It’s hard to write about what Korea is like beyond my first impressions without getting into the tricky stuff. I almost don’t want to attempt it because really, what the heck do I know about the complexities of Korean culture after visiting the country for a total of six weeks. So as a preface to this post, these are just a few of my opinions and observations. I still have a lot more to learn.
Don’t take sh*t personally
I recently read this book called The Four Agreements, it’s an inspiring little read about how to be a better human through four simple rules. How does this relate to Korea? One of the four agreements is “Don’t take anything personally”. It’s probably the one I need to work on the most and let me tell you, Korea gave me plenty of opportunities to practice it on the daily! When I first arrived in Seoul, I found it difficult not to be offended by pretty much everything – the non-existent service at restaurants, the pushy subway riders, the walkers ahead of me who would let the heavy doors they’d opened swing back in my face without a second thought. As someone coming from a nation known for its courteous citizens, this kind of behaviour seemed like an affront.
I found all this especially confusing because I knew respectful conduct and speech was so ingrained into other aspects of Korean society. For example allowing your table mate’s beer glass to reach empty is a big faux pas and addressing a stranger without the proper honorifics could cause serious offense (Mike talks more about honorifics here). How could Koreans be so careful to turn their heads away from superiors when taking a sip of alcohol, yet not wait for each other to exit a train before barging onto it? I was perplexed.
At some point I realized that respect and politeness are two very different things and that the definition of those words also changes depending on where you are. Thinking back, that moment of realization might have been during a particularly memorable (and delicious) meal with Mike’s parents at a busy gamjatang (pork stew) restaurant where one of the servers suddenly yelled out what could be roughly translated as “Hey everybody! EAT UP, PAY UP, and GET OUT”. I couldn’t help but laugh because that scenario playing out in a North American restaurant would be totally unthinkable! But in Seoul nobody batted an eye because that’s just a thing that happens here. Servers aren’t expected to be attentive and it’s also perfectly acceptable for customers to yell back at them things like “Hey Auntie! More kimchi over here please!”. That behaviour is not about me – or anyone for that matter – it’s just the way things are in Korea, and it shouldn’t be taken personally. Now that gamjatang meal is one of my favourite memories of an authentic Korean experience.
The Korean collective
I knew that Asian countries were known to be more homogeneous than Western countries, but I didn’t really know what that meant until I visited Korea. The desire to belong is so strong that people are even physically changing themselves to fit the cultural norm. 20% of women in Korea have had some sort of plastic surgery and 42% of have had botox. Add widespread trends in make up, haircuts and clothing, and Korean women all start to look very similar. I was sitting at Shake Shack (sometimes you just need a burger okay!) and noticed a Korean girl at another table with dark bruises under her eyes and bandages on her nose. My first instinct was to feel concerned she’d been punched in the face! Then I realized that she’d just had a nose job. Plastic surgery is so prevalent here that actors openly talk about the work they’ve had done on tv – it’s not taboo, it’s the norm.
One of the best examples of Korean homogeneity I observed is the national obsession (at least among middle-aged folks) with hiking. Mike and I did a gorgeous (but grueling) day trek in Bukhansan National Park and I felt like I’d missed the memo about the required trail uniform. Every single person going on a hike in Korea wears exactly the same thing – from the boots, to the pants, to the backpack, to the telescopic poles. What’s more, they only do it on weekends. Mike’s parents told me a story about their own parents who would complain about how busy the trails were on weekends, even after they’d retired. When asked why they didn’t just hike on weekdays instead now that they weren’t working, they thought the idea was preposterous! Koreans hike on weekends, that’s just the way it is.
My favourite museum we visited in Seoul was the beautiful Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. I thought one piece in particular captured Korea’s tension between the collective and the individual really nicely. It’s called My/Our Country because in Korean language, you would never say “my country”, it’s always “our country”. The same goes for “our house” and “our parents” (even if you’re an only child!). I don’t think I can ever really understand what it means to be part of a homogeneous culture without actually being a member of one. Even in the thick of this bronze mass, these 50 million Koreans probably can’t tell you why they’re changing their faces or hiking on weekends either. It’s deep-rooted and immensely complicated.
Finding peace in the woods
If ever there was a religion based on “not taking things personally”, it’s Buddhism. Our templestay at Baekyangsa in Naejangsan National Park was a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Seoul and one of the most memorable experiences of our trip so far. The temple itself is beautiful, set beneath the towering Naejangsan peak, but the real highlight for us was the cooking class with the famous monk chef Jeong Kwan. Fans of Chef’s Table will know exactly who that is, but even if you’re not, it’s worth finding her episode in season three on Netflix just to zen out for an hour.
We were lucky enough to be part of a small class of just eight and got front row seats to watch Jeong Kwan in action as she prepared a simple, seasonal, vegetarian lunch for us. Even though monks can’t eat garlic, onion, chives, leeks or green onion, it was still one of the most flavourful vegetarian meals I have ever eaten. It will be hard to replicate her dishes since we won’t have her three-year-old soy sauce or her homemade deonjang (soybean paste) on hand, but we didn’t mind because her class was less about recipes and more about cooking with intention, love and the ingredients the earth provides you.
I wish I spoke Korean so I could really take in everything she was saying, but there was one thing that came through in the translation really stuck with me. She said that for her, cooking shares a lot of parallels with life. Each time she makes a dish, it will be better than the last time. Like anything you do, the very act of doing it will make you better at it than you were before. It was a timely message for us as we try to use our year of freedom to not only see the world, but also learn new things and better ourselves with practice.
To stay or go
Being in Korea with my in-laws for Han Family Vacay 2017 was incredible in so many ways. Not only was Mike’s dad the greatest restaurant guide known to mankind (we ate like kings!), it also gave me new appreciation for how difficult it must have been for them to immigrate from Korea to Canada; to have left everything they knew behind to start over in a foreign land. Coming from a country that values sameness to such a degree, it must have been especially hard for them to feel out of place in their new home. I can’t say I know what that’s like, but as a blonde-haired tourist wandering around Asia for the past three months, I’ve gotten a small taste of what it feels like to be the ‘other’. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, sometimes you get tired of being stared at, and sometimes you get free kimchi (!!). But for me it’s only temporary.
On the other hand, I can also understand the impulse to leave. Even now that Korea is a developed nation, life for young people in Seoul is so difficult they’ve started calling it Hell Joseon (Hell Korea). It’s nearly impossible for them to find work and if you do get a job, you’re expected to put in insane hours, go out drinking with your boss at night, and then show up for work (on time) the next morning to do it all over again. Applying for a job in Korea is like a scene out of Kindergarten Cop (you know the part where Arnie asks the kids “Who is your daddy and what does he do?”), except in this scenario the end goal isn’t to find a criminal, it’s to find the ‘best’ candidate. On their resumes, young Koreans are expected to not only outline their work experience and education, they also need to include who their father is and what his occupation is! If your dad doesn’t come from a prestigious family or line of work, good luck achieving your own career aspirations. If you catch me complaining about finding a new job when I get home from this trip, please remind me how lucky I’ve got it.
A word about North Korea
I can’t tell you the number of people who gave me the raised eyebrow, “are you crazy?!” look when I told them I was going to South Korea, or better yet made some (rather unsavory) joke about how “the first stop on our trip could also be our last!”. Sure, tensions on the peninsula are perhaps higher than usual when you have two crazy men leading nations instead of just one, but from what I can tell, the people of South Korea aren’t all that worried about it. They’ve been dealing with this stuff since the 1940’s and if they were freaking out about it every day the way Western media seems to think they should be, then they wouldn’t be able to enjoy much of what their amazing country has to offer. And that’s a lot. So if you’re thinking of planning your own trip to South Korea, don’t let fear hold you back.