The Do’s and Don’t’s of South Korea
South Korea might not technically be my backyard anymore, but I was lucky enough to call the land of kimchi, soju, and noraebang home for two and a half pretty remarkable years when I first hit the road back in 2007.
A lot of people completely overlook South Korea when they’re planning their Asian adventure. It’s not as historically interesting as China, as zany as neighbouring Japan, or as exotic as the Southeast Asian nations.
What South Korea lacks in ‘wow’, it more than makes up for in a kind of all around charm. There are few countries as friendly, welcoming, and off the beaten path in all of Asia.
What follows are my do’s and don’t’s in South Korea gathered from two and a half years as an expat and a subsequent visit as a traveler in 2013.
Do sample Korean food
Korean food really doesn’t get a lot of play around the world. While every man and his dog is familiar with Japanese sushi, Mongolian BBQ, and a good kung pao chicken from the local Chinese take out – the world really hasn’t been treated to the wonders of a good galbi meal, some spicy kimchi, or the icy sweetness of patbingsu.
I’ll admit this about Korean food – it very rarely looks appetizing. This is not a country obsessed with creating food that looks good, but don’t let that fool you. My mouth literally waters at the thought of a spicy ddeok galbi lunch or a hearty bibimbap breakfast to kick start my day.
Don’t eat bosintang (dog soup)
Far be it from me to judge a country that chooses to eat the cute and cuddly dog. I come from a country where both of the animals on our national crest (the kangaroo and emu) are regular features on the menu. I’ve got no qualms about a country’s choice of meat.
But bosintang, a soup made from the meat of Jindo dog, crosses a bit of a line for me. Say what you will about the way in which cattle or chickens are killed in developed countries – dogs that are bred for meat in South Korea are literally beaten to death.
Why? Because Korean cultural lore says that the adrenaline in the dog when it dies will go towards increasing a man’s stamina. And I don’t mean his ability to run a race.
Do get out and experience South Korean festival culture
This is a country that loves a celebration. In fact, one of the most engaging aspects of your visit will undoubtedly be attending one of the many South Korean festivals. Don’t believe me? Here’s just a few of the many, many festivals you can find around Korea during the year.
- Boryeong Mud Festival
- Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival
- Gwangju Kimchi Festival
- Jindo Moses Miracle
- Hampyeong Butterfly Festival
- Muju Firefly Festival
- Seoul World DJ Festival
- Jisan Valley Rock Festival
And that is literally just a handful of the bigger festivals on show each year. There are dozens and dozens of them, and there’s even overlap (multiple cities host cherry blossom festivals and lantern festivals) so you can miss one and still make its sister event later in the year.
Each festival offers a unique insight into some facet of Korean culture, but it’s also a great opportunity to try some new foods and see a new corner of Korea.
Don’t cling to the Western world
Korea, like much of Asia, has made rapid strides to fit into the Western world.
You’ll find a McDonalds on virtually every corner and there’s Western clothing outlets from Gap to H&M to Forever 21.
Sometimes these comforts from home are a necessary evil. You might have had a rough day and the only thing that will stave off the tears is a juicy Whopper and a pint of Baskin Robbins ice cream.
But it’s easy to slip from occasional indulgence to ‘home away from home’ while you’re in Korea, and you’re not only depriving yourself of the true Korean experience – you’re likely to put on a whole bunch of weight in the process.
Getting out to explore some hole in the wall kimbap joint or a smoky soju bar lets you get in touch with the real Korea and the real Koreans who inhabit it. You’re far more likely to meet a unique character in a Korean restaurant than you are queuing for a sub at Quizno’s in Itaewon.
Korea is a country with a rich drinking culture.
Between soju being dirt cheap and available virtually everywhere, employers encouraging their employees to come out on nightly visits to soju bars and noraebangs (singing rooms), and the lack of an open container law – Korea really is a drinker’s paradise.
Events such as the Boryeong Mud Festival are borderline hedonistic, but even your average weeknight in Korea will see locals and foreigners alike carousing in the bars and in the streets.
The bright neon lights that line most Korean streets put you in mind of Las Vegas, and the illusion is supported by the seemingly limitless supply of soju bars, hofs (beer & food joints), foreigner bars, cocktail lounges, noraebangs, and restaurants serving up libations ranging from locally brewed beer to imported whiskeys.
If you like to imbibe, you’re going to have a great time in Korea. It’s a country where drinking is every bit a big a part of life as eating rice three times a day and loving the taste of kimchi.
Don’t be a bad representative of your country
I don’t say this in a confrontational or derisive way – but South Korea is still a somewhat insular nation with a very out-dated view of the rest of the world. If you look at their history of being invaded by all and sundry though, you can understand their over-arching cultural xenophobia.
That’s not to say the average Korean is a foreigner hating maniac. The vast majority of Koreans I met were very excited to be meeting somebody from another country. There’s a pervasive fascination with all things Western in South Korea, but it’s tinged with a kind of innocent ignorance that can be offensive to some.
When I told my employer I was dating a South African girl, for example, he mimed waving a spear above her head as if the nation was full of savages.
I once had a student proudly proclaim to be: “Obama is a nigger”. He didn’t even realize the word’s negative connotations, but he’d obviously heard it somewhere.
Dealing with this feeling of being an outsider is all a part of the Korean experience, but you don’t make things any easier for yourself or for others if you play the part of the evil foreigner. It’s one thing to enjoy a drink and have a good time and another thing to get drunk and pick a fight. It’s one thing to make a tiny cultural faux pas and another thing to flaunt your cleavage in defiance of Korean tradition.
Do take the chance to soak in Korea’s immense natural beauty
It might not be immediately obvious amidst the towering sky-scrapers and the neon lined streets of Seoul, but the Korean peninsula boasts a lot of truly beautiful natural landscapes.
While Jejudo’s volcanic mountains and beaches are the most famous of these, there are secret places all over the nation that will capture any photographer’s imagination.
There’s beautiful Daewonsa Temple outside of Gwangju – where Tibetan Buddhist ideals blend seamlessly in with the gorgeous mountain scenery. There are the countless tiny islands dotting the west coast of Korea such as Bigeumdo; beautiful beaches such as Gwangali and Boryeong; snow capped mountain peaks such as Muju; and the vast national park of Seoraksan.
Hikers are going to be in heaven in Korea as well. The mountainous peninsula takes full advantage of the many peaks that scar the landscape with walking trails criss-crossing the nation.
Don’t believe everything you read
Western media loves nothing more than to beat up the hostile relationship between North and South Korea. It seems a month couldn’t pass without a concerned friend or family member asking me if I would be fleeing the country in light of recent incidents.
“What incidents?” I’d ask.
Truth is, while the papers of the US and the UK love to talk up the brewing conflict between the two Koreas – those of us on the peninsula barely ever even heard about it.
While there is obvious tension to be felt when touring the DMZ, the fear quickly fades once you get away from the line that separates communist North Korea and the democratic South. The general feeling in the South is one of sadness and pity towards their starving Northern neighbors, and talks of unifying the peninsula are always at the forefront of the political agenda.
Relax. You’ll be fine.
If you only follow only one of the do’s and don’t’s in South Korea I give here, make it this one.
Korea is a small country, but they cram a hell of a lot into it. Believe me, there is no shortage of things to do in South Korea.
Korean culture is such a fascinating mixture of thoughts and beliefs – a wonderfully confused blend of thousands of years of tradition and the rapid absorption of Western ideals and beliefs.
You’ll never truly experience it without roaming off the beaten track, stepping outside of the safety of the ever growing foreigner community, and taking a few risks.
But isn’t that true of everywhere?
What are the do’s and don’t’s of your country?
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