Five misconceptions Americans (and a lot of people) may have about Korea

EDIT: Picture added, and title changed to reflect the worldwide nature of misconceptions – surely it’s not just Americans who think or believe some of these things.

Taking a page from fellow travel blogger Everything Everywhere, I thought I would address some of the interesting notions that I’ve heard about Korea.

Photo credit: John Pavelka, Flickr

South Korea is at war with North Korea and Japan

Not quite*. The media loves to report on anything regarding North Korea’s aggressions, or island disputes between South Korea and Japan. Both of these are cyclical things – they come and go, flaring up occasionally, never resolving themselves, and so on. After a couple years, it ends up feeling more like a sitcom that lasts 60 seasons where the main characters don’t change that much.

As for the island disputes, yes, there are several islands that Japan is in dispute with – one with Korea, one with China, etc. You have nationalists on all sides, doing what they think is necessary to raise attention to the issue. For most foreigners living in Korea, it’s a non-issue. It doesn’t really affect us, and the most part there’s little reason to worry about it. The only thing to watch out for is to not be sucked into a protest or a demonstration. You probably have more interesting things to do anyway.

* Any decent historical introduction to South Korea proclaims the two countries are still technically at war. That’s part of history, yes, and the DMZ remains a highly guarded area. Is the average Korean stockpiling canned goods and building bomb shelters? No, although you can bet most adults know where the nearest shelter actually is (usually a subway station, for what it’s worth).

Koreans really love their kimchi / garlic / spicy food / strong soju

Yes, yes, yes, and yes, but this one’s definitely more of a generational thing. Look at any table full of 50-year-olds and you can bet they’re eating some of the traditional Korean foods they grew up with. The prices and portions have changed, of course, but samgyeopsal (thick bacon grilled at your table), kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), and bap (rice) haven’t changed much at all. You’ll find the older generation drinking lots of soju (vodka-like firewater), and the salarymen of various ages tend to follow their elders. When away from coworkers, however, the younger generation is much more diverse – at any given time they might be holding a beer, a Western style cocktail, a shot of whiskey, a glass of wine, or perhaps a bagged cocktail if they’re in the Hongdae or Itaewon areas. It very much depends on who they’re with and what’s available.

This new generation of Koreans excites me. They’ve  grown up seeing McDonald’s and Starbucks and Italian restaurants across the country, and they’re frequented by younger Koreans. The western restaurants seem to be where they go with their friends, when it’s time to party, or before a night out on the town. When it comes time for dates, the more upscale Italian restaurants are pretty popular, as are any number of Korean bars or coffee shops.

Korea is dangerous, just like the rest of Asia

Not so much – you’re more likely to find yourself in serious trouble in your hometown. In 4 1/2 years, I’ve yet to fill a single hand of serious crimes even seen or heard about. Walking around town is safe, and people are usually too busy perusing their handphones to be concerned with taking someone else’s. I managed to leave a DSLR on the subway a couple years ago, only to retrieve it the next day, completely intact and without a scratch on it. While it’s not necessarily recommended by any traveler, I’ve stashed a bag in a corner (sometimes mixed in or nearby the musician’s stuff at a concert) and had zero problems.

There is a darker side to the city, of course – regardless of how safe the place may be, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your stuff. I also don’t get sh!t-faced drunk, but that’s a different story. The people that do (both Koreans and non-Koreans) end up looking pretty silly. Despite one article claiming violent crime rates are higher in Korea, it seems so rare.

Koreans can’t speak English

Well, this one has some truth to it. If you were to walk down the streets of Korea and ask a hundred random adults a question about Korea in English, probably 3/4 of them would have a hard time answering well. Koreans have to take at least a couple years of English within the public school system, and a large majority of children go to after school classes to learn more English. With that said, most have little practical need for the English language. That requirement has endured as a supposed “edge” when it comes time for a job, or when traveling. Having a high TOEFL score may help to land a job, but if they’re unable to actually speak English at that level, they’ll feel just as awkward about it as the random person on the street. That goes double if all of their coworkers know of their high score, which puts even more pressure on them to get it right – not exactly an enviable situation.

There’s still plenty of hope for communication, however. Within the Korean language are literally thousands of English loanwords that are commonly used in the country. The sounds change a bit, but “bus”, “cola”, “festival”, and even “fried chicken” sound almost the same in Korean. Even if someone speaks zero English, they still know thousands of English words. Throw in a handful of Korean words yourself, and you can communicate on a very basic level with almost anyone in the country.

Korea is too small to be worth the visit

On this one, I have to disagree. I speak not only has a travel blogger – one who’s traveled the country for over four years now – but as someone who’s looked for new and interesting things to see on a regular basis.

Relative to its neighbors, Korea is fairly small – about the size of Indiana, give or take – yet there are nine cities with over 1 million people. There’s plenty of history to look back on, and a conscious push by the government over the past few decades to modernize or restore many of the tourist attractions across the country. There is no Korean Great Wall (unless you count Namhansanseong), nor is there any one specific place everyone has to see when they visit Korea.

Bottom line? No matter how long you have to see Korea, there’s plenty going on.