Korea is a great place. Before I go into the dark side, let’s look at a few outstanding goodies you get to have as a wide-eyed foreigner in exile from your own homeland.
– People are basically friendly, even in big, crowded cities, unlike in many other places. And Koreans are often profoundly decent people.
– People like foreigners. You will like the people, too, if you take the time and energy to actively engage them. You’ll make friends that stick with you for life, and you won’t ever regret it. If you put in serious effort, it doesn’t go unrewarded.
– Collaborative culture: Despite the conformity, the closeness and attention people give each other has advantages. I’ve never seen teams of people get together to complete group tasks as efficiently as I’ve seen in Korea. You want something complex done that requires lots of co-ordinated effort? Koreans are the people to ask.
– It sounds trite, given the seriousness of the rest of these observations, but it’s just so amazing it has to be mentioned: co-ordination and drive produce small miracles. For example, the transportation system is beyond comparison, and it’s super cheap. The rest of the world needs to study Korea and its ability to marshal public resources. There are few cities in the world that are more convenient to get around in than Seoul: efficient and timely trains that go to the furthest corner of the country for tiny amounts of money from several well-planned central stations, and they build subway lines faster than you can say “You got a permit for this in how long?” The city boasts a massively expanding network that already puts almost any other city on Earth to shame. You can travel crazy distances, conveniently, at high speeds, in relative comfort. The subways are beyond compare. And more: an intricate network of four categories of super-useful buses, all of them fast (if sometimes feeling like roller coaster rides), so great that you eventually may want to give up on the amazing subways and just use the bus system. Nowhere on Earth have I seen a more comprehensive transit network, maybe not even a better public service of any kind.
I suspect it’s the cheapest, most effective, most extensive, most efficient public transit system not just anywhere today, but in human history. I use it all the time, and it never fails to astound me how much better it is than anywhere else I’ve ever been or even heard of.
– The food is fantastic. If you like meat and spicy foods and yummy stuff, the place is great. Fresh, with a (limited but) impressive cuisine. And Korea is a foodies food-culture paradise unlike anywhere else.
However, all of these things come with downsides.
DOWNSIDES: For You, as a Foreigner
– Sameness: at first, you’re astounded by the amazing windfall of neighbourhoods, places, hangouts, restaurants, and endroits with local colour. There’s a thousand neighbourhoods to explore in Seoul and even the larger cities like Pusan, Taegu or Gwangju. However, you soon realize something: Every subway station and neighbourhood has the same outlet stores, the same chains, the same family restaurants, the same same sameness; soon, exploring neighbourhoods takes on less urgency, as the tendency for cultural and consumerist monotony sets in. Mainstream Korea is not the multicultural haven that many Western cities have become; outside of a few core areas, there’s a great degree of homogeneity.
But this isn’t so much a dark side as it is a realization that Seoul is just like any other city – just moreso. It’s bigger, louder, vaster, more everything: more intense. The cities are amazingly well-built, for a country leveled to the ground 70 years ago, and don’t let the run-down nature of some areas fool you – Koreans are A#1 at building infrastructure when they’re not rushing to get a job done.
But there are things left out in the mad rush to completion. For example, I offer up “the smell”: for some utterly incomprehensible reason, Seoul, especially, stinks to high heaven within vicinity of sewer grates, and by “near” I mean “anywhere within 100 metres”. I’m guessing – wild speculation – that it’s got something to do with not bothering to fix a badly designed post-war sewage network that’s just barely underground and out of sight, and that basically works, but that in honest really needs to be completely rebuilt.
All places have their downsides. I could go on at immense length about the social negatives about my own country, my home city, my culture – there are so many, books could be written, nay, volumes. I believe there are these things called “newspapers” which detail the many failings of my own home and the city I came from. I don’t want to give the impression that Seoul is a kind of hell, but the original question asked here was about the dark side of living in Korea. Don’t think I’m slagging Korea; I could write long pages about the wonders of Seoul and the amazing people who live there, but that’s not the purpose of this post.
Here are some of the dark parts of aspects of Korean life you’ll encounter as a foreigner, which may or may not apply to you.
Life is Cheap
Low Cost: The low cost of living in Seoul is great, if you have a good job. But this is backstopped by the horrible wages and living conditions for many: Taxi drivers make a tiny sum (in a culture with no tips), restaurant staff are minimum wage slaves, retail workers are required to be incredibly polite and effusively helpful but get paid a pittance, and the cops shuffle homeless people off. Street vendors – source of much colour and joy and hey they’re just doing their thing – are often run out of areas when the government (!), in cahoots with locals, often hire thugs to beat the crap out of Granny and Grandpa Street Vendor to “clean up” a place or drive out competition. Things like that remind you of the corrupt, autocratic, top-down authoritarian past that Korea is growing out of, and they sometimes really disappoint you.
Fate and Decent Jobs
While life is good for foreigners with decent jobs, it’s humiliating and awful if you don’t have one. Ask a Sri Lankan labourer working 12 hours a day 6 days a week for LG and see how good life in Korea is. People from the “West” or other rich countries call themselves “expats”, while Sri Lankans or Indonesians are “migrant labourers”. This delineates one of many naked class differentials. The truth is that while everyone is migrant labour, some are treated well and others are treated like cattle. We participate in this game by emphasizing distinctions. It saddens me how upper-class migrants don’t pressure the government to push companies into treating lower-class migrants better. This is a very, very dark stain on the Korean body politic. It’s also true in many other places, but after so many bad examples, South Korea should know better. When you broach the topic with Koreans, they will often suck in their breath and nod, not knowing what to do about the people who do their “DDD” jobs.
This is a highly conformist culture. As a foreigner, you don’t need to worry about pressure, because you can’t ever really fit in. The downside: You can’t ever really fit in. But if you look hard enough, you can find Korean outcasts and rebels to hang out with, in the funky arts or music scene or the underground cultures that exist just behind doors and in easily-missed locales.
Choosing to be a Foreigner
At first, you say “I want to be Korean!”, then you see how Koreans live, and then you say “Hey, treat me like a foreigner.” And this is the point: That wonderfully conformist culture that gets group stuff done can crush people who don’t fit in, and let’s be honest, lots of Koreans don’t fit in. You get to watch this from a front-row seat. Women, men, children, old people: Not easy. Life is hard, and conformism doesn’t make it easier. Older people can be rude and obnoxious, and you learn why they often act like they’ve said “screw you all, I’m doing whatever the hell I want, you basterds”. They do it because they can absolutely say they’ve earned the social right to defy social rules through a life of social scraping and kowtowing. This is cultural, not political, too – Koreans often leave the country or prefer to deal with foreigners or speak in a foreign language, because it frees them from soul-draining social niceties and obligations that make normal life almost like punishment much of the time.
Life is freaking hard for Koreans. There’s a narrow path considered acceptable for Koreans to follow, and straying from it comes at serious social cost (even though many are willing to pay it). As a foreigner your life may be so-so, but the lives of your Korean friends goes from pressure to pressure to pressure. Integrate as much as you want, but be glad you’re not local. If Korea is a great place to be a culturally adaptable foreigner, it’s a brutal place for Koreans. Many Koreans want to leave not because South Korea isn’t a politically free place, or because they face hardship or hard times finding good jobs. It’s because of the constricting social culture.
You think you have it tough, the immigration office treats you badly, the government is hard to deal with? Your boss is a jerk, there’s bad workplace politics and your boyfriend won’t introduce you to his parents?
If you’re Korean, you need to deal with this, and far, far worse: Much more hierarchical workplace abuse; fewer options for redress (believe it or not), because defending yourself can stigmatize you; obnoxious “seniors” (work, family, school, government offices, even social circles) that use their social power over you to browbeat or abuse you; I’ve heard numberless stories of dodgy relatives who scam others for money and get away with it. Then there’s litigious rich snobs who sue you because you spilled coffee on their expensive shirt, you weak, dirty little prole; a painful and embarrassing quest for a marriage partner at predetermined age, after which you’re basically trash, even if this age has gone up from, say, 25-26 for women to 29-30 these days (try being a 40 year-old Korean woman and talk about how much trouble you have dating); women who expect men to be walking wallets and personal servants, and woe betide a man with the wrong or no family connections, how contemptible is he; and when you get old, the very real chance you’ll be discarded by relatives and children who see you as a useless piece of (abusive, weak, over-compensating, insert social pathology here) parental refuse.
Before you get resentful about not being Korean and never being able to fit in, ask yourself if you want to fit in.
The All-Seeing Eyes
All the time, everywhere, people are watching and judging you. People are deciding whether you are Acceptable. Are you High-Value? Are you pretty or handsome? Are you rich? What’s your social status? Once they decide what social category to put you in, they ask “are you behaving in the Proper Manner for your social category”? You need to Maintain. Everyone is always judging you.
Many Koreans very desperately want to exit Korea to get away from the judgmental eyes of other Koreans. You may be exempt from it for a time; but Koreans live as if everywhere is a small village, and everyone has their nose in your business.
Consumerism and Status:
Status: Social status is everything. Even if you’re not rich, you need to pretend to be rich. You need the Right Manners, the Right Attitude, the Right Look, the Right Disposition, the Right Response, the Right Interests. It’s a lot like Hong Kong that way. Get used to it. Do you think they’re materialistic and status-obsessed where you come from? It’s nothing compared to Korea.
You complain that Western countries are consumerist? You know nothing yet. South Korea is among the most intense, self-focused, bitterly consumerist places on Earth. New York City is almost anti-capitalist by comparison.
You’re going to hear a lot about Confucian values and hierarchy and order and family. A lot of people resort to this kind of lazy talk. The truth is that there’s nothing particularly Confucian in any meaningful sense about life in Korea. Sure, there may be a few rituals hanging around, but their cultural context is so twisted out of shape that, in essence, talking about confucianism in any reasonable sense is just a distraction.
When it comes to old people, for example, Korean society has become one in which older people are generally discardable. Despite the statistics for wealth, younger people have abandoned most Korean traditions and older people now die alone and in aching poverty at staggering rates. Also, the traditional deference given to the old (according to class) is slipping away in all but superficial ways. The aged often have no connection to the modern Korea, and you can see them hanging out in community and neighbourhood centres, sitting in unkempt parks as passersby fail to even see them, shuffling around aimlessly in semi-abandoned neighbourhoods where nobody would ever condescend to give them a head-nod. It’s sad and disheartening, the kind of modern alienation that accompanies intense city life.
Welcome to the Modern World, dialed up to maximum.
People, People Everywhere
Population pressure. You can never escape from people. There are people everywhere, all the time, in every place you want to be. It’s great, until you want to be alone or to relax. Good luck with that. Even smaller cities are just jam-packed.
Cultural, Racial and Ethnic Chauvinism
Korea has a tendency to be – not to put too fine a point on it – racist. There’s a lot of juvenile commentary on this, and it’s a complex sociological subject, but let’s just say that the “race-nation” is not a dead subject in Korea. Its roots may be deep, it may be early 20th century, and it might be odiously fascist in tone, but before anyone gets all observational-wise, you should note: the study of this subject requires far more than armchair social commentary and a Wikipedia page. The origin of Korean “Specificity” in cultural contexts is a hotly contested and deeply studied thing, and requires nuance and lots of context to explore.
It’s receding slowly, but the instinct to paint foreigners as dirty, disease-ridden, socially toxic invaders of the holy body politic is still there. From time to time, you’ll see MBC reports about the depraved antics of some (insert dirty, disgusting socially toxic foreigner here). Ignorant Koreans are numberless, just like there are ignorant, self-satisfied jerks anywhere.
But there’s a very clear hierarchy. If you’re black, you’d better hope to God you’re American, because at least black Americans are seen as “Western” – while you suffer for being black, you get a few pluses for being Yankee. If you’re Nigerian, thanks for coming out.
Racial insensitivity is everywhere. You’re just not of the “Minjok” – you are not Korean. For westerners with their own brands of racism, it’s weird to see this operate against SE Asians and Chinese, too; the class differential can be pretty harshly applied to people not “of the body” who still look like locals. It’s also usually pretty easy to spot, say, Chinese living in Korea: different modes of dress, different ways of walking, modes of speech (even in Korean), accents, etc.
Chinese will be treated as markedly inferior to Koreans and Westerners, perhaps one tier down; this is a big drop and it’s highly noticeable. Some people love Japanese, some hate them unaccountably, a result of pretty intense socia-cultural attitudes that still percolate pretty deeeply in society.
Education is no guarantee of liberal attitudes. Once you introduce yourself, you may find the lower classes more prone to stereotypes, but weirdly more open to personal interaction. It’s usually upwardly mobile, often educated types who will show off the greatest difficulties with breaking ignorant stereotypes.
Anyway, wherever it is you came from has a different variety of the same problem. Deal with it. if it’s a problem for you, if all you’re going to do is whine about the selective racism of Korean society, you really need to live elsewhere. Korean society is in a constant state of flux and change, perhaps one of the most dynamic places in the world – or ever to have existed. Whatever you say about Korea today may not be true tomorrow morning. More and more Koreans are essentially international citizens, and the generation gaps in Korea are more like chasms. If politically correct activism is your bailiwick, you need to stuff that in a bag and keep it stashed in some deep corner.
On the other hand, being able to see the human race for all its faults and joys without the barrier of an officially approved cultural/political dogma is illuminating. Nothing moderates your own chauvinism or racism better than seeing the irrationalities of other racisms at play.
A good piece of advice: Try to distinguish between cultural ignorance, chauvinism, racism and other forms of intellectual discrimination. These are not the same things, and in Korea, you have a great opportunity to parse them. You’re going to have to do this if you’re going to navigate life here.
And remember: *You* are a foreigner. Your commentary may be sharp or even clever, but ultimately, you’re an observer; when you choose to participate, be smart about what you say. That doesn’t mean not challenging the status quo – by all means, do it. But you need to try as hard as possible to understand what’s going on – really going on – before you dismiss the entire place. It takes energy. My experience has been that Koreans welcome honestly meant, even deeply felt criticism if it’s based on genuine interest and solid observation, even if they find it uncomfortable. What won’t be welcome are crude, lazy criticisms that miss their mark.
Korea is a unique place, but it’s also a cauldron of living societies with real people. Treat it and its people and even its problems with the respect and seriousness they deserve.
These are a few of the negatives that will hit you after living there for about half a decade. There are a lot more, just as with every other country in the world. And if you get outside of Seoul, you’ll have different experiences. Pusan has a very different energy, and is both more inwardly and more outwardly focused; Gwangju and its environs are slower and more laid-back, with beautiful countryside and a very different social environment. Taegu is a bit isolated within Korea, culturally (It’s not Seoul, and it’s not Pusan, and it’s not small, but not big – kind of in the middle zone of not having anything remarkable about it). Take a trip to Geoje-do or Mokpo or Sunchang or Jeju or Jeonju and you enter into oddly parallel worlds that barely resemble big city life – or each other.
The islands in the south, off the coast, are stunningly beautiful. The mountains in the centre of the country and the north are green and hide picturesque valleys. There are temples on the sides of mountains that look like they’re out of a traditional painting, and mist-drenched valleys rest majestically between rolling peaks covered in green, accompanied by the sound of bubbling streams trickling over rocks and cascades. Needless to say, the country as a whole is a remarkable place. It’s one of the gems of Asia, poorly explored and underappreciated.
But while its people are great and the culture one of the great additions to the human mosaic, like many places, its social order leaves much to be desired. Some people love Korea, and will never hear a bad word said about it, as if they’d converted to a new religion, and it gets tiresome to hear them in their “Hoo-Rah!” phase aggressively defend every stone and blemish as if their lives depended on it. Some people hate Korea and life here and grumble constantly, and listeners get tired of wondering why they’re here – just leave, then, already, and go back to the microworld where you came from – you’re not made for the outside world.
If you want to see Korea for what it truly is – and appreciate it on that level – it makes sense to be neither blindly exuberant or negative: Try to see Korea as another place with real people. See its good features for what they are, and yet, at the same time, be open to understanding the things that make it a tough place to be.
Understand the people. Understand the place. Don’t spend too much time passing judgment, and make a place as best you can.
It’s a remarkable country, but in the end, it’s a place like any other and the people bleed red, just like you and me. And no matter how bad a particular day might seem, Koreans are, by and large, wonderful people on their good days, and that’s true for everyone in the world. We need to remember that.