Lewis is a “moderate adventurer”; by which he means he seeks to travel to nooks and crannies of the globe, find a nice quiet spot and have a warm brew. Which is why he’s living in Seoul for the year, a place where he can simultaneously feel daring, lost and at home. He’s a third year Politics student, trying to understand a new culture – a one man crusade against Orientalism – using ‘studying’ as a front while he plans the reunification of Korea. He feels blessed to be there and hopes to learn about and travel Asia throughout the year.
You’ve Gotta See Her, Go In-Seoul And Out Of Your Mind II
I love it here, I really do. The trains have air-con, you can bag a free lunch by eating all the samples at the supermarket and it costs less to sleep over in a spa (찜질방) than a hostel. Still, there are many parts of Korean culture that are really starting to get on my nerves. At times, it has been a tad demanding paying the utmost respect to my hosts and not screaming from the nearest skyscrapers: “YOU’RE DOING STUFF WRONG!” It’s definitely best for everyone if I stick to just venting occasionally on a blog post.
The 11th of November was a prime example of a day where I wanted to curl up and hide inside some Kimchi Mandu (scrummy dumplings). It was ‘Pepero Day’, one of three love themed days in Korea along with Valentine’s and ‘White Day’. Three – they have three Valentine’s per year. How insecure must Koreans be in their relationships that they need confirmation three times a year? It can’t be good for anyone:
Dear those in a relationship, how valuable are your kidneys? Just wondering as you may start struggling to afford rent, what with all those love-day gifts you’ll need to buy. Some matching underwear perhaps? Many couples do actually wear matching outfits in a diabolical display of smug in-your-face affection.
Dear single folk, you’re clearly the freakish and unlovable outcasts. Accepting this as fact will hopefully drive you to attach yourself to someone – anyone – as soon as possible, given that certain government benefits are only available to married couples.
On Pepero Day itself, couples reach deep down into their very souls and find boxes of half chocolate covered biscuit sticks to give to each other. I can imagine your heart must be melting at the sheer level of romance – a level Romeo and Juliet themselves could only dream of reaching.
Or perhaps it isn’t, given that it’s so painfully obvious that Lotte, Korea’s largest monopolising conglomerate and sole manufacturer of Pepero, have simply fabricated a love themed day in order to shift a few extra biscuits. On top of that, the shape of the sticks are said to represent the tall and skinny person you hope your beloved might some day be – it’s more Dapper Laughs than Shakespeare. Picture couples cuddled up on the eve of Pepero Day, watching a Rom-Com and guzzling down these sticks while silently weeping over their aesthetic inadequacy. Now that’s adorable.
With days such as Pepero and many other Korean traditions, I find myself wondering why they play along with all this rubbish. How have Koreans become the world’s most active consumers so that multinationals will use the Korean market as a guinea pig when releasing a new product? The answer seems to be that Koreans are obedient people who are happy to buy anything as long as everyone else is.
Being submissive is part of Korean culture and is visible in the numerous hierarchies derived from Neo-Confucian thought. For example, the way people address one another is dependent on age to give respect and authority to the elderly. Unfortunately this has lead to the elders gathering a rather unhealthy dose of arrogance so we’ve all received a few elbows to the ribs from a pensioner or two on the subway.
Likewise in Korean drinking culture, the youngest person must pour everyone else’s drink first and, when an older person is filling the cup of someone younger, the younger person must clutch their glass with two hands and never one. This follows that, even when out socialising with a group of friends, everyone knows their place and who’s boss. They understand they are worthless, double-handed-cup-holding pieces of scum who are only afforded a drink at the behest of their almighty master.
To a certain extent I think this narrative is gassed into the outer reaches of society. Korean leaders need only to subtly gesture to the other side of the DMZ to remind Koreans of how lucky they are to have been born on the south side of the peninsula. It doesn’t matter if their leaders fill a cup with inequality, smog and Pepero, Koreans will rush to grasp it with two hands and gently bow their heads.
The prevalence of obedience is arguably most rampant in the very intimidating world of Korean fashion. It’s all very bucket-hat-hip here and I can’t help but feel out of place in my plain black Primark t-shirt. Even the babies have what some have deemed “swag”. The elderly are just as bad; donning the hiker look dressed head to toe in North Face gear. Evidently merging the practical with the trendy is a skill that only comes with experience.
It’s hard to believe but you would honestly be hard pressed to find people that buck these trends. It’s similar to Leeds, where everybody is so cool that nobody is, but in Seoul’s more up-market areas such as Gangnam you can be on the receiving end of some harsh stares for not dressing well enough.
This herd mentality is certainly most visible when it comes to fashion, but it can be even worse elsewhere. During university lectures raising your hand to ask for clarification on a point risks offending your professor as it could mean you are challenging their wisdom and authority. So in lectures, as in daily life, everyone sits silently playing games on their Smartphones. As a result student life in Seoul exists in a cultural prison, bereft of alternative music and nights out, drugs, student media and political ideology. It feels almost counter-counter-cultural and far from the East Asian liberal haven it appears to be.
For example Korea is still a homophobic society. Many exchange students have witnessed it and I recently read a very strange article in a national newspaper which appeared to highlight a correlation between homosexuality and paedophilia. Some of my local friends explained that it is not in Korean nature to be “super gay” (one guy genuinely thought this was the legitimate adjective to use for someone’s sexual orientation). This odd and confused outlook upon homosexuality is, unfortunately, unsurprising in a country where finding someone who could conceive of the idea of challenging the status quo is as unlikely as finding a tub of creamy hummus – how I miss it so!
Sometimes I do wonder if the public Wi-Fi is an evil monster using its super-fast connectivity to brainwash people into thoughtless Pepero consuming machines that all end up working for Samsung. If my next post comes out in binary, you’ll know I’ve been taken. Just tell my mother I’ve heard the insurance benefits at Samsung are the best around.
It’s very interesting observing Koreans as an outsider but it’s likely that a lot boils down to me misunderstanding a culture I’m not yet integrated into. I can only imagine how desperate British culture looks to exchange students there.
Do not despair! I promise more positive updates are coming your way. Koreans are lovely and don’t necessarily deserve all my dreary self-righteous criticism – but it feels damn good to get it off my chest.
Images courtesy of Lewis Decker