What we loved…
Teaching (kids, co-workers, $) – We decided to teach English in Korea as a way to live abroad, experience a foreign culture, and save a bunch of money. What we didn’t realize was how much we would absolutely love our students, or that some of our co-workers would become lifelong friends. Even with dealing with legitimate crazy bosses, it was absolutely worth it. Plus it paid for the next 1.5 years on the road.
Safety & Generosity – It’s so nice to be in a place where there is almost zero fear for you or your belongings. Korean culture is based on pride. With that comes complete lack of crime, and total generosity. Strangers are always offering their help, food, drink, advice, etc. You can’t help but feel at home when traveling Korea.
24hr Food Culture – These tiny people never stop eating. Soup, kimchi, barbecued meat, fruit, bibimbap, dak galbi, tteokpokki, mondu, ice cream, veggies, kimbap, bugs, still moving seafood, cooked seafood, iced noodles, hot noodles, fast food, slow food, fresh food, fermented food, fried chicken, saucy chicken, spicy chicken, skewered chicken – every kind of chicken. And you can find it 24 hours a day at little mom and pop restaurants and street stalls.
Nightlife – I know we usually only have 3 bests, but we lived in Korea for over a year, and have too many good things to say about it to stop at 3. So we have 2 bonus ‘bests’ for you. To go along with their 24 hour food culture, Koreans also have a strong nightlife and drinking culture. Soju, beer, and makgeolli (rice wine) cascade like waterfalls. Drink at restaurants or on the street, in nightclubs or in parks, in a noraebong (private karaoke room) or at the corner minimart. Korea is set up for a good time! Drink flows cheaply, night clubs never close, you’re encouraged to sing and dance your heart out, and there’s always a 4th meal option to keep you going. Seoul is the absolute best (& safest) party city in the world!
Western Conveniences at a 3rd World Price – Korea is the most convenient place I’ve ever been. Taxis are cheap. Trains and buses are always on time, and spotless. Shops and restaurants stay open late. There’s no western comfort that they don’t have, yet it’s all at SE Asian prices. Go to a state-of-the-art movie at 3am for $5. Take a bullet train across the country for $20. Get full and drunk with friends for $10. Traveling Korea is awesome, easy, and cheap!
What we didn’t love…
Sexist – I think they’re trying to get there, much like the rest of the world, but they’re not quite there. Women just aren’t as respected as men. My male boss wouldn’t make eye contact with me, but he would with Rob. Women have special wide parking spaces because “they’re honoring them” but it’s really because men think women are bad drivers. Women cook, clean, look pretty, and raise babies, or at least that is their traditional role. You may not even notice if you’re just traveling Korea, but it was sort of annoying when living there.
Homogeny – Korea is the most homogenous place I’ve ever been. Modern Korea wasn’t built until after the Korean War in the 1950s, so it’s all very new. Construction was all about function only, not looks, but they’re starting to change that. All the cities were all built around the same time, so they all look the same. They all have the same chain shops. There isn’t a lot of counter-culture either, so everyone has very similar style. Add the popularity of families and couples dressing like twins to the equation, and everyone truly looks the same. Koreans only date Koreans, meaning they only have Korean children. There’s zero diversity in that respect.
Overworked teens – Again, this shouldn’t be an issue for anyone just traveling Korea, but it is an interesting point to note about their culture. No one works harder than Korean teenagers. They have a very high teen suicide rate because of how much pressure they put on their kids. A typical teenager goes to public school from 8am – 3pm. Then they go straight to academy after academy. They maybe have a short break to run into a minimart to cook themselves a ramen or grab a cup of tteokbokki from a street vendor, before heading back to more classes. 14 year-olds might not get home from school until 8 or 9 at night. 16 year-olds are likely to be at classes as late as 10 or 11.
Then they still have homework – not just from school, but from all their academies too (English, science, math, computer, Chinese, tae kwon do, music, etc.). I had an 11 year-old write an essay (in perfect English) stating that she didn’t think it was healthy that she never got to go outside, but rather had to spend all her time focusing on her studies. It’s usual to spend entire school breaks away at an academic camp. And they aren’t even learning to think for themselves. They’re just being taught how to be professional students and test takers. It’s so sad and very hard to watch! They don’t get to be kids! I guess this is why they grow up to drink so much – work hard, play hard!
For an actual Korean teenager’s take on it, check out this Dear Korea video, and see what the Wall Street Journal has to say about his honesty.