Living in South Korea has come with a whirlwind of cultural challenges and frustrations. I have lived in a perpetual state of dumbfoundedness just shy of a year now.
My mind still can’t rationalize why stores sell SPAM gift sets for holidays (and that everyone buys them), why my students insist on sharpening their pencils with X-Acto knives while staring at me (even though they each have a perfectly functional pencil sharpener), and why people wear jeans and slippers at the gym.
But, despite all of Korea’s quirks and oddities, I have really grown to love this place a whole lot.
In no particular order, here is the first half of the 50 things I love most about living in South Korea.
1. Rock, Scissor, Paper.
I never knew the power of the three simple gestures for rock, scissor, paper, until I moved to Korea. Rock, scissor, paper or “Kai Bai Bo” in Korean, is the answer to any sort of discrepancy, for both children and mature, professional adults, alike. As ridiculous as it is to witness two businessmen settling a disagreement this way, I will say I have never before seen decisions made or problems solved so quickly and efficiently. The entertainment value is an added bonus.
Koreans love festivals and find any excuse to put one on. Have a hankering for fermented seafood? Well, there’s a festival for that. Can’t wait for the annual red pepper harvest? Well, there’s a festival for that too. Korean festivals are always guaranteed to be over-the-top. I still can’t get over the elaborate, mind-blowing fireworks display at the Busan Fireworks Festival. I have never seen fireworks like this before in my entire life.
You can read more about my festival experiences by clicking on the links below.
3. Convenience Stores Double As Bars.
4. Store Openings.
Every store opening is a grand opening. When the new dollar store opened up in my town a month ago, people knew about it three months before. Signs and banners were posted on every possible surface throughout Boseong. When the big day finally arrived, the storefront was overflowing with ridiculously large and elaborate flower arrangements. It was the event of the year in quiet Boseong, with the whole town’s population in attendance – including all of my students.
5. No Tipping.
No more mind-numbing, challenging math problems or irreparable feuds with friends at the end of a good meal. It’s as simple as that.
6. Skin Care.
Skin care regimens are one of Korea’s many religions. Both men and women are skincare fanatics and go to great lengths to maintain their porcelain white, flawless complexions. Although I have never personally tried the demanding 10-step Korean skincare routine (yes, this is a real thing) in its entirety, I loosely follow (most of) its steps. Korean skin care products are amazing. I have developed a severe addiction to sheet masks, especially character sheet masks – which, in addition to their magical healing properties, turn you into a distorted version of Shrek or a panda for 30 minutes.
7. Weirdly Charming Compliments.
Coworker: You look like Barbie doll.
Me: Oh. Thank you. Erm, why?
Coworker: You have cute face and long legs.
At 5’3″, I don’t know how accurate this statement really is – but, to be compared to Barbie herself? I’ll take it.
The crime rate in Korea is incredibly low. Whether it be walking down a dark street alone at night or hitchhiking my way to the beach in a rural town (sorry, mom and dad), I have never felt so safe anywhere in my entire life. Maybe it’s the CCTV signs plastered on every possible surface that have put my mind in a constant state of ease? And, where there is no CCTV sign, you can be sure to find the letters “CCTV” hauntingly graffitied onto the wall in front of you. I feel like I’m living in a giant game of Big Brother. Korea is always watching!
9. Fast & Cheap Shipping.
Witchcraft. All of my online shopping arrives within 24 hours. The shipping costs? Most of the time, a whopping $0. If not, never more than $3.
10. Everything Is Cute.
Everything. Stores, stationary, snacks, socks, desserts, and this adorable Pikachu coffee I picked up from a 7-Eleven.
11. Cheap Transportation.
I do not miss Toronto taxis or Uber. In fact, I am dreading the day I have to use one of these methods of transportation again. My bank account has never agreed with me so much. I spend about $30 CAD a month on work commutes. When I take taxis, I’m always baffled at how cheap the fares are. And, of course, being that there is no tipping in Korea, this makes it even all the more baffling. Most times, it almost feels like I’m the one being paid to take a taxi!
12. Ridiculous Amount Of Holidays & Vacation Time.
I have never had a job in my life where they are so eager to pay me to not work. These past 10 months, I’ve had just about seven, fully-paid weeks of vacation, including school holidays and national holidays. I took these opportunities to explore Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan… twice!
13. Being Surrounded By Mountains, Everywhere.
Even in megacity, Seoul.
14. Public Restrooms.
Gone are the days I would shudder whenever I set foot in a public restroom. From metro stations to roadside rest stops, public restrooms are so clean I could lick their floors. I could – but, I wouldn’t. Often, I wonder how they remain so pristine. Maybe, they’re self-cleaning? I wouldn’t be surprised in the country where they recently figured out how to pay for purchases using body parts instead of credit cards.
15. K-Pop Music, Everywhere.
Hypnotically blaring from phone stores, clothing shops and supermarkets. It makes errand-running really exciting.
16. Cherry Blossom Season.
For two weeks, the whole country transforms into an enchanting, pink wonderland. This has been my favourite season in Korea and the most beautiful spring season I have experienced in my life.
To read more about Korea’s cherry blossom season, click here.
17. Restaurant Buttons.
No more waiting at restaurants. Restaurant service is lightning-fast with handy buttons built into the tables. Once a button is pressed, a server will lunge out at you from thin air with another bottle of soju and an eager smile smeared across their face. It’s pretty incredible, really.
18. Korean BBQ.
The anticipation and satisfaction of grilling up mouth-watering meats and tasty veggies yourself, the fear and excitement that comes with treacherous oil splatters to the skin, and the bountiful amounts of dangerously good soju make up this thrilling, communal dining experience.
19. Free WiFi, Everywhere.
And, I mean everywhere.
20. Service – that means free!
Service! My new favourite word. Stores in Korea love giving away free products when you make a purchase. Whether it be signing up for a new phone plan and receiving twelve rolls of toilet paper to go with your new twelve-month contract or buying a $2 mascara and getting $10 worth of extra beauty products dumped into your bag. It’s all service!
21. Cheap Alcohol.
When alcohol is the same price of water, it can easily turn that relaxing, Friday night-in alone, rewatching Everybody Loves Raymond (I mean, who doesn’t love Raymond?) into an impromptu night out, fuelled by courageous and dangerously economical shots of soju.
22. Parks On Mall Rooftops.
For amazing and free city views, head to the nearest mall! Seoul and Busan are both home to towering malls with rooftop parks and terraces open to the public. These snaps were taken at Times Square Mall in Seoul and Lotte Department Store in Nopo, Busan.
23. Pikachu Parades.
During my last visit to Seoul, I think I reached my all-time peak in Korea when I saw a troop of Pikachu mascots, perfectly synchronized, marching along to the sound of their leader’s whistle. I still can’t figure out if this was a bizarre dream or not, but my friend who was with me said he saw them too. A true, “only in Korea” moment.
24. Public Transportation.
I am constantly amazed by Korea’s metro system. It’s fast, efficient, and cheap. Three things that Toronto’s metro system is not (I still love you though, Toronto!). What makes Korea’s metro system even more impressive is the KakaoMetro app. This is possibly the most genius app I’ve been introduced to while living in Korea. When entering your destination, the app tells you the travel time to-the-minute (including walking time for transferring lines), the options for both fastest and simplest routes, and the precise door number to stand at for your destination’s nearest exist – all, with complete accuracy. I guess, I shouldn’t expect anything less in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.
One of my favourite sources of comedic relief in Korea. Koreans love to slap English words and sentences onto just about anything, from flower pots to window blinds. Most of the time, they are delightfully lost in translation, leaving me to decipher curious sentences, like “mayo shower potato stick” written on a bag of potato chips to whatever is written on the shirt below.
For more of my favourite Konglish, click here.
Check back in a few weeks to read about 25 more things I love about living in South Korea!