How does Korea match up?

Written by on October 4, 2013 in Lifestyle

Other WKB’s have written about their experiences of the stark differences between how they’d anticipated Korea would be and the true realities of the country.

Having found their posts quite interesting, I figured I would write about some of my own experiences and some of the fantastic (as in terrible) comments made by friends who have visited me in Korea.

My infatuation with Korea began at school. All of a sudden, my parents pulled me out of state school and stuck me in a private girls school where most of my classmates were of Chinese or Korean descent. My new friends were mostly Korean and as a result, I spent a lot of time in their rooms watching dramas I didn’t understand, trying to sing along to songs without actually having any idea what the lyrics were, eating foods that I couldn’t even pronounce while trying to use chopsticks that I kept dropping.

Before long, I was laughing and crying with my friends over the tumultuous plot lines of dramas like Boys over Flowers, we were all dancing along to the Wondergirls’ ‘Nobody’ and I’d gone crazy for kimchi and shin ramyeon. That said, it was two years before I actually got the opportunity to go to Korea. My best friend at the school invited me to her house for a month over the summer – I couldn’t refuse.

Although it’s hard to remember what not knowing about Korea felt like since it’s such a significant part of my life now, some rather entertaining memories remain.

Before going to Korea, I’d assumed that everyone would be as crazily hard-working as my friends, that K-pop would be everywhere and would be loved by everyone and that, having been converted to an Artbox fan before even going to Korea thanks to the never-ending supply of ‘stuff’ brought back by my friends, everything would simply be adorable and cute. I’d assumed there would be a lot of foreigners – Korea was awesome, who wouldn’t want to go? I’d (foolishly) assumed that their English probably wouldn’t be too good so had bought all my guidebooks and phrase books…these kinds of things.

It's a dangerous place..full of things you don't need but definitely will want!

It’s a dangerous place..full of things you don’t need but definitely will want!

Thankfully, although this was my first lone voyage (sans parents), I’d travelled a lot to places like Hong Kong and Thailand before so I wasn’t completely alien to the Asian environment.

Long before I left for Korea, my friends had ensured I got my chopstick skills to native level. After my arrival, I couldn’t thank them enough since at restaurants, fork and knife was definitely not an option and yet, despite the lack of fork and knife, everyone seemed positively amazed that I could use chopsticks. They’d exclaim “But you’re foreign!”. I still laugh as even to this day, I still get complemented on my chopstick skills. When my Asian friends comment on this, I simply reply with “I know…and when you use a fork and knife, you’re practically as good as me!!” … they get the point.

At that time, I will admit to being a rather major K-pop fan. I didn’t like the artists that much but I was a sucker for the music and was amazed to find that when hanging out with friends in coffee shops, when a song would come on over the radio, I’d  say “Oh I love this song – I really like so-and-so’s part in the middle” or something and my friends would all stare at me like…whatever *awkward side look*. Assumption 1 prove wrong. Seems like not every Korean was a K-pop fan after all.

While in Korea, many of my school friends introduced me to their friends who I also became good friends with. Most of these other friends attended school in Korea and thus, attended hagwons. If there was one thing that I took away from my first trip to Korea aside from love for the country, it was a renewed work ethic. Koreans are, whether they want to or not, intensely hard working. The level of competition in schools is unbelievable. I still remember clearly calling a friend in the evening to meet up and the friend said “Fine – but only after 11pm – I have hagwon until then~”. Assumption 2 proven wrong. My Korean friends were not crazily hard working – it seems their level of hard working is only normal..I mean, come on, they didn’t even go to hagwon!

Not everything in Korea is cute. Compared to England, there are a lot MORE cute things in Korea…but there is so much more to Korea than cute stuff. I was blown away by the edgy fashion in places like Garosugil (sadly fading as the little boutiques shut to make way for the big brands flocking to this trendy street) and Apgujeong. Assumption 3 proven wrong – yes, cute stuff exists but for land of cute I’d need to go to Japan..and that didn’t happen until this year!

I didn’t actually see that many foreigners during my first trip to Korea, definitely not in comparison to the number I see around Seoul these days. Assumption 4 proven wrong and as a result, I was a constant source of attention for the ajumma’s who would always chat to me on the underground…well, our conversation went like this.

Ajumma : “Wow, look, it’s a pretty foreigner”
Me : “Ah, haha, no~”
Ajumma: “Wow, you speak Korean so well!”
Me: “Oh, I can only speak a little…”
Ajumma: ” djw;sfhbnkfjgnlqkjsa;ozsirghbndkdlfdmA?Lfnbdfkx.fkjda;”
Me – *terrified* looks to friend for help!

I also remember getting completely lost in a tube station, having my phone run out of battery and feeling like I was about to cry. Late to meet a friend, already struggling in the heat – it was one of those “I want to go home” moments. Out of desperation, I went into a shop and asked the assistant in my sloppy Korean if I could use her phone. She laughed and asked in perfect English if I was ok and that of course, I could use her phone and could she help at all as I looked like I was about to cry. Assumption 5 proven wrong. While many Koreans still struggle with speaking English to a good standard, they understand English very well as English is a compulsory part of their curriculum and a key determiner in their admission to good universities so good English language skills are highly prized.

This summer I made my 8th trip to Korea and as always, it was wonderful. Since the second or third time I came to Korea, while I’ve been in Korea, I’ve had friends from Europe and China visit Seoul and we’ve met up and gone out together. Hearing their comments, especially how Korea differed from their expectations, has been really interesting for me.

One of my favourite ones actually served as the topic for my end of term presentation for my course at Seoul National University this summer. Last summer, while taking a break from shopping in a coffee shop with one of my Chinese friends I couldn’t help but laugh when she said “You know, coming here, I’m really shocked by Korean guys…I don’t know…there are some really handsome guys but most of them are just..you know…normal?”. She seemed so…dejected? Like someone who knew a truth was coming but couldn’t quite bring herself to face it. In my presentation I had spoken about the differences between Korean guys in dramas and Korean guys in real life. Sitting there in the coffee shop, my heart went out to all Korean men. How could they possibly succeed when constantly set up against such high standards? Of course all Korean guys aren’t the same as drama characters…that’s why the characters are characters.

Giving my presentation of the differences between Korean guys in tv dramas and in reality!

Giving my presentation of the differences between Korean guys in tv dramas and in reality!

Another good one involved a European friend who came to Korea on holiday. Prior to coming to Korea, he loved watching Korean dramas – I mean, really loved watching Korean dramas. He would gush about plotlines whenever we met and tell me all about how dramatic it was with so-and-so loving so-and-so but so-and-so’s mother didn’t approve! What would they do?

We met about 2 weeks after his arrival in Korea and he was in a strop. A big one. The food arrived but he wouldn’t touch it. Finally, I gave up. “What is wrong with you?” I asked. He sighed “I just don’t get it! They won’t do it, they just won’t.” He sat there, frowning with his arms crossed. I was actually worried…”what won’t they do?” I asked tentatively. “It’s the Korean girls…they won’t call me oppa!”.

He was dead serious but I couldn’t help snorting, trying to hold in my laughter.

What did he expect? Oppa, eonni, noona, dongsaeng – (oppa = said by a girl to an older brother/male friend, eonni = said by a girl to an older sister/female friend, hyung = said by a boy to an older brother/male friend, noona = said by a boy to an older brother / male friend, dongsaeng = said to somebody younger – although these days normally name is used instead) – these terms all suggest a closer relationship involving responsibility, it’s not how you’d call someone when first meeting them. Yet here he was, all upset because the girls weren’t calling him “oppa” like in the dramas. I explained this but it wasn’t until a Korean friend later told him the same that he finally started to get the message. These days, he still travels regularly to Korea and now has many girls calling him “oppa” – except that’s now because they want him to buy them dinner!

With my eonnis and oppas at my Chinese language study group~

With my eonnis and oppas at my Chinese language study group~

The best one in all of my experience happened this summer. A Chinese friend came to Seoul for a few days and had specifically requested that we go to Gangnam. I like shopping in Gangnam and I like the restaurants so I had no problem with it. We had a lovely morning shopping and a great lunch together…when I suggested we go somewhere else, suddenly my friend got really annoyed. I asked what was wrong….my friend just looked into the distance.

“I won’t lie” he said. “I’m feeling pretty let down right now”
I panicked….was it something I’d done? was it something I’d said? “Why?”, I asked.
“Well….we’re in Gangnam but where is Psy? I don’t see Psy”.
My brain couldn’t quite process. “What do you mean…of course Psy isn’t here”.
“What do you mean of course he isn’t here! This is Gangnam, Psy should be here…have you not seen him? This is his street!”

I couldn’t hold my laughter in any longer. Seriously? Psy in Gangnam. As if! I had to slowly help my friend back to reality, wandering the streets of Myeongdong surrounded by SM Entertainment merchanise, Psy-lacking Gangnam had been long forgotten!

From my experience I’ve learnt that real Korean food is always a hundred times better than you expect it to be, Koreans are more welcoming than you could ever imagine and even the smallest effort to speak Korean or understand Korean culture is greatly appreciated. Not every guy looks like they walked off a movie set and Psy doesn’t permanently reside in Gangnam but if you’re willing to look past this, I promise you a phenomenal, beautiful country driven by passion and determination, possessing the stunning architecture of the past and the technological key to the future.

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From hearing my friends talk about the differences between their anticipated Korea and the real thing, the crucial thing I’ve learnt is that in travelling to a new country; expect nothing, embrace everything.

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About the Author

Anna Darnley

Born and raised in the UK, I'm a 21 year old, final year university student reading BA Chinese and Korean with a minor in Japanese at SOAS. I also speak French and Spanish and I'm studying Russian too. I'm utterly fascinated by the world around me and spend half my time saving for plane tickets, the other half travelling wherever my mood takes me. I'm now back in the UK at university (when I'm not popping back out to Korea at every chance!) Follow me as I explore the Orient!