An Old Toddler – Some thoughts on South Korea after four months

Semester all done! What an interesting experience studying in South Korea was. Last time I gave some of my first impressions, and now I’ll try to dig a bit deeper. The first impressions were mostly positive, and also held up over the whole time (I really liked the country!), but as the honeymoon passed, further understanding slightly distorted the image. Theres a lot to talk about but I’ll mention the things that are most noteworthy to me.

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The view from my dorm room window

First, I must say that if you ever get a chance to live in another country, you definitely should do it. It is going to be an experience like no other and you will gain understanding of both the surrounding world and also of yourself. You’ll also get a chance to meet great new people, which in part will help you gain new perspective. This is me telling you – just go for it.

Local food is obviously one of the most interesting aspects in any culture. When it comes to Korea, it’s definitely not the easiest place to live for someone who follows a vegan diet. This is especially if you don’t have access to proper facilities to cook by yourself, and thus must eat out quite a lot. First of all, animal products are everywhere. In addition to the typical ways seafood/meat, eggs and dairy (which is not that common in the traditional cooking, though) are added to foods, they can also be found in broths, sauces and other sneaky places. The most problematic are the restaurants where you can literally only get fried chicken… for obvious reasons. Second, there is a language barrier that makes eating out bit of a challenge. Trying to make sure there are no animal products used in the sauces etc is quite impossible when you don’t have a common language, and the term vegan is not commonly known. To make things less complicated, I made the decision to not be too strict about what I put in my mouth – having plant-based dishes as a priority usually worked out just fine in the end. Often excluding the meat was the way to get the best results.

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Kimchi!

I find Korean food very delicious with all the different aspects there are to it! The usual “taste-scape” in the cuisine is dominated by sensations like spicy, sweet, pickled, and salty, and generally foods have very strong tastes. Of the tastes, sweet seems to be the Korean favourite – theres sugar in pretty much everything. Kimchi is a great example of Korean food, and includes all of the properties mentioned.

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Bibimbap at the school cafeteria

After living in Korea for a while, a list of some go-to dishes started forming. Personally I can recommend tteokbokki (chili sauce with rice cakes), bibimbap (rice mixed with veggies), gimbap (a sushi-like seaweed wrap with rice and veggies) and naengmyeon (a cold noodle soup – I’m a noodle guy after all), all of which are really tasty and among some of my favourites. Generally rice and noodles are very common bases for foods, with various broths and sauces usually added to them.

I had hard time adjusting to life with little fresh produce, which also gave me new respect for having access to them. They are considered luxury products and are really expensive in Korea, while on the other hand the processed junk like cup ramen, pastries, chips, candy, sodas, etc. are very cheap in stores. Sadly, these options are basically all you can get at the convenience stores and so this is what I saw a lot of people buying. Actually convenience and excessive offering also made me want to buy these things in the beginning.

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5 peaches for 10€ (30% discount)

It is amazing how common practises tend to mould you. Of course some this can be put to the excitement and curiosity, but it was also that it felt somehow okay to eat a lot of junk food because that’s what so many people around me were doing. However, soon I realised that this exactly is one of the problems I am fighting against – the zeitgeist and justifying behaviour based on what others are doing. Sure in this case it’s “just” the matter of people’s own health, but does others doing something make it generally acceptable? There are so many horrible, unjustifiable things going on all around this world just because they are part of a culture and/or tradition, and thus easy to close eyes from, especially within that specific culture. This is a topic that I will cover later.

One of my favourite things in Korea are the nice, polite and trustworthy people. You get a sense of safety wherever you go. There is also a certain respect for elder people, which is common in Asian cultures. These traits are great and something to be proud of, but at the same time project the country’s grim past. You can see the history of oppression and dictatorship in how the country runs. The country and its people followed strong leaders for a long time, and today the country still seems to be finding its own identity as a democracy. This can be very difficult to pull off when the western culture with its capitalism and mass consumption is overtaking the world. You can see that a lot of influence has been taken from the US and more and more is coming in all the time, which is mostly due to Korea’s special relationship with the US. Of course there’s a lot of good to take, but without consideration this can manifest in a reality where mega corporations pump out money from the common citizens, by feeding them a dream where happiness can be reached by acquirements and material possessions. Since Korea is still learning to walk, the influence is a lot more… influential, and the American dream has already taken a form in the Korean culture. People slave for their dreams. Hard work could be a good thing, but when you work for someone else’s dream, the whole process seems rather pointless.

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Hallasan, Jeju-do

The rapid development after the wars and democratisation took its toll on the country. There was no time to lay a good ground work when the development was already going on, which is a recipe for an unsustainable progress. The expanding population doesn’t allow establishing a properly working social structure, which causes polarisation. Those who have it good consider it a well-earned right to consume. More people gain access to things that used to be luxuries, and the consumption gets out of control. This may be a reason why the consumer behaviour in Korea is so sad to look at. Generally speaking, convenience, fun and pleasure rule over everything. Of course this is going on in most of the developed countries, but somehow I can see is more clearly in Korea. The vending machines full of disposable things that are later on thrown out to thrash (that are often piles on the street). Recycling is not very common. Although, I was happily surprised when our dormitory came up with recycling possibilities for certain things in the middle of the semester!

Also due to this rapid growth, consideration for the environment and environmental sustainability were neglected. South Korea still remains one of the worst countries when it comes to the fight against the global warming. Still, winds of change are blowing there with the new generation. I can see that people are really smart, and despite the political issues going on right now, people work really hard to make their country a better place. Change will come but the question remains – is it fast enough?

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Seoul

 

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts!