Features of life in South Korea – what surprises foreigners

How the South Koreans live and what you can learn from them (and what you shouldn’t)

Photo: GoranQ

The miracle on the Han River has taught South Koreans to work hard, but now the government is forced to turn off computers at 6 p.m. Oleg Kiryanov, a journalist and author of books on Korean culture, talks about the secrets of the Asian soul mixed with hot peppers.

Palli-palli style.

It’s an expression you hear at every turn in Korea. Pally-pally” literally means “quickly,” or, in a more detailed translation, “don’t waste time, hurry up, hurry up”. Koreans do everything quickly: work, walk, study, eat. In general, the tendency to rush and hurry is not an old feature of the Korean character. Visitors to Korea in the 19th century unanimously wrote that Koreans don’t hurry anywhere and do everything slowly, almost falling asleep on the go. Often foreign guests also called Koreans lazy, which is hard to suspect nowadays. Perhaps the Koreans were strongly influenced by the miracle of the Han River, when from the 1960s to the 1990s Korea made a huge leap in development and turned from a backward country exporting wigs, plywood and seafood into an advanced technological power, which flooded the whole world with smartphones, computers, cars and supertankers. To make such a leap, one had to work “pally-pally. Of course, today’s Korean youth is very different in character from the first “economic miracle builders” who pulled the country out of the quagmire of backwardness, but both have a certain haste in their souls and are firmly rooted in them.

Khan River

In Korea, service is fast everywhere – in restaurants, banks, stores, and hotels. If a vendor gets slow, they immediately say, “Hurry up a little. I’m late!” Although it’s quite possible that such a rushing salesman actually has a carload of time to spare. Koreans eat very quickly. Here you won’t see long sessions at the dinner table, with participants leisurely savoring and discussing the flavors of each bite they eat.

But “palli-palli” is not always a good thing. The rapid pace of economic growth, when five-year plans were fulfilled in three or four years, and gigantic construction projects were carried out right before our eyes, sometimes adversely affected the quality of work. It was the pally-pally style that was blamed for the 1994 Seoul Sonsu Bridge tragedy, when during rush hour a span of the bridge with cars simply collapsed into the water, killing several dozen people. The Koreans are now actively fighting the “speed to the detriment of quality” style and are achieving great success in it, but the “pally-pally” again and again reveals itself – now in an accident, now in some other accident.

One way or another, the notion of “fast-pally” has become part of the flesh and blood of the Korean nation, and today it defines many actions of Koreans and their attitude toward work and life. They themselves like to joke about their “pally-pally,” invariably admitting, “Yes, we are like that. We can’t help it.

Koreans cannot be called lovers of gastronomic experiments. Korean tourists, especially the elderly, are famous for eating abroad only in their own restaurants. If they do try the local food, they do so, as they say, without fanaticism, just to make sure that they simply cannot live without the spicy kimchi appetizer and other dishes, often lavishly flavored with pepper.

Although there is one proven way to convince a resident of the Land of Morning Freshness to try an unfamiliar dish. You just have to say that it is very good for your health. Taking care of one’s health is another trait peculiar to Koreans. However, it is characteristic of the peoples of the entire region – the Japanese, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and others. And Koreans are not far behind. Whatever snack you take, it will either be good for your liver, improve your skin color, or increase your potency, which is another local food fad.

Photo: Henry Hyeongrae Kim / gettyimages.com

Strange as it may seem, the concern for health and longevity is intricately intertwined with a taste for alcohol. Koreans are constantly among the world leaders in alcohol consumption per capita. Although Korean youth today are less addicted to alcohol, it is common to see Koreans walking staggering in the streets late at night and “meetings” of large noisy companies. But even when they are tipsy, Koreans rarely get rowdy, but simply become more sociable and cheerful. So, there is a high probability that at a joint meal they will first explain to you in detail how good and healthy this or that dish is, they will feed you and then propose a toast “Cheers!”. Beer is often mixed with soju, the local weak vodka. This Korean ruff is especially common in men’s companies and is called pkhokthang, which means “bomb.” Even if a Korean doesn’t know Russian, he often knows the toast “cheers!

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The next morning after the feast the drunks go to the treadmill, swimming pool or at least to the nearest park to “jerk” the public trainers. And on weekends, they go for a walk in the mountains or simply sit down in front of the TV screen to watch a program on “What you should do to live longer.

Whether it’s the medicine in Korea that’s so good, the local cuisine that’s really good for your health, or the general enthusiasm for exercise, the fact remains that despite their widespread love of alcohol, Koreans are among the world leaders in longevity. The average life expectancy in South Korea has already exceeded 80 years. In general, Korean pensioners are very active people. In the same mountains a considerable part, if not the majority, of tourists are pensioners – they have time for such walks, but most importantly – they have a desire to maintain their health.

Photo: COPYRIGHT, Jong-Won Heo

Without the right to rest

After a short trip to Korea foreigners usually leave in high spirits: cities are modern and beautiful, the streets are clean, people are friendly, public transportation is comfortable, the roads are classy. But those who live and work here for a long time, are more reserved in their assessments. Even if they are happy, they just say: “Well, yes, not bad, of course there are problems, but nothing. If you have a heart-to-heart talk with the natives, i.e. the Koreans, you can easily find a speaker who will pour out a monologue on the topic of “Crisis phenomena and the impending collapse of Korean society and economy”. They love to complain, too.

We won’t talk about the underlying problems now, but one of the main reasons why foreigners who have “long lived” in Korea are less enthusiastic is that they work here, see society from the inside, and know very well how a “pretty cover” is made.

Seoul, South Korea

Korean society is characterized by intense competition that often begins in kindergarten and ends with retirement. Because of the competition, Koreans work hard, very hard. Even official international statistics, which place them among the top workaholics in the world, do not fully reflect the reality. At school, they study day in and day out, sleep four or five hours; at work, they work overtime all the time. Vacations of four or five days in private companies and seven or eight days in state concerns are commonplace. More often than not, they would not let you take your vacation at once, but ask to divide it into two or several parts to avoid disrupting the working rhythm of your colleagues and throwing their responsibilities onto them.

It is not accepted to be ill for weeks here too. If the flu really destroys you, you endure it till the last moment, and then you take one or two days off, take a horse dose of very strong medicine and immediately rush back into the abyss of work.

The government steadily tries to make people work less, prohibiting overtime by law, “cutting off” computers at 6 pm in public institutions – all this has a certain effect, but still the Koreans, as they say, work hard. Perseverance, diligence, these qualities have been cultivated in the country for centuries, and they are considered obligatory for everyone by default.

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Downtown Seoul

Europe, where Asians live

A long life in the same place dulls the sense of novelty. The things that surprise my fellow countrymen when they come to visit, that make them grab their cameras and shout “Look how cool it is!” (or “What a madhouse!”), often leave me bewildered: you shrug your shoulders and ask why, how could it be otherwise? Though personally I have one general impression, which appeared at once and with the lapse of time amplifies, thus coinciding with the opinion of many guests. It was well summed up by a Colombian who was in Korea for the first time, having visited a couple or three of the largest cities in a week. “It’s not Asia. It’s some European city–stylish, comfortable, often beautiful, but not Asian. Except that the signs here are all in Eastern language, and Asians live here,” he said, when asked about his impressions of Korea.

Everyone likes Seoul. There are really enough beautiful streets and trendy modern buildings made of glass and concrete. But that’s the problem: They’re not Korean. Or rather, they don’t look like Korean ones at all. Nothing was spared by the cruel roller of the fratricidal war of 1950-53, when cities changed hands several times. As Koreans began to build new things, they copied what was beautiful, interesting, fashionable, but foreign. Their cities generally lacked zest. Even many monuments of antiquity are often new creations, copies at best.

Seoul, South Korea

Even if architects incorporate the principles of Oriental philosophy and national motifs into their designs, they do it in such a way that you first have to listen to a long explanation by a specialist, then look closely for a long time, and only then nod your head uncertainly, often out of politeness: “Well, yes, there is something Korean.

The Koreans have managed to bring up their own generation of architects and builders, who have learned a lot from foreign masters, but still bring something from the West. A friend told me: “Well, that’s fashionable! The whole world is now looking to the West, and so are we”. That’s the thing, the world is already looking to the East … In China, even if they “knock out” a super skyscraper, the roof will be “slapped” in the national style, a Chinese lantern will be visible or some other trick.

Of course, not everything is so unambiguous. There are modern and beautiful buildings, there are Buddhist monasteries with traditional architecture, there are also neighborhoods (often newly built for tourists, but that’s another issue), built in the old style, but still … So sometimes I want to ask: “Young people are in fashion traditional clothing hanbok, you are smashed in a pile to promote in other countries its food, so what about the city forgot?

What’s up with the dogs?

Probably one of the most common questions I’ve been asked about life in Korea is, “Did you eat a dog?” According to surveys, Samsung, the nuclear bomb, K-pop, and dog food are among the top stereotypes that foreigners associate with the word “Korea.”

Let’s get this straight once and for all: do they eat dogs in Korea or not. Accusations are made all the time. Even at the recent 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the Western media rediscovered America with a series of reports on the topic, “And in the 21st century, high-tech Korea eats dogs!” To answer the question directly, the answer is: yes, Koreans eat dog meat. But only some, far from all, rather a minority. Special breeds of feed dogs are eaten. Don’t suspect your Korean acquaintance will starve your harmless bologna. Currently, one in five Korean families has a pet, and in most cases it is a decorative dog. Naturally, they are not raised for food; they are a kind of family member.


Nevertheless, in many restaurants you can try soup made of dog meat. It is believed to be very good for health, especially good after serious injuries, surgeries, when you need to recover quickly. Dog restaurants, as a rule, are not located on the main streets, but in the alleys of old neighborhoods, but there are still many in the countryside. And yet the number of these establishments is steadily declining due to the declining number of customers. Year after year, the parliament tries to initiate a law banning the consumption of dog meat, but so far it has not been passed – there are enough opponents. Recently, the main dog meat market in Seoul was closed, but in other cities such markets remain, and in general, if you suddenly want to try this specialty, there will be no problem. There are many indirect names for dog meat soup such as “soup of the four seasons,” “nutritious soup,” “fortifying soup,” and others. But any Korean knows exactly what it is all about. So if they try to convince you that “there’s no such thing in Korea anymore,” ask a Korean to type in “po-sinthang” (the most common name for this soup) and “restaurant” into a search engine. You will find a restaurant within a radius of a couple of kilometers at most.

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Note that dogs are not the only people who eat dogs in Korea. Dog food is found in China and a number of Southeast Asian countries, but for some reason, Koreans are the ones who are known as “dog eaters” and are the first to be criticized. This may be because Koreans are sensitive to this criticism. In China, for example, anyone who brings up the “barbaric custom” is simply told, “If you don’t want it, don’t eat it!

A Volcano of Passion and Emotion

There is a certain stereotype of Asians that their face is a motionless mask, which makes it impossible to understand what a person is thinking or feeling. In Korea, this is the perception that exists in relation to the Japanese. Koreans themselves, for the most part, are by no means masked people. Their faces usually show whether they are happy or unhappy, annoyed or calm.

Koreans are very emotional by nature. They may try to be more restrained in front of foreigners, but their emotions run high all the same, as you can see. Korean emotionality is an expression of a kind of energy, inner strength, a charge that they certainly have a lot of. The miracle on the Han River is proof of the enormous potential of the nation. The Confucian tradition, hard work, competent leadership, and inner strength are what made this breakthrough possible.

Photo: AlxeyPnferov / gettyimages.com

By nature, Koreans are easily excitable, mobilizable, and, to some extent, irascible. They are practically gunpowder, not people: bring a match and they will flare up. You don’t have to go far to find examples. Remember how the whole country really stood up in 2016 when it felt that President Park Geun-hye had not lived up to her trust. The people’s indignation can also be seen in the various scandals in which big businessmen made rude pranks in public. As soon as the media got wind of it, the emotions of the outraged public descended on the boorish individuals, forcing them to publicly apologize and often to resign from their positions. This emotionality is a kind of element. And like any element, it is almost impossible to stop it. That’s why sometimes some campaigns turn into harassment, and punishment for the guilty, at least to an outside observer, seems excessive.

So Koreans are soulful, sympathetic, peaceful, but at the same time emotional, sometimes hot-tempered, real hot guys. And not for nothing they joke that the soul of Koreans is based on hot pepper, which they like to add to their food.

In general, the Koreans are very nice people and try to treat foreign guests friendly. Ask them for help and they will do their best to make sure you are not disappointed.

16 features of South Korea and its people that surprise foreigners

Every tourist knows that South Korea is a different planet. And while some things are immediately apparent (e.g., specific food), others are only known to those who have lived there. This applies to standards of beauty, peculiarities of children’s education and higher education.

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1. Korean women sit with blankets on their laps

Many Korean women put a blanket on their laps, even when it’s warm indoors or outdoors. K-pop idols, TV show guests, and ordinary Korean women in cafes, restaurants, and other public places also use them. This is done to protect yourself from embarrassment when wearing a mini, as well as to protect personal space, because the blanket is considered a symbol of privacy. For a man to throw a blanket or jacket over his lady’s legs is a gesture of nobility.

2. Girls cover their mouths when they laugh

In the past, girls were taught that it was not very feminine to laugh. When something made them laugh, they turned away or hid a smile (only the latter is done now). If you see a Korean girl with her mouth covered, she is probably just laughing, not yawning with boredom.

3. V- and S-lines are valued in female appearance.

The V-line refers to a chiseled chin. It is considered the benchmark for both girls and guys because it makes the appearance more elegant. The S-line is the outline of the female figure, a sort of slimmer version of an hourglass figure. If the Korean marked a beautiful V- or S-line, it means you have a beautiful chin or shape.

4. all drivers undergo a Breathalyzer test

In the evening, most often on Friday and Saturday, the Korean police block one lane of traffic and check the drivers of cars, trucks and motorcycles – all except cab drivers. When a driver sees a patrol, he has to stop, open a window, and breathe into a breathalyzer. Fines are imposed depending on blood alcohol content: for 0.05-0.10 ppm you can pay $1,400-2,800. Korean legend has it that you can have 400 ml of beer or a shot of soju without any pain to the wallet. In neighborhoods where people come to party, there are no such checks.

5. The rainy season is no reason to stay home

The rainy season comes in July and August, sometimes floods occur during that time. But cars drive to the last, and locals move around being knee-deep in water, but under an umbrella. The most unpleasant thing for a Korean woman is getting her hair wet.

6. The food in hospitals is as good as in restaurants.

Every day, ordinary Korean hospitals serve a different kind of food, with traditional snacks such as kimchi, pickled radishes, and vegetable pancakes added to the main dishes (clam soup, mushroom porridge, and others).

7. The school year begins in March, and students struggle to get into a lecture

Before the start of the school year, students go through a special faculty training session. Over 2 days and 1 night, freshmen learn the history of the university and get to know each other. As the students themselves say, this is a cover-up: at such trainings the seniors teach the newcomers how to have fun properly so that their head is fresh in the morning. Koreans choose their own courses to study, and the schedule is compiled on the university’s website. The number of seats in pairs is limited: there may be from 60 to 100 people at a time for a lecture. Places for the top courses are taken in minutes, so to sign up, you will have to try and find a fast Internet. You can do this on campus or in the computer club – in the latter, by the way, you can not only study or play, but also order food.

8. Instead of Barbie dolls, they sell K-pop Idols here.

K-pop singers are so popular that you can buy a scaled-down copy of them in a regular store. For example, in the photo above are members of the boy band BTS.

9. frugal tourists can stay in a bathhouse.

Korean bathhouses are called “chimchilban”. They are open 24 hours a day, and it only costs $7 to visit. Therefore, tourists who have come to the country for a short time, try to stay in the baths, and the locals go here to recover after work or a noisy party. At the entrance, pajamas and towels are provided – the latter are called “yangmeori” (sheep’s head) and tied in a certain way. Inside, in addition to the usual bathing facilities, there are sofas, play areas for children, and some food.

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10. Koreans do not socialize with the opposite sex if they are in a relationship

In the Land of the Morning Light they believe that friendship between a man and a woman does not exist. Therefore, when a guy and a girl get into a relationship, they cannot date friends of the other sex.

11. Valentine’s Day is celebrated on November 11.

The holiday is called Pepero day – in honor of the sticks of cookies with a variety of icing: they remind the date 11.11. Lovers give each other cookies and play: they bite the cookies from both sides, and the one who has the smaller part remains wins. Gifts can be given not only to lovers, but also to friends or relatives. Rumor has it that the holiday was invented by the Lotte Company, which makes the peperos. Be that as it may, the holiday has caught on and has become part of the culture.

12. A Korean won’t date a girl fatter than himself.

In South Korea you won’t meet a couple on the streets where the girl is taller or fatter than the guy. Residents of the country are guided by a number of strict rules when choosing a partner. No matter how good a person a guy is, he won’t date a girl who is fatter than him. Girls immediately reject guys beneath them. Also, age and blood type matter.

13. Koreans like to warm their hands literally.

If you find yourself in a Korean hairdresser, beauty salon or similar place, you will certainly be offered a hand warmer. Even if the room is properly heated. And it will be not an old-fashioned rubber heating pad, but a nice velvet one.

14. There is a parents’ patrol in schools.

Every day 2 parents inspect the school: they check how the educational process is going and keep an eye on the order. Parents also taste the school food to see how well their children are being fed. When moms and dads patrol the school, they wear uniforms and have a schedule with what time and what they have to do. In your free time you can rest in a special room.

15. Korean parents always follow their children.

Korean parents always accompany their children, and the desire to raise an independent personality is not encouraged. Often only fathers work in the family, and mothers do the parenting: they are immersed in the process so deeply that they dissolve into the children, and their own lives are no longer their own. No matter what the child does (studies or sections), the mother must take a very active part in everything. A blogger who has lived in Korea for a long time told this story: “My daughter used to go around the city by herself, but now I have to accompany her everywhere. Because recently she was asked, ‘Is it true that your mother is your own mother? As Koreans see it, a native mother can’t be so indifferent to her children and let them go into town alone.” After that, the heroine had to accompany the child everywhere, even on the set of the TV series where her daughter plays.

16. You don’t need perfect silence and darkness to sleep

Korean children are not put to bed in a perfectly quiet and dark room. They fall asleep with light and noise because it strengthens their nervous system. As adults, they can recuperate when they have at least some time to do so, such as during a train or bus ride. Residents are independent of outside factors and can fall asleep anywhere.

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