My Love/Hate Relationship with Korea

Being over halfway through our year here in Korea, I feel like I have a new perspective on a lot of things regarding the culture and customs here. Now that we’ve had time to settle in, learn some things and fall into normal day-to-day routines, I feel like it’s time to share the things I love (and hate) about this country. I’ll start with the things I hate so we can end on a positive note…

What I Hate About Korea

1.) There is an extreme disregard for personal space in this country. I don’t know if it’s because it’s just a crowded country (48,875,000 people in a country about the size of Indiana), or if it’s more of a cultural thing, but being pushed or crowded while walking, lining up or attempting to get on or off public transportation is the norm. It’s the kind of thing I can’t get used to, and it oftentimes still makes me livid. I know it’s not considered rude here and so I should accept it…but I just can’t. I want to scream “GET OUT OF MY BUBBLE!” every time some old lady shoves me to get on the bus.

2.) Everything you buy from the grocery store comes in about 5 times too much packaging. Same with take out. Expect your take out, fruit, veggies and even eggs to not only be in cardboard or Styrofoam (the worst!), but also covered in plastic wrap and probably some ties as well; then the whole thing will be double-bagged in plastic bags. This one kills me, because in Seattle I made a very conscious effort to buy things with minimal packaging and to avoid plastics. That is nearly impossible here. I still make an effort to bring my own reusable grocery bags, which nearly always causes some some nervous laughter and or confusion as I refuse the plastic bags. At least they have a good recycling system here…

3.) Squatter toilets are the worst. No need to rehash this one, I already thoroughly over-shared about the bathroom situation in Korea here.

4.) There are so many drunk, old men. Drinking is a big part of the culture here–there are many rituals surrounding drinking, including how it’s served, and who serves who, etc.–especially among men, and even more so among old men. It is way too common to see belligerent old men stumbling down the street, sleeping on the subway, or puking on the sidewalk. Not a fan.

To be fair, I have no proof this old man was drunk. But it’s not an uncommon site to see people passed out drunk on the subway.

5.) Korean winters are absolutely terrible. Maybe I’m just a huge baby, but this last winter was so cold I thought I was going to die on the spot every time I stepped outside. Three months of snow, ice, arctic winds, subzero temperatures and gray skies was not my idea of a good time.

6.) Nothing in Korea is ever a comfortable temperature or volume. I actually stole that phrase from our friend Andrew, but I definitely think it’s true. When it’s cold here, the heaters on the bus are blasting and the busses get way too hot, but the opposite was true for our schools this winter. Despite the fact that it was usually below zero, the school windows would be open, and the heaters barely trickled heat. Now that it’s getting warm, I’m noticing a lot of teachers still won’t use their fans, and the busses still have the heat on. I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

As for the volume–it’s always loud, no matter what the situation or place. When you go into stores, salespeople will scream at you in a microphone–as if that would ever make me want to buy anything! The students shout their answers back at me instead of just speaking normally. Television commercials are too loud, and the music in bars is always FAR too loud. I will be amazed if I haven’t lost some of my hearing by the time we leave Korea.

Apparently loud music and yelling in megaphones is supposed to make me want to vote for someone…

7.) None of the coffee shops in Korea have soymilk. I take this one as a personal affront since I can’t drink milk. I love lattes…and yet in Korea, I’m (mostly) deprived. The only coffee shop that carries soy in Korea is Starbucks, and there are no Starbucks’ in my town. I guess if I’m looking on the bright side it helps me save money and gives me something to look forward to in Seoul…but still. I really wish Korea would jump on the soy bandwagon already.

Drinking black coffee…but not enjoying it nearly as much as I would if it was a soy latte!

…so now, lest you think I actually do hate Korea, here are the things I love about this country!

What I Love About Korea

1.) Korean food is so cheap. Matt and I frequently eat out and barely ever pay more than 15,000 won (about $15) total. Usually it’s less than 10,000 won. Plus, almost all Korean food is delicious.

2.) Korean people are friendly. While strangers might point and/or giggle, if you actually smile at them, you are sure to get a huge grin back. Little old ladies are constantly babbling away to me in Korean, big grins on their faces, totally oblivious to the fact that I don’t understand a word. I just smile and nod, and they seem to appreciate that. On a deeper level, the Korean friends we’ve made have been absolutely invaluable to us–once they know you, Koreans treat you like family, which is awesome.

3.) Korean public transit is amazing. Seriously, amazing. Subways and busses are cheap, clean, they always come on time, and for the most part, everything is easy to understand. Busses not so much if you can’t read Korean, but the subways are heaven for tourists–everything is translated into both English and Chinese, and the entire system is both numbered and color-coded. It is so nice to have reliable public transportation–one less thing to worry about!

4.) Even the taxis are cheap. I’m talking dirt cheap! Never in my life would I have taken a taxi from the grocery store if it would only be a ten minute walk home, but these days, if my arms are full of groceries, I’ll pay the 3,000 won to be dropped off at home. I’m not joking–most taxi rides we take here (within our town) are less than $3. I find that insane, and thrilling. Taxis in and out of Seoul are never more than $50, which is at minimum an hour away, some parts about two hours away. To put that into perspective, I once paid $200 for a two hour cab ride in New York City.

5.) Korea is shopping heaven. If you like ridiculously overpriced designer handbags, you’re in luck–because swanky department stores are abundant. If you think $3 is too much for a shirt, you’re also in luck–street shopping and subway shops are literally all around you. For me, these little booths and shops (plus a ton of cheap boutiques) are where it’s at. Too bad I’m trying to save money to travel…I could easily quadruple the size of my wardrobe here.

6.) Korean springtime is breathtakingly beautiful. Koreans deserve this gorgeous spring to make up for the horrid winters. It’s between 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit everyday, humid (but not too humid), and sunny. Flowers are blooming everywhere, suddenly all that was gray is green. I hear it’ll all go away soon when monsoon season starts, so I’m trying to soak up every moment!

7.) In Korea, I’m like a celebrity, especially among the children. People I don’t know say hi to me, parents make their kids wave at me, people take my picture, and when I walk around school or town, people yell my name. I’m not joking. I don’t think I’ll ever again have a job where people both bow to me and tell me I’m beautiful all day, so I might as well enjoy it…

Fan mail.

8.) And lastly, I think we might have the best apartment in Korea. I certainly didn’t think so when we first arrived, but after seeing other peoples places (so small!) and hearing people complain about not having bathtubs or room for a double bed (we have two double beds in our place), I think we hit the jackpot. We also have killer views from our 14th floor apartment–my new favorite thing to do now that it’s warm is to sit on our sun porch with a drink and read or watch the city below. It’s the perfect way to end a day, or start a weekend morning.

So there you have it…my love/hate list. What’s your favorite thing and least favorite thing about where you live?


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About andreasherrodd

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11 responses to “My Love/Hate Relationship with Korea”

  1. waterfallsandcaribous says :

    I’m extremely jealous of your little balcony! How cool 🙂 And I totally feel you on the no soy thing – I don’t drink cow either and as a stuck up Kiwi coffee snob, I’d kill for a soy flat white right about now…

  2. Julie Smith (@JulieSmithMusic) says :

    I spent two weeks in January (2010) in Korea and it was FREEZING. I don’t know how you survived a whole winter! 🙂 I do agree with most of what you said, especially that the people are so amazing and the food is delicious! I love the supermarket stores that have everything in them – groceries on one floor, clothes on another floor, etc, etc. Really wish I could go back soon!

  3. Gail Sherrodd says :

    Remember when Su Chang told us about boarding buses in China? It seems like standing in an orderly line is a Western thing. Buy yourself some earplugs and enjoy the good weather while you have it. It looks beautiful right now. Great post!

  4. Rachel says :

    I pretty much totally agree with you! Looks like you did luck out in your apartment! Another personal space issue I have is that my coteachers are always touching me – and I don’t really like being touched by people that aren’t my boyfriend, family, or good friends. I think personal space is just defined differently here. Also I am really wary of drunk people on trains now. But I love the food and great public transportation! I just wish it was more bikeable.

    • andreasherrodd says :

      Yah, personal space (as well as privacy in general) is something I miss! And even though I think Gwangju might be a little bit more bikeable than Incheon, it’s still a little intense–traffic, no bike lanes, etc. Matt was really hoping to get a moped here…and once we got here we realized how terrifying that would actually be!

  5. LonelyTravelog says :

    I got to agree with u that their winter season is horrendous! Their transport system is relatively cheap and fantastic too! Oh ya great view to catch the sunset from your balcony. Cheers!

    • andreasherrodd says :

      I never want to live somewhere with a real winter ever again after this year! It’s funny because while we always liked our view, we never fully appreciated it until it got warm and we could sit on the balcony. Now it’s our favorite place to eat! 🙂

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