Right now it is spring in Korea and it is glorious (when it’s not raining). After the brutal, subzero winter we had (it was no polar vortex, but still), I feel comfortable telling the world that it is increasingly lovely over here (most of the time). Although it is often dusty (*cough* thanks China *cough*), after a frosty winter the blossoms and flowers are finally out – and so is everyone else!
With all these happy people around me, the ajummas chillin’ on desk furniture under the train overpass and all, I couldn’t help but wonder (a la Carrie Bradshaw): what are the things Korean people do that make them quintessentially Korean? This isn’t anything to do with their race, or appearance, but rather their culture. That important, yet invisible aspect that makes every part of the world unique.
Let me just also add as a disclaimer, I do not mean to be disparaging in any way with this post. As you read on you will find that all these things are complimentary and that I truly believe the Korean way of life is better (although this is in no way a detailed report on the Korean way of life). I thought about referring to ‘Korean people’ instead of ‘Koreans’, but then I thought that I would use ‘Australians’ to refer to Australian people and ‘the French’ to refer to French people and that it isn’t inherently a racist term. Us foreigners may find certain things here unusual, as would anyone in a different environment, but I love Korea and am striving to become more Korean every day! Just wanted to make it clear for y’all that these are just my observations, and that this post is written with love <3
So, without further ado, what to do to become more Korean?
- Eat your kimchi!
I have started taking a quite astounding amount of kimchi at lunch here at school, and I just eat it. The kids do too, and when you think about how fussy children can be, I think that is quite an accomplishment. It seems to me that Koreans just know what’s up when it comes to food. They don’t overeat, the eat a lot of different things and they eat what’s good for them, not what necessarily tastes the best. Yes, there aren’t many discernable green veggies (they are usually covered in chilli and turned orange) but the Korean diet ticks a lot of boxes and kicks a lot of goals.
- Sleep on the floor.
When I moved into Gavin’s house (now “our house”, mwahaha), I was a bit apprehensive of its loftiness. No, I’m not talking about big ambitions the house had for itself (…?), but instead the actual loft design of the place. This seems to be pretty common in Korean houses, and it is actually incredibly practical. Although you can’t stand up or fit a bed upstairs, you can work a comfortable mattress/futon/mat hybrid up the stairs and have the best sleep of your life.
If you have heard anything about grounding, you will know that the closer you are to the floor, the better you (apparently) sleep. Actually forget about the ‘apparently’ in parentheses, I can absolutely attest to the quality of sleep you will achieve by sleeping on the floor (even if that floor is upstairs), or very near to it. Also, these loft-style apartments are amazing in winter because it basically traps the warm air upstairs so you sleep in a little hot pocket. Amazing. Not so great in summer, but hey, ebbs and flows!
- Work long but not necessarily hard.
The hours Korean workers uphold are ridiculous and basically have a negative relationship with the level of productivity achieved. However, one good thing about the long workdays is that Koreans seemed to have worked out just how to make work more bearable and relaxing, if not quite fun. This means sleeping with your head on the desk, chilling out on your smartphone and having the TV on are all allowed (at least at our hagwon). I have also seen this in multiple little Korean restaurants with K-dramas playing in the background (with a captive audience of their staff), as well as at a fancy Italian place where the waiters were sitting around the corner, unashamedly on their phones. This just wouldn’t happen in Australia. But here, it seems like they have made work more like home… so that you never have to leave home (or is that work?).
- Never eat alone.
Or at least not in public. Before Gav got here, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat out alone. I’ve done it a few times at the local Kimbab Nara, and it’s not like I think everyone’s staring at me (although they are), but the social element of eating is so strongly ingrained in Korean culture that it just feels… wrong. To be fair, this does depend on the type of food and the establishment you’re dining in, but there is no way in this lifetime I (or you!) could ever go to galbi alone. It just isn’t what it’s about. Instead, it’s about sharing food with your friends and possibly drinking yourself into oblivion via the readily available and affordable local bevvy, soju.
- Put everything in a designer shopping bag.
This is a behaviour I find highly amusing but am also now trying to emulate. In Korea, appearances are very important at all times, as are brands. As someone who doesn’t really get snobby about brands (although I do like nice things…) this was a bit jarring at first, but it has become normal to me now. Basically, any extra junk you need to take around should always go in a shopping bag – and not just any shopping bag. Need to bring your lunch to school? Bringing a spare change of clothes for your child? Or how about a kid’s birthday present? Whatever the occasion, if something needs to be carried around, it will always be done in a designer bag, and it goes without saying that gifts should be given in the shopping bag into which they were placed.
We have extra toys in the playroom that are housed in a Marc Jacobs bag, which pretty much sums up the whole situation. If you’re ever in Seoul and it looks like everyone has been shopping in luxury stores, those bags may just be carrying their lunchtime kimbab.
The amount of discipline shown by the Korean people is nothing short of amazing. Whether it’s the onslaught of greetings the moment you enter any store, or the way in which they present themselves physically (more on that in a second), Koreans have discipline down pat. The most impressive part of this is exemplified in the elderly population exercising – and how. There is free gym equipment everywhere, available to anyone, at any time. The elderly people are the most frequent users of these contraptions, and it is not uncommon to see a 70+ grandma going at it hard on the elliptical machine. I’m not even joking! They hang out together under the overpass and just shoot the breeze.This has become normal to me, but unfortunately when I think about the condescending treatment of our elderly in ‘assisted living’ back home, the way they are isolated, immobile and often scared, I remember that this country is light years ahead in terms of true social welfare. They take care of their own and it shows that this is the cornerstone of a happier, healthier, hardworking population.
Now for a few extras! If you’re a girl:
- Focus on skincare, not makeup.
You have probably put two and two together by now, but just in case you had a case of mild brain freeze, I am currently in the middle of a Korean skincare obsession. Actually, yesterday when I was editing my second vlog, I started looking through some videos I took when I first arrived here. At that time, my skin had improved so much from the mess it had been in 2012. I really don’t want to think about that – perhaps one day I’ll show you, but not anytime soon! Anyway, so it was much better, but still had a few breakouts lurking. Well, these days those are few and far between. Not that I have perfect skin (far from it) but it has certainly improved from creating and sticking to my own Korean skincare routine.Most importantly, if you do this, you don’t need to wear as much make-up! Now that is something I can get on board with.
- Dress like a doll.
…Or at least think about your outfit before walking out the door. Yes, the rumours are true: Korean women know how to dress well and they do it everyday. It’s just… I can’t… that sort of fashion expertise is exhausting for me. I don’t know how they do it! Now, I think I certainly have style (or some sort of style, anyway, if not the particularly right one) but the amount of put-together-ness that goes on here is unrivalled. So many Korean women just look so perfect and effortlessly amazing, and it sort of forces you (me) to put a teensy bit more effort into your (my) appearance. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about a low-key, everyday, natural and colourful look. But so are they – they just do it better. Amateur tip: always have nice shoes.
If you’re a guy:
- Be immaculately well-groomed.
Some of the most beautiful men I have ever seen have been while I’ve been in Korea. I mean, the K-dramas aren’t even exaggerating that much. They are serious eye candy. Although not all Korean guys are the same, and there are some very masculine ones, ‘pretty boys’ are not necessarily everyone’s style, which can be where foreign women have a hard time. There are ads now for men’s BB creams and CC cushions… I’m not kidding. It’s a bit weird to me, as I prefer my men without makeup! That said, it wouldn’t hurt to do your hair just a little bit, and maybe run an iron over your shirt, too?
And that’s it for today! Of course, there are a multitude of other excellent habits that Koreans have, but these are the most obvious and important ones (that’s my understanding, anyway!). I think there’s so much good in this country and we could stand to learn a lot from the Korean way of life.
Until next time,