A couple months before I came to Korea I started watching a few Korean dramas, mainly to start listening to the language and get a little sense of the culture. I know that television is often exaggerated… kdramas maybe doubly so. However, after I moved to Korea a few tropes and themes from dramas were surprisingly accurate or did reflect the culture and attitudes in Korea more than I expected.
I see many kdrama viewers talk about all the crazy and unrealistic things from Korean dramas and, yeah, there are some crazy plot twists. But some of the things I see getting mentions on their lists are actually not terribly far from the truth in Korea.
1. Parental Influence Over Adult Children
Most Koreans live with their parents until they marry unless their parents live way out in the provinces and they land themselves a city job. This is for practical reasons, but also because family is extremely important in Korean culture. You don’t just marry someone– you unite two families. If you get yourself a bad reputation it will hurt your entire family.
So, for that reason, parents and even grandparents will often still have a big say in the lives of their adult children. If someone is the eldest child (especially eldest son) expectations for their career and marriage might be very high and very strict. Of course all families are different, but even my Korean American friend told me that from a young age, her family had a list of criteria the man she married had to meet (top of the list: Korean). As the oldest daughter, she was supposed to set an example for her younger sisters. If the first marries well, the rest will follow many think.
This is also why place like Love Motels are so popular. Since most Koreans live with their parents, they can’t take their significant other back to their apartment for… alone time. On a smaller scale, DVD rooms fill the need for simply being able to cuddle and watch a movie with your sweetheart and not being interrupted by parents or siblings.
2. Gender Bending
I’m by no means saying that outright cross-dressing is typical in Korea (in fact queer subcultures are seriously underground in Korea and the governments says that Korean people aren’t gay– only foreigners are gay and we might infect Koreans with our rampant gayness???). However, androgynous fashion is more common here than in many western cities.
Guys tend to wear a wider range of colors and girls will have short haircuts quite similar to boys. Casual wear among young people has a lot of crossover between the genders. Because many Korean guys have somewhat finer features and tend to be very slim, and because Korean girls tend to have more angular body types, there are a decent number of actually androgynous people. People in their teens to early twenties can often fall into that category because of their fashion choices or because their bodies are still maturing.
Some dramas do this girl-disguised-as-a-boy things quite well (See “Coffee Prince” and “Sungkyunkwan Scandal”). Some dramas do this in the worst, least believable way (See “You Are Beautiful”). I have definitely been unsure of people’s genders many times in Korea, and all these gender bending dramas seem way more after plausible living here.
3. Loose Traffic Laws
When it comes to the streets of Seoul, I often say “There are no rules!” Usually I am shouting this while I risk my life at a sketchy crosswalk that might not even be a crosswalk because I have to run diagonally across six lanes of traffic. Nearly every major street does indeed, have a U-Turn lane. All those U-Turns in dramas are pretty accurate. Red lights are basically a suggestions. Drivers pause and if nothing is immediately coming, they tear on through.
There aren’t many traffic cops patrolling so traffic laws aren’t strictly enforced. The cops don’t seem to do a lot of preventative work when it comes to Seoul. They just sort of show up after something terrible has happened. And there are tons of traffic accidents. In the last month one of my friends was in a taxi that got rear-ended, and another friend got hit by a bus. So… it’s crazy out there.
And parking is terrible too. People will park facing any direction on the street. If there’s a space that looks possibly legal, they will wedge themselves in because there is such a deficit of free or even not terribly expensive parking. People stick their phone numbers in their front window so that the parking cops can call them and tell them that if they don’t move, they will get towed. And tickets are a regular part of life. If only speeding tickets were as common.
4. Nose Bleeds
Perhaps this happens to an exaggerated degree in dramas, but they definitely happen frequently in Korea for two major reasons (neither has to do with thinking naughty things anime fans–besides that’s Japanese). The first is the climate. Korea swings from very humid sticky summers to extremely dry, cold winters. In the winter time many of my students would get nose bleeds from the dryness in the air. Most of the children don’t have the foresight to put some petroleum gel around their cracking nostrils as I learned to do suffering from similar issues in America when I was an elementary school student.
The other reason has to do with stress. Children can be away from home studying at school and then academies for 12 hours a day easily. Employees at companies can have long tiresome workdays that stretch out into work dinners that keep them away from home half the night. The pace of life in Korea and especially in Seoul is kind of insane. Vacations are a nice suggestion, but not built into the Korean working model. Holidays are usually spent preparing food and visiting with family, sometimes paying respects at family shrines as well. The level of preparation and obligatory family events involved can make the holidays stressful as well.
It’s true that when your body is under stress it gets weaker. Just like many people get cold sores when their condition is not good, some people may get nose bleeds. And high blood pressure can also cause nose bleeds. So basically everyone needs to have some me time and a humidifier.
5. Soju til you Drop
Soju is incredibly cheap and easy to obtain. For about a dollar, you can buy a bottle of chemically processed rice alcohol. It’s not tasty (though I confess, the new fruit soju on the market isn’t bad), but it gets the job done. It is the preferred drink of old dudes in the park who haven’t bathed in a while as well as corporate executives who are having a “hwae shik” or work dinner with their coworkers. So I guess it’s the unifying drink of Korea.
Because of the culture of Korea that’s largely based on Confucius principals, if someone older or higher up than you offers you a drink, you take it. So if your boss is a big drinker, but you can’t handle alcohol well, you’re screwed. Unless your boss is super cool, modern, and understanding, it would be insulting to refuse. And it’s estimated that as many as 30-50% of Koreans suffer from “Asian flush.” This is a real genetic disposition that makes some people more sensitive to alcohol. It can even make them ill with only a few drinks. But because they can’t say no, they often overreach their limits and that’s why you see them being carried piggyback home.
Of course there is a big social drinking culture in Korea too. It’s viewed as the best way to make friends with someone as well as an effective therapy tool. If you’re feeling down, your Korean friends will very quickly suggest breaking out the bottle as a way to talk more easily, or even forget about your problems. Sunday morning comes and there is vomit all over the streets and some guys even sleeping on the streets or in the subway station.
Honorable mentions: Hotel or Hospital?; Big Bandage, Tiny Wound; 22 Hour Work Day; Rich People Problems; “Taking Responsibility”/The Family Shame; Piggy-Back Time
Korean dramas and this post are all for fun and entertainment. However, they can give us some insight into Korean culture in small ways. What crazy things have you found to be outrageous or truthful in television from Korea and other countries?