Lifestyle & Culture

Anna Bubnova: My list of the Top-10 things you need to know before visiting South Korea

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts from Fontys student Anna Bubnova, currently doing her overseas semester in South Korea. You can read her first post here.)

It’s a rainy Tuesday in South Korea. Two girls are laughing nearby while taking selfies with their red bean paste and butter baguettes. Soon they will fix their make-up and quiet down to proceed with their studies.

Corona is under control in South Korea and life is returning to normal. Exams are over, yet the cafes are full of overwhelmed students – in Korea the studying process never stops.

When peeking out of the window, I remember, of course it, is monsoon season (rainy season) in Korea. People outside the window are running in the overcrowded streets with their colourful umbrellas. The way they manage not to hit each other in the face with them seems impossible to me – but in this organized chaos of umbrella traffic, they seem very comfortable.

Coming from Europe, many things seem odd to me, but when I ask my onnis (older Korean sisters) to explain why something is done in a certain way, everything starts to make perfect sense.

Here are 10 differences you’ll encounter on a daily basis when living in South Korea; note them down if you are planning to visit one day!

No. 10 K-Beauty

All Koreans are obsessed with their looks, so obviously the drugstores are on every corner. Korean women have flawless, or close to perfect, skin. But what is more surprising is the number of male cosmetics available in Korean stores – from special masks for males to eyebrow pencils and foundations customized specifically for their needs. One trick I learned from my onnis is something most Korean women do, and you can do at home! Keep any facial mask in the fridge – this gives the cooling effect and generally calms down the skin.

No. 9 Mountains

(Photos by Anna Bubnova)

South Korea is a very mountainous country. It is hard to find a place where the road goes straight. You will always end up walking up or down the hill. And Koreans certainly learned to make use of that by building hiking paths. Hiking has become almost like a second national sport after tae kwon do, of course. Koreans love going to the mountains for small day hikes – to visit the temple or just walk with their friends. I even have a mountain behind my university where students go to relax during stressful exam periods. It only takes an hour to walk through the whole mountain and it certainly takes your mind away from the worries.

However, if you do decide to go hiking in Korea, be prepared to get your self-esteem destroyed by Korean grannies! They have been practicing their whole life, and they aren’t there to joke around. They will be running up the steep hill twice as fast as you, so if you see one coming, be sure to let them pass.

Meanwhile, all the elderly passing by in another direction will always be friendly. When passing by, they will always wish you luck with the mountain, and in case you are lost, they will do their best to show the direction where you need to go.

No. 8 Safety

I have never felt as safe as I do in South Korea. Trust between people is enormous. Besides, they care a lot about their image. Being even associated with pickpocketing or anything worse is a big disgrace for a Korean. The level of trust is so high that people don’t ever worry about their safety in dark alleys or double-check their pockets in the metro; I have never heard about anyone getting robbed.

One time, I came to study at a huge Starbucks with a lot of people coming and going all the time. I placed all of my items – a laptop, a wallet and a phone on the table, and then remembered that I had to print some papers; I came back an hour later, all of my things were in place, not a thing was gone and to be honest I never even worried about that. It is a common thing for Koreans to leave their belongings in public places without worrying about them being stolen.

No. 7 Food can be confusing

Let’s talk about food! First, Korean food culture is all about rice, kimchi, a lot of vegetables, and red chili powder everywhere. So, prepare your taste buds and a stomach for a decent shock – if you come from a culture like mine, where pepper is considered a spice, you will have some struggles at first. However, since everything is spicy you will get accustomed very quickly.

Second, prepare yourself for food combinations that will raise many questions or even slightly traumatize you. Make sure to try them anyway, even when it seems like something you wouldn’t like. When I first came to South Korea, some food sounded like I would not want to try it, and,of course, I had my Korean friends traumatizing me with legends such as “if you eat a moving octopus he can choke you from the inside.”

Some examples of foods like this:

San-nakji is a variety of hoe (raw dish) made with long arm octopus. Koreans like to joke that if you eat the dish, it can get stuck in your throat and choke you. Of course, it is just a fairy tale, yet it is very easy to fall for it when you see your food moving on the plate.

Mul Naengmyeon (Cold Noodles) is a Korean cold noodle soup that’s usually served icy cold (almost as a slushy) and is perfect for hot Korean summer weather. That has also become my favourite meal, not only because of the ice and vinegar soup but also because the noodles are made with buckwheat, which makes them really chewy and gives them a distinctive flavour.

Dotorimuk-muchim or acorn jelly salad is a Korean food which is a jelly made from acorn starch. It has a very odd texture but is so worth trying – you either hate it or love it!

No. 6 Meat everywhere

Many people ask me if it is even possible to be a vegetarian in Korea. It certainly is; however, you are going to struggle with finding something without meat. Koreans are famous for their love of meat. After all, Korean BBQ is one of the most common foods here. It is logical for them that food has meat so many times they will not include on the menu that something has meat, but you are going to receive a bowl full of beef.

I am not that fluent in Korean, but I did learn how to ask if something has meat inside. In many cases, I get a funny reply “No, that doesn’t, but we will make sure to put some for you!” and then I have to convince them not to do this using Google translate. It certainly is an adventure to find a meal that works for you here, but, in the end, you get a delicious meal and you are happy you went for this adventure.

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