Check out this seafood paella and steak pizza from South Korean restaurant franchise Mr. Pizza. It’s topped with shrimp, squid, scallop, steak, calamari, camembert, gouda, mozzarella, melon mango cheese (whatever that is), cream sauce, ranch sauce, and a handful of vegetables.
Sound appetizing? To those used to a plain cheese and pepperoni, those flavor combinations might seem grotesque. Beyond the monstrous surf-and-turf concoction described above, South Koreans like to throw on other unusual toppings such as sweetcorn, dried cranberries and sweetened bread crumbs. Crusts are never to be wasted: In an ingenious attempt to make every inch of pizza slice edible, they are filled with extra mozzarella, sweet potato mousse, shrimps or even egg tart.
These recklessly exuberant combinations of sweet and savory flavors are just some of the things about South Korea that many non-Korean visitors find hard to believe until they visit the country. In addition to all the toppings, here is our selection of the top things that surprise foreigners until (or even after) they visit South Korea.
Table of contents
- Education fervor (some start when they’re fetuses…)
- There are Christians
- Kimchi fridges are real
- Soju is really cheap
- Get ready for harsh winters
- Jeonse: when a tenant lends money to a landlord
The extent of South Korea’s education craze is something foreigners have a hard time believing. Some South Korean kids start hitting the books before they’re even out of the womb, through antenatal education, or taegyo, in which parents play classical music, English audiobooks and other enlightening sounds fpr their fetuses.
Until high school, education is mandatory, and paid for (in the case of public schools) by the state. But the beating heart of South Korea’s education mania lies beyond the school fences in cram schools, known as hagwon, and myriad private tutoring sessions.
Many elementary school kids, even kindergarteners, have no time to fool around in the playground; instead, they trot about with big backpacks slung over their tiny shoulders from math hagwon to taekwondo class, then from English hagwon to piano lessons. Recently, even havruta-style learning, known as the “Jewish learning method” has gained popularity among South Korean parents who want to free their kids from rote memorization-based education. Unsurprisingly, South Korean teenagers are the unhappiest among their peers in OECD countries.
It’s not uncommon for high schoolers to go to school from seven in the morning until eleven at night. Until a few years ago, students had to attend school on Saturdays too. But it makes little to no difference whether schools are open on Saturdays or not, because when students are not in school, they’re expected to be in hagwons or libraries.
It was once common for hagwons to be open until midnight, if not two a.m., depriving students of sleep. This prompted Seoul city government to issue an ordinance in 2009 barring private cram schools from operating past 10 p.m. (About 20 percent of South Korea’s hagwons are in Seoul.)
That’s when bizarre scenes start to unfold in Daechi-dong, Seoul’s hagwon mecca: Every night at around 10 p.m., the area is paralyzed by a traffic jam as parents line up their cars near hagwon to pick their kids up — so that they can go home promptly and continue studying, or take a short break before waking up at six a.m. to head to school again, especially if the students are in high school, when academic pressure intensifies. Even after 2009, rumors abounded that some hagwons would pull down their blinds and stay open after 10 p.m., prompting the government to incentivize the reporting of such illegal practices.
Read more about South Korea’s education fervor:
- An Assault Upon Our Children: South Korea’s Education System Hurts Students
- Even Getting Into the Military Is Competitive in South Korea
Some Westerners might assume that East Asians are mostly Buddhists, or even Confucians (although Confucianism is not a religion). But once you land at Incheon International Airport near Seoul, you’ll soon spot the countless neon red crosses sprinkled across the Seoul skyline.
South Korea is the most Christian country in Asia after the Philippines. According to government statistics, there are over 56,000 Christian groups registered in South Korea — more than 54,000 of which are Protestant groups and the rest Catholic groups. By contrast, there are only around 12,000 Buddhist groups.
While more than half of South Koreans don’t identify as religious, according to the most recent national census, the biggest religious group is Protestants, accounting for nearly 20 percent of South Koreans as a whole, followed by Buddhists (15.5 percent) and Catholics (7.9 percent).
As a side note, Confucianism, more a living philosophy and social code than a religious belief, is characterized by strict social hierarchy, filial piety and patriarchy — Confucian customs have coexisted with and created interesting new variations of Christianity and Buddhism in South Korea.
South Korea is home to the world’s highest concentration of megachurches, many of which are caught up in scandals of hereditary succession, involving huge sums of money gathered through tithes (mostly from congregants) being handed down from the senior pastor to his son or son-in-law (yes, they’re almost always men).
Read more about this story in our article, “Father, Son and Holy Mess: Family Succession in Megachurches.”
It’s common to see two fridges in an average, middle-class South Korean house: one for kimchi, one for everything else.
Traditionally, Korea’s national (side) dish, kimchi, is made in bulk just before the start of winter, so that households have vegetables to eat throughout the cold months. Hundreds of salted and marinated cabbages are stored in holes dug in the ground, to keep them at the right temperature as they ferment throughout the year.
But following mass urbanization in the 20th century, many South Koreans left the countryside and moved into apartment complexes in cities and industrial areas — as of 2015, nearly three quarters lived in apartment buildings or tenement houses. But changes in habitat didn’t alter the national penchant for fermented cabbage, so instead of digging holes, South Koreans sought an alternative. By the more prosperous mid-90s, electronics companies like Samsung and LG had come up with an ingenious idea to meet consumer demand: the kimchi fridge.
Kimchi fridges differ from their regular counterparts in a few key ways: Their temperature is kept consistent and lower, at about -1°C (30°F); they usually open at the top, as if to emulate the act of opening a kimchi pot (having the door at the top also keeps the temperature more stable, as it allows cold air to rest at the bottom); and they feature settings for controlling the speed of fermentation and storing different kinds of kimchi (there are hundreds).
Cheap soju, expensive wine
Ranking the top in global booze consumption, South Korea is notoriously alcoholic. One reason for this massive alcohol consumption are the ubiquitous green bottles of soju, a starch-based clear liquor usually containing below 20 percent alcohol, which cost just $3 at average eateries and half that price in convenience stores (open 24/7, easily accessible almost everywhere in South Korea).
But try buying a bottle of wine anywhere and the story changes. Imported alcohol is subject to multiple tariffs. Whisky, for instance, is subject to a 20 percent tariff plus 72 percent liquor tax, 30 percent education tax and 10 percent VAT. That’s 133 percent tax for any imported whisky. For imported wine, the tax adds up to 76 percent. A 2011 free trade agreement with the European Union was supposed to bring lower prices, but no noticeable change has yet come.
So it’s a no brainer that alcoholic South Koreans mostly stick with the cheaper options of soju and not-so-tasty Korean beer, or combining the two to create somaek, which literally means soju and maekju (beer).
Alcoholism is a serious problem in South Korea, with 13 percent of its population afflicted according to government statistics. Even South Korean teenagers have been hitting the bottle harder in recent years.
But while alcoholism isn’t regarded as a serious mental illness (drinking heavily on a regular basis is generally taken as normal behavior), drugs like marijuana are heavily stigmatized (and extremely difficult to acquire).
Every day, South Koreans down their bottles of soju and restaurants serving purported hangover cures keep their lights on late into the night as inebriated patrons stumble in for salty, spicy soup and another bottle of soju before heading home.
Winter can be harsh — really harsh
Many foreigners seem to associate Asia with the tropical islands of Thailand and Vietnam, and are incredulous when warned of the country’s bitter winters. The average temperature in January, the coldest month of the year, in South Korean capital Seoul is 25°F (-4°C). The national average, excluding islands and mountainous areas, is around 50°F to 59°F (10 to 15°C).
Naturally, it snows often from November till early March, while the southern part of the country is slightly warmer and snows less. Of course, South Korea isn’t Canada but South Koreans still like to fight the glacial weather by wearing the latest fashion trend item: long puffer jackets (“long padding”) that reach down to the ankles, or at least half way down the shin.
Perhaps inevitably, some are concerned that spectators will be too cold when South Korea holds the 2018 Winter Olympics in February and March. In November 2017, a few months shy of the opening ceremony, several spectators showed signs of hypothermia in a pre-Olympics concert held at the main stadium in Pyeongchang.
Jeonse: When a tenant lends money to a landlord
In South Korea, you can rent a place to live without paying monthly rent. Instead, you can pay tens of thousands of dollars up front in deposit!
The jeonse system gives a tenant a right to lease only on a deposit basis. By paying a lump-sum deposit equal to at least 50 percent (sometimes up to 90 percent) of the property value, a tenant can lease a space for a designated period of time — usually two years — without additional payment. Once the lease is over, the tenant receives the full deposit back (as long as the property is intact).
Simply put, a tenant lends a big sum of money to her or his landlord, receiving the right to occupy the property in return. During the lease, the landlord makes a profit by investing the deposit money or by collecting interest on it. The system has flourished mainly due to high interest rates and heated property speculation in South Korea. But as interest rates began dropping after the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, it’s debatable whether jeonse is still a profitable system for landlords.
Even when a monthly rental system, or wolse, is used, landlords often require a high deposit — around one to two years’ worth of monthly rent. For instance, a studio apartment in Seoul could be rented for $600 a month with a $10,000 deposit. It’s also customary to cut monthly rent in exchange for an increased deposit payment.
Jieun Choi authored this article.
Cover image: Bukchon village in Seoul, South Korea’s capital (Source: Doug Sun Beams via Flickr CC BY 2.0)