Unpacking with Danielle

Travel & Exploration

Tag: culture (page 2 of 2)

What is Korean Identity?

This week is Thanksgiving week, and as I’ve been preparing teaching materials on Thanksgiving focused on what America is all about, I’ve been wondering- what is Korea all about?

I’ve been here for 3 months now and as someone who studied Anthropology I feel like I should be able to answer this question easily.  For a lot of other countries I’ve visited it has been pretty straightforward.  But this place, I’m not so sure.

Why is it so hard?  I have a few theories:

1) Korea is fucking old.  The US- not even 300 years old.  Latin American countries- same boat.  The Americas are also heavily populated by people who wanted something / wanted to get away from something.  Their desires are fresh in our memories, and that recent history is still part of our collective psyche.  Also, Europe, while old, has traditions that are familiar to us in the West.  I grew up learning about European history.  Korea though- who knows anything about Korea in the US?  Plus it’s 5,000 years old.  So where would you even begin if you wanted to study the history and make a fair amount of sense out of it?  I’ll try though…

2) A lot of their history, including recent history, has involved being invaded/occupied by other countries, like China and Japan.  Whenever that happens, your collective identity will be affected.  In some ways you may want to be more Korean to assert yourself, in others you’ll change either by force or because you just like something your occupiers introduced (like spas from Japan).  So I don’t yet know what is Korean and what is now Korean because the Chinese or the Japanese made them do it (or American soldiers…).  And to take that a step further, of those things they’ve kept, I don’t know how much they see them as “Korean” or “Japanese/Chinese/American things we also do.”

3) Super-rapid development is giving me the impression Koreans wish they were someone else.  I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out on this.  In this country right now, you have old people who, in their youth, had to dig through trash to find something to eat, and young people who curse their parents out for not giving them literally everything they want.  In many ways, this is a completely different country than the one it was 50 years ago.  So many young people seem to quietly reject the values of their parents and grandparents.  This creates tension, and their way of dealing with it is to escape it, either by moving abroad or dreaming about it.  Either way, the desire shows a lack of attachment to Korea.  It’s like being a young person in Korea today means you wish you were someone else, somewhere else.

So what is Korean identity?  It must run deeper than eating the same food at every meal and hiking on the weekend.  And I want to believe it’s more than simply wishing you were American.  But I haven’t fully wrapped my head around it yet.

What are your thoughts?

Culture Shock: 17 Surface-Level Differences

As soon as you arrive in a new country you begin to notice differences.  Some of these are really interesting and you like them, while others make you uncomfortable or think, ‘WTF?!’.

This post is about the initial, surface-level cultural differences I’ve noticed between the US and South Korea.  These are things a tourist here for a week would likely notice.

*Please note this is meant to document and share the experience, not judge the culture.

1- Lots of spicy, smelly food.  Lots of dishes include red chili peppers.  I’ve seen people eat whole garlic cloves raw.  You’ll smell it on people’s breath.  As you’re walking down the street you’ll randomly smell raw fish.

2- Everyone eats from the same pot.  Usually the food will be cooking in the middle of the table and people will spoon it into their own bowls/tong it onto their own plates.  Sometimes people will go right in with chopsticks they’ve already used to eat.

Korean food

3- No personal space.  You notice this right away on the subway.  A subway car will look totally full to me and 20 more people will cram in at the next stop.  You will be full on pressed up against other people.  They will inevitably be breathing and sneezing on you and you’ll be doing the same to them.

Seoul Subway

4- People get super drunk often.  Americans and Europeans both like to boast about how much they drink.  Koreans beat them by a long shot.  They drink soju which makes them black out and pass out.

Passed Out

5- People sleep in public.  Everyday I see several people asleep in public places.  Always on the subway, often on benches, typically in bars.


6- Most people are really thin.  It’s unusual to see someone larger than a size 6 US.

7- People are really into cosmetics and fashion.  Someone’s daily skin routine will involve 8+ steps, using various creams, toners, and who knows what else.  They will include ingredients you’ve never heard of.  There will be lots of snail in them.

Snail Cream

8- Kids don’t seem to have a bedtime.  You’ll see kids out at all hours.  Last night I heard little kids playing outside my building at 1am.

9- People are impressed if you can say anything in Korean.  They’ll tell you your Korean is really good even if you have a vocabulary of 3 words.

10- People are incredibly shy.  They don’t like to be put on the spot or highlighted in a group.


11- Obsession with anything to do with children and babies.  Adults may dress, speak, and behave like children to appear cute.  Couples may even treat their partners like children as a sign of affection.

Korean Baby

12- Coupling is huge.  Obsession with a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse or love interest.  Lots of couple-focused cafes.  Don’t be surprised if you see couples wearing the same or coordinated outfits.

Couple Outfit

13- Lots of toy dogs (meaning very tiny real dogs), often with their hair done up (dyed and braided) to make them even cuter.

Korean Dogs

14- Masculinity can be expressed through high fashion.  It’s beyond metrosexual.  Many dye and perm their hair and wear some makeup.  Their primping could stand up against any girl in LA.

Korean Men Hair 2

15- Chivalry never existed here.  Never expect a man to hold a door open for you unless he’s trying to impress you.

16- Everyone’s doing their own thing in public spaces.  People will walk as fast or as slow as they want and bump into you if you’re in their way (more common with older people, especially women).  Sometimes you’ll feel like someone nearly pushed you over.  There could be lots of open space, but they won’t move even slightly to one side.  So, if you happen to be in their line of movement, you’ll get pushed.  Cars drive and people walk on small streets together.


17- Different rules apply to foreigners.  I find I get away with things Koreans don’t.  For example, I’ve asked for refills for tea in cafes and they just give it to me.  I’m not asking to take advantage; I honestly didn’t realize that wasn’t a thing.  Koreans wouldn’t ask because they know the answer is no.  When I’m out with one they’re shocked that I ask and even more shocked that the cafe gives it to me.

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