My study abroad was the perfect end to an amazing college experience, and as a Yonsei student I observed many positive and negative aspects of Korean culture. Making such amazing friends during my study abroad wasn’t something I anticipated but it’s something I’ll never, ever forget.
I’ve had some intense bittersweet feelings since I’ve returned to the United States, feelings that will fade over time but will never completely disappear. I thought I’d take a break from job and apartment hunting to comment on a couple aspects of Korean culture and share some insights I gained from living in Seoul for five months.
First of all, growing up in a small town and even visiting Chicago every once in a while in no way prepared me to live in Seoul. It’s a mega-city, sprawling, crowded and never resting (not surprising considering it houses half of the whole country’s population). When I think of a city I picture a definite downtown with skyscrapers surrounded by suburbs; in Seoul, however, towering buildings are both clustered together in significant areas and spread out among each district for miles and miles. The Han river cuts through the center of the city, and I lived in the north-west of Seoul. I still remember my feeling of awe crossing the river by subway the first time; even now, half a year later, I am amazed at how this massive city stretches as far as the eye can see. Four months barely scratches the surface on what it has to offer, teach, give, take.
Some random observations I’ve made throughout my studies:
– Technology is advanced and extremely expensive here. Even many older people have Samsung smart phones, and young people have great phones, laptops, tablets, cameras, etc.
– Many Koreans are obsessed with selfies, dating/marriage, and getting the best education/job/brands.
– Anyang, the city next to Seoul where I tutored English, is a planned city, something that I haven’t really seen in the United States. This means that it’s filled with tall apartment buildings that look the same, wide streets, and while I not often see kids in Sinchon, Anyang is packed to the brim with schools, hagwons, and establishments catering to kids or families.
– Korean people are more preoccupied than some cultures with outward appearance; they tend to pay more attention to fashion trends, it’s not uncommon for men to wear light makeup (think skincare products), and supposedly one in five Korean women has had plastic surgery (mostly to get a double eyelid, making the eyes appear bigger).
– Korean food is less salty than American food, sometimes sweet, and almost always includes a bowl of white rice. Groceries are quite expensive, probably as a result of importing, and because of that there are tiny restaurants every other step that serve filling food that’s cheaper than cooking. It’s also incredibly delicious!
– Company working culture, from what I’ve heard and seen, can be a lot more stressful than American office culture. The Confucian tradition in Korean society dictates that younger company members always respect elders, and this means working unpaid overtime without complaint, going along with superiors on bad decisions, and never refusing a drink from a superior. Drinking goes along with the office culture in that employees often go to after-work mandatory dinner and drinks.