdo drivel can be found across the globe. Japan really, really doesn’t care anymore – it wouldn’t surprise me if there are those in the Japanese government who release controversial statements just to see how right-wing Koreans will react, as a form of entertainment.

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4. Work ethic

I don’t even know where to begin on this one. A lot of Americans tout the school systems of China, Korea, and Japan as superior to those at home because of the better results in test scores and the greater emphasis on discipline. On paper, they are absolutely correct: students in Asia are better… at studying. And studying. And studying until they die.

Students wake up early, go to school for hours, study, walk over to a hagwon for language study, maybe go to a second cram school, study, and pass out from exhaustion six days a week. Not out of a sense of devotion to their studies, but more likely due to their parents pressuring them to do well so they can get into a SKY university and a good job. So too does this mentality continue into their working lives, and can drive some to suicide.

5. Plastic surgery

Every Korean woman you know through the media spotlight (with the exception of the president… I hope) has had plastic surgery. That may sound like hyperbole, but when you compare the face of an average Korean woman to one in show business or modeling, the differences could not be clearer: no double eyelids, thinner nose, sharper chin (to create the “small face” look). As much as Bangkok is a medical tourism capital of the world and offers cheap sex change operations to lady boys, Seoul’s plastic surgeons don’t even need to advertise: every little girl is told practically from birth whether she’s beautiful or ugly, and what she should do to “fix” it. In a world of x-lines and s-lines, Korean standards of beauty are a constant source of pressure on young women. The problem is, while many cultures hold beauty in high esteem, for Koreans, there is no natural way for a woman to be considered beautiful by current standards without resorting to the knife. That’s dangerous, to say the least.

6. Tourism

I have to side with Michael on this one. Although I would definitely recommend Korea as a great place for living, with comfort and convenience, it’s not exactly high on anyone’s list for tourism. Sure, you might enjoy samgyupsal on Jeju Island after a long mountain hike, but I can’t bring to mind anything extraordinarily prominent on the peninsula that really calls to people across the world. The DMZ, Gyeongju, Gyeongbokgung Palace… while these places are certainly interesting, they just don’t scream at me to pay for an international flight.

7. Driving

Ah, where to begin. China and Thailand aren’t exactly innocent in all of this either, but their infrastructure of roads and motorways is far less developed. It’s rare you would come across an unpaved street or road in need of repair anywhere in the country, but that doesn’t prevent drivers in Korea from behaving the same way as their neighbors to the west.

Those dash cam videos are a good indication of what goes on here: people just simply don’t care or pay attention. There’s some kind of disconnect with reality.

Oh, I hit a motorbike? Oh well, it happens.

I’m going insanely fast on an icy road? Well, how else am I supposed to get home?

It’s worse than China, in a sense; at least over there, with the crumbling roads and poorly-maintained vehicles, one comes to expect chaos. But in a modern nation like Korea, it’s deceiving: the drivers exhibit the same ridiculous behavior, but on clean roads with immaculate cars.

8. Cheese and pizza

No Korean person who has lived there his entire life could have any idea what real cheese and real pizza is. There are some specialty shops in Seoul and Busan offering something besides the sharp cheddar that is available in HomePlus, but a pizza, with an appropriate quantity of tomato sauce and seasoning? Forget about it. Better make your own, but you won’t have an oven.

9. Eating solo

I had a particularly difficult time with this, living in a small town with only a handful of restaurants. Nevertheless, it’s true that at a portion of places in Korea, you simply won’t be allowed to eat by yourself. Most of the time this is for group dining, i.e. BBQ or kimchi jigae, but it’s a little frustrating to not be able to order some of your favorite Korean dishes without first checking to see if your friends can come. While this makes eating out a more social experience, I was at a disadvantage the majority of my time in Korea.

10. Public bathrooms

Unlike other public facilities at which Korea absolutely excels – Incheon Airport, the Seoul subway system – it’s surprising just how run down and ill-equipped most public bathrooms are. I actually have no complaints against the squat toilets; in fact, I believe they’re better. But even in high-traffic areas like the Dongseoul Bus Terminal or a department store, toilet paper is only available outside the stalls, soap is rarely given (and if it is, it’s a “stroking” bar that leaves everyone’s germs on it), and I have yet to see dryers or paper towels offered at all. Unlike in most western countries, where users deposit their toilet paper in the bowl and then flush, Korea believes the best way to avoid clogs is to simply provide a waste bin next to the commode and let citizens smell everyone’s waste.

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