Culture Shock: Korea

Gribook Culture Shock: Korea

Glad I read this book when I was already in South Korea!

If I would’ve read it before – like you’re supposed to do when moving to the other side of the continent – my expectations from this country would’ve been inaccurate.

gribook culture shock koreaCulture Shock: Korea
Vedahl Sonya Hur & Seunghwa Ben Hur

This book is awfully outdated. First written in 1988, my version was published in 1999. South Korea has changed a great deal in 16 years. Obviously. I know I could’ve read a more recent book, but I got this book for free, so why make a fuss?

Culture Shock: Korea was helpful in understanding the basics of Korean history and traditions. More so, it made me grateful for the Korea of today and for the many things we can enjoy now, that were not available before. It also pushed me to be more aware of the culture and appreciative of it.

Do get hold of a newer copy, though.  Until then, I’ll be sharing 7 of my own – more contemporary observations – about life in Seoul, South Korea.

Disclaimer: These are my personal observations – subjective as could be and generalized – and that’s how they should be read, as mere observations.

1. People. Koreans are very polite and kind. You will always be greeted when you go into a shop, and on the way out. When I left my hat behind – twice! – someone always called or ran after me to ask if it’s mine. They take pride in being hard-workers, putting in long hours not only for their own benefit, but to see their country prosper, too.

As friends, they are caring and generous, and we’ve been incredibly blessed by some of hubby’s Uni friends, who welcomed us like family.

2. Food. The most pleasant surprise is just how good and varied Korean food is. I’m a fan of their soups, meats and pickles. Tuna Kimbab, Bibimbap, Samgeyopsali and Shabu Shabu are some of my favs.

I have to warn you, though: the food is incredibly hot. I always enjoyed Jalapenos with my Mexican or Wasabi with my Sushi, so I thought myself decently prepared for Korean spicy food. Little did I know! Korean food takes spicy/hot to a whole another level.

When it comes to groceries, most everything is more expensive than what we’re used to in Europe. This is true even for Korean products, but we pay a premium for cheese, butter, baking ingredients, tea, cereal, chocolate – things we’re used to having in the fridge or pantry. While I obviously wish they were more affordable, I am grateful they’re available at all.

I think it’s safe to say that Koreans eat out more than most Europeans. When we go out for dinner, we can choose between a place where you eat in the traditional way: on the floor, a more modern place that has tables and chairs, or a place where every table has a small grill and we can cook the food ourselves. There’s also fast-foods and buffets and take-away places, as well as plenty of little booths selling street food.

After Korean restaurants, Chinese and Japanese seem the most frequent to me, followed by pizza places and Italian. There’s some Mexican, most notably in Itaewon, where there’s more of a variety when it comes to international food.

3. Coffee.  Seoul boasts more Starbucks Coffee shops than New York, I’m told. That’s just a small part. Angel-in-Us Coffee, Holly Coffee, Ediya Coffee, Tom n Tom’s Coffee, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Pascucci, Dunkin’ Donuts, Tous Les Jours, Paris Baguette, Krispy Kreme – these are some of the big names, but there’s thousands of smaller coffee places that you’ll find at every street corner (and in between,too). You can find canned coffee in every convenience store and even in vending machines.

Koreans bring creativity into the coffee business by adding their own flavours: Sweet Potato Latte, Green Tea Latte, Rooibos Tea Latte and the list continues. When you order, you always need to mention whether you want your coffee hot or ice – even in the middle of winter.

4. Housing.  Life in Seoul is expensive and the biggest part of it is the cost for housing. I’m not talking about just rent here, which varies from $250 to $1,000 for one room studio apartment, depending on the region you live in. Besides monthly rent, you need to put down a deposit of $5000 to $20,000+, money that just sits in your landlord’s bank account until the end of your contract. Utilities for one room will vary probably between $100 and $200, heating being the biggest budget drainer, and electricity being unusually cheap.

Because of the prices, Korean city-dwellers have come up with a plethora of tiny living spaces: from a closet-sized room, to studio apartments with a loft, to rooms in a guesthouse. The further from the city you are, the more likely for you to be able to afford a more spacious apartment, but the deposit money will still be high. You are likely to either get an apartment without furniture, or equipped with the bare necessities, so you have to get most of the furniture yourself.

5. Shopping.  Seoul is a shopping heaven. Clothing, accessories, gadgets, beauty&make-up products, stationery, books, shoes, you name it – they have it. Markets, Shopping Malls, small boutiques, subway stations, Department Stores – Korean brands as well as international are all present.

Fashion seems important here. Both men and women make an effort to look trendy and they do. Trends seem to take over though, because most stylish people are basically sporting the same outfit. At the moment, it’s a huge manly coat, a silk blouse, leggings/skinny jeans and trainers – all in black/grey/white.

An element that clashes in a funny (to me) manner is the amount of people wearing face masks to cover their mouth. Young and old, both. Whether they’re afraid to catch a virus or protecting themselves from dust, it’s not unusual to spot a fashionable young lady with impeccable make-up and hair, high-heels, pencil skirt and a frilly silk shirt – wearing a face mask.

6. Subway. When riding the subway, every second person is on their smartphone: playing games, texting or shopping online. Sorry, I snoop. I’m not infringing on their privacy, because I don’t understand Korean. Or so I tell myself.

If they’re not on their phone, Koreans will be reading a book, listening to something or napping. Subway time is nap time, especially in the evening. One of my personal goals is to be so relaxed on the Subway, that I’d be able to take a nap AND get up right before my stop. Dreaming big, literally!

7. Books. Saved the best for last. Seoul likes books!

Not only there’s huge Book Shops like Kyobo and YP Books and Bandi&Luni’s, but there’s a bunch of book cafes, too. International Classic and Bestseller are translated into Korean, and there’s a decent choice of books in English, too. You pay extra, of course, but they’re available.

I have already been to a couple of coffee places that are lined with book shelves and I hear there’s more. There’s also a variety of fascinating book accessories: Book Chair, Book Holder, Bookmarks. Haven’t seen a whole lot of Kindles, but I have seen people reading books on the subway, both in Korean and English.

It feels like I just scratched the surface, and while I write about books on Gribook, I’d be glad to do a series of more detailed articles on this.

Let me know if you’d like to hear more on our life in Korea!


5 thoughts on “Culture Shock: Korea

    1. Haha, ma mir si eu ca l-am trecut cu vederea!
      Adevarul e ca mi-a luat ceva timp sa ma imprietenesc cu kimchi – e cam iute pentru gustul meu – dar acum e nelipsit din frigider 🙂
      Tu esti in Seoul cumva?


  1. Tara aceasta e cu adevarat fascinanta! Mi-ar placea daca ai mai scrie cate ceva despre Seoul, poate despre bibliotecile de acolo.
    P.S. : Blogul acesta e un colt de fericire, mi-a placut mult sa citesc postarile de aici 🙂


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