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Sunday, October 2, 2011

You're a cold, cold Seoul

So I've been here about a month, and so far I've accumulated some observations I'd like to share...5 things I really like, and 3 I don't (because I'd like the positive to outweigh the negative) So enjoy, and feel free to share your comments or questions....

5 things I love about seoul

1. manners
    One thing that defines Korean culture...manners matter. But you will find that manners here are quite different, in many many ways. For example, in Western culture, it is considered respectful and an acknowledgment of authority to look someone in the eye when they are talking to you. It shows that you are really listening and paying attention. In Korean culture, however, it considered rude, and often with someone older, disrespectful. I find myself struggling to look down or away when I'm talking to my professors, although it makes me feel awkward. Another traditional more is the slight bow when meeting or greeting someone. Don't forget to leave this part out when saying hello or goodbye. It's doesn't have to be a sweeping bow, just a little nod of the head is says more that just hello or goodbye, it says: I acknowledge your presence and I appreciate you being here. While these things take some getting used to, and if I'm honest, I will admit sometimes I find some things a little strange... I do appreciate the gestures and I'm really enjoying noticing the sometimes subtle differences in everyday social settings. 

2. restaurant culture
     Restaurant culture here is clearly much different from the U.S. For one thing, you will find many, many different restaurants, but notice that each specializes in only a few dishes. Don't expect to go to a restaurant and order anything you like, look at the menus or fake plastic dishes displayed outside to decide if it serves something you'd like to try. In this way, the restaurants are culinarily specialized, and instead of having dozens of mediocre dishes, it will have maybe only five to ten ones that they make best. Another thing you will notice is the sheer abundance of food they bring out when you order. For one thing, Korean food culture prizes side dishes as not just a filler to the meal, but a complimentary addition. So no matter what you order, it will be either preceded or complimented by bowls and bowls of kimchi, seaweed, tofu, pickled vegetables and much, much more. Don't be alarmed when they bring out all of these bowls, just try it! The great thing about it is, you never know what you're getting, and chances are, you'll always get to try something new. Finally, the biggest differences is probably tipping culture...suffice it to say, there is none. Consequently, if you are sitting in a restaurant waiting to be served, don't hold your breath. Servers are few, and in many smaller, family-owned restaurants, there might not even be any. So if you need to order, or you want to ask for something else, don't be afraid to just walk up to the window and ask for what you need. It's not considered rude to wave down the proprietor or waiter, in might be sitting for a while if you don't. You will also notice that chopsticks, napkins, bowls, etc. are sitting out to be used as needed. This is something I really actually like, why do I have to wait for the waiter to go into the secret restaurant storage vault to bring out a single pair of chopsticks when I can just grab them myself?

and eating!

3. night life
     Just like any big city, Seoul never is at a loss for things to do. Hit any one of the major districts nearby, and you're bound to find cafes, restaurants, bars, shopping, nightclubs and cultural events galore. Definitely can't complain about being bored here! What I also really like is that each district has it's own unique personality.... much like an enclave or village in the states. For tourist sites, go to Insadong, for a variety of international cuisine, go to Itaewon, for the best nightclubs, go to Hongdae, for the best restaurants, go to Gangnam, for amazing shopping, go to Myeong-dong; and you will find each is different and unique...although still Korean at the heart. 

4. public transport
     I truly cannot express how much I love love love the public transit system in Korea. It's cheap, it's clean, it's convenient...I can't praise it enough. You want to go somewhere at eleven o'clock at night? No problem! Just hop on one of the many subways or busses in the city, swipe your T-money card, and it'll take you to where you want to go. They run all day, and quite often too I might add....if you miss a bus, no worries, another will usually be along in less than fifteen minutes. The cost is low...about 90 cents to $2 for most places in the city. The convenience is amazing...I love to not have to worry about cars or driving or buying gas, it truly is a wondrous thing. Now, I will admit that it can get a little confusing sometimes with times, maps, different lines and such...but getting directions is usually easily available either online, or just ask whoever's nearby. Don't be afraid of getting a little bit lost... because there is almost always another way to get where you need to go, even if you end up taking the scenic route sometimes!

that little purple card in the corner is my T-money card....for all your transporting needs.

5. education system
     I am seriously so impressed with the education system in Korea. Working in the kindergarden makes me feel like an underachiever. These kids are bred to become lifelong learners. I find myself wondering, why is it that the children are so attentive to the teacher's lesson, even at the young and fidgety age of five? For one thing, I will say that the teacher of the kindergarden class I'm volunteering at is incredibly engaging...I don't even understand Korean, and I'm still interested!  She has a way of getting and keeping the children's attention, which is something that becomes increasingly more difficult in today's overstimulating environment. I'm learning a lot about teaching skills from her, and that's something that is perhaps even more valuable than actual content matter how much you know, it's to no use to either teacher or student if you can't get the students to even pay attention. Another thing I noticed is that she often will engage the students for a few minutes of talking, and then challenge them with a question. I'm astounded at how even at such a young age, the children are learning about history, politics, war....and they aren't just learning about it, they are engaging in thought and discussion. The class isn't just lecture though, the children are given ample time to run around and explore different learning activities in the room, set up for their enjoyment. The classroom is built not so much as a classroom with tables and chairs, but as a learning environment...with each corner made as a little opportunity for exploration. 
zoo day at kindergarten!
petting the snake

Finally, I have to conclude that perhaps the real gem isn't in the actual education system itself, it's in the attitude about education. I have to say that the overwhelming majority of students in the U.S. see education as just a big pain in the ass, but why is this, and when did it start? Much of the Korea's attitude towards education comes from a traditional belief in Confucian values. Without getting too philosophical, what a Confucian society entails is that to be a good citizen in our community or a good countryman, we must first become good individuals. One cannot become a leader of his community, until he is first an upright leader in his home. The same values apply to both: to be a good father, one must bestow compassion, knowledge and kindness to his children...and the same goes for a good leader. So how does one become a good individual? Confucius was one of the first of his time to impress upon his followers the value of a good education, before this time, little importance was put on reading, the sciences or the arts, except for scholars. But Confucius taught that even a commoner should attempt to educate himself in every way possible, and these are the beginnings of a better life, and a better attitude. 

 from the National Museum of Korea featuring a traditional Korean scholar's room

3 things I'm not a fan of:

1. manners
    okay, so I know I said I'm enjoying seeing the differences in social customs between the U.S. and Korea, but I'm not going to pretend like I enjoy every difference. I had mentioned in a previous post that certain things like bumping shoulders in the street and staring were really starting to irritate me...and i can't say my attitude towards that has changed much. At some point, I just have to ask myself, how much of this is considered cultural difference, and how much of it is just plain rudeness? I mean, when a guy practically runs you over just to be the first one in the subway, or to get a good spot on the elevator... that's no longer tolerable behavior...and I have a pretty good tolerance for rude people ( I worked in retail for 3 years, and  in restaurants for 5, so I've handled my fair share.) I think one of these days, I might just push one of those guys right back! 

2. materialism
     Okay, so this is my all time least favorite thing about Korean culture, and I'm not making generalizations with this one because every Korean will agree with me on this one. Koreans are obsessed with image, and that's a fact. People have the stereotype that Americans are materialistic, but I really have to disagree. Compared to Koreans, Americans look like downright bums...and this goes for everything: cosmetics, clothes, bags, cars, phones, everything. Americans may make the brands, but Koreans are the ones consuming them! I'm pretty sure I see more people wearing Abercrombie and thumbing through their iphones here in Korea than in the U.S.... And keep in mind that the markup on these items is incredibly inflated. A sweatshirt that sells for $40 in the U.S. may cost two or three times as much in Korea, depending on how coveted it is....and Koreans buy it anyways!! Korean women treat every day like a fashion, hair extensions, heels, designer bag, brand-name dress, the works....and that's just to go to class! Frankly, I find it exhausting. Who wants that much pressure to look perfect all the time? No thank you...I'll take my good old American jeans & flip flops any day! (And by the way, I don't feel like I've exhausted all the intricacies of this topic be prepared to encounter it again in the future- hopefully complete with photos. )

3. education style
    I'm just going to come right out and say it: I hate going to class now. It has become such a chore, and keep in mind that I'm one of those weird overachiever students who (gasp*) actually likes going to class. (weird, I know!) But the teaching style here is really different from the U.S., and here's how: in the U.S., the students do most of the work in class and the professor is there mostly to facilitate and moderate discussion. So I might do 50-100 pages of reading for each class, but the bulk of the work lies in discussing the reading in class, and preparing my own interpretations of this reading, be it through writing a paper or preparing a project or presentation. What is important is not that you memorize the material, but that you have a working knowledge about it, and you are able to form your own opinions on the subject, and discuss or write about it with some degree of intelligence. In Korea however, the teaching style is much more traditional...and dare I say, boring: come to class, memorize book/power point, take test, repeat. Honestly, I think this is the worst way to learn. Not only does it hinder creative and original thought, but it kills the spirit of learning. Basically what I get from all this is that I have no input of my own: everything I need to know will be imparted to me either through my professor or through the textbook...but think of the limitations this creates. One biased professor in turn creates a whole classroom of equally biased students- because what the professor says goes. And need I say, a two hour lecture with absolutely no student discussion or input is incredibly dull and unstimulating....and then to have to actually sit down and memorize everything that professor has said so I can sit down and answer multiple choice questions for an exam on the subject makes me really hate the material, and hate learning. So there you have it, I'm loving Korea, but I can't wait to get back to my home university so I can be treated like an individual and not a drone without the capability to think for myself. 


  1. Great insight! Especially enjoyed comparison of educational systems.


  2. I am leaving for the exchange program in Feb and have found this super useful- thank you!