Before I came to Korea, I had read this on the internet: “You will see something new every single day.” That is true. I came to the country expecting to be surprised, and indeed, I found something reliably and pleasingly surprising each day, whether it was the so-spicy-it-was-sweaty taste of bibimguksu (spicy noodles and veggies) or the sight of a teenage couple wearing identical t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes to show off their couplehood to the world. I guess what I’m saying is that things in Korea couldn’t be different than what I’d expected, because my expectations had no bounds.
Maybe I should take a step back. When I say surprising, I mean surprising; not earth-shattering. It’s not like I was in the Amazon jungle. Korea has things that are more comforting than surprising: air conditioning, Baskin Robbins, high-speed internet everywhere, and most of the biggest American blockbuster movies released at around the same time they’re released in the USA. (Though more people on the Korean net are playing Starcraft than reading blogs, and some people at the movies are munching on fried squid in their seats. Yip, fried squid is the norm at Korean movie theaters, but don’t worry, they have popcorn, too, in butter and cheese varieties.)
But, before I came to Korea people (mainly those who had never been here) told me many things about this country. Then I arrived here and boy did I prove them wrong.
This post is written mainly for those of my friends living and loving in the ROK. But it may be an eye-opener for those in SA who are harbouring some deep seated untruths about the country I now inhabit.
Myths about Korea:
Only English will be spoken in the classroom.
Yes if you are the only person in the classroom and you talk to yourself.
Korean students all really want to learn English and are highly motivated.
Well, South Korea places 7th on the United Nations Education index for good reason. Koreans are serious about education. Even Obama touted the 13 hours a day South Korean children spend in the classroom. But what he did not say is that students who spend an abundant amount of time in a classroom have parents willing and able to handle the costs of after-school programs and private academies. Thus, wealthy parents in Seoul and the surrounding areas tend to have quite studious children. But even that is not a guarantee. Korean students often rebel against the laborious education system and take jobs after middle school. Oh and for most students- English is their least favourite subject.
Korea is a really poor country and there many refugees.
This is not true at all! Where do people get this from? Actually, South Korea is a very rich country. Years ago, this was probably closer to the truth- Korea was the isolated country of farmers I know many people at home still imagine it to be. However, the country has risen dramatically, it’s the world leader in internet access (literally, there’s wifi EVERYWHERE – street corners, buses, you name it and it’s incredibly fast) and innovator in electronics. There are no shacks (well, I haven’t seen any), just hundreds of blocks of apartments, which are very nice and often luxurious. Korea is one of the G-20 Major Economies, it ranks 15th/192 in the world by nominal GDP, and had one of the world’s fastest growing economies from 1960-1990. The country is still one of the fastest growing developed countries and last year was the 7th largest exporter and the 10th largest importer in the world.
Everyone eats dog. Even in burgers
When it comes down to it, a dog is an animal like any other that is technically edible and is valued differently in the older Korean culture than in the Western or South African one. Eating a dog in SA would be similar to eating a beef steak in India—a huge no-no. Today, while some Koreans eat dogs, it might be safe to say that it’s a minority of the population. The overall attitude in recent years seems to have gone from “personal choice” to “unnecessary cruelty.”
There are no bakeries or coffee shops in Korea.
In Korea, especially where I live, restaurants may come and go, but every café/bakery that was here when I arrived is still in operation and is busy as ever. Even back home in SA, I had never seen such a high concentration of coffee shops that have all stayed in business. Also, diverging from coffee shops anywhere else, many Korean cafes also specialize in cakes and have bakeries in the back. Also, it was a welcome surprise to find out that waffles are huge in Korea.
You don’t need to learn Korean, everyone can speak English.
Because the effort to learn English has only taken off in the last 10 years, the majority of people who speak English in this country are under the age of 13. It is crazy when you can have a 20 minute discussion about soccer with an 8 year old in-line for the movie but you can’t find a single taxi driver or bank teller with any English to save your life.
Koreans are all skinny and short.
Firstly, all the Korean people I know are taller than me. The first question anyone asks is regarding your height, because they place so much importance on being tall. Secondly, if you think all South Koreans are thin, rice-eating, kimchi-consuming health freaks, think again. Since the financial boom in the seventies, South Korea has welcomed numerous fast-food chains and pizza franchises. And as you might have guessed, the introduction of those western gems has had quite an effect on many people’s waistlines.
The Korean peninsula is about to plunge into war / North and South Korea are still at war.
Despite what you might think, South Koreans do not run in panic, looting stores and building boats when they hear threats from North Korea. Think about it like this, if a big tough bully has been saying he’s going to beat you up for the last 50 years, but has done very little actual violence, how afraid would you still be? This is especially amazing considering that the North and the South are technically still in a state of war, as no peace treaty has been signed – merely an armistice, which is an agreement to stop fighting temporarily.
Here are some others I heard and really laugh at:
Students are really good at English and just need to practice it with you.
Korean people will ignore you because you are not white.
You don’t get razors, forks, earrings and dental floss in Korea.
Electronics are super cheap. You can buy a new laptop for R1000.
Korean food is too spicy to eat.
And finally: YOU WILL BECOME RICH.
Feel free to comment and share your own thoughts and myths that you were told!