Thanks as usual for taking the time to read my blog posts. In my last blog post, I spoke more about the things that I really loved about South Korea. As with any country, being an expat there may be things that you don’t like as well. So, this week I wanted to highlight the things that I didn’t like so much. Also, please note these are my opinions and they come from my experience. Each person has a different and unique experience of the world (it’s called perception for anyone who wants to really go out of their way to disagree with me.)
When your pallet has been trained with certain flavors, it can be difficult to adjust to Korean foods and the availability of products. I struggled a lot because I couldn’t find many products available in the convenience stores, such as oatmeal or salted potato chips. Also Korean prefer their foods sweet. Garlic bread, sandwiches, pizza will have some item that adds a sweet taste (it can be honey, sweet cream cheese, gherkins, sweet corn and sugar) Many of the conventional items that are found in South Africa or western countries may not be found in certain cities in South Korea and can only be bought online. Also, I found that many of the “western restaurants” all implemented Korean flavours into the food. (Naturally catering to the market) and it was difficult to find the kind of tastes and flavors that I was used to. However, please note that you can find western foods and western products (you may not just find all of them or the ones you like most)
In my point of view, Korean culture can sometimes come across as a bit obsessive and aestheticism is no exception. Korean culture is very focused on the way things look and often I feel as though that it takes precedence over “feelings and emotion.” Young girls as young as 14 could get consent from parents to have plastic surgery, and this can give you some indication on how much value is placed on beauty and the way things look. Koreans in general, also prefer milky white skin and have a range of products to make them look “whiter.” white skin is considered a positive beauty standard and anything that deviates from this norm is frowned upon. I also found that the children as young as ten years old would be severely obsessed with their weight, make-up and the way they looked. It meant that the value of aestheticism is so ingrained in the culture that it starts from a very young age. You can read more about Korea’s obsession with aestheticism here.
5. Driving (Taxis)
Although, South Korea has a really efficient transport system, climbing into a taxi or a bus was sometimes a really daunting experience. ( I could actually say more so with taxis) When I was in South Korea, I made use mostly of private taxis in Gwangju, Yeosu, Naju, and Seoul. In most instances, the drivers were elderly (more so in Seoul) and largely male. A few times the taxi that I was in came to a screeching halt or the drivers drove very fast and the main objective was to get the passenger to the destination on time (safety coming second) South Africa definitely has it’s own problems when it comes to public transport, however whenever I was in an Uber (or other privately paid taxi services) the drivers always made sure to drive safely and with safe speeds.
4. Customer service
This refers mostly for me to industries of beauty. I cannot speak for all the industries in South Korea, but for one getting my nails done or a haircut, I really didn’t feel as though I received my value for money. A very basic gel manicure ranged from around $30 and upwards and the service and aftercare were significantly different from South Africa. Also, if I didn’t like something it was really difficult to explain because of the language barrier, and secondly I really didn’t feel like complaining as an expat. Please expect to pay up to $100 or more for gel nails in South Korea.
3. Attitudes towards weight and beauty
South Korea being a homogenous nation, struggles a lot with many notions of diversity. Not only when it comes to race but for me, anything that deviates from the norm of what is acceptable according to Korean standards. One thing that stands out is that being “fat” is unacceptable. Plastic surgery is commonplace around South Korea, where you can do anything from skin whitening (recommended) to liposuction etc. I found it to be a little excessive in South Korea, where fitness is religion and being regular weight according to your BMI would be considered “fat” Also, they have certain notions of what is fundamentally attractive and everything else is not. You can read more about Korean mainstream beauty standards in comparison to Western standards here.
2. Pollution and air quality
South Korea can be described as one of the most polluted countries in the world in terms of air quality. A study taken in February of 2017 found that South Korea had the second worst air quality of all advanced nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development1 Air pollution damages many of the organs and disables the functions of the human body. Having lived in South Korea for just over 10 months, I found that there were noticeable changes in my appearance (which may have been caused by the air pollution.) You can read more about air pollution in Korea here as well as the effects of air pollution here.
1.Racism and the treatment of minority groups
Sadly to say, this is number one on my list and probably the reason why I will not be returning to South Korea anytime soon. South Korea being a homogenous nation tends to discriminate on various factors such as race, ethnicity and gender. In fact according to a Freedom House 2018 report “South Korea lacks a comprehensive anti-discrimination law. The country’s few ethnic minorities encounter legal and societal discrimination. Residents who are not ethnic Koreans face extreme difficulties obtaining citizenship, which is based on parentage. Children of foreign-born residents in South Korea suffer from systemic exclusion from the education and medical systems.” (2) You can read the full report from freedom house here. As I had noted in my previous post, South Korea has a very low crime rate and essentially you are “free” in terms of safety and security. However, I did not feel free in South Korea. Walking on the streets or visiting an aquarium often times people would stare and for this reason, I didn’t feel free or comfortable to explore more of the country. I have also heard other cases from people online in expat groups about exclusion from nightclubs and other horrid tales of racism and treatment of expats. In fact, there were even some videos showing direct discrimination and racism that had made it onto Korean news.
If you are considering working in South Korea as an expat, please expect to experience some of the points that I have mentioned above. However, please also note that each person’s experience of a place is different and you may not experience any or all of these. Korea is great for many things and I am grateful for the opportunity and experience that I have had to see a different country and experience a different culture.
Till next time,
- “Armed with NASA Data, South Korea confronts its choking smog” – NPR
- Freedom in the World 2018 – Country Profile, South Korea, Freedom House