Monday, May 30, 2011

The pros and cons of South Korea

While I've only been here about 2 weeks on my trip I have observed several things about the Korean society, both positive and negative. Overall my feelings a positive but I felt a list like this would give others a good sense about the country and what to expect if they do happen to visit.

Money - The Korean Won not only goes far in this country (a good meal with drink is usually around 8000 won or so, $1 is about 1000 won) but tax is almost always included in prices which are mostly rounded to the 1000.  The custom of tipping that we are so used to in the states is also nowhere to be found here, making your money stretch even further. The so called T-money cards which are loaded for transportation are also extremely efficient, Korea is closer to a cashless society than almost any in the world.

Public Transportation - Although not without it's negatives the transport system here is Seoul is amazing. The subway system blows anything else in the states away, it is well organized, super clean, fast, and cheap. Even as a foreigner it is easy to navigate as long as you know where you are going. Also taxis are way cheaper than in the states, I'd say probably half the cost. There is also a massive bus system that goes all over the city and it only costs 900 won to ride in most cases (around 85 cents). The subway system is the best though, it is mind blowing.

Safety - Never have I traveled somewhere, or even lived for that matter, where I felt so safe. While I cannot find exact statistics on it there is no doubt that this is a far safer place than the US. I've heard stories of people leaving their belongings behind in places, even their wallets, and coming back hours later to find them untouched. It probably helps that there are cameras strewn all across the city, but if it keeps people safe then it's hard to disapprove.

Food - While a bit tough on my former vegetarian diet the food here is delicious, interesting, and cheap. It is very meat centric, usually meals consist of some cut of meat which is grilled at the table. With that come side dishes from basic salads to the infamous Korean dish kimchi (a fermented vegetable usually cabbage or radishes). Often the meat is wrapped in lettuce leaves and dunked in various sauces, or in others (as in shabu shabu which I really like) it is cooked in a broth mixed with vegetables. Oh and there's definitely lots of garlic, which I love. Just last night too I had probably my favorite meal at this all you can eat tuna place where they bring you fresh sashimi cuts of delicious tuna. I still eat fish back in the states, so even though this was the most expensive meal I had at around $20, it was probably the most satisfying. While they could stand a bit more variety I definitely think the food here is a major positive about Korea.

Girls - Holy hell there are an amazing amount of attractive ladies in this place. Almost everyone wears high heels and shorts skirts, legs are on full display here. Girls get done up to go just about everywhere, and a part of the scenery I must say it is enjoyable.

Terrain - Even though Seoul is an absolutely enormous city you are never far from nature, as you can see mountainous terrain all over the place. You feel much less boxed in than a city like New York. There are lots of parks and beautiful sites around to see amongst the huge buildings (although I will say the architecture here is rather drab). If you want to see a good view of Seoul and the surroundings check this video I shot up in Namsan tower:

Friendliness - While plenty of people won't approach you being a foreigner that still hasn't stopped a few from coming up just to ask if we needed help (sometimes I must look pretty lost). In some cases if you ask for directions people will actually take you to where you want to go rather than just pointing it out. And anytime you buy something from a store or are served in anyway you are always greeted by a smile. Definitely can't say the same thing for your average convenience store employee in the states. Also I recently discovered the "information" girls around certain parts of town who are just there to answer questions people (mostly foreigners) may have about the given area. Does such a thing exist anywhere in the states? Maybe but not as prevalent at least.

Bath houses - Pure relaxation and comfort, althougt surely not everyone's cup of tea. Jimjilban's are Korea bathhouses where you can go to shower and relax amongst hot and cold tubs, saunas, get a massage and even sleep. Certain parts are segregated by sex because they are fully nude which at first may seem a little weird but when in Rome as they say. After a night of drinking nothing feels better. I've been to 2 different ones at this point, the second one was a lot more involved at had this great heated room with the bed of hot rocks you could lay down on. That was in the coed part, which everyone can go to after the bathhouse and throwing on some relaxing pajama style clothes. And after the hot room hitting a cold room was invigorating. When finished you emerge feeling better than at any other point during the day. It's like a public spa that costs $6, awesome.

Public bathrooms - Koreans probably think nothing of it but living in America so long it really stands out. Why is it so hard to find a public restroom in the states? Even in big cities like New York I don't see them at most subway stops, and almost anywhere you go is for customers only. Sometimes they even say employees only! Here they are everywhere, very easy to find especially if you know where a subway stop is. Maybe it's due to the lack of homeless people of which there are hardly any. Seriously though America should catch up, I guarantee there is a direct correlation between the amount of public restrooms and public urination. 

No trashcans - I'll start this list off with a small gripe, but what's with the lack of trash cans in this country? People are often encouraged to throw their garbage on the ground because someone will pick it up later. Sometimes your best bet of finding a trashcan is a public restroom. At least when you do find them there's a series with different ones for recyclables and the like.

Substances - I rip on the US drug laws often, but being over here I realize I should feel lucky. Alcohol and nicotine are what is condoned here, marijuana and other drugs are heavily criminalized and looked down upon. I could write a lot about this but it is my belief that other drugs can have much more positive effects on people, their well being and world views can be changed and improved. Alcohol has more negative effects, not saying I don't enjoy them often times but they can not do the good that others can. I can only hope one day this world will wake up and recategorize the dangers of different drugs as the British drug czar famously did in 2009 before he was fired. And Korea is WAY behind Britain in this issue. Plus Soju gives you terrible hangovers. But when that and sub-par beer is all that is readily available people end up drinking a lot more than they should. Korea has a very high alcoholism rate as a result (11th I believe I was told, although I couldn't find exact figures).

No dryers - While it is nice that the most of the small apartments here have their own washing machines it seems that almost no one, even big places, use dryers. Rack drying ruins your clothes, making them brittle and scratchy. And towels are just awful. I guess if you grow up using small rough towels your whole life you don't really mind but man they don't know what they're missing in a big, fluffy towel.

Music - The music here is terrible. K-pop (as Korean pop music is dubbed) is lame and almost all your hear besides American music. Being from the states we are spoiled with musical  (and people) diversity, but there is no convincing me their music is good. Derivative and lame through and through. In fact the best song I have found here is a comedy "joke song" called Itaewon Freedom which is pretty good in it's own right. Check it out, but just remember it's all WAY downhill from here:

Public transportation shuts down at midnight - For as good as the public transportation system is here it's a pretty big fail that the subway and buses shut down at midnight. If this happened in New York there would be riots. And even in big cities like Chicago some of the lines shut down but not all of them, they just run slower. Often this means on the weekend people stay out drinking until 6am when everything opens back up. Madness.

Lack of diversity and individualism - This is my biggest knock on Korea. In some ways it is hard to fault a country for being what it is, but never have I visited somewhere in all my life that exhibited such homogeneity throughout their country's peoples as if it was a good thing. People of different nations are looked down upon, I'm all for a feeling of nationalistic pride but here it is very close minded. Some in the US exhibit this trait but I would consider them less intelligent than the average Korean. When I ride the subway here I am usually the only white guy doing so. This is also NOT a country that promotes individuality. What results is a culture of productive followers who look and act alike. There is no real counter-culture here, and that really shows in their music and general attitudes of always trying to act like everything is sunny and great even when it is not. It is then no surprise that Korea has the 2nd highest suicide rate in the world currently (according to wikipedia which places Lithuania number 1 and the US 39 for comparison). When you aren't encouraged to by yourself and feel how you feel it puts great strain on your person. There is immense pressure on school children to succeed, I've heard stories of kids freaking out over getting 98% on their tests because their parents will punish them. That's just one example, and while the US could learn a lot from Korea's schooling system the Korean people could learn a lot from the States' emphasis on individualism and our free thinking society.

While I could probably think of a few more things to add to both sides of this list these are the original things that stood out to me. I also want to be clear that even though I wrote about a lot of negative stuff I still think South Korea is a great country and am very glad I visited. They have done great things with their society, but they could benefit a lot form loosening up a bit and being more accepting of other cultures and ideas. So if you get a chance to visit Seoul and the surrounding areas you should go for it. If you come from the US though you will most likely find a place that is not as different as you would have imagined from the big cities of America, but is lacking in many of the things that makes places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and even Nashville so great. For now that is all, I'll detail more of my personal experience later but I just felt like writing this first.


  1. Hey Rob, I was fortunate enough to visit Seoul and Busan over spring break with my great girl Kim. Haha her name alone reminds me of the homogeneity. I felt like a total alien when I was traveling around, few people would talk to me because they knew they could just talk to her in Korean. The rigid vibes really got to me after a few days, if I didn't have my own private tour guide in her I probably would have lost it. I found some slices of underground, at least counter culture mimicking american counter culture. The music was sparse but I found some decent jazz once. The prevalence of karaoke is just one example of how for some reason they don't embrace individuality. It's good to hear people were helpful with you.

    The best parts were probably the seaside temple in busan, the live professional starcraft 1 match, and Lotteworld, holy crap monster malls. The food was definitely harsh for vegs, the best vegan friendly stuff I felt were the seasoned seaweeds (hate kimchi personally). All the monks are vegans so they have some interesting non bbq. I feel like a fool for not checking out the DMZ but good tip if I ever go back. Plenty of insight on this blog I'll be back.

  2. For some reason I just saw your comment, that's awesome you got to visit too! I also went to Busan and loved it, definitely deserves an entry of its own. Thanks for your comment man, if you're ever rolling through Nashville you better hit me up!

  3. I think Kpop is amazing.

  4. KPOP is amazing, and I'm American. I know it's your opinion but atleast say "I THINK K-pop is terrible." If it was terrible they wouldn't listen to it.

  5. Thanks for sharing the details, good and bad about South Korea. It is good to know that it I safer than US and you are having a good time.