If you’ve spent much time in Korea, or you’ve revisited over the years, you’re aware of what a dynamic, changing country this is. I’ve already written about how Seoul is a different city from the ’60s, and I even wrote about what it was like in 1996, but I haven’t really written about the changes I’ve observed in person over the years.
In order to make actual interesting observations, I’m going to try to avoid discussions related to technology and construction. Yes, there are more highrises, a bunch of old buildings have disappeared, and Internet has gotten faster, but those aren’t changes so much as following along a carefully planned course. Here are some things that I could not have predicted when I first moved here in 2003.
Interconnected with the World
There are certainly more foreign residents in Korea now, and more Koreans travelling abroad. In 2009 the Korea Times reported that there were more South Koreans planning to travel abroad in the following year than those intending to stay home all year. Yonhap News reported last year that the foreign population of Korea had reached an all-time high of 1.4 million. And 1.4 million is coincidentally the exact number of Koreans, reports the Korea Herald (via China Post), who travelled outside of South Korea in January 2013, the highest number in Korean history.
These numbers certainly have a strong influence on most of the other changes that happened in Korea over the past ten years.
By far the most popular change has occurred in food, particularly in availability of formerly rare foods, quality of foreign restaurants, and Korean attitudes toward them.
Back when I came here, you’d see in Korean textbooks the question “Which do you like more, Korean food or non-Korean food?” And sometimes it seemed like every Korean student was trained to rehearse variations of the same speech:
Between Korean food and non-Korean food, I like Korean food.
Because, it is so diverse.
It is healthy to me.
And it is so spicy.
Or something very similar to that, where it’s stated over and over again that Korean food is better than all the rest of the food of the world put together. But since then, Korean people have really opened up their attitudes about foreign foods.
We’ve seen an increase in the quality of Italian and Indian foods, and the proliferation of Mexican and Turkish foods here. There are numerous other foreign foods available in Seoul now that weren’t here a decade ago, or at least more information about where to go. It used to be that foreigners would move to Korea and lament the lack of options when it came to foreign food, but now other than maybe New Yorkers, Seoul has something to offer nearly everyone that they couldn’t find in their hometown.
As well as the proliferation of foreign restaurants, there’s also been an increase in foreign goods, particularly foods. My own neighbourhood supermarket Saruga now offers Kraft Dinner as well as deodorant, two things that used to be a struggle to find in Korea. There are many more foreign grocery stores spread out over Haebangchon, Gyeongnidan, and Itaewon.
Certainly this increased availability points to the increasingly globalised attitudes of Koreans. It also makes life here more pleasant for foreign residents, because access to comfort food that reminds you of home really increases your quality of life. I’m not sure I could still be here if it weren’t for the discovery of Ho Lee Chow in Itaewon.
Korean attitudes toward beer have transformed in a very short time from “all beer tastes the same” to “this beer tastes way better than that beer.” As a result, the selection of foreign alcohol has improved greatly in Korea. There are also numerous more microbreweries and homebrewers in Korea.
Laws still remain in place to protect the major beer labels from small-business competition, and while Cass, Hite, and OB have all changed their recipes, they’re still not very good compared to all the small-scale beer businesses like Magpie and Craftworks and 7Brau, not to mention the increasing imports flooding the country.
Likewise, the mainstream soju brands remain as unpleasant as ever, although with the introduction of Andong Soju’s 느낌 label available across the country, we can hope this will change in a few years.
But the biggest change has been in makgeolli, the beloved rice wine that has grown in popularity and led to a proliferation in the homebrewing cottage industry. Makgeolli-specialty bars have opened up across the country, serving an increasingly diverse selection of regional makgeolli brands made from more and more inventive ingredients. Did I mention I even tried curry makgeolli once?
Coffee Shops Everywhere
Years ago you’d always hear foreigners complaining about coffee in Korea, back when coffee consisted of instant mixes like Maxim. But somewhere along the way, Korea discovered the cafe, and suddenly they’re everywhere, to the point where I’m starting to get alarmed at how many cafes are out there. Starbucks is here and it’s everywhere, but it has a lot of competition from domestic franchises. You’re never far from a Caffé Bene, or an Angel-in-Us Coffee, or a Hollys Coffee, or a Tom N Toms Coffee, or A Twosome Place. Not to mention all the smaller coffee places out there as well. And they’re all far better than instant coffee mix. Many cafes are open 24 hours a day, and due to the vertical lifestyle here it’s not rare to see a three-storey cafe offering great views as you sip your coffee. There’s even a term now for women who spend more money on coffee than they do on actual lunch: 됀장녀, though I hear it’s kind of dismissive.
Chances are the culprit for this cafe trend is the Korean drama The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, which introduced the Korean public to the cafe lifestyle, but also inspired many people to open their own cafes.
Tattoos are certainly more prominent in Korea today than they were a decade ago. Back then, tattoo parlours were unmarked rooms hidden in dingy basements, and the only people you’d see wearing tattoos were draft dodgers, artists and musicians, and presumably gangsters, as the stereotype goes.
Nowadays, dozens of Korean tattoo artists widely advertise their services in Korean and English, and it’s really not rare to see tattoos in public, even on Korean people. I even went to a Subway sandwich restaurant in Jongno where one of the employees has a visible neck tattoo. A number of my Korean friends have even gone into business for themselves, with one opening her own tattoo shop near Ewha Womans University and another taking a year to work at a tattoo shop in Australia.
So, what changed? I suspect that this is another case where Korea’s growing foreign population has influenced Korean society, as more and more soldiers as well as English teachers coming to Korea have visible tattoos. Over time the idea has grown that tattoos aren’t just for gangsters anymore. But also, the increasing number of K-pop idols getting ink has probably led to tattoos becoming more widely accepted, because if K-pop stars are doing it it must be wholesome, right?
Granted there’s still resistance to tattoos here, but let’s remember that tattooing was illegal even in the American states of South Carolina and Oklahoma until 2006.
School on Saturday
When I first came here, grade school students had to go to class on Saturday. The schools tried to make it more tolerable by having a half day, but that still meant morning classes, which completely ruins the purpose of Saturday mornings when children can either sleep in or watch cartoons all morning. For me growing up, every Saturday was Children’s Day. In Korea, not so much, which is probably why they needed a Children’s Day once a year.
Slowly, Saturday school hours were shaved down to only a couple weekends a month, before being eliminated altogether in 2011 across the country. However, just because this has changed doesn’t mean you’ll notice a difference: most parents have filled the newly freed-up time with more private classes, so you won’t be watching The Real Ghostbusters or Garfield and Friends (or whatever kids watch these days) on Saturday mornings any time soon.
After Japan eliminated Saturday schooldays in 2002, they took a plunge in OECD rankings and eventually brought back Saturday school in 2009. Korea has certainly been cautious to avoid this same fate.
Passing on the Left
When I first arrived in Korea, the tendency was for cars to drive on the right side of the road, but for pedestrians to pass on the left side of the hallway/sidewalk/path/etc. The reason for this latter convention dates back to 1921 during the Japanese Imperial era, when Korean people were forced to conform to Japanese road standards (Japanese people to this day do everything on the left side, including drive cars). After liberation, the US military undid Japan’s work, turning roads back to right-hand-side, but the pedestrians continued favouring the left.
In 2009 the government actively sought to break Korea of this habit, introducing campaigns to re-educate the public. As well, escalators and turnstiles were reversed so that users would have to go through on the right side. It’s been a long, difficult process, during which time it became unpredictable whether you should be on the left, the right, or even the middle, but we’re reaching the latter stages of this transition.
This is one of the few changes that I really dislike. Escalators being a relatively new concept to Korea, public campaigns have been used many times to educate Korean people on escalator etiquette. In 2002 the government introduced a campaign to introduce the concept of “stand on the right, walk on the left,” so that people in a hurry could move faster.
But then more recently — I think around 2008 — it was decided that uneven use this was causing too much uneven wear on escalators, so a new campaign was introduced to create the new rule of “two standing lines” on escalators, ostensibly to prevent the serious social problem of escalator injuries.
It took years before the change was noticeable, but these days it’s clear that walking on escalators at all is not as easy as it used to be. Nowadays, it’s more common to see everyone still filing to the right, but you won’t often see people walking on the left…unless you happen to see me pass you by.
Public Transportation Payment
How do you pay for public transport? The way this is done has changed over the past ten years. Right when I arrived, everyone had to line up in the subway station to buy a little paper ticket from a worker in a booth. Eventually the workers were replaced by automated machines, but it was still a waste of time because you had to do it every time you rode the subway.
In April 2004 the T-Money card was introduced, and everyone adapted quickly. With the new card, you can simply charge it with a larger sum of money for multiple trips and let the electronic card readers do the math.Even better, it works for both subways and buses.
And even if you don’t have a T-Money card — which are available all over the place in a variety of amusing designs — your payment method has changed. Now rather than the old paper ticket, the standard one-trip fare is a plastic card that essentially functions as a one-time T-Money card. The plastic cards are more expensive than the paper tickets, sure, but users are encouraged to return them for a 500 won reward. It took me a while to realise this, as the first several times I used this system I’d leave the card behind or forget about it in a pocket somewhere.
When I first came to Korea, I failed to notice the absolute lack of graffiti everywhere. Underpasses, buildings, even plain white walls went unmarked. The first time I noticed graffiti in Korea was a public park in Busan sometime in 2006. Then over the following years taggers were relentless across Seoul, particularly in Hongdae, until today when it’s rare to see a surface unmarred with someone’s signature.
Oh, and years ago there used to be restaurants with paper on the walls that encouraged customers to draw pictures or write messages. Those might still be around but I haven’t seen one in years.
Of course the surprise viral success of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” has reintroduced Korea to the world, opening doors and reshaping how we think of Korean music.
I think K-pop has mostly remained the same since my 2003 arrival (though is far different from what I remember in 1996), albeit with more of a rap influence and an irritating habit of wearing faux-punk clothes.
However, Korean independent music has exploded in the ten years I’ve been attending shows here. Back when I started going to shows, I’d frequently be the only foreigner in attendance, and in many cases I’d be the only paying customer, as everyone else there was a musician playing in a band that night. When explaining some of the bands I’d like, I’d frequently face the dubious reaction “There’s punk in Korea?!” Back then punk seemed to be the main genre actively putting on shows, with only a small handful of shows for all of Hongdae every weekend.
But over the years thanks to growing interest in live music, increasing access to digital music, interconnectedness through SNS websites and blogs, and increased communication with the outside world, Korean indie music has spread, diversified, and matured. This year, a record-breaking number of Korean bands have been travelling overseas thanks to funding from KOCCA (Korean Creative Contents Agency) who sent eleven bands to SXSW in Austin, Texas, and Hyundai Card who sent four rock bands on tour in the UK. Korean bands have been increasing their international profile, a trend that won’t likely go away even if Psy’s “Gentleman” didn’t prove to measure up to the astronomical success of his previous single.
Also, there’s been increasing interest in Korea’s modern music history, with the rock, psychedelic, and folk music of Korea in the ’60s and ’70s being discovered by a new generation of performers. These days, there’s a much stronger sense of continuity between modern rock music and what came several decades before.
Korea has changed over the years I’ve been here, and I expect to see it continue to change in the years to come. I also hope that Korea’s traditional culture will be preserved alongside it.