I don’t like living in Korea. There, I said it. No matter how hard I’ve tried, I’ve never really been able to feel comfortable here. I moved here without much expectation other than knowing that I would be able to save up a decent amount of money to put toward my dream of traveling – a goal I’ve been able to accomplish.
Some aspects of Korea will always hold a special place in my heart as this is somewhere I’ve called home for two years. In all honesty, living in Korea has changed my life for the better – it’s a place that has enabled me to grow and learn about myself more than I thought possible. This isn’t to say that I do not appreciate some aspects of Korean culture; this country is just somewhere that I couldn’t possibly imagine living long-term. If you’re reading this and getting mentally defensive, understand that this isn’t meant to be a dig at the country or its culture, but rather an account of my experience in Korea.
Disclaimer: By no means do I hold America on any higher of a platform than Korea. There are things America does better than Korea and there are things Korea does better than America. I have met some wonderful people here. I value honesty in all facets of my life, which is why I’m writing this opinion piece.
Okay, so I’ve admitted I don’t like living in Korea. Why is that?
There are several cultural norms that I’ve had difficulty connecting with. Am I closed minded? I don’t think so, but that’s for you to decide. There are just some things that have grated on me over time and have tainted my opinions of Korea. In no particular order, here are some of the primary reasons I don’t like living in Korea:
1. Korea’s vain culture
This aspect has to be the number one thing that digs at me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the occasional selfie, but Koreans take it to the next level. It’s not uncommon to sit in a coffee shop next to a table of adult women staring into their front-facing cameras, moving the device around to various angles for long periods of time. The goofiest part is the fact that they aren’t always taking photographs – they’re sometimes just staring at themselves in silence for minutes on end. My mom put it best when she came to visit and said, “I don’t know who they’re staring at more: me or themselves.”
Everything you do in this country depends on how you look. If you meet your new students’ mothers, they’ll tell you how big your eyes are and how small your face is. If you’re like me and don’t like to wear makeup that often, your boss and Korean colleagues will constantly remind you that you’re looking sick or tired. This isn’t Korea’s fault, it’s just the way of life here. Most people in this society are under a lot of pressure and vanity conquers all.
Covered in mirrors, just walking through the cities makes it easy for people of all backgrounds to not feel good enough. Seoul, Korea is internationally known as the plastic surgery capital of the world – and not in a good way. It is estimated that one in five Korean women have had some sort of plastic surgical procedure, which grosses me out and breaks my heart at the same time. A certain image is desired so strongly that it’s almost as though people here are trying to delete their Korean identities when they fail to recognize their natural beauty. While people are certainly image obsessed in America, it’s a bit more of a taboo subject compared to Korea. It doesn’t help that I’m in the heart of it all: My apartment is in Apgujeong, the country’s plastic surgery hub. No thanks.
2. Korea’s stress culture
Korea’s known for its…intensity. Starting at a young age, many children are forced into this hurried culture and there’s no turning back. A lot of kids are made to study at what I refer to as pressure-cooker academies, more commonly known as hagwons. They’re raised to study multiple hours a day at cram schools of all kinds: art, English, math, science – you name it.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Korea’s Constitutional Court mandated that hagwons within Seoul and Busan must close at 10 p.m. Prior to the ordinances, private academies stayed open until as early as 3 a.m. There are ways of getting around these laws, however. Have building, will study, if you will. After studying for nearly their entire day, high school students often find themselves in private, rented out study rooms which are allowed to be occupied all night. While the kindergarten I work for is certainly not a cram school, knowing that I’m in some way perpetuating this sort of culture for the sake of a larger paycheck is – to me – morally corrupt.
If you’re interested in watching the typical day in the life of a Korean teenager, check out this 20 minute documentary by Judy Suh, aptly titled ExamiNation.
Once they grow up and out of the hagwon life, adults are expected to work long, grueling hours, often unable to escape the stress that’s been placed upon them their entire lives. It all seems fruitless though, as Korea has the worst productivity rates in the world.
3. Korea’s lack of individuality
Korea is certainly what’s known as a collectivist culture. What this means is that Korean nationalists generally put families and what’s best for the community before their own needs – amazing, right? Sort of. In order to achieve this type of mentality, people often sacrifice their critical thinking stills or personal desires. Rather than questioning something, people here often mindlessly swim with the other fish because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do.
I recently asked my co-teacher why Korean people wear top of the line hiking gear or dress similarly on a day to day basis and she gave me a simple explanation:
“People like to wear the fancy clothes so other people don’t think they are from the countryside.”
After hearing this, I couldn’t help but be brought back to my elementary school days. I grew up attending Catholic school, which meant I had to wear a uniform. One of the popular kids in 8th grade purchased khaki pants at American Eagle, which trickled down the line. Before I knew it, my mom was taking me to the mall to purchase the pants so I could look “cool.” I eventually grew out of that ideology once I entered middle school when I began to find my own identity – something I’m forever grateful to my country for encouraging.
This isn’t to say young Koreans aren’t branching out and speaking for themselves, but it certainly isn’t the norm. This mentality applies to all facets of life. I can’t imagine it’s super easy for creatives to thrive here and it’s one of the primary reasons I don’t like living in Korea.
4. Korea can be highly discriminatory
Koreans tend to believe their race and nation is superior to others. With that said, a lot of people here take what they call their “tanil minjok” (단일 민족), or “pure-blooded racial community,” very seriously. Despite the fact that the country has seen a large amount of immigration since the Korean War, some people here still find difficulty with “foreigners.”
I get it. It happens in my own country, too. Some people mindlessly despise those from Mexico or cast a generalization upon every human being from the Middle Eastern region of the world. Why? Because racism exists literally everywhere. The only difference is that American children weren’t taught as recently as 15 years ago that they are the “master race.” Yes, that’s a thing in Korea and it’s very real. A woman in a jimjilbang once openly talked about how my friends and I were “ruining the purity of the water” whilst we were sitting in a sauna – something I wouldn’t have known had I not been with a fluent Korean speaker. Whatever, lady.
A common issue for non-Koreans is being denied cab service. I can’t begin to count how many times a cab driver has slowed down, saw my face, and continued to drive away. This is such an issue that the Korean government mandated a “three-strikes” law for Korean cab drivers who deny service to foreigners. The law came into effect on January 29 and will be a game changer for those living here.
If you’ve ever attended public events here, I’m sure you’ve noticed that many have closed off sections for non-Koreans and Koreans. This isn’t unique to events; it has been attempted in public spaces as well.
In May 2015, the Korean government announced that it had plans to segregate Busan’s famous Haeundae Beach into several sections: a “China Zone,” a “Kid Zone” and a section of beach 50 meters away from the “Korean Zone” labeled the “Foreigner Zone.” When the government experienced a lot of public backlash (imagine that), it refuted claims, alleging the original terms to have been “misunderstood.” Right.
5. Korea cultivates childish behavior
Imagine you’re out for the evening with your significant other or friends. You’re walking down the street and you see a purse flying through the sky and watch as it lands on the ground. You look up to see an adult woman standing, fists clenched with a pout on her face while stomping her feet. You watch a man walk solemnly walk over to the woman. The woman stomps her feet a few more times, curtly turns around and walks away. You continue to watch as the poor guy – TOTALLY DEFEATED – picks up the purse and hurries toward her.
This isn’t a scene from a K-Drama. This is a real life situation that took place on the streets of Itaewon.
From a very young age, Koreans expect to be coddled. Dating here is often based on extremely superficial factors (reference the first bullet point of this post) and the relationships seem a bit reminiscent of my middle school days. With that said, it’s very acceptable and culturally welcomed for adults to throw temper tantrums in public spaces as well as in private.
The term for it is called “aegyo,” which was largely popularized by Kpop. Often described as something a woman “uses to get what she wants,” these whiney mini-tantrums are bizarre and when I encounter them in public I feel like I never left my kindergarten classroom. Like a child begging for a piece of candy, Korean women who play this game rely solely on those in power – a man or their parents – until they can be awarded the item they’re crying over. If they’re denied, the tantrum will most likely escalate and continue until the adult in the relationship gives in. Weirded out by this? Me too.
On the contrary, older women in Korea are absolutely incredible and resilient. They are hard working and climb mountains well into their elderly years. They’re tough, they’ve experienced immense changes and they’re fearless. I view this “aegyo” communication as a direct slap in the face to all the Korean women who worked so hard in the past and continue to do so to this day.
While there are a few more reasons that I never felt comfortable in the country, these are the primary examples. I guess it doesn’t help that I caught a man filming and/or taking photos of me while I was sleeping – a situation all too common in Korea. While I’ve highlighted some of the horrors of living in Korea above, it wasn’t always that bad. If you’re interested in a more positive posts, I’ve written about a few topics such as 3 reasons I like living in Korea, the quirks I’ve developed living in Korea as well as the kindness of Koreans. Thanks for reading!
Have you ever lived in a country where you never felt at home?