The culture of Korea

people and relationships, society, travel

[ Though written in May of 2001, I think my friend Tamara’s list of observations on her visit to Korea is interesting and certainly relevant today, given the prominence of Korea in the news. I normally include in this blog only stuff I have written personally, but I feel this is a worthy exception. — Adam]

A QUICK PROFILE OF SOUTH KOREA

– high cell phone usage; cells provided mainly by a company called Cyon;
most rings are answered immediately with no apology (incl. in restaurants,
in the middle of conversations, in bathrooms, and on subways)

– most kids have desktop computers with a DSL connection (unlike Japan,
where people surf the web and answer email on their cell phones)

– appearance is extremely important, esp. perfectly unblemished and light skin

– the ENTIRE border to North Korea is lined with barb wire, military
stations & spotlights… and North Korea has built huge apts. in sight of
Seoul to show their economic independence (btw, all the apts. are empty)

– cars tend to be Daewoo, Hyundai & Kia, which use either regular gas or
‘LPG’ (which burns slightly cleaner)… all foreign imports require heavily
taxes (I saw only 2 BMWs in Korea)

– Korean women dress trendy, not cute; however, their mannerisms can be
cute (ok, except all school girls seem to look impossibly cute)

– the myth is true: toilet paper, which is packaged in multiple ways, is
used as a napkin, paper towel and face tissue — even in offices and
restaurants

– Koreans drink instant coffee 2-4x a day; don’t really drink any type of
tea regularly (more a Japanese cultural thing)

– Korean suburbs are actually HUGE apt complexes… 8-12 buildings per
complex, each building 20 floors tall, each floor 4-6 apts.

– no real concept of privacy or solitude, esp. when family is over… you
are always “on” and engaged

– countryside consists of rural high mountains, like West Virginia or parts
of Colorado

– the roles are still distinct between men and women… traditionally, the
women will cook and eat after the men

– women are expected to marry by 25 (latest 28)… I received many
questions about the status of my “upcoming” marriage

– all highways are toll roads, usually costing between $100-2000 won (about

– most Korean men smoke and drink daily, something you never criticize in
public

– outside Korean cities, produce is grown in many greenhouses along rice
patties

– surprisingly, many men and women dye their hair, usually brown/copper
highlights

– kids spend 8-10 hours in school, then 2-5hrs in an after-school program
(called hogwa)

– if home, families are expected to eat and sit together

– every meal includes a spicy dish, usually 2-4 kimchee variations (of 100+
types)

– every store will put its sign on its building — creating an overall very
colorful, very cluttered look (think Las Vegas)

– 1/5 signs are in English, 1/5 are in Korean spelling phonetic English,
most highway signs include English “subtitles”

– American movies are subtitled in Korean

– most product packaging contains English mispellings for some reason

– many Koreans study English in school (mostly written study) so they are
willing to practice English in conversations

– Koreans love small house dogs, but raise & eat a different type of dog
for dog stew (uh-huh)

– most of the houses and restaurants have heated floors (mmm) which creates
very dry heat… in the winters, I’m told they burn coal to heat the floors

– most Koreans sit on the floor, incl. homes and restaurants

– cities have high levels of pollution due to many factories and constant
traffic… if the U.S. pollution average is 100, Seoul is 2000 (my biggest
challenge for the entire trip was a burned throat and a hoarse cough)

– I have observed little attention to design, fengshui, space — Koreans
have a similar concept called “pungso” (ex., most buildings face south) but
it’s not really practiced

– almost always, shoes are removed at the entrance of a home, template and
restaurant

– Koreans tend to be either Christian or Buddhist

– most families don’t continue ancestor shrines but will honor dead
(grand)parents in an annual ritual

– overall diet tends to be healthy (rice, fish, soup, vegetables)… but
Koreans actually love junk food (incl. their version of American hotdogs,
fried potatoes, pizza which has corn and squid)

– the music Koreans hear is all over the map… U.S. 80’s and 90’s, some
recent hits, Japanese hits, Korean bugglegum pop

– while their meals often takes a long time to prepare, Koreans eat
extremely fast with little beverage and eat all day… the order food seems
to be served is side dishes, meat/seafood, rice, a little water…

14 comments… add one
  • Anonymous Jun 7, 2003

    I lived in Korea for a number of years, and most of what I’ve read here is accurate.  However, I have to disagree on the tea statement.  Koreans are very into tea.  They tend to always drink a form of Barely tea instead of water.  They also drink Green/black tea on quite a regular basis – for the most part. Koreans also have a variety of fruit tea’s that most westerners find very good.  One that is a favorite is Yuga Cha (a very sweet lemon tea) and Maeshil Cha (a plum team).

  • Lee Jung Su Jul 29, 2003

    You know, Mr. Kyung, I find your comments absolutely laughable.  I’ve never seen anyone so overly defensive.  Talk about Paranoia!  This small article is titled: “A quick profile of South Korea.” That’s exactly what it is. Being Korean, I have lived in South Korea for the majority of my life and I found that the vast majority of the article is correct. – for a quick profile. The writer is only trying to inform a prospective visitor of S. Korea on what to expect. It wasn’t negative in the least. BTW It is a known fact by most Koreans that the North Koreans did build those apartment buildings, and that they are NOT occupied by anyone. The pollution problem is not just bad in Seoul, it’s bad in pretty much every city here in Korea. I would also venture to say that Daejon’s pollution problem is worse than L.A.
    I would respectifully ask anyone reading this to disregard the negative attitude of Mr. Kyung. Not all Koreans are like him, and most of us are flattered when others take an interest in our society and culture.

  • Kim Sung Shik Jul 29, 2003

    I AGREE WITH LEE.  NOT ALL OF US ARE AS DISRESPECTFUL AS KYUNG WHA YEO IS.  THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE IS AN ACCURATE SNAPSHOP OF KOREA.

  • Anonymous Nov 1, 2003

    The cell phone statement is completely correct!  They will always(!) answer their phones! Doesn’t matter where or when. On a date, in the bathroom, during dinner, in a movie (ok, not ALWAYS on this, but often), you name it.

  • Anonymous Dec 1, 2003

    First of all, I can?t write in English very well, so please understand my insufficient writing.
      I agree to Kyung Wha Yeo.
      The Writer has a lot of misunderstanding about Korea.
      I wonder how long he had been in Korea.
      If he wants to write something about other countries? cultures, he has to study a lot!!!

  • Trista Kim Dec 11, 2003

    I think that the writer of this article must study a lot about Korea since a lot of points are so distorted. GO STUDY MORE -_-; They are so trivial even to mention about… {e.g. the point about English mispelling? go see “hogwa” and “pungso”.. i was so lost at frist lolll!!} if u have time for degrading another country with tons of incorrect “facts”, rather go sleep more and relax ur brain first… ^_^;  u guys are so slow for global village .; I so agree to all the feedbacks that Kyung Wha Yeo came up with!!!
    CAN YOU GUYS PLZ PLZPLZPLZPLZ LEARN MORE -_-?
    so fed up with all these nonsense lolll ~

  • Terrence Deagle Dec 21, 2003

    To whom it may concern,

    Yes, there are many negative points which are true about Korean culture. However, there are many negative points which I can find true about my own country (Canada). For instance, in South Korea, the main question during a job interview does not focus on what a person cannot do and this is intrinsically Canadian. Instead, the interview normally ends with
    “Oh, you appear to be well-qualified for this job.” “When can you start?” This is something that we have certainly lost along the way in Canada.

    I am not bashing Canada but merely telling you about my own personal experience as a bonified professional. It is lamentable that Canada, because of all it’s leftist, pinko-commi agenda has really become “a big wimp” on the world scene. Furthermore, many Canadians working back in Canada quote JFK and say to me” Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I’m sorry fellow Canucks, that ideology does not pay for my bills or put food on the table for my family.

  • Jon Nov 27, 2006

    Although I understand generalizations are the quickest way to explain a culture, I couldn’t help by notice the comment about the coffee and tea. Besides tea being hardly a Japanese thing, tea has been a strong tradition in Korea (although the type of tea may vary depending on economic status, family background, etc.), and many Koreans still drink tea outside of their homes. It’s possible that professionals may have to resort to some quick coffee during the day, but tea is probably offered in their workplace as well.

  • Jon Nov 27, 2006

    Ah, forgot to mention, most restaurants offer tea as the default beverage to Korean adults rather than ice water. Westerners tend to request certain type of beverage (including water) so this may be why tea wasn’t encountered often, even though it should have been all around. Most Koreans tend to drink boricha (roast barley tea) over water, whenever available.

  • Jenny Jan 24, 2007

    I have lived in Korea for 4 years and the comments are a generalization. Yeah it may be the quickest to describe a culture but it may be very subject views of the observer. Next time if you don’t know the facts don’t write about it. Yeah pollution, go check out NY, London, Rome…..
    People can be critical all they want with other cultures but don’t write about it if you don’t know the facts. There are good things as well as bad things in all cultures and people live in these cultures and YOU have offened them with this so called list! Look at your culture and see if its so perfect.

    I do not agree with most on this list. It is misinformed.

  • kate lee Feb 5, 2007

    well, I think it’s 70% right about what he said but if you want to write about the country, I think you need to spend more time to learn and experiance the curture. I strongly disagree about the woman eats after man..I couldn’t stop laughing:) I don’t know what kind of people you met but you are talking about 50-60 years ago (even then)…

  • Natalie Mar 20, 2007

    Hi, I have a Korean student who wipes his butt when goes poop and then throws it in my garbage can in the bathroom. He says this is what they do in Korea. I was alarmed, is this what they do?

  • Katie May 24, 2007

    I too have a Korean student staying with me.  She forgot to flush the toilet one day and when I went in, there was no toilet paper in the toilet.
    Is there a chance she didn’t wipe at all?

  • Steven Feb 22, 2009

    It’s really funny how defensive some of the posters on this list are when the writer indicated it was an observation – not fact!  An observation is based on what someone encountered at a particular moment in time.  For all those who keep saying it’s not accurate, can’t the same be said that you only know what you’ve seen and perhaps you and the author are both correct…it’s just that neither of you have seen what the other has seen.  And so what if some genrealizations are being made?  You don’t think those guide books make generalizations?  In life one must generalize while realizing that context will come into play if you want to get more specific.  He’s not writing the next version to Rough Guide Korea.  And reading the author’s writing, I didn’t feel negative or positive, but it’s curious to note that some automatically felt what he wrote as negative.  There didn’t seem to be an attack so why are some getting defensive and accusatory?  What’s inside you that makes you this way?

What do you think?