The time I spent in South Korea was short but intense. In a month I could see a lot of peculiarities of this Asian country. I was able to confirm some of my observations and discuss them with my Korean Society and Culture professor at the University of Seoul. She was Korean, but she’s been living in the United States for a while. So I guess I am not that wrong about this list of 14 curious facts of South Korea:
01 | Most Koreans go to the beach fully dressed
I have to be honest and say that I went to the beach just once. But it was not an ordinary beach: it was in the island of Jeju, known as the Hawaii of Asia, frequent destination for newly weds. If people bathe fully dressed in one of their top destinations, I must assume that they do it in the rest of the country as well. While I was a little bit ashamed of my pale thighs, I realized that people were wearing long sleeves and were covered up to the neck. I even saw some people using masks. And yes, Koreans protect themselves from the sun to prevent premature aging and skin cancer, but also to avoid getting a tan, which leads us to the next point.
02 | They worship fair skin
Korean pale skin was not exactly given by Mother Nature. Historically, Asia has related brown or tan skin with low social classes and farm workers. Many beauty products, even sunscreen, contain brighteners. Moreover, both women and men wear their worldwide famous BB Cream. Unlike their American equivalents, the Korean BB Cream is thick and white. I, who have a special eye for makeup —I worked as a make artist— say it’s like a layer of cast in the face, but a fine cast. The best way to realize that Koreans are not naturally white is taking a look at their children, who have not yet gone through years of artificial brighteners.
03 | They are obsessed with looks
Clearly, we also have an obsession for certain beauty standards in the western world, but unlike tanning and exaggerated curves, Koreans have their own version of perfection. My professor in UOS confessed that she was left in shock one afternoon when she went to eat at Gangnam, the Beverly Hills of Seoul. “All the women looked the same, as if they have had surgery by the same doctor.”
Mrs. Kim was not wrong. The Korean version of perfection revolves around a single pattern: V-shaped face, large eyes, thin nose. Koreans go to extremes when it comes to surgery. But in my point of view, the results are pretty good. The problem is the pressure that this obsession has on young people and children. The country has the highest rate of plastic surgeries per capita in the world. In Korea, thinness is different to Western because Asians have a narrow body type.[box] I read a lot that if you are overweight or black, Koreans will tell you in the worst possible way. Ok, I didn’t see this, so I cannot assure if it is a real thing. I have heard humiliating stories of how women have been kicked out from shops because they don’t have their sizes. I even heard the story of a boy who approached a black girl and began to imitate the gestures and sounds of a gorilla. But, as I said, I didn’t experienced nor see it myself, even though I’m not exactly a size zero. My fair skin and big eyes —it’s what they said!— attracted a lot of nice compliments, mostly coming from Korean ladies, something I would never have expected in Korea. [/box]
04 | Koreans eat dog
Yes, they eat dog. For some of us it’s terrible and for others is just meat. I have a dog and once I was a vegetarian. Every time I had meat in Korea, I prayed to myself “this is not dog, this is not dog”. Even though I’m quite adventurous, there are some limits I don’t want to cross and eating dog (or monkey, horse, rabbit, koala, etc.,) is one of them. Luckily for me, my teacher and my fellow UOS schoolmates swore that dog meat is very expensive and is a treat that is only sold in certain places.
05 | Sexual harrasment is not a thing
You can walk with a boob hanging out of your dress and nothing will happen. Although alcohol tends to change Korean men behaviour, I think it might be soju speaking through their hormones. Pretty and feminine Korean girls just walk around with super mini skirts. Believe me, they would never survive walking for more than a block in Chile. No one gives them catcalls or nasty looks! Or maybe they do and I didn’t realize of their formula to peep without been noticed. The point is that harrasment as we know it in South America doesn’t exist at all. And it’s very cool.
06 | If you are blonde, you are a whore
This is a sensitive issue. Why? Before going to Korea, I read some blogs and I saw some videos saying that Koreans believe that blondes —natural or not— are Russian whores. What was the problem? I was stopped four times by Korean men asking me if I was Russian. So I guess I look like a whore in South Korea. How should you react? Swallow your pride, say no, and keep walking to the opposite side.
07 | They drink until they die
Well, not literally. Chileans in general —and most South Americans— drink a lot, but I was still impressed by Koreans. They drink until they die somewhere in the street. Can you imagine waking up in the middle of Santiago, a Sunday morning? Most likely we would not have our wallet, phone or shoes. In Korea this is practically impossible. Sometimes even the police take them home (!). (I didn’t see that myself, my fellow Koreans schoolmates told me). The local favourite is mix of soju and beer. The hangover is monumental.
08 | Forget about tips
Oh Lord, bless the Koreas! Perhaps it is due to my trauma for being an eternal budget traveler, but I always have in my mind the tips you have to give in the USA for EVERYTHING. However, I think it is normal to leave an extra 10-15% if the service is good or excellent. In Korea, it does not matter if the waiter dances K Pop just for you: tipping is just not acceptable. Don’t do it. This is one of the most convenient curious fact of Korea.
09 | If they hold an eye on you, smile!
If a Korean thinks he should keep you as a memory on his phone or maybe want to make fun of you with his friends later, he will take a picture of you without any hesitation. From what I have read, and what I was told by my schoolmates at UOS, according to Korean law, you can’t mute a phone camera. So don’t be surprised if you hear a “sssshhhqq” very close to your face, without asking any permission. In revenge, you can get one picture of them too.
10 | In Korea you are one year older
What the hell? Uhm I knew explaining this would be weird. But Koreans are a bit … different. When a Korean is born he is considered already one year old. In other words, if a westerner has 20 years old, in Korea he is 21. And that’s not everything. Each Korean new year, people add one more year to their life, so it doesn’t matter if someone was born on February 29th. He will never suffer from not being able to celebrate, because he will have every new year to do it.
11 | They study a lot
And by “a lot” let me tell you that the day that Chile played the final of the Copa America with Argentina, I went to a 24 hour cafe to watch it with a bunch of other Chileans. When the game started, there were some Koreans studying at the other tables. When the game was over, some of them were sleeping on top their notebooks. When they woke up they continued studying! Ok, I like to study but not at 8 am on a summer Sunday. While I understand that most students were having their final exams for the semester, still, Koreans study hard because, as I explain in Summer School in Seoul, Korea is a very competitive country.
12 | You can eat for free and nobody cares
I hesitated to include this subject on the list, but when we are talking about budget travel, everything counts. I ate rice almost every single day for a month, but every Saturday I could try different things thanks to the kind sponsorship of the promo ladies of supermarkets like Lotte. You can even have another round and no one gets angry, although it’s not necessary, because you will find new things to try all over the place. The same applies to the Namdaemun market where I tasted delicious things and … some sort of crab fetus. I still remember the taste of rotten fish.
13 | There are rehabilitation centers for gamers
You got that right. In this parallel world that is Korea there are places for people addicted to video games. My UOS teacher told us the story of a couple who left their daughter in the house while they went playing somewhere else. The little girl died of hunger. I didn’t know this kind of things could happen in Korea, because before visiting I just knew something about K Pop and the War. But Korea is a very interesting, different and sometimes difficult to understand country.
14 | The superpowerful Ajumma
I left the best for last, the dreaded Ajumma. This was one of the first words I learned in Korea. There seems to be a sort of local need to explain to foreigners about these special characters. Ajumma is the Korean word for older women, but I will talk about one kind of ajumma in particular, which would be the Korean version of our Chilean velociraptor —older women pushing everybody in order to get a seat in the subway—.
These characters are short, they wear visors, they have wavy hair and they use shirts with colourful patterns. They also have a fierce attitude. Of course there are some very kind and gentle ladies, but even locals warn you to be careful. In Korea respect for older people it is essential, but some of them take advantage of this and they will not hesitate to push you to get you out of their way. So now you know, do not mess with an ajumma, you might get hurt.