Not only did Korea witness one of the fastest economic growths in history from 1960 onwards, but it was also one of the only countries to see positive GDP growth in 2009 following the recession of that same year. A combination of a business-friendly government, robust industries and the presence of large conglomerates, have helped Korea achieve and maintain its position among the top 20 largest economies in the world. The absence of public debt, when compared to most other developed nations, has meant that a lot of help is given to business and investors: both local and foreign. The Korean economy is extremely outward looking in terms of inviting foreigners in to work, invest in capital markets and start up businesses. As well as having several huge industries that make up a large majority of output (shipbuilding, electronics, semiconductors, automobile), the government is also seeking new industries to diversify into and excel in: the green sector and nuclear energy.
As a foreigner from the UK, it is strange to see a small selection of behemoth companies owning a huge portion of Korean business. Companies such as Samsung, Hyundai and Lotte not only control companies and operations they are most famous for (electronics; cars and ships; food), but own a whole host of subsidiary companies. Samsung, Kumho and Hyundai even own art galleries. Samsung owns one of the ‘big three’ national newspapers and has been accused of controlling what is printed - they are reluctant to allow any anti-Samsung sentiment be published in the JoongAng Daily newspaper.
Korea’s phenomenal economic transformation over the last forty years has instilled a sense of pride in the country and its economy, and hence its government’s efforts to make it such a competitive one.
One of the largest culture shocks felt by a Westerner may be in the office - more so than in social situations. Western corporations operate an egalitarian attitude at work: all employees address each other using first names, regardless of status, and offices are open plan with senior managers sitting beside graduates. Office social activities are organised to build moral and improve productivity. In Korea, superiors are addressed by inferior employees by their title (CEO, President) and work within their own closed-door offices. In the West, there is a lot more focus on employee welfare on an individual level. Mentorship schemes exist and appraisals are conducted several times a year to assess whether employees are achieving personal goals. All employees are kept in the loop about what is occurring in the company in the interest of motivation and they are encouraged to take ownership of tasks given to them.
In Korea, employees are expected to be subservient and work extremely hard at assignments given them, regardless of how much information has been provided about the task.
Koreans have a much stronger work ethic than Westerners. They work longer hours and most of their waking hours (including the weekends) are spent in some productive pursuit – either working, studying or in extracurricular activities. This attitude will have undoubtedly helped it achieve such rapid growth in its economy. Koreans do not let a hangover stop them going to work the next day!
Korean people are a lot more reserved and conservative than Westerners, and there is a tendency to not speak one’s mind and voice one’s opinion in a direct way. This can be both a good thing (people do not complain) and a bad thing (there exists a lot of herd mentality among people; miscommunication often arises as people do not express things in a clear, plain way). Koreans do not use facial expressions, tone of voice or body language to convey emotion as much as Westerners (who rely very much on facial expressions and body language, just as much, if not more than words to express themselves). For this reason, it is often very hard for a foreigner to discern what a Korean is thinking.
Even though Korean people may, at times, seem rude to someone who is unfamiliar with their ways (for example, they do not apologise if they bump into you and they are not in the habit of enquiring after your health as much as English people do), they are very hospitable people and will go out of their way to help you, especially if you are a foreigner. Foreigners are treated with a lot of respect here, which is contrast to the UK where both positive and negative discrimination are discouraged. If you show a keen interest in Korean culture, the language and the food and are open minded, this is highly appreciated (a little Korean goes a long way!).
Business cards are exchanged upon meeting for the first time, and in my experience, this has made networking and contacting people easier and faster, as one is not required to spend time and energy searching for contact details via the relevant people. Koreans are very open to networking and putting people in touch with others that might be able to help them. This is linked to their overall open mindedness to seize opportunity and their can-do attitude. Networking is often regarded as superficial and with suspicion in the UK.
Living in Korea
Compared to living in the UK, day to day life in Korea is much faster and more efficient. Trains are on time, lines at the post office and at the hospital move quickly and processes such as visa applications and finding jobs are a lot shorter. Shops are open seven days a week, until 10 or 11pm, as are cafes. In the UK, most cafes close by 5pm and are often shut on Sundays. Even small, eating houses in Korea are open seven days a week until late. All these things combined mean that getting things done in Korea is a lot easier and hassle free due to less red tape associated with bureaucracy. Perhaps the country’s rapid progression from a third world country to developed nation has instilled a mind set of getting things done quickly (buli-buli), or maybe it is their buli-buli nature that has allowed the country to grow so rapidly!
The Hangul alphabet is easy to learn in a short space of time, but for English speakers, getting by in Korea is incredibly easy as most signs and labels are written in both Korean and English. Many Korean restaurants have picture menus, which makes eating out manageable.
Seoul is a very exciting place due to there being such a diverse range of people living there – it is as if it is made up of many, small universes. Not only are there many nationalities, but there are many different types of people: US army soldiers, English teachers, Buddhist monks etc. As a result there it is a huge cultural intersection and it is possible to feel as if we have left Korea if one visits areas such as Itaewon or the Russian speaking area of Dongdaemun.
Seoul’s dynamic atmosphere is enhanced by the fact that there are large numbers of US soldiers and English teachers here, both groups of which are usually only here for a one year period. The presence of such people, here for a limited time, away from their home country and wanting to make the most of their year away, gives the city an atmosphere which is unique from many other places.
Politics & belief
Due to the turbulent politics of its past and its current issues with North Korea, perhaps it is not surprising that Koreans do not want to wallow in politics as much as their counterparts in the USA or UK. There are no far right or fascist political groups and many young people do not seem interested in politics, despite Korea sharing a border with one of the most politically bizarre countries in the world. Politicians (or any authority figures) are not slandered and ridiculed as they are in the West.
Protests against large banks and corporations happen on a daily basis, especially against Samsung – where several employees have recently committed suicide. (The electronics giant has tried to cover up and deny the suicides.) However, a large majority of the population will regard these dissenters as “reds”. The very concept of protesting is at odds with the Korean tendency to conform and keep controversial opinions to themselves. At any sort of large protest, there is always a huge police presence on standby, even though the protests rarely result in a raised voice, let alone violence.
There is a very large and outspoken Christian community here, which also holds public “demonstrations” and evangelising. It is interesting to see some Koreans attending both church and temple, due to different family members adhering to the different religions.
Eating & Drinking culture
The eating and drinking habits of Koreans are extremely different to those in the West. Food plays a very central part in socialising. Alcohol is usually consumed with a meal, or with some snacks. This is in contrast to the UK, where drinking is the primary form of socialising, usually without any food accompaniment.
The range of traditional Korean food and alcohol is enormous, with a strong emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce. Vegetables, meat and fish and rice are at the core of the Korean diet. Most food is very flavoursome (garlic and red pepper tastes), especially when compared to Western food. A typical way to enjoy food in Korea is to order a wide range of main dishes and side dishes and share them among everyone. People often leave the office to eat out in a restaurant for lunch, as opposed to in the UK where most will just eat a sandwich at their desk.
The quality of food in Korea is far superior to that in the UK. It is possible to eat very cheaply at “adjuma restaurants” where food is simple and honest but of good quality. In the UK, there is expensive, restaurant food, sandwich bars or fast food. However, the western food in Korea is rather different to that which is found in the West, except for high-end restaurants.
Many restaurants in Korea specialise in one particular type of food (e.g. sundae (blood sausage), beef, pork, octopus) and so one must decide beforehand what to eat for a meal.
Another concept particular to Korea is the dessert café. The quality of cakes and patisserie here is far, far superior to that in UK, most likely owing to the higher demand for it. Although coffee chains in UK are common, the appetite for baked goods is much smaller, and so the quality and quantity of bakeries is lower. Dessert cafes also provide a great location for couples to go on dates: in the UK, couples prefer bars or their own homes.
The bars in Korea differ from the UK in that they often tend to specialise in a certain type of alcohol: beer or wine or spirits. In wine bars, there is usually only one type of wine available by the glass, unfortunately. Local beer is a lot cheaper and tastier than local, English beers. The bars in Korea are either western-style bars (usually more expensive) or Korean style Hofs.
Clubs in Korea are a lot better than in England from several perspectives: the music, the clientele, the atmosphere. British people can become loud and aggressive when drunk, and because of this the atmosphere in many clubs is stressful. Outside then clubs in Korea, on the streets, it is very busy and energetic but without the fights that are so common in UK. When Korean people get drunk they do so in a more civilized manner… or they simply pass out!
Family Life & Relationships
Family life is still the foundation of Korean society and it comes before the individual, one’s career and one’s friends. In the West, the family unit has virtually disintegrated: people rarely live with their family after the age of 18; friends are preferred to family in many cases, and one’s career is considered by some to be the most important thing in life. Certainly, for women, careers come before children and a husband.
In Korea, it is the norm for children to live at home until they are married, even if they are still single after 30 years of age. Even after marriage, the parents are very involved in their children and grandchildren’s lives. Parents and children are a lot closer to each other. In UK, children become a lot more independent from their families at an early age. This is probably influenced by the fact that UK is not a collectivist society compared to Korea: in UK, the needs of the individual are prioritized over the needs of the community as a whole. In Korea, respect for elders is still deeply ingrained in the culture.
In England, it is rare for people to get married before 25-27 years old, and many people will live with their boyfriend/girlfriend for many years and never get married. While they are still young, boys and girls prefer freedom and may date each other without any real commitment. In Korea, relationships between boys and girls move a lot more slowly - security and stability are desired. It is rare for people to visit each other’s houses (especially for a boyfriend to visit his girlfriend’s house): socialising is done in restaurants or other public places. Perhaps, it is the inability for young couples to meet at each other’s houses that encouraged the emergence of “love motels”.
The negative side of Korea:
- Good Western food is hard to find easily and impossible to find some food products. Wine is expensive.
- No green parks or untouched nature in Seoul.
- Communication problems, from language and cultural barriers.
- Being the only non-Korean speaking foreigner can be isolating at times.
- Herd mentality and inability to be direct when communicating.
What made me want to stay in Korea:
- Things happen at a faster rate, with more energy. As well as the effect this has on day to day living, it also has an enormous effect on where one can go with one’s career and how willing people are to help you. Nothing is impossible to Koreans, and there is a tremendous can-do attitude present everywhere.
- It is still such a new country and still growing. With this comes a lot of excitement. People are experimenting, looking to the future, not set in their ways and open to new ideas. This creates an amazing positivity.
- The food!