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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Busan & Korean Culture – An Initial Assessment

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Korean Culture: Nighttime in Busan, 2nd largest city in South Korea

Nighttime in Busan, 2nd largest city in South Korea

I have been carefully observing the Korean culture, and it is quite fascinating on so many levels!

It’s been nearly a month that I’ve been living this surreal life, playing music and living in a 5-star hotel, the Park Hyatt in Busan, South Korea. My work hours only taking up about 4h of the evening, I find myself with a lot of time during the day to people-watch and soak in the culture around me. And boy have I been doing just that!

The City

Let’s start with the city itself. Busan is an incredibly modern and bustling metropolis, with countless high-rise buildings, invigorating city lights, and a well-designed road system consisting of intertwining highways, boulevards and bridges. The city boasts Korea’s most elaborate port, which is why it is primarily known for being a shipping hub.

With boats docked along the marinas everywhere, the district where my hotel is located in, Haeundae, is sandwiched between two beautiful beaches, Haeundae and Gwangalli. Reminiscent of Miami beaches, it’s easy to see why Busan is known for its nightlife and summertime festivities.

Busan is a port city known for its beautiful beaches.

However, at this time of year in late January, with the weather hovering around 5-10 degrees Celsius, no one is dipping into the ocean just yet! But talk about mild weather. This would be considered a beautiful spring day back home in Montreal, Canada. I’m certainly not complaining!

In the city center, and there are many pockets of city centers, there are numerous bars and restaurants. They exist mostly in multi-level buildings, a very common Asian architectural phenomenon. It’s not unusual to see cafes and boutiques inside a building on the 6F floor. You have to look up at the signs outside the building to know where you’re going. In Montreal, rarely are there businesses other on than the 1st floor.

Korean Culture: Korean traditional food involves numerous side dishes

Korean traditional food involves numerous side dishes

The Food

The food is quite tasty! However, vegetarians and vegans beware. Korean food is very meat and seafood-based. In fact, what they call veggies or salad, usually arrives in a series of side dishes, and often consists of shreds of seaweed and maybe a mushroom or two.

Kimchi and side dishes, always, all the time.

Boy, do Koreans love their side dishes! Restaurants will boast that they have the most side dishes. If you order grilled chicken, it will probably come with 6-7 side dishes of kimchi, seaweed, anchovies, pickled mushrooms, braised quail eggs, and other Korean delicacies. Personally, I love it.

Korean Culture: Korean standards of beauty include eternal youth, fair skin and large eyes

Korean standards of beauty include eternal youth, fair skin and large eyes

Beauty & Fashion

Let’s talk fashion. Before getting here I had read that Korean women were very fashion-forward. And it’s true! Korean women are always very put together no matter where they’re going, even just to step to the grocery store. And overcoats appear to be all the rage this season. No matter what activity they are doing, indoors or outdoors, a fancy fur-lined overcoat will sit gently over their shoulders.

Koreans are obsessed with eternal youth.

Everyone physically looks about 15 years old to me, but actually it is indeed a national concern. According to Business Insider, 1 out of 4 women and men in South Korea have had a plastic surgery of some kind, the most common ones being some kind of magical anti-aging procedure, or the double-eyelid surgery, intended to enlarge their eyes and make them look more Western.

I hadn’t actually noticed anyone that had obviously had any plastic surgery, until I went to a Korean restaurant the other day and saw a waitress with unnaturally large and blue eyes. She was of Korean origin, but with full-out Manga eyes! It was a bit disturbing and hard to give my order correctly.

Korean Culture: After work, Koreans like to party

Koreans like to party

The Culture

The people here are extremely well mannered, and professional, particularly at work. This comes from a long tradition of respect for authority and acceptance of one’s place in the hierarchy. I can see this reflected in the hotel staff where I work. They have such a strong work ethic, regularly working 9-10 hours a day, never a complaint, no breaks.

But they sure do let loose after work, though! One night, some of the hotel staff members, a few waitresses and bartenders, invited me to go to karaoke with them. Sure, why not! I sing all the time, let me hear them sing for once. We stayed out until 5am, at one of the many 24h karaoke clubs in the area.

Koreans, like many Asian cultures, absolutely love their karaoke.

For some of them, they go every week without fail, staying out all night, singing their hearts out, dancing, drinking, eating food and banging on the tambourines. It was a fun night! And very inexpensive.

So far, this experience has introduced me to a whole new and exciting culture, quite different from North America. As I get more familiar with the native Korean language to improve my communication (I’ve been taking private lessons for the last 3 weeks), my observations will certainly get more nuanced, but these have been my initial impressions. I look forward to the next 3 months!

What cultures have you visited that were wildly different from your own? 

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2 comments to Busan & Korean Culture – An Initial Assessment

  • Christina

    So very interesting, especially the eternal youth part. I’d heard of it before, but I thought much of it was myth.

  • Great photos and synopsis! The Korean diet does include a sizable amount of vegetables – although you better develop a taste for Kimchi, of which there are many kinds! Some like it fresh, some like it stored and more fermented. You can also get some delicious vegetarian dishes like bibimbap, which is especially tasty when cooked and served in a hot pot! 돌솥 비빔밥 – Dolsot Bibimbap. Looks like you’re having an amazing time!

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