23. November 2015 | Von Eleonora Raggi 

Diving in to Korean Culture

Trying to explore as much as I can, still feels I could have seen more.

Diving in to Korean Culture

90 days, 90 damn days are gone here in South Korea, and as everybody else I feel like these last few weeks will be way to short. My to-long-to-do-list-is-never-ending, not sure if due to my endless curiosity or because Korea has just to much to offer?! However, as promised in my previous post about Seoul I will make sure you will not have the same issues, and you will be better organised ones landed in the Kimbap land.

The first two weeks will be characterised by an overwhelming feeling, a mix of cultural shock and hyperactivity that will be difficult to control. This state of mind will probably lead you to either run a marathon trying to see A N Y T H I N G having an icon on the map or lock yourself inside by sticking to the same few things you understood. Both are just part of this stage and fine.

Soon you will feel comfortable by leaving that map at your guest house, and believe it or not you will call it soon home. Thanks to all the new local and international new friends you will be naturally becoming comfortable, even if miles away. While meeting them around the endless locations that the city has to offer, you will be finding a new routine like Andes wrote. Today I will also like to mention what I have learned and observed about the Korean culture, I will list a few surviving trip tips and leave you a few images.

Have I already mentioned how cool our campus is?! After a few weeks you will stop getting lost at Kookmin University and you will start making more connections with local and international students, (by the way, here a few campus life images). The excursion offered by Kookmin University to the Hangil Book Museum was organised by our always helpful and kind coordinator Prof. Uhm. An afternoon to connect with a bunch of local students that planned their upcoming exchange semester in Germany.

A Korean styled bus drove us an hour or so north, through the usual busy highway, to Paju. Sometimes you just need those few minutes to connect with someone else, and running around the campus does not always mean to have this chance. Might sound contradictory to what I have stated above, but how can you meet all 17000 students attending the 13 colleges and 13 graduate schools? We literally walked through the birth of books, starting with mankind’s best-selling “Bible” (the Bible) to Albrecht Dürer, Arabian Night, Shakespeare’s Works, and Don Quixote.

A culturally oriented Saturday afternoon between a guided tour offered by the museum and a creative workshop ended in the best way we could wish. Pizza and beers is an internationally well appreciated kombo, and of course dining together the most pleasant way to exchange tips of both living in Korea and in Germany. Will be soon their turn, a sort of history repeating worldwide. Where ever you decide to move you are leaving your beloved ones and your daily life for something of totally unknown and exciting. No matter where you are from, and which is your destination, or what you think to know about your journey. We all fear the same things, someone might be more outgoing but a point of reference in your new hosting country might make the difference, even if s/he will not turn out doing anything of significant.

The idea of having a known face, or name, or institution gives you a sort of intangible connection and a feeling of safety. Feel blessed about this, (I apologise for the following drop-off topic), not everybody has the chance to choose where to go, or has someone or a place to stay in his country of destination.

These words are for all of you experiencing this life changing trip, take a second to put someone else shoes and be even more grateful about the chance you are given. Secondly, ones home remember these words and your fears when reading the stories of the thousands of people arrived in Europe while we were abroad, and you know what I am talking about. Remember also that feeling while you are trying to read a map or a menu, and you do not understand a word, and no one around you speacks a common language?! Closed brackets.

Back to Paju, thank you for organising this excursion, wish we could do the same back in our country! Another networking opportunity was given by Prof. Park, our International Marketing teacher that promoted this get-together evening. Thank you very much because we rarely have the opportunity to mingle and get to know all of our class mates. Do you remember the Buddy program back in Germany? Here you can apply for a similar activity and I can say that they take it a bit more seriously, and I definitely suggest you to sign up for it when you will fill in your application form at Kookmin University. I can definitely say that I feel welcomed here! Ps. Thanks Jungjong Park for sorting out my delivery nightmares.

Let us get to some trip tips!

Seoul is quite big, and you will have lectures 4/5 days a week, so choose well youraccomodation because might take you 2 hours by public transportation. For instance, the campus is located in the northern part close to the Bukhansan Mt., and any area in the nearby means 30-45 minutes of subway and bus. Check well where the right subway is when picking, Gireum (where the off-campus dormitory is) and Hyehwa are good options. The International office will forward you our list of accomodations with a few good hints.

You will learn how the rule of the first arrived, first served is key in this country. Arriving means landing in either Incheon or Gimpo Airport (closer to the city center), both are well connected via train, and honestly you do not need a taxi. In general South Korea does not require much pre-planning, I honestly did not do anything a part the mandatory vaccination demanded from University.

A week after arrival we were offered by the University a Korean prepaid Sim card for KRW 30000 (about € 25,00). I personally suggest to get a Korean number if you do not have an amazing roaming contract. Public transportations are quite easy, and I personally never had problems except for the closing time at night, how comes that such a metropolitan centre shuts down at 23:30? But taxi are quite cheap, not so much at night on weekends because you will need to bargain. Be ready to have people around you 24/7, I mean that you will rarely walk on a desert street at list is 5 in the morning (and maybe not even then). If you are looking for some peace do not think to find the European meaning of it on the mountains during weekends, gonna be crowded even there. But honestly you can discover some peaceful places because seems like there is enough space for everyone. I got a feeling about the city by taking a very touristic hop-in-hop-off bus tour during the first 48h in Korea. I realised then that even touristic activities might not be translated in to English, be prepared.

I have already mentioned in my previous post how the language barrier will be the biggest to overcome. I would have started studying Hangul, the alphabet, before departure if I would have known. It is not so difficult and helps you read signs and restaurants names for instance, but you can survive also without it. I wish I could have taken the Basic Korean course, if you have the chance sign in for it! You can do anything you wish here, from cultural to outdoor activities, gastronomic or shopping seekers will feel quite full filled. During your semester you will be quite busy due to assignments, in fact they are more likely to give home work and you will have mandatory group works.

This to say that might be smart arriving a week or two before starting semester or leave one or two weeks after the examination period. I did not do either of the above and I am trying to squeeze more than I can on weekends. Chuseok, the Harvest Moon Festival or the Korean thanksgiving will happen in the mid-end of September and will be your longest holiday.

If you are planning to go somewhere during those day remember to plan it  in advance, all Korea will be moving then! I recommend to check a guide such as Lonely Planet to get inspired and plan your stay according to your interests. The South Korean official website is well organised and very helpful, a good guide where to find all events and hints is SEOUL magazine. In my opinion the two must trips you need to do are a weekend to Busan and more than 48h in Jeju island! I hope to make to a temple stay but is not available on demand and I am running out of time.

About the culture

I have been observing carefully people’s behaviour because I love doing this. I could sit for hours just staring at people, and here you never get bored. The following words are not judgmental but a collection of impressions and observations, please do not take them as an offense! My main goal while travelling is understanding different ways of living and different cultures. I am writing this because I have learned that stating a personal opinion can be seen as a rude attitude here, while for me is the opposite, and I just want to describe what I have noticed as common behaviours in Korea. Of course it is impossible and superficial to generalise. First of all I found some similarities to my Italian roots such as the family-community feeling of dining together sharing food. They might be shy on first sight, but they will be outgoing and warm as soon they get to know you and feel comfortable being loud as south Europeans. Ones again, you can not generalise, neither here or elsewhere but I saw some traits that became so common to almost be rule.

Koreans give a big value to outer appearance, I have never seen so many mirrors everywhere in the subway, around campus, I have seen people looking for reflections anywhere. Doing your make-up in public is not a big deal, you can walk to uni while wearing a curler, sit having lunch while fixing your foundation and moreover comb your hair. Beauty products have a big market in Korea, and honestly I have to admit that the quality is really good! But being pail is a sign of beauty, so if you thing to find a foundation with an European colour palette forget about it. This to say that people here avoid sun and when I say this I mean it, I have never seen such an amount of umbrellas for both sun and rain, I have never seen before so many interesting visor hats while hiking.

The colour of your skin defines your social status, being tan means having farming roots and people still have this beauty benchmark. While I was laying on Busan’s beach I felt an alien so I am sure about what I am writing, on the same hand decency is very important so bikini are a bit overlooked. However, everybody is very respectful and kind so no one would never say anything as long you behave with modesty (avoid walking around shirtless while in a seaside town). Spitting is totally ok, and it took me a week to get used to it. Koreans love music, you will meet people playing loud music while hiking in the woods.

Fashion is something of notable, I would have never imagined such a attention to details and innovative design. A step further in to this is the couple fashion, you will get used seeing matched outfits, from top to bottom and even the underwear some times (I just saw it in stores). A quite interesting contrast to this is the usage of home shoes (real home shoes, not sandals) out from you apartment, now that Winter has arrived I have seen some new versions to adapt to the climate. Being a collectivistic culture the sharing concept and the “we” state of mind defines relationships, I mean that you will be given straws if you are 2 people ordering a cola or looked weird while buying a single ticket to the cinema. This last thing might not be connected with collectivism but surely is with national habits, if you are single you will feel even more single. I do not have a problem with it but hey Korea, this is not a crime! No offense again, but I have never felt weird about it until arriving here. It makes me smile but sometimes can get on your nerves when 3 restaurants out of 4 tell you that they do not serve 1-person dish. This goes back to the sharing concept of dining, people here sit at tables and order big portions that will stay at the center of the table so obviously being alone makes it quite difficult. And yes, delivery is a must do seen you can get your warm meal anywhere, even without living the bench at almost any park.

We do have this habit in Europe too, but here starring at your smartphone can get to its extreme, even while exercising at the gym. Tech connected is to notice that Naver is the main search engine and KakaoTalk the WhatsApp substitute. This last App is amazing, it is a mixture between a messaging platform, SNS and e-shop. Here you can find some good tips about Apps helping your life while here in Seoul. If you are staying for a longer period just get yourself a bank account and pay anywhere with card or smartphone.


Food overall is a big deal, and it is a matter of social skills, an opportunity to show how you bring respect and enjoy someone’s company. In a way you might think that we do the same but you have to add ritually on top of it. However, portions are huge and you will be surprised from the amount of waste and wonder how comes the majority is thin compared to an European average.

Another similarity to Italians comes with the love for coffee, even though espresso is quite different. They are enjoying pastry’s or any sweet delicacy, you will find so many bakery and confectionary stores that you will wonder how they can all survive. Baseball is followed more than soccer, people are very passionated about it and even university tournaments can be very crowded.

However, one of the national activities in hiking, and about this I found a lot of similarities with the German culture. People love to be equipped, and when I say it I mean it, I have never seen such a high density of outdoor shops. A healthy lifestyle is anyhow directly connected however with Soju consumption.

A rice liquor that will surely become a must throughout your stay. You will learn that you never pour it in your own glass, your friend or the younger one will do it and you are expected to do so for the others. There are many rules while spending time with alder people, and this does not necessarily mean someone of your parents age. However it does not apply to foreigns, but is still interesting to observe how respect in a mandatory aspect of civil life. When in a group, the elder one will make decisions that sometimes you will follow without questioning. I have to say that is quite nice to meet people that are used making decisions instead of constantly being undecided.

A few other things

Education is a life priority, starts at primary school where children follow intense training, and they really challenge each other later in life when they have to complete their entry test for college. Live gigs and shows such as musicals are very popular. From what I saw people follow rules except while driving. This side of Koreans displays some hardcore trait (sorry but this is the truth) of bus drivers and bikers, it is quite bizzarre to even think at certain “creative” ways of crossing a walking path, watch out while crossing  the streets.

Public toilets are everywhere, very handy. This last aspect might sound harsh but I do not want to mean it in a negative way, just how to deal with it while having a different background. This to say that you can not always trust a “yes”, make sure to get them paraphrase what you said to have an almost certainty of being on the same page. There is always room for misinterpretation and their being polite might not push them to do any clarifying question.

One of the last lovely traits is what I call the “Oooh” effect, when stating or mentioning something special a spontaneous choir will confirm that you just said or did something uncommon. And then I met few people that spontaneously gifted me with some food while I was either hiking or in a Jjimjilbang, the typical spa. If I understood properly is a real way of keeping good kibun (mood or feeling of being in a comfortable state of mind), and being courteous according to korea4expats. Lastly, you can get food delivery anywhere you are, I mean it literally!

A few weeks ago a thought came in my, being on the other side of the world gives you a sort of blank page to write, up to you what you want to do of it. After all no one has any idea about who you are, this does not mean that I started playing any weird game, (just making sure you get the point), but I surely started thinking that making the best out of every day would have been the best choice. This to say that by leaving my comfort zone back in Europe I have left behind a bunch of things that occupied most of my time.

I have now the opportunity to do exclusively what I want, without forgetting my obligations of course. Might be obvious but it took me a while to realise and fully embrace it. It is so easy to lay back, do not do it, to get lazy, force yourself to go out and meet new people and the new culture, you are here now! Your buddies are amazing, but do not miss out discovering stuff on your own. There is nothing better than achieving something by yourself, either sitting down alone at the restaurant ordering some impossible-to-pronounce dish or making a weekend plan outside the city. Getting to a conclusion of my post, I would really thank everybody I met throughout my stay because so far is been fantastic.

I truly love Korea and I know that I will be leaving a piece of my heart here when getting on the plane. The kindness of the people and the empathy that I found here are something of special. I guess you are taught to observe your neighbour to leave in harmony with the community. When it comes to personal relationships and friendship I realised how my Koreans friend would be able to acknowledge traits of my personality way earlier than western peers.

I have been surprised about how many times someone would understand my needs before even talking, and I love this attention to many facet of the daily life. In my next, and last post I will be writing about campus life and a course overview adding a few feedbacks from the the MHMK students with their tips. And let me know by leaving a comment here below if there is anything you would like me to write about! Enjoy some travelling images here below.

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