The hardships of Korean working life

This post was inspired by my own curiosity about working in Korea and the things I have heard from Koreans working in Korea. A lot of foreigners want to work in Korea – before I entered my current company I also toyed with the thought of doing an internship in Korea and see what it would lead to – but Korean working life is no picnic. Even less so if you aim for the positions in consulting, banking, or one of the large corporations which are known for being gruelling across the globe.

One thing that seems to put many Koreans, especially those who know next to nothing about Denmark, in a state of awe is the amount of vacation I have. This turns out to be a great conversation starter.

A little background information for those who may have missed it: I’m currently just about to graduate from graduate school and will start working full time in a law firm from September. This is the firm which I have been working for in the past year as an intern and the firm which gave me a scholarship for my thesis. I haven’t worked since early June to focus more on my thesis and another assignment since my working hours got a little out of hand sometimes during spring. In the minds of many Koreans this simply does not compute. And how on Earth can I go to Korea for three weeks? And not even go straight to work when I come back home? In one year I have six weeks of vacation when I start working full time? Can I actually spend six weeks on vacation in one year? It sounds almost too good to be true.

To be fair, this year is a bit of a special case since I’m graduating and will take on a new position. As a student I don’t have the same “rigid” count of vacation days and I have also taken some unpaid vacation days. Our HR department actually recommended that I took some time off to the extent my personal finances allow during the summer to 1) relax before I start working in a new position with lots of new things to learn and 2) it apparently eases the transition from intern to full timer that people haven’t seen you in a while – this is especially the case for those who stay in the same department, which I won’t, though. For a long time I have wanted to go to Korea and saved up for it so I used this opportunity to go for a couple of weeks.

Most Koreans have two to three weeks of vacation per year. In total. However, there is an unspoken rule that you do not actually spend full three weeks away from work in a year. It just doesn’t happen. To go on vacation for two full weeks you may literally have to quit your job. One of my friends works for a company which is uncharacteristically accommodating in this respect and she recently spent two weeks abroad – and had a job to return to when she came back. She mused that people would ask in a worried tone if she had left her job.

On one occasion in Korea I had the opportunity to speak with a Korean woman who is a bit older than me and who now lives in Europe. We ended up talking about the differences between working in Europe and Korea, and her experiences in the Korean labour force really struck me. I already knew that Korea is exceedingly competitive and that people work a lot, but I could never myself lead the kind of life that she described. In one position she had experienced attending 3 am meetings, taken a taxi home because the subway doesn’t run at those hours, set the alarm for 6:30 and then been back at the office by 8:00. Such a schedule necessitated a nap here and there during office hours, but such naps would be accepted. With time, though, the lack of adequate sleep brought about significant health issues – as in organs not functioning properly. Not only for her, but her colleagues too who shuffled back and forth between work and doctor’s appointments. In the course of her career she had seen female professionals quit their jobs in order to start a family. Not for some patriarchal reason, but because their working lives were so stressful that they were simply physically unable to become pregnant. She too mentioned the unspoken rule that you do not spend all of your vacation days.

Of course stress is not limited to Korean work places and I have also heard of Danes (not just from newspapers) who worked themselves to a much too early death, but such stories are relatively few and far between in Denmark. Every job will bring that deadline which seems impossible to honour and has the night guard shake his head in sympathy when you leave the office at some godforsaken hour, but to develop health issues of that caliber, you have to maintain pretty high stress levels for some time.

The ability of Korea as a country to develop so quickly over the past couple of decades is impressive, but such stories attest to the fact that the price paid by the individual can be severe. I sincerely hope that the working lives of my friends will not require such personal sacrifices and that I will find them all in good health and their usual cheerful state when I visit in the future.

A friend of mine, who is currently not living in Korea, recently noted that there is a reason why the webtoon 미생, Misaeng, and its TV adaptation became so immensely popular in Korea, even among people who do not usually watch dramas. The plights of 장그래 and his colleagues struck a chord with many Korean salarymen and the drama became a hit.

미생 aired at the end of 2014. The printed books with the comic are still widely available. Waiting for my flight in Incheon Airport on my way home I caved and bought the first two.

Korean habits and changes in Korea

They say it takes three weeks to establish a new habit, and I spent just over three weeks in Korea. Did I bring home some new habits? A few it seems – totally unintentionally. A couple of examples:

  1. When out and about with Sofie one of my last days in Seoul I dropped my phone and my default reaction was to say “아이고”. After she pointed it out I realised I’m a repeat offender when it comes to Korean exclamations.
  2. After returning home I had to top up my Danish equivalent of a T-money card. When it was time to pay, I automatically reached over the counter to give my credit card while supporting my elbow with the opposite hand. In response I received a very perplexed look from the guy on the other side of the counter, which is when I spotted the credit card terminal right in front of me and recalled that this was not the Danish way of paying. I had to admit to spending some time abroad, which made him laugh.
  3. I now have designated bathroom slippers.

While these are pretty Korean being in Korea has also brought about a few other changes which are less apparent, but which are nevertheless there.

  1. I drink a lot less coffee. Before leaving for Korea I would start my day with a triple shot cappuccino (I know, I know) to basically resuscitate myself in the morning, but since coming to Korea, discovering green tea lattes/green tea cream (these things are seriously addictive!) and having an opportunity to de-stress, I drink a lot less coffee. Being back at home I start my day with a single macchiato just because I like the taste, not because I feel like I need it.
  2. I spend a lot less time online and on electronic devices in general. Considering how connected Korea is this might sound counter-intuitive, but while in Korea I had 2 MB of data for the whole duration of my trip on my Korean sim card. While a lot of places offer free (high speed) wifi, many places do not wherefore I was pretty frugal with my data usage to ensure that I would have enough data to use Naver maps if I got lost somewhere or if I really wanted to go on Kakao to contact someone specific in a place with no wifi in case of being delayed for a meeting. After a while you become used to not being constantly available. That doesn’t mean I was not available at all – the number of hours I spent on Skype with my brother and calling with a friend over Kakao at night (I had access to wifi at the hotels) cannot be counted on two hands.

The distinctly Korean ones might be subject to change more easily now that I’m back in Denmark, but I will do my best to maintain the last two.

Missing Korea

This post is my first post since returning home, and the first post written in my new flat. I came home yesterday afternoon, and while it’s great to see my family again and I enjoy my flat, I already miss Korea, my friends there, the food, and a little surprisingly to many: the weather. Yes, you read that right; I miss the hot and humid Korean summer.

I like heat so I don’t actually mind the Korean heat for as long as I don’t feel like I’m being burned by the sun. I will definitely not mind experiencing another Korean summer. The contrast to the Danish weather makes returning home a somewhat uncomfortable experience, though. It’s currently 18 degrees Celcius and cloudy…

One of the boys by the swings outside my window is wearing a T-shirt, but I’m huddled up in my flat wearing a woolen cardigan. In August. I even slept with a blanket over my duve last night!

Aaaaah, those days with obscene amounts of Korean food, daily practice of Korean, seeing beautiful historical sites and landmarks, and meeting friends.

Mig og Sofie i Seoul

I and Sofie finally met in Seoul as well 🙂

DSC06998ChangdeokgoongJeonju aftenBlomst regnvejr



Cross-border age confusion

Today I met up with someone I went to grad school with back in 2010-2012 for coffee and some sight seeing in Seoul. While walking around we talked about the abundance of skincare products in Korea, aging in Korea vs. in Europe, and difficulties in estimating age. Background information: We were born in the same year.

Over lunch a little bit later, the following then happened. After ordering our food, my friend went to use the bathroom, which the 아저씨 next to us used as an opportunity to interact a little.

아저씨: Is he your son?
Me: Pardon?
아저씨: Is he your son?
Me: Oh, no-no-no-no!
아저씨: Friend?
Me: YES!
아저씨: Boyfriend?!
Me: … Friend…
아저씨: He just looked so young… I thought maybe middle school or highschool student
Me: [smiling awkwardly while thinking what he was implying about me]

Time for a Korean face mask and going to bed early tonight!!!

From online to offline

While here in Korea I have met two people I have otherwise only known online though Italki: my professional tutor and a language partner with whom I have only exchanged text messages through Kakaotalk. For privacy reasons there will be no pictures, though 🙂

I have taken quite a few lessons with my tutor over the past 8 months and we have spoken about so many things that we know each other quite well by now. Meeting in real life, having dinner, drinks, looking at shops, and going to watch a play together – it’s been such a treat to be able to do these things!

In the case of my language partner, I haven’t mentioned her a lot, but we have been in touch for some months. Our contact has been a little more sporadic because of our work situations and the time difference working against us, and until yesterday we had only exchanged texts. However, we recognised each other without any problems when we met at Gangnam Station and then we went café hunting before heading out for dinner. We are 동갑, the same age, and thankfully we also got along well in real life and managed to speak a good mix of English and Korean. When in need of an unknown word, Naver was never far away. We have agreed that when I return to Denmark we should try to do voice talks from time to time so we can continue speaking; just 15 min for each language so we can stay in touch and practice speaking, but not so long that it becomes impossible to schedule 🙂

A year ago I hadn’t even heard of Italki, but I have been really lucky to meet some great people who have helped me improve my Korean as well as make my stay here even more unforgettable.

Experiences as a foreigner in Korea

My experiences as a foreigner in Korea may not be representative, as we come in many varieties and our experiences may therefore be quite different, but here is a list of 10 things that have happened to me since coming to Korea:

  1. I get stared at. By children and older generations alike. Most of my experiences are variations of this theme. This included an app. 12 year old Chinese boy in Jeju airport who very obviously told his mum to turn around to look at me too. Note that he was the one wearing a fluffy hair band with a big bow and ears. I’m becoming better at tuning it out, but the first few days were a little overwhelming since I’m definitely not used to being noticed like this. In the case of children I just smile at them – maybe I’m the first non-Asian foreigner they have ever seen.
  2. An actor in a play in Seoul interrupted himself to point out to the entire audience that a foreigner was present.
  3. While I was sitting on a bench in a market drinking juice with a  friend in Jeju, an old lady stopped and bent down to stroke my shin. I didn’t know how to react and she was obviously harmless, but my friend stepped in immediately and asked her to stop doing that. I just greeted her politely when she was obviously not done looking at me.
  4. While waiting for a bus in Jeju, my friend noticed how people in cars driving by were looking and she could mouth read the word 외국인, foreigner.
  5. All of the ladies working in the hanbok rental shop in Jeonju came over to have a proper look at my blue eyes after I had changed back into my regular clothes and was ready to leave.
  6. When a song by a Danish singer (Mø, “final song” for the curious ones) suddenly started playing in a café in Buyeo and I enthusiastically started lipsyncing and moving to the music in my seat, the barista turned up the music, which was when I found out we were being watched. I was mortified while my friends thought it was hilarious.
  7. As I was having dinner alone in Gyeongju, I was not entirely sure how to approach some of the food and spying other diners for clues. The staff (especially one ajumma) was incredibly kind and attentive, and showed me which things to combine for the best results although I had not asked. They had just noticed my insecurity even if I tried to be stealthy.
  8. Two guys (early 30s?) working in a food stall at a town festival/event in Buyeo greeted me loudly “Hiiiiii!!!! God bless youuuuuu!” when I passed by. Both times I passed by…
  9. Some people will randomly greet me with a “hello” in the street. I just reply 안녕하세요. A man in Jeonju who insisted on shaking my hand came across as creepy, though.
  10. No matter how blatantly lacking my Korean is in some situations, people will praise me for trying – and only switch to English if I really get out of my depths and they know the English expression corresponding to the Korean one that I don’t understand.

Have you had similar experiences in Korea other other countries? Do share in the comments! 🙂

Korea trip: Jeonju

Today we started out with a late kimbap/odeng breakfast before heading to the rail bikes.

You know your food habits are adapting when you have no qualms eating squid in some form morning, noon, and evening as I did yesterday. Today’s morning menu, though, was tuna kimbap and fish cake soup!

After our rail bike trip we spotted this heart right by the station, and it being very quiet at that spot, I couldn’t help but get a little more creative with the pictures 🙂 It’s been a long time since I actively used acrobatics in any kind of impressive way, but it’s good to know it’s not too far away.

Being a “bad Dane” in Korea

Today in Jeonju I went to “rail bike” (biking on some old rail tracks that are no longer used) with my friend. The first part was smooth sailing; we got the tickets, bought some iced drinks to bring along due to the heat, got instructions from the first 아저씨 who wished us a nice trip, and off we went. It was really enjoyable. We enjoyed the view, took pictures of the surroundings and each other, and we even got a wave from a train driver who drove by on the tracks parallel to this old rail road. Very peaceful and fun.

At the point where the bike had to turn around, things took a bit of a sour turn for a moment, though. The 아저씨 who handled the platform for turning the cart around immediately noticed my foreign appearance and asked if I was from Australia. When I replied that I’m from Denmark he suddenly name-dropped some historical person. I did recognise the name (from a street name at home), but when he got into some long-winded Korean explanation about trees and seemed to expect some sort of contribution from me, my confusion showed. My friend very helpfully interjected in English that he was famous for planting many trees. Still no bells were ringing.

That actually got him quite angry, and he asked me how I could even dare to call myself a Dane if I didn’t know this. After a couple of minutes of him ranting where I understood less and less, and didn’t necessarily want to understand everything either, I tried to tune him out and just wait for the okay for us to go back. At this point he asked me in English “you understand?!” and then started complaining to my friend in Korean that he thought it was rather strange that someone claiming to be Danish did not know about this particular person.

I was honestly a bit shocked even if my friend told me that he was rude and to just put it behind me. Afterwards I was therefore compelled to check online to find out what the whole thing was about. He was a 19th century engineer whose legacy is soil improvement and planting of heaths and forests in Jutland (the Danish peninsula) following the Danish defeat and loss of Schleswig and Holstein in 1864.

It is entirely possible that he was mentioned in some history book while I was middle school or so, but I simply missed it due to attending ballet school. During my time in ballet school, rehearsals for performances always overruled attending the academically oriented school, which cost me a whole year of school attendance spread out over three academic years from 5th through 7th grade until I moved back to a regular school, taking ballet exams on the side instead. As this meant that I couldn’t just redo one year to compensate for lost time, I had to catch up on on the side as I prepared for high school. While I did earnestly try to read up on things after going back to regular school and actually did well in history both in middle school and high school, maybe this poor engineer simply slipped away unnoticed.

It’s the first time ever I’ve been called out on not knowing something from Danish history – and in such a stern way. I didn’t sit there totally clueless about the Danish equivalent of 이순신, though, so his reaction was a little overwhelming. Let me just say that I would have handled it somewhat differently if I had been in his shoes.

Korea trip: Wearing hanbok in Jeonju

My posting schedule failed pretty quickly after arriving in Korea because I’ve simply been experiencing so many things, but here are some pictures from my trip to Jeonju!

I’m here with a friend who suggested that we went sightseeing in the city wearing hanboks. We rented hanboks for 1.5 hours and off we went! There are so many people in this city wearing hanboks, but so far I haven’t seen another non-Asian in hanbok.

The reactions were pretty good. Some people greeted us in the street, some even adding that we looked pretty 🙂

Since we left our bags at the hanbok rental shop and just brought our phones, we had no cash to enter a walled park. That didn’t stop us from having a sneak peek, though. My friend noted after taking the picture to the left that I have this tendency to look mischievous in quite a lot of my photos and she has nicknamed the picture to the right my “frog photo”.

Of course there was also time for a “cute photo” – which caused some random bloke driving by in a car to wave at us…

Hanbok 4

My brother’s reaction to the photos was “you… didn’t get married… right?”