Back in February 2010 I moved to South Korea. When I first got there it was very rare to see a foreigner. It was so rare that if you happened to find one, you would immediately approach and start a conversation. However, nowadays you can see foreigners everywhere. South Korea has become a very international country. Most foreigners that you will find in Korea are exchange students, English teachers, company workers or american soldiers.
The reaction from Koreans towards foreigners has also changed. Since Korea has such a homogeneous race, it is very easy to spot a foreigner. I remember people would stare a lot or yell “Hello” randomly in the street. What shocked me the most was when I was at the supermarket with my friends and people would just approach us asking a bunch of questions like where are you from?, what are you doing here?, can you teach me English?, etc. I felt that Koreans didn’t really have that concept of “private life” or personal space, specially older people. I also found some people who would ask things like what do your parents do for a living?, how much do you pay for school?, do you have a boyfriend?, How old are you?, etc. It was shocking at first but I guess their curiosity is understandable since they are not used to seeing a foreign face.
There were some occasions when I felt a little offended though. Like the time I went to a restaurant with my husband and the waitress wrote “외국인” (foreigner) in our bill, even though we spoke and ordered in Korean. Or when me and my friends couldn’t get in a club just because we were foreigners. Even though things have improved a lot since those days there is still some hints of discrimination. When the Ebola virus breakout happened in 2014 people became very paranoid, staff from the airport were giving out masks and fliers about the virus. All flights coming in from any African country or from an African Airline would have to go through check ups. Later the same situation happened with MERS virus in 2015. In both cases they took it to be bigger than it really was. So even though Koreans are more used to foreigners now there are still some levels of xenophobia in the way of thinking that foreigners are to blame for bringing bad things into the country.
Korea has changed so much. Not only during these past years but also passing from being one of the poorest countries in the world after the end of the Korean War in 1953 to becoming one of the best cases for development in Asia. They really take pride in that. When I was studying about Korean History I was so amazed to see how such an agrarian society that went through a devastating war could rise so fast. Koreans are a very proud people. Proud of their country, their history, their food, etc. In their minds Korea is the best country in the world. They always want to point out how great Korea is and many South East Asian people also see this. Many South East Asians immigrate to Korea looking for “The Korean Dream”. That is, better economical opportunities and a better life for their families.
Korea has been making huge efforts trying to bring more international attention towards them. One of those things was “The Korean Wave”. Korea became known and popular around the world for their K-pop groups and Korean Dramas. Who hasn’t heard of Gangnam Style, right? So when people became big fans of these, they wanted to go to Korea and learn Korean. However, learning Korean was not an easy task. Many western foreigners had a really hard time and eventually quit. It comes easier for Japanese and Chinese students since the sounds and grammar are very similar.
Education in Korea was kind of weird for me though. There is an incredible amount of pressure put into studying and “studying” meaning memorizing. I have seen many news and articles talking about how “good” Korean education was. However, it is not really about the Korean Educational System. It is about how powerful the pressure to study is. I agree that Education is important but not to this extent. Many students since middle school attend 학원 (Academy) after school. So it means they are studying for more than 12 hours a day to prepare for the entrance exam to University. There is thing called SKY Universities. (Seoul University, Koryo University and Yonsei University.) So basically it is a national belief that if you don’t get into one of these 3 Universities then you will never get a good job and make good money, therefore have a good life. Imagine the pressure put on these teenagers. The though that if you don’t pass this one exam then your whole life is over. That’s why Korea has one of the highest suicide rate in the world especially during exam periods. They take failure very seriously.
So this memorizing technique for studying doesn’t really work for foreigners. Especially if you had an Educational System that is about understanding, analyzing and interpreting the subject in your own words instead of only memorizing it the way it is taught to you. Maybe that is why I felt that many Koreans lacked creativity in the way they did things. When working together in groups people would just follow one person, the eldest person in the group. There is this thing called the 선배-후배 relationship. That is, you have to follow your elder, the people who are in a higher grade than you. Not always because they know more than you or have more experience but just because they are older. It was really frustrating for me since as a Latina I’m used to speaking my mind, having equal relationships with my classmates, work with the exchange of ideas and discussing opinions instead of just blindly agreeing.
There is also a lot of pressure to learn English. During university most people take a gap year or a semester off to go to English camps or English programs in Canada, Australia or Philippines. It was very interesting because I met a lot of Koreans who would study English really hard and pass all the written exams but still couldn’t really speak it. It’s because they focus everything in memorization. I had to attend many English classes as they were part of my curriculum and I could see the frustration in the professor’s face. I think most students are just tired of being pushed to learn English all their lives, some don’t really care and many are just embarrassed to practice it.
I had this one class for English grammar and it was taught in the most bizarre way. I had done great in all of my other English classes but this one was just hell for me. I couldn’t understand a thing and I almost failed it. It was a class about English grammar in preparation for TOEIC taught in Korean. TOEIC is like an easier version of TOEFL. An English proficiency exam that only tests for readying and listening. So the professor told me that if i passed the TOEIC exam then he would pass me in the class, which I did at the end. So it really made me wonder. How does it makes sense that I got a perfect score in TOEIC but I couldn’t do well in a class that is in preparation for TOEIC?? That really says a lot about their teaching methods.
University life was quite different from what I saw in other countries. Most guys don’t take their fist year seriously and its normal to fail most classes during their first year. That is because guys, after their first year of university, go to a mandatory 2-year military service. It was so weird because during my first year the classroom was completely full and then during my second year it was half empty, mostly girls and a few older guys who had returned from their 2 year service.
MT (membership training) is an activity done every year at the beginning of the year to create bonds with people in your major and introduce the freshmen . Its basically a weekend trip with all you classmates and professors. Teams are made with freshman, sophomore, junior and seniors all mixed up. There are some speeches by the professors, team building games, performances and drink, drink and drink. Freshman from each team have to go around the other teams introducing themselves and having one shot of Soju.
Another thing that I didn’t expect was a lecture I had during my first year about your SPEC which is a portfolio of all of your life achievements, diplomas, scholarships, awards, etc. Professors wouldn’t stop making emphasis about filling your SPEC which serves as your Resume. Imagine applying for a job and instead of giving just a paper or two you give a folder as heavy as an encyclopedia. We also had these “consulting sessions” with a professor twice a semester to talk about our plans… life plans, vacation plans on how to study more English, participate in volunteer programs in developing countries like Cambodia or Vietnam, take part-time jobs, do some internships, etc.
Seriously! So much pressure. It was already hard for me the fact that I had to study in a foreign language and then they came adding all that other stuff I was expected to do. I met a lot of people who also had a really hard time in Korea. Even though Korea has made a lot of effort to bring foreigners, I felt that they didn’t really have the necessary tools to help them adapt to such a different environment. It is not only the language that is hard but also because Koreans are used to doing things the Korean way and don’t understand that people come from different backgrounds and have different ideas or different expectations for life. That was also one of the reasons why I felt Korea was not the right place for me to stay and work after graduation.
So once you made it through all that stress in University then you have to worry about entering one of the big conglomerate companies like Samsung, LG or Lotte so you can make good money and have a good life. The working environment was also something I didn’t agree with. The same 선배-후배 relationship where you can’t really speaking up your mind or disagree with something. Just like MT in university, there is 회식 (eating out with your co-workers). It’s the same concept of consuming lots of alcohol to improve relationships among each other. I felt that drinking in Korea was more of a social obligation (peer pressure) than an enjoyable activity.
There are some occasions where professors invite students, usually to places like buffet or sangyopsal to celebrate the end of the semester or the end of a project. A way of saying Good job. Koreans do this a lot. Always celebrating with food and it’s really good food. But what angered me was that I got scolded because I didn’t want to drink. (FYI Soyu is the cheapest alcohol in Korea and taste like pure alcohol.) They explained that drinking was an essential way to create closer bonds with your classmates and co-workers. Because when people are sober they have to behave according to the 선배-후배 relationship. But when they are drunk then they can be equal and show their real self.
Here is a Korean Drama that was filmed at my University. I really liked University campuses in Korea. The buildings are very beautiful and it is like a mini city. Since I lived at the dorms I would spend most of my days only inside the campus. We had a huge library, some cafeterias, restaurants and coffee shops around. As well as mini markets, stationary stores and even norebang (karaoke).
Another thing that Korea has been known for its plastic surgery and beauty cosmetics:
Korean girls are obsessed with having big eyes. Many use circle contact lenses which have a thick black outer line that gives the illusion of making the eye bigger. Also fake thick eyelashes to accentuate the eyes are very common. Many Koreans want to look more western. Usual plastic procedures are double eyelids, high noses, jaw reduction and cheekbone shaving. It is because Koreans want to have a more thin face rather than the chubby round face. Some classmates explained to me that parents would give plastic surgery to their children as a gift after graduation since it is believed that appearance weights heavily for having a good job and getting married. So they see paying for education as important as paying for plastic surgery for a better future.
Also dieting is a big deal in Korea. However it is so contradicting as Koreans love to eat. Korea has such a foodie culture where people are always eating, eating is part of social interaction. Nevertheless girls always have to mention dieting which is understandable because people would point out very openly if you have gained or lost weight. Just like saying Hello, how are you? they would say Hello, you have gained weight huh. Many of my foreign friends took it very offensive since in the western world is it not common for classmates or coworkers (man and woman) to talk so freely about you weight as if talking about the weather. You can’t really blame these girls for feeling the social pressure towards looking like k-pop stars. When Korean people say thin, its not toned and well fit but rather skinny. They don’t see muscles as being attractive, they just want to be skinny.
Social environment and social expectation can really affect you. I used to not wear make-up at all but when I moved to Korea everyone would wear make-up so it felt like as if you were under-dressed if you didn’t. However I did love to go shopping in Myeongdong. The most popular cosmetic brands are Etude House, Skinfood, Innisfree, Nature Republic, Tonymoly, etc. Packaging in Korea is so cute and it makes you want to buy everything, especially because they are always giving free samples. They have all kinds of things that are not common to find in western countries. They take skin care regime very seriously. Many beauty products are also emphasized to make you look whiter. I loved the creams and face masks but I couldn’t really find make-up that would match my skin color since they focus more on light skin colors. For Scandinavian countries being tanned is a sign of beauty, youth and vitality but in Asia it is the opposite and people avoid getting tanned as much as possible. Wearing big hats, long sleeves and umbrellas during the summer is very common.
North Korea situation:
During my stay in Korea there were a couple of times where there were big threats of war from the North and I actually had no knowledge of it. School was the same, class was the same, no one talked about it and there was no sign of an emergency situation. However the rest of the world was freaking out because international media had made such a big deal about it. I was told by Koreans that threats from the north were not rare and people were already used to this so that’s why life in Koreans remained the same regardless of these treats and political tension.
Nowadays there have been more awareness projects about the situation of North Korea, as well as programs to help defectors adapt to their new life in South Korea. Young people don’t really address the issue with North Korea nor are very involved in efforts for reunifying. The only time I discussed or learned anything about North Korea was during my history class. Even though South and North Koreans come from the same roots, due to the extreme situations, they now face many differences. Even language is not all the same.
There are obviously many things that I have missed from Korea. Things that you would only find in Korea and that I took as routine in my life there. Korea felt like a very safe country. People in Korea were very care free and would leave their laptop and cellphone on the table at the coffee shop or the library and go to the bathroom. Walking at night was also quite safe except for some crazy drunk people you might find. Life was very comfortable and convenient. Transportation is great, many places are open 24 hours, there is free wifi everywhere and so much technology around. Having a phone is a must as people from school or work communicate mainly by Kakaotalk (similar to whatsapp), you can see the schedule for trains and even reserve tickets, you can do bank transfers from you phone at any time, etc. Not having a phone in Korea is like not being able to function well in the Korean Lifestyle. I really enjoyed all the different and sometimes weird things that Korea had to offer. Of course dealing with certain situations was not easy and being a foreigner in a mostly homogeneous country with somewhat of a close minded culture was sometimes challenging. However I felt that Korea has become such a great country and developed so much, it is a truly unique experience you probably won’t find anywhere else. Safe Travels!
Eat your kimchi is one the best blogs about Korea that you are going to find. Before moving to Korea I watched their youtube videos and it really helped me prepare and know what to expect. They have now moved to Japan but you can still read and watch their videos about Korea.