You know I’ve been in Korea for over five months and although I love nearly everything about living here, there’s just a few things that bother me. Most of them I can deal with. But the number one problem is that in Korea the group is everything.
I knew this before I came but I thought that if I already knew some Korean it would be easy to meet people whenever I went out.
Sadly, the culture of Korean social life means that it’s almost impossible to meet people if you go out alone. You might be lucky and find that people will talk to you out of curiosity but most of the time strangers will be all but politely ignored. The hardest part is seeing large groups of people enjoying themselves but feeling excluded as a single person.
South Korea has bars where you can go to meet people but Koreans treat these places as restaurants where they just happen to be drinking. It doesn’t matter where they go or how late it is, Koreans will always find a way to eat something.
It’s not that Koreans aren’t friendly, but they are bad when it comes to speaking to anyone they don’t know.
As much as I hate the group culture of Korea, it’s so embedded in their way of living that I’m not sure it will ever change. Still, I can hope.
First, let’s get past the over-familiar, guidebook cliches written about South Korea: It’s a land of contrasts (often the first sentence of many travel guides); its one of the most rapidly developing of Asian countries (actually it was, but the economy has been slowing down in the last few years; the country doesn’t have any old buildings (kind of true, but not the full story).
First things first. Most passengers arrive at Incheon airport, the rectilinear building that was opened in 2009. The first thing you notice is how quiet it is. Korea is often referred to poetically as the land of the morning calm. It’s peaceful and quiet on the day that I arrive. From the airport it’s a one hour bus drive into the centre of town.
Seoul has been a popular tourist destination for many years and traveller numbers are growing every year. Whilst it has a reputation for being closed off to foreigners, it has become a very accessible city.
I wanted to do several things on my trip. Firstly, use the language which I have been learning for the last 16 months. Secondly, I wanted to get to know as many Korean people as I possible. Finally, I wanted to know how it would feel being a foreigner in a country whose population is over 99% ethnically homogenous.
You step on to the subway and typically you are the only white person on board. I keep my head down mostly. The wifi connection means that people can use their phones underground, but nobody bothers sending messages or makes calls, instead they use the countries’ message app Kakaotalk. Its free to send messages and emojis. I also notice how large the elderly population is. With one of the lowest birthrates in the world, South Korea has a huge army of seniors. Sometimes they look at me strangely and at other times they seem to glare, but it’s not always easy to tell. They can be very helpful as well. I go to Busan, and when my ticket won’t open the gate, an ajeosshi (old man) pushes me though the turnstiles at the same time as himself. Interesting fact – they have underground malls at most of the big metro stations. Some of them are easily 500 metres long. And they sell things everywhere. From piles of stockings, winter gloves and scarves, to food stands (the waffle craze is going strong) you can’t travel anywhere without buying something. The stations are huge (some have as many as fourteen gates) and all are very clean. They also have toilets just inside the gates, its very conveninet. The urinals are stationed directly on the floor, meaning that unfortunately it’s possible to aim and miss.
Old vs new
Does traditional culture still exist in modern Korea? Yes, you can find it if you know where to look. You can stay in a hanok (traditional Korean house) in the Bukchon area of Seoul. Girls dress up in hanoks (korean traditional dresses with voluminous and brightly cooloured skirts). The most popular Korean drama is currently Dokkaebi (and it cleverly sets itself in the past and present with a time travelling goblin played by Gong Yoo. Coffee has become extremely popular with several US imports (Starbucks, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, as well as Korean companies such as TOM N TOMS and Yoger Presso). I go to several but disappointingly they are all much the same. It is still possible however to go to a traditional Korean teahouse (tabang), where you can sit on the floor and drink various teas from beautiful Korean ceramics.
I had already primed myself for eating Korean food, and I have enjoyed many bottles of soju. But I wasn’t ready for the sheer amount of it. My first snack was grilled chicken, eaten standing up in the frozen streets near Jongno Samga station. In Busan, I eat the famous odeng (compacted fish cake on a stick) with a cup of fish broth. Everyhwhere in central Seoul you will see pojang machas, the tents that are run by seasoned men and women. I eat a plate of the sweetly spicy snack known as tteokbokki and I am instantly flooded with endorphins. Later in the university district of Hongdae I try a deep fried milyang hotdog on a stick (no bun) which costs WON 1,000, the equivalent of one dollar. If a stall has a long line, it’s usually good indicator of the quality. Korea is a fairly rule-based culture, but it seems you can do anything where selling food is concerned. I wonder why we can’t have the same thing in England, before realising that the red-tape and bureaucracy means that vendors can serve nothing more adventurous than burgers and ice-cream.
In the coastal town of Mokpo, I have some of the best food experiences of all. First, I visit a raw tuna restaurant. They serve different parts of the fish, which we roll up in thin layers of dried seaweed. I try the cheek and the liver, each part having its own different taste. We sit in a private room with curtains which are opened every few minutes by the waitress who has to crouch nearly to the floor to bring in new delicacies.
With so many places offering food and drink, it’s hard to find somewhere that only serves alcohol. Seoul has very few British style pubs. The one I went to was Cask, a wrong-headed attempt to make an upmarket pub, with table reservations and a beer sommelier. One beer here costs 8 dollars. Only a few minutes away I stumble across one of my best finds. Situated above a chicken restaurant and a karaoke room is a hof. I go alone, a daunting prospect. Luckily the barman sits down with me and shows me some drinking games. I try them out on a group of female students on one of the tables next to me and they are impressed enough to spend the next few hours drinking with me.
Whilst it’s rare for traditional Koreans to eat and drink alone, there is now a craze for solo dining and eating known as ‘honsul’ and ‘honbab’. Honsul Couple was also a recent Korean drama starring SHINee. There are even solo noraebang (karaoke) rooms for people who want to sing without the horror of others watching them. I tried one and it was a very liberating experience.
I believe that you should be able to go anywhere on your alone and meet up with someone, make friends. Sadly it doesn’t happen too much in London, where people are more concerned about themselves than other people. But I has several encounters where I met up with people in this way. When I left the girls at the hof, I walked into a pizza place and ate it at the table. Pretty soon I meet a bunch of Korean guys and we start talking. Then someone suggested going on to somewhere. That meant more food and drinking, the place being a yang gochi joint, and I got to try the latest Korean food trend, which is to rotate skewers of lamb over a charcoal barbecue.
What can I possibly say here? Except that – with or without plastic surgery – they are some of the best looking women you will find anywhere in the world. Whether young or old, fashionable or cute, they are all different but at their core they have something about them that is unmistakably Korean. When you approach them always be polite, friendly and respectful. I didn’t always get the best reaction, but it was always interesting.
With the popularity of British culture currently very high, Koreans are very interested in learning about England. I met several women who wanted to practise speaking English with me.
When a big new Korean film is released, everyone goes to watch it. A country smaller than the UK has a very healthy film industry. Recently released Crime thriller Master beat Star Wars to the number one slot at the box office. Its star is Lee Byung Hun, who recently appeared in the American film remake of the Magnificent Seven. I watch it at the luxurious cinema chain Megabox in Busan. Cartoons are also very popular, with Japanese anime Your Name currently topping the box office. In Seoul, I try a DVD room, a place where you can watch a DVD in a private screening room. I watch a Korean film Shinsegae(New World) which also happens to be the name of the country’s largest department store. It’s possibly the most violent Korean film I have watched.
K-pop has been the biggest thing in Asia for the last several years and shows few signs of slowing down. Not everyone loves it by any means and some Koreans hate it. When I was staying in Gangham, I found a Dunkin’ Doughnuts store right outside the offices of JYP Entertainment. I was surprised to see that most of the women waiting to catch a glimpse of their idols are middle-aged tourists from Japan. Right now the biggest acts in K-pop are the Korean/Taiwanese/Japanese girl group Twice and boy band 2PM. English music is also very poplar and it seems that Koreans love romantic ballads by Sting, The Bee Gees, and Ed Sheeran.
Politics and protest
Nowadays everyone must surely be aware of the political storm surrounding President Park Geun-hye. Even sub-zero temperatures couldn’t keep the protestors away from the streets of Seoul on the Saturday I visited. But away from the main pro-democracy protest calling for the President’s resignation, there was another protest defending the president against all the charges. The pro-park rally gathered outside Seoul Station, where they sang the National anthem and waved the Korean flag. There was a slightly sinister air about it. The old guard, who supported Park Chung Hee (dictator until 1979) obviously don’t want things to change.
The best of Korea
Here are some of the places I enjoyed visiting on my trip:
Bukchon Hanok village: I stayed here with Miho for three nights.
Busan, Seoul’s second city is only three hours away from Seoul by train. The food is different and the people speak with a different dialect. I found it to be very laidback and relaxed.
It’s now been more than three years since I moved from East London to London’s Koreatown and although I occasionally think about leaving, I have never made any serious attempts to do so.
I’ve lived in many different places since I left home. But the first time I managed to feel that I lived in somewhere I could call my own was when I moved to this charming London suburb.
The question I sometimes ask myself is, if I hadn’t have moved to New Malden, would I still be interested in Korea? True, I had liked Korean movies ever since 2005, and I thought that the food was good too. But when I moved to New Malden, which has approximately 10,000 Koreans living here, I realised that food and films were just a few of the things that I would love about Korea.
It was after a few months living here that I began to consider learning the language. It seemed ridiculous at first, but I started to build a list of basic phrases that I could use in the local shops and restaurants.
Korean is a dreadfully complicated language. But I can hold a basic conversation with people and I have a bookshelf crammed with Korean textbooks. I can still remember the first words I learned in Korean. No doubt I was aware of what a big journey I was going on even at the time back then.
As for the people, they have been another reason why I have been learning the language with such enthusiasm.
From the time I first started meeting Korean women, I have been near-obsessed with talking, getting to know them, and spending time with them. In the last three years I have gone on more dates than I had in my life up until that point.
I still feel a pang of something when I think back to the first time I went out with a Korean woman. Although she was older than me (and married) we had an electric connection. Without doing anything physical, she turned me on completely, just because of her attitude and her aura. I’ve been looking for this in other women but I’ve never managed to find it.
I had to wait a several months before my first Korean girlfriend, but when it happened it was completely worth it.
I see that I’m not the only one in my town who likes Korean women. And to be honest, it’s not hard to see why men would prefer them to other women. Not only are they (usually) very smart, they are super-sexy, without being trashy or slutty.
As for now, I’m blissfully happy living in New Malden with Korea on my doorstep, but I want more. That’s why I’m travelling to South Korea on the Tuesday after Christmas. I’ve waited three years for this moment and it’s finally approaching. Part of me wishes I had been able to travel earlier, before the birth of Korean cool that has seen the numbers of foreign visitors go up from 9 million in 2012 to 13 million in 2015. But there is no right time, I guess.
It’s going to be one amazing adventure and you can follow it all on here. I just wish you could come along too.
If you’re a western guy and you’re interested in dating a girl from Asia, what are they looking for? I believe that all women are different but there are a few characteristics in Western men that I think Asian women are attracted to.
Number one: kindness. The ‘nice guys finish last’ concept doesn’t apply to Asian women. In fact, it would be a real disadvantage if you tried to treat them with a lack of decency. Most western women will play games, deliberately making men wait before calling or texting back. But Asian women will be constantly in touch with you and will expect you to call them frequently. The more you call them, or be in communication, the more they will like you.
Number two: men with a normal body shape. I mean, not the kind of gym-toned physique that is held up as the ideal shape amongst western men. I’m basing this solely on the guys I see dating Asian women. Now, maybe they are as attracted to these gym rats as Western women are, but it doesn’t seem this way, and I very rarely see someone with bulging biceps with an Asian woman.
Number three: unattractive, or plain, homely looking men. Maybe Asian women have a different aesthetic when it comes to standards of male attractiveness, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve noticed the imbalance of physical attractiveness in a White male/Asian female couple. The kind of guys who get nowhere with women from their own country are able to get with out and out knockouts. I’ll keep talking about this until I start seeing a less attractive Asian woman with a more attractive white guy, but I haven’t yet. By the way, Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho has a great gag about very attractive Asian women with ugly white guys. You can watch it here:
Number four: being an intellectual. In other words, you can be a geek, and it won’t be held against you. Why it would be a problem I don’t know. But most western women are idiots, so what can you expect? I feel that I’m not judged by Asian women if I prefer to stay in and read or learn a language instead of going out.
What’s your passion? Is it an interest that you enjoy sharing with others or is it an activity that you pursue alone? Maybe you enjoy meeting up with people who also share your passion.
Or is it difficult to find someone who likes the same things as you? I am a huge fan of Korea and if I wanted to I could attend many meet-ups for fans of Korea. But I choose not to. Here’s why. I already know what I like about Korea. I’m not really interested in listening to what others have to say about it. Maybe they know more than I do, or maybe they don’t. But I know from painful experience that it can be frustrating to listen to others drone on about something which you care about. It’s also why I don’t enjoy book groups because I find myself disagreeing when ever someone shares their opinions on the book, or I can’t understand why they don’t like it for the same reasons I do.
That’s why I don’t bother attending any fan meet-ups that I see advertised on Facebook. I’m very happy watching Korean films whenever there is a festival, but I’m not interested in hearing what any non-Korean has to say about them. Sometimes a passion shared is a passion weakened.
I went to a Korean language class and it was terrible, because it was full of people talking about Korea but they didn’t know anything. If I want to learn about Korea I will do it by getting to know other Koreans. It’s the only way as far as I’m concerned.
This year, I will be visiting Korea for the first time. I heard that it’s really cold in winter. So maybe there will be fewer foreign tourists. Well, I can only hope…
A few years ago I felt as though my life was stuck in a rut, that nothing was exciting to me any more. I had had this feeling for a long time.
I was in a pattern of repetiveness. you could say that I was feeling bored with life and it didn’t give me any excitement. It didn’t matter what I did, things were the same. My life was the equivalent of broken record.
Things got steadily worse but they began to improve when I moved away from living in the centre of London to the suburbs.
By this point things were getting better again. I had started studying law and my life felt like it had a sense of purpose again.
More interestingly, I was realising that where I was living was home to a large Korean population and that it would be a good idea to think about learning a few phrases to use in some of the Korean-run bars and restaurants.
I can trace my interest in Korean culture to 2005, which was the year when I started to watch Korean films such as Bad Guy, Spring Summer, Autumn Winter and Spring and the like.
I could feel a whole new world opening up to me. Although I felt this interest keenly, it didn’t go any where at the time. It lay dormant. I knew very little about Korea. I knew about the war and the DMZ of course. I was aware of the stereotypes that Korean people eat dogs. One unfavourable phrase in the James Bond book Goldfinger said that they were ‘the most violent people on earth.’ Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready to fall in love completely with Korea.
In 2006 my father went to Korea to work. Not being able to go out with him, I sent hime with a list of DVDs which I hoped that he would be able to buy while he was out there. I was still only interested in the films until two years ago when it became clear that I liked Korean food and music too. In fact, I like nearly everything about Korea.
In some ways I prefer Korean things and ways of doing things to English ways. I never felt particularly proud about being English and I have never strongly identified myself as such. At school we were led to believe that England was great. However, it’s hard to like your country when you can see so much that is wrong with it. But I have had to face up to the realisation that the things I dislike about my country (the weather, the deterioration of culture and civilised values, the people).
The best thing about learning this language has been the fact that it’s given me opportunities that I simply wouldn’t have had otherwise. I can have conversations with Korean native speakers that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I only spoke English.
Learning someone’s language is an excellent way to get to know someone and I’d like to think that learning Korean has made me lots of new friends and acquaintances.
I’ve always wanted to learn a second language but the ones they taught us at school were no good – you don’t need to learn European languages because most Europeans already speak English.
So; my conclusion would be that everyone needs a passion, a strong interest in something separate from their own culture. It’s easy to be interested in things you can see around you, but at the same time it’s very easy to become bored by the everyday things.
We all need something new in our lives to keep us interested and curious. Learning another country’s culture is a great way of doing this. My ‘thing’ is learning Korean. What’s yours?