The Kimchi-ite: 10 Differences Between South Korea And The Rest Of The World

There are countless differences between South Korea and the rest of the world. Even the casual traveler bouncing around Asia will notice how everyday culture differs. In many ways Korean culture is somewhere in between that of Japan and China, but in so many more ways it is unique to itself. Here are some of the more interesting and unique differences I have noticed.

Babies that are born in Korea today enter the world as 1 year old, as opposed to much of the rest of the world, where they would be 1 day old. Additionally, that baby will gain a year to its age on the lunar new year (usually in late January or early February), instead of their birthday. So, a baby born in December would actually be 2 years old within just a few months. Somewhat confusing, I know, but a general rule of thumb is to just add a year to your own age, and that is your Korean Age.

When you go to virtually any restaurant in Korea, your meal will be accompanied by at least one banchan, or side dish (seen above alongside traditional porridge); most likely, there will be many. They will invariably include kimchi or some sort of pickled vegetable. Best of all, they are unlimited and will be refilled without you having to ask.

When you are at a restaurant and you’d like some service, you don’t sit and awkwardly wait for some eye contact with the wait staff, you simply call out “yeogiyo!” which translates to “here, please!” Better still, more and more restaurants are installing call buttons on their tables.

When you sneeze, people say nothing, no equivalent of “Bless you,” nothing. You did an involuntary bodily function, no big deal.

South Korea has the fastest Internet in the WORLD. Downloads can go as fast as 5 megabytes per second. It’s truly awesome.

Porn is outlawed in Korea.

Job applications, especially for large corporations, are incredibly different and include a lot of information that most people in the Western world would find outrageous. Notably, your parents’ education and their current occupation is a part of your résumé. This is somewhat indicative of how Koreans see family ties. Many of the big corporations in Korea are family run and newly elected president Park Geun-hye’s father’s past as the former dictator of the country was a very big topic during the election.

South Korea has the world’s highest rate of plastic surgery, 35% more than number two, Brazil. It has become somewhat common for parents to give their children plastic surgery as high school or college graduation presents. There are ads all over Seoul like the one above, seen in Gangnam, for plastic surgery clinics with before and after pictures of what actually looks like two completely different people.

Not a big deal.

It is pretty risqué for a woman to show some cleavage. But never will you see such a display of legs than in South Korea. Everyday of the year and everywhere, short shorts are being worn. In the dead of winter accompanied by thick stockings, or mountain climbing accompanied by high heels, it’s simply the norm.

Everywhere in the world is different, even different cities within the same state can be drastically different. What are some eccentricities of where you live or places that you have been?

Be sure to check out more on Korean culture from the other Kimchi-ite posts here!

[Photo Credit: Jonathan Kramer]

The Kimchi-ite: The Culture Shock Of South Korea

When I moved to South Korea, it was my first time in the country and I had no idea what to expect. Going from the airport to my new apartment, differences from my prior life slowly came into focus. Signs were now written in lines and circles I didn’t understand, brand new glass skyscrapers were poised next to traditional tile-roofed houses and all the cars were made by Hyundai. As I walked around my new neighborhood at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday recovering from jet lag, I was expecting to be alone on the streets. Instead, when I walked around there were plenty of people out in the city, eating and drinking at cafes, going to work, doing their shopping or just stumbling out of bars. This constant, 24-hour activity is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. As the sun came up, more and more people came to the streets. Crowds seemed to form everywhere and I would quickly learn that they are a big part of Korean life.

South Korea is a little larger than the state of Indiana but with eight times the people. About half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the greater Seoul area, making it one of the biggest, most populated cities in the world. Subway cars overflow as people push their way in, which is when I learned that the Korean words for “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are almost never spoken. Even when trying to get out of the city to do some hiking, crowds of thousands will be there too.

When moving to a foreign place, there are so many moments that you feel completely lost and worry that it will become overwhelming. Am I going to accidentally offend anyone due to our culture differences? Will I be able to make new friends? What if I get sick of eating kimchi everyday and just want some food from back home?

Soon, however, everything starts to feel normal and you realize that life isn’t really all that different. You still do laundry, McDonald’s is always around the corner and cash comes out of ATMs. There are still minor differences in daily life – you have to spend an hour online trying to find a translation of your washing machine, McDonald’s offers free delivery and you can transfer money directly to a friend’s bank account from an ATM – but it becomes difficult to imagine a life without these idiosyncrasies.

This constant flux of familiarity and strangeness is part of what makes life as an expatriate so exciting. Constantly experiencing new aspects of cultures, learning about different trains of thought, meeting interesting people, eating food that looks make believe and just constantly being surprised by the world.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

Inside South Korea’s Boryeong Mud Festival

A 6-hour bus ride with 40 intoxicated English teachers and a blowup dinosaur named Stanley is not where I wanted to be two days into my trip to South Korea. I was still jetlagged, and sleep was impossible with the back of the bus belting out 90s songs and discussing their favorite sex positions. I imagine no Koreans’ journey to the Boryeong Mud Festival, where I would soon willingly cover myself in mud, included this much morning noise, though, – considering South Korea’s love of all things adorable- perhaps it could have included a blowup dinosaur.

The Boryeong Mud Festival began in 1998 as a 4-day event to – according to the official website – “make the public aware of the superiority of Boryeong Mud” products, and has been held every July ever since. It’s grown larger each year, reaching a peak of more than 2.2 million people in 2011. On its 15th anniversary this year, it extended to eleven days: from July 14 to 24.

Reading articles about the festival or watching this amazing promo video, which informs viewers “parents, children, friends and lovers are having the time of their lives,” one would think this is a giant, muddy playground with supposed health benefits of the mud.

This is how the festival started, and it still seems to be a pretty accurate depiction for the Koreans coming to the festival. But in reality, Boryeong is a tale of two parties.

The festival takes place on Daechoeon beach in the town of Boryeong, about 200 km from Seoul. When I was there last weekend, the great divide, so to speak, between western and Korean parties, was almost literally drawn by a line in the sand. The Koreans were having wholesome family fun at the front of the beach, while the insatiably thirsty foreigners perpetuated the western stereotype in the plaza behind the beach.

At the front of the beach, Koreans buried each other in sand and did group exercises like mud obstacle courses and 3-legged races.

Meanwhile, the foreigners congregated at the plaza behind the beach, where they could rub each other with mud from basins and buy soju – Korea’s version of sake – and 1.5L bottles of beer from the convenient store for a few bucks. As soon as I saw large men sucking down beer bongs – an animal not native to Korea – I felt a bit guilty. I normally pride myself on getting off the beaten path, and this path had definitely been trampled long ago. Still, this wasn’t exactly as excessive as the full moon party in Ko Phangan, at which thousands of backpackers turn a gorgeous Thai beach into a debaucherous (albeit fun) cesspool.

My travels have also taught me to leave expectations at the door and embrace the moment, however, which is how I eventually found myself with a plastic bag of gin and tonic hanging from my neck and chowing down a chunk of soju-soaked watermelon.

Finally, as the day wound down, I convinced a new acquaintance to wrestle with me at the mud playground, a roped in area at the center of the plaza, which contained large inflatable mud slides, mud skiing and pools for mud wrestling, among other attractions. This, along with the music stage at the back of the beach, is where the two parties converged, and where one can really embrace the mud, letting it into every crevice of the body, where parts of it will remain for the next few days. And it is, as the marketing suggests, good clean fun – figuratively speaking.

Afterward, I danced myself clean at the back of the beach, where speakers blared K-pop and electronic dance music, and boys with massive hoses sprayed muddy water into the dancing crowd, often aiming for girls precariously balanced on top of men’s shoulders.

I don’t know if it was splashing around in a pool of mud – it dripping from my hair, my nose, my mouth – or if it was just the K-pop, but suddenly I began appreciating that I was in Korea. This might not have been off the beaten path, but there was still something that felt foreign about it – the U.S. mud festivals I’m aware of include big trucks and bikini contests in lieu of big slides and “mud physical training.” The addition of a few thousand English teachers among tens of thousands of Koreans didn’t make this festival any less Korean.

Leaving the center, a slight sting consumed my mud-covered body. Apparently that was the minerals doing their job. One festivalgoer assured me that “tomorrow your skin will never have felt so soft,” before rubbing more mud through my hair with the same promise.

In reality, the following day, the only difference I felt was the mud still caked in my ears and the soju forcing its way through my digestive system. But at least I managed to sleep off my jetlag the whole bus ride back.

The Boryeong Mud Festival is held every July at Daecheon Beach in Boryeong, South Korea. Buses leave daily from the Seoul Express Bus Terminal and the Dong Seoul Express Bus Terminal (two to three hours). There are also daily buses from Busan (four to five hours) and Daegu (two hours). Alternatively, contact the Korea Tourism Organization for package trips, as hotels can be hard to arrange (but beach camping is free if you have a tent).

Photo of the Day – Daejeon National Cemetery

daejeon national cemetery

National cemeteries are symbolically loaded places, and Daejeon National Cemetery in Daejeon, South Korea is no exception. Completed in 1985, the cemetery was designed, in the words of the official cemetery website, “to worship patriots, patriotic martyrs, and the souls of all the fallen heroes and the war dead.”

This image was taken by LadyExpat, a prolific Flickr user. Its subject is immediately recognizable as a military memorial. The photographer’s vantage point renders it particularly interesting.

Do you have a photo of a symbolically powerful cultural site taking up space in your personal photo archives? Upload it to the Gadling Group Pool, enable downloading, and sit back. You might just end up seeing your image pop up on Gadling as a future Photo of the Day.

Cheesey Street Foods Of Latin America

With the possible exception of Argentina, most people don’t associate Central or South America with cheese. Like all of Latin America, these countries are a mix of indigenous cultures, colonizing forces, immigrant influences, and varied terroir, climatic extremes, and levels of industrialization. They possess some of the most biologically and geographically diverse habitats on earth. As a result, the cuisine and agricultural practices of each country have developed accordingly.

The use of dairy may not be particularly diverse in this part of the world, especially when it comes to styles of cheese, but it’s an important source of nutrition and income in rural areas, and a part of nearly every meal.

While writing a book on cheese during the course of this past year, I tapped into my rather obsessive love of both street food and South America for inspiration. As I learned during my research, the sheer variety of cheesey street snacks from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego are as varied as the ethnic influences responsible for their creation. Read on for a tasty tribute to queso.

Arepas: These flat little corn or flour cakes from Colombia, Venezuela and Panama may be grilled, baked, boiled, or fried. They’re usually stuffed or topped with a melting cheese, but may also feature meat, chicken, seafood, egg, or vegetables.

Anafres: Essentially Honduran nachos, composed of giant tortilla chips, refried beans and melted cheese. Named for an anafre, the coal-fired clay pot the dish is served in.

Pupusas: This Salvadorean staple is similar to an arepa: a thick, griddled corn cake stuffed with meat, cheese–usually a mild melting variety known as quesillo–chicarrones (pork cracklings), or queso con loroco (cheese with the buds or flowers of a vine native to Central America).street food vendorChoclo con queso: Boiled corn with slices or a chunk of mild, milky, fresh white cheese may not sound like much, but this roadside and market staple of Peru and Ecuador is irresistible. The secret is the corn, which is an indigenous Andean variety with large, white, nutty, starchy kernels. It’s satisfying as a snack all by itself, but it’s even better between bites of slightly salty queso.

Empanadas (empadinhas in Brazil): Perhaps the most ubiquitous Latin American street food, riffs on these baked or fried, stuffed pastries can be found from Argentina (where they’re practically a religion) and Chile to Costa Rica and El Salvador. The dough, which is usually lard-based, may be made from wheat, corn or plantain, with fillings ranging from melted, mild white cheese to meat, seafood, corn, or vegetables. In Ecuador, empanadas de viento (“wind”) are everywhere; they’re fried until airy,filled with sweetened queso fresco and dusted with powdered sugar.

Quesadillas: Nearly everyone loves these crisp little tortilla and cheese “sandwiches.” Traditionally cooked on a comal (a flat, cast-iron pan used as a griddle), they’re a popular street food and equally beloved Stateside.

Provoleta: This Argentinean and Uruguayan favorite is made from a domestic provolone cheese. It’s often seasoned with oregano or crushed chile, and grilled or placed on hot stones until caramelized and crispy on the exterior, and melted on the inside. It’s often served at asados (barbecues) as an appetizer, and accompanied by chimmichuri (an oil, herb, and spice sauce).
Queijo coaljo: A firm, white, salty, squeaky cheese from Brazil; it’s most commonly sold on the beach on a stick, after being cooked over coals or in handheld charcoal ovens; also known as queijo assado.

Croquettes de Queijo: Cheese croquettes, a favorite appetizer or street food in Brazil.

Coxinhas: A type of Brazilian salgado (snack), these are popular late-night fare. Typically, coxinhas are shredded chicken coated in wheat or manioc flour that have been shaped into a drumstick, and fried. A variation is stuffed with catupiry, a gooey white melting cheese reminiscent of Laughing Cow. Like crack. Crack.

Queijadinhas: These irresistable little cheese custards are a popular snack in Brazil. Like Pringles, stopping at just one is nearly impossible.

Pão de queijo: Made with tapioca or wheat flour, these light, cheesy rolls are among the most popular breads in Brazil.

[Photo credit: Empanada, Flickr user ci_polla; food vendor, Provoleta, Laurel Miller]