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Kimchi and Culture Shock in South Korea

Updated 15 Jul 2014

As with living in any foreign country, expats will inevitably face a bit of culture shock in South Korea. This has particularly been the case to quite an extent for me, having lived in South Korea for a year.

Daily, I found myself confused or proverbially pinching myself to wake up. One only has to take a stroll down any of the country’s city streets to witness the obscurities of daily living in South Korea.

This piece will focus on the widespread cultural similarity which I found to be one of the most interesting and shocking aspect of Korean culture. 

For many Koreans being an individual to the extent that most Westerners take for granted is frowned upon or is just not even considered. Almost every Korean values adaptability and efficiency, and shapes their lives according to these values. Of course, this is less evident in more cosmopolitan areas in Korea, but the remnants of homogeneity still permeate this small country. 

I reckon this is very much down to the philosophy of Confucianism, an Asian philosophy that rests on the idea that human beings are teachable, improvable and perfectible, and that this is achieved through communal endeavour. In other words, people should adhere to the same norms to achieve an ideal society.

I have seen so much of this kind of cultural obedience in most aspects of South Korean culture. Firstly, the mere appearance of the people here is the same. This is not to say that all Koreans look the same, because they don’t, and they have unique personalities like anybody else.

However, there is always a trend to be followed, and it seems like every single person jumps on the bandwagon. It is more than following a fashion trend; as a foreigner, it seems like everybody has to dress a certain way or buy the latest item, or they are afraid they will be ostracised. Similar fashion styles are one thing and not really detrimental, but the constant pressure to be beautiful in South Korea is based on such unrealistic standards, at least compared to where I come from.

Plastic surgery in South Korea

This is where the popularity of plastic surgery in South Korea comes to the fore. It is so normalised I find it scary. Very few of the Koreans who can afford it choose not to have surgery. To many, being beautiful to the same standard means that life will be easier, and they will have a higher chance of getting a better job.

The most frequent surgeries people do are double eyelid surgery, which makes the eyes look bigger; rhinoplasty, which makes the nose longer and more prominent; and jaw and chin surgery, which makes people’s faces daintily resemble a heart.

Surgery is so popular here and is of such a high standard that people from other Asian countries travel to South Korea to go under the knife. One only needs to look at the contestants of a Korean beauty pageant to see how similar they all can look after surgery. What is worrying is that in some instances children are even getting surgery with their parents’ knowledge, because they want them to have a happy life and fit in.

Work ethic in South Korea 

I will also touch on the work ethic of Koreans. If worker bees were humans, they would be Korean. What I really admire and respect about Korean people in general, is that no matter what job they do, they do it with dignity and efficiency. Whether they are CEOs or tellers at supermarkets, they do their job. They show up. I doubt there is any time for excuses.

On a personal front, I can attest to this as trying to take a sick day was a monstrous mission. Work is hailed here, and being sick slows down productivity. Most people work long hours, get home late and don’t sleep, particularly in the commerce sector. Children go to various academies after their normal school day and end their days as late as 10pm, and still have homework after that.

It is never ending, it is normalised, it is their role, and they have to abide by it. For many of the Koreans who don’t travel, this is all they will ever know, and they will just continue pushing that rock up the hill and not even think about it.

The positive side is the efficiency and the fact that you will get the best service in the world. I mean, for example, there are buzzers on tables to notify waiters that you need service at restaurants. South Korea has the fastest

Internet in the world and a new model of phone every week. Public transport is among the best in the world, and you can pretty much get anywhere without fail within the country.

The problem is that it never calms down. The hustle and bustle consumes everyone. People are always in the fast lane, and no one wakes up to appreciate their surroundings. Enjoyment is packaged and the distinction between what is real or not blurs into a mosaic of energy. This culture of being in a rush is known locally as bali bali and, wherever you are, in the countryside or Seoul, there is no slowing down.

Korea is an admirable and amazing country. If it were not for this great nation I would not have had the incredible opportunities that I have had. It has risen from being one of the poorest countries in the world to being an economic superpower in a fairly short time. Having said this though, this all takes its toll on the people who live there. Prestige and achievement are good things, but for you to have a life worth living, it is important to remember to stop, enjoy it and be who you truly are.

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