Victoria Pai, is currently a Global Studies major in the College of LAS at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Victoria was awarded the Gilman Scholarship—a grant for U.S. citizen undergraduate students to pursue academic studies or credit-bearing internships abroad—for her study abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea during the Academic Year of 2014-2015.
Without the Gilman, I would have had some trouble studying abroad due to finances. While overseas, I made great friends, experienced life in a new country, and attended a top-notch university. I am thankful that I had such a life-changing opportunity, and I hope no student would believe that studying abroad is too expensive. I want to highlight a few interesting points of difference between American and South Korean culture that I experienced during my year abroad. While these are not necessarily results of research and academia, and they definitely do not cover most observations, I hope that my personal experiences can be enjoyable to read.
Victoria is pictured on the left with her friends (from left to right) Melissa, Chloe, Lydia, and Brianna.
In the U.S., blind dates are considered creepy, desperate, or scary. In South Korea, however, blind dates are very common, especially for college-aged students and twenty-somethings. I cannot say why, but I suspect that the culture has expectations that people should date, and that due to busy schedules, many people find it easier to be set up and meet people through that method. The ones that I have heard people going on while abroad are called “Meeting” (미팅) and “Sogaeting” (소개팅). A “Meeting” is basically a group date, where there will be, for example, three women and three men who have a meal together and then sing karaoke. Oftentimes, it is a result of two groups of friends getting together, with a couple of mutual friends who set up the “Meeting.” A “Sogaeting” is closer to what Americans imagine blind dates to be like: a mutual contact sets two strangers up together, and the two meet each other at a certain place and time, and probably eat or grab coffee together. I have been told that oftentimes, people lie a little while on “Sogaetings” because of pressure to present oneself in a way one perceives to be desirable to the other person. A professor of mine told the class that her brother tells women that he likes listening to opera, a total lie.
General Dating Culture
Contrary to what I had expected, young couples in South Korea are quite touchy. The "konglish" (Korean + English) term “skinship” refers to touch. Young Korean couples that I saw were even touchier than their American counterparts. Here in the States, restaurants and other places tend to be family-friendly. Conversely, I observed that many places were “couple-friendly” in South Korea. There is a couples holiday every month—such as Silver Day on July 14th and Rose Day on May 14th—and during the most popular of these holidays vendors will sell tons of chocolate, Pepero sticks, flowers, and gifts on the streets as well as in department stores. It is common for certain tourist locations to have couple locks hanging iconically. A downside to dating that I felt while I was abroad was that people seemed to be discontent with singleness and always longed to be in a relationship. My language exchange partner told me that while he was still in the process of breaking up with his girlfriend, he had already went on a “Meeting” in preparation for finding a new girlfriend.
South Korea’s drinking culture is beyond that of the U.S. Oftentimes, departments will go out to eat and drink together. During these office dinners, employees generally feel obligated to drink, especially if a superior wants them to. There are protocols to drinking format and buying drinks, and these protocols are usually in direct relation to hierarchy. Likewise, in school, student organizations and departments may go out and drink together as well, with similar social pressure involved. There is a term called “round one,” “round two,” and so on that refers to going for many rounds of eating and drinking and socializing. Generally, round one is dinner, round two is dessert, round three is drinking, round four is karaoke plus drinking, and people can have more rounds from there. I believe the highest I have heard of is round seven.
Korean food tends to be spicier than American food, and also generally cheaper. There is a lot of street food as well, so it’s easy to grab a snack and eat while on the go. Non-Korean food is a bit pricey, however, so depending on lifestyle, one could still end up paying quite a lot. Food is very communal in South Korea. When eating out with a group, usually a huge pot is ordered and everyone sticks their chopsticks into the same large pot. Something interesting I noticed is that coffee and dessert can end up costing the same as a meal. Many coffee shops sold drinks for around 4 to 5 USD, and cakes for more than that. It seems at every turn there is a cafe. I didn’t used to have so dessert so regularly, but while in South Korea, it became normal for me to have dessert after dinners.
South Korea has a sizable public bathing culture. These places are called "jjimjilbangs" (찜질방). Usually, there are showers, hot tubs, saunas, and massage tables, and customers are provided towels, a change of comfy clothes, and lockers. One can stay overnight for as little as about 10 USD. While the bathing areas are gender-segregated, the sleeping area is not. Showering before entering the tubs is required and afterwards one can relax on another floor and eat. Floors are heated, which is really nice, and people simply grab a mat and sleep on the floor. I went with five friends, all foreigners, and we all spent ten minutes feeling awkward and embarrassed. After that initial discomfort however, we all felt like nothing was out of the ordinary and happily tried all of the tubs and saunas. For the full experience of Korean bathhouses, we also paid 30 USD for a full-body scrub massage. We stayed overnight, I ate some instant noodles, and we all slept on the floor. I can truly say that I came to know my friends on a whole new level after that jjimjilbang experience.
I went with friends to a couple of streets that were completely lined with plastic surgery clinics. They looked very modern from the outside, and advertised themselves as catering to people who speak different languages. In subway stations, ads were plastered on the walls with before and after photos. I was handed a pack of wet wipes that promoted a specific clinic. It is said that different clinics are famous for different facial or body parts – eyes, nose, jawline, and others.
Honorable Mention: Skincare and Makeup
South Korea is the world capital for skincare. Shops are everywhere and there are always promotions going on. There are so many types of items I had never heard of before that are well-priced and commonly found. Ampoule, Essence, BB Cream, you name it - they have it. Skincare and makeup are such popular commodities that many shops that Chinese employees to help sell to the crowds of Chinese tourists that vacation in South Korea. Because Koreans place high value on appearance and beauty, these shops seem to be ever-growing, and there are franchises that are affordable and others that are higher end.