I guess it was inevitable that I post this sort of list. Just about every expat blogger in Korea does. Frequently this degenerates into blather and mawkish navel gazing, but then I have found that Koreans seem to like this sort of ‘tell us what you think about us, foreigner?’ stuff more than we do. Yakking about Korean culture is a cottage industry for Koreans, and the breadth of the cultural gap means the westerners here usually have lots to say too.
As for my qualifications to pass judgment, they are – of course – pathetic. I have only been in country 7 months. I don’t speak Korean. Most of my time has been spent in Busan, Seoul, and Pyongtaek (where Korean friends live). On the upside, I have a Korean girlfriend, and I work with and teach Koreans regularly.
1. The Food
This was pretty unexpected. Like most Americans, I think, my sense of Asian food was Chinese (mediocre take-out usually) and Japanese (cool steakhouses and sushi). I had a sense that Vietnamese food was distinct, but not Korean. I don’t think I ever saw a Korean restaurant in Ohio, where I lived most of my life in the US. What a surprise when I got here and learned that Korean food is pretty unique. Given how culturally close Korea is to China, this surprised me. And the food is quite good too. But like most westerners here, I think I have begun to overdose on rice and kimchi with every meal.
2. Bustling Cities/Nightlife
Too many American cities lack a good street life because of crime, suburbanization, bad downtown parking, whatever. But Korean residence patterns (ie, the lack wide sprawling suburbs) insure that large numbers of people live in close urban contact. Korean communitarianism (IMO, see point 5) keeps crime down and the streets safe (see point 3). Finally, Koreans seem to love hanging out after work in bars, clubs, salon rooms (bangs), etc., so there is always a mass of people to go mix and move with. Its fun.
I find Korea mercifully, blessedly safe. I have seen 8 year old girls prancing down the street alone (although aren’t parents worried about accidents?), or young women alone at 2 am in short skirts and heels walk by me on a darkened street without even throwing a glance. Also, I told friend how nice I found the lack of a serious drug problem in Korea. He asked me if I meant marijuana. Of course, I had in mind the meth explosion in the US, ecstasy which is all over American campuses, the heroin and coke problems that are driving Mexico to disaster, but if Koreans think marijuana is hard drug, that’s fine with me.
4. Quality Public Transportation
Like the Europeans, Koreans have got the bug for good public transportation (even if they promptly waste it by buying so many large cars and causing traffic jams all over the place). And the intercity fast trains (KTX) are better than the French TGV or DB ICE. In another experience of ‘why-can’t-this-stuff-work-so-well-at-home?,’ I find Korean urban transportation safe, clean, cheap, and timely. Nice.
Contrary to America’s usual individualist leaning on the communitarian-liberal split, I must say I like Korea’s community cohesiveness. Koreans I know who dislike it, say that Korean is collectivist. I think that is an exaggeration. It is disturbing that this seems based mostly in shared ethnic-linguistic tradition. It makes it tough for outsiders to join, and Koreans seem to overreact to minor foreign crime. But still, it is admirable to watch Koreans think more collectively about national welfare than we do.
Bonus Banalities I Refuse List:
I tried to be concrete in this list, because usually these exercises degenerate into third-rate sociological bathos. So here is the usual trite cultural mawkishness we all know shouldn’t pass as insight. The usual banalities offered to foreigners on arrival anywhere include: We are very friendly, warm, and hospitable. Our culture is great, unique, old, rich. Our heritage is respected worldwide (cue UNESCO). Our grandmothers are the pillar of our culture and the repository of social wisdom. We are multilateralists and global citizens who love foreign guests. Our technology is cutting edge and that means we are modern and building bridges to the world. We are a regional cultural/economic ‘hub.’ Bonus snarky potshot if you are lucky and a US foreigner: we are nicer than you because George Bush ruined the world.
None of this flim-flam applies to Korea (nor anywhere else, as it is just cheesy pop multiculturalism). Every state community is unique of course, but usually in ways that aren’t that mind-blowing. So yes, Korean grandmothers are salt of the earth, but so are Russian babushkas. I don’t think Koreans are anymore friendly or charming (or rude) than any of the other non-Americans I have met. That doesn’t mean they aren’t nice, but that there is nothing particular about Korean hospitality that sets them aside. Nor do Koreans seem to possess any more gnostic wisdom on the secrets of the good life than any other culture I have experienced. Nor are they any more globalized and less nationalized. In short, their ‘culture’,’ like everyone else’s, is malleable and differentiated enough that these mindless ‘culture studies’ generalizations are just propaganda easily turned to fit your likes/dislikes. All in all, I find Korea a good place to live – a pleasant, (farirly) green/clean, wealthy, liberal democracy tolerant of social pluralism while trying to maintain a national integrity. That should be enough for anybody.