South Korea is a perplexing country. The companies and brands it has produced are far more famous than the happenings within the country and it is often overlooked as a place to travel to. One of the bigger tourist activities within South Korea is to enter the DMZ zone and have a look at their neighbor to the north, North Korea, so people go to the country just to look at another. While their neighbor grabs headlines for a nuclear program, South Korea stays relatively out of the news on a normal basis. This made my trip intriguing as I didn’t have too many preconceived notions going into it. I was an unbiased visitor trying to learn more about why, at the surface, many Westerners don’t know much about the culture, food, or people. After spending four wonderful days in South Korea, I came away with several insights. My Korean musings follow.
The biggest company in South Korean, Samsung, is arguably more famous than the entire country itself. We in the US know Samsung mostly as the biggest competitor to Apple in the smartphone market but they make thousands of other products that have made it into American households. The interesting part to me is that Samsung in Korea is like Kirkland, the Costco brand, in the USA. Samsung literally makes everything in Korea and not just electronics. They dominate the market with their brand name and are everywhere. In Seoul, you could see a Samsung car on the street heading to a Samsung amusement park which is next to a Samsung hospital. Their presence is extraordinary and every young adult is vying to work at the tech giant as working there is one of the biggest status symbols within the country.
The infrastructure of Korea is very tech-forward and seems several years ahead of the US in this sense. Immediately I noticed how extraordinarily fast the internet was. There is no load time when using WiFi and just the difference between no wait and the customary one second or so we are used to was very evident. Even more evident was when you used your credit card. You stuck it into the machine and the receipt immediately came out. We are used to a three to four second lag time when using our cards and it was crazy to see the transaction go through immediately before you could blink an eye.
With crazy high internet speeds and their most famous exports being their technology companies, the city kind of revolves around tech. Everything is so efficient and runs on time. The metro was never a second late and everyone seems to move at a unison pace throughout the city. Even while everything is extremely efficient, traffic is still rampant and it is terrible to get through the city during peak hours. Its still kind of funny to me to see that not a single city in the world that I’ve been to has figured out car traffic. Any city of any relative large size has terrible, terrible traffic and I guess it is just too complex for the world to figure out at the moment.
Gaming cafes are everywhere and on a Friday or Saturday night, you can find most kids between 16-25 in one of these cafes rather than at a bar. Their idea of hanging out on a Friday is getting 8 friends together and all going to the cafe to play a game together. It is a bit of an oxymoron as they each have their own little cubicles and screens and only communicate through their headsets. Many of these cafes are open 24/7 so these kids spend hours upon hours here. For more intrapersonal activities, there are countless indoor airsoft ranges, indoor archery, and Virtual Reality cafes. To relax, they go to a massage chair cafe and then back out to one of the tech-based hangout places. I supposed some of this might be because the city center is so sprawling and it is so cold here in the winter. Either way, it was certainly a different social culture than I’m used to.
I didn’t see too much Western influence on the culture here in Korea as they seem to mostly do their own thing. After a while, this began to make sense to me. I observed how homogenous it seemed but was surprised to find out that literally 99% of people living in South Korea are of Korean descent. They are also a developed country that is far ahead of the US in many facets of technology so there isn’t that natural trend toward Western cultures like there is in many other countries. I was in and around Seoul for 4-5 days and saw less than ten other non-Koreans. We passed by thousands and thousands of people on the metro, on the street, at the tourist stops, etc. and it was so rare to see someone that wasn’t of Korean or at least Asian descent. It was the first place I’ve been to where people openly would stare at me because it was so odd to have a white person walking around Seoul. With such a homogenous culture, if something is popular, every single person follows the trend. Every person I saw on the street wore the same style of jacket and many of the most viewed videos on YouTube are of Korean K-Pop stars. It’s crazy to think that a population of just 51 million people could be so unified on pop culture that they transcend the global influence and take over YouTube’s top spot.
The food here is generally very good and I really enjoyed trying many new things. One thing it lacks is variety since there is not a huge difference from what someone eats for breakfast versus lunch versus dinner. Almost every menu we see on a daily basis has a separate menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner but here it is just one menu. Korean BBQ is a staple that is enjoyed internationally and the simple act of grilling your own meats and adding them to a lettuce wrap was my favorite food experience. The seafood market was a treat and it was certainly very fresh but I didn’t see to many seafood-forward dishes here. If they did have seafood in it they were buried beneath a thick red broth within a soup. Soups in generally seemed like the most popular type of dish but that might have just been because it was winter. The one interesting thing I found is that Koreans love fried chicken, there is an obsession with it and for good reason as it is delicious.
Along with the food culture, the drinking culture was unique to me. Koreans love to drink and drink in quantities. Soju, their national drink, is 20% alcohol but people drink it as if it’s beer. It isn’t uncommon for someone to drink their own bottle or three while at dinner and it certainly sneaks up on you. While walking around at night, it wasn’t uncommon to see younger kids passed out on the side of the street and there are hundreds of hangover elixirs to choose from at convenience stores. Each of these hangover elixirs has their own secret herbal remedy and I tried a few and I suppose it’s one of those things that you never know if it actually works. If you wake up the next day hungover, they don’t work but if you wake up feeling fine you don’t know if it was because of the drink or not. The bar scene is interesting as well because you have to order food in order to drink so most people go out with a small group of friends and get a table for the night as they continue to order more and more small bites to eat. To me, this drinking culture was a big contrast from the extremely hardworking and strict work culture bias that seems to permeate Asian cultures. I guess they really do work hard and party hard.
Overall, South Korea is a great place and a fine place to visit. It has a nice mix of old culture and cutting edge technology and both are evident around the city. The culture is very unique and different than what we are used to and it was great to experience. It is amazing how small of a country they are and how large some of their company’s brand recognition is on a world stage. Their decision many years ago to focus on tech has really paid off for them. In general, locals were nice to me, maybe because it was so rare to see an American tourist but I did enjoy my time walking around and seeing the sights. I think Korea will continue to grow on a national stage and I hope sometime in the near future people think of South Korea and Seoul when they hear the word “Korea” and not their worrisome neighbors to the north.