1) Small side dishes, a.k.a. "banchan" (반찬)
Banchan are by far my favorite aspect of Korean cuisine. Rather than the "appetizer and main dish" approach of the West, a Korean meal is essentially built around small dishes. Even a 5,000 won (about $5 USD) meal at a mall food court will come with two to four banchan in addition to the "main", and often people will actually choose restaurants based on the banchan (e.g., seolleongtang, or beef bone broth soup, places tend to have the tastiest kimchi). There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of banchan, based on the thousands of different vegetables, herbs, and wildlife found on the Korean peninsula, and the sheer diversity means that you will never get bored eating Korean food.
|Mmm, banchan. Lots of banchan.|
2) Paper crafts, a.k.a. hanji (한지)
I had heard talk of hanji for quite some time before I visited Jeonju and discovered what it really is. Essentially, hanji is traditional Korean paper. Paper? What's so special about paper, you might ask? Well, it's actually pretty darn amazing what they do with the stuff. Aside from the obvious use as a writing surface, hanji in its most interesting form is essentially a fabric that can be blended with other materials such as silk to create beautiful clothing. Some hanji dresses from a designer I like, 전양배:
|전양배 hanji fashion show in Beijing.|
3) Cold weather fashion
Seoul gets coooooooold in the winter, but compared to other cities, Seoul's women don't let sub-arctic temperatures temper their fashion sense. No sirree. Korean girls are hard core when it comes to going out in cold weather. Whereas other cold winter cities (New York, Beijing, San Francisco in summer, etc) will see people bundled up as though they're setting out for a trek through the Siberian wilderness, Seoul's winter fashion is characterized by ... well, mostly the same fashion from the rest of the year, except sometimes with leggings. Through some rigorous observational research, I've determined that the approximate temperature at which girls will switch from bare legs to leggings is around -7 or -8C, although there is always the occasional outlier wearing miniskirts without leggings all the way down to -20C. Hard core, my friends. Hard core.
4) Mass-produced pop music
I used to not be a very big k-pop fan, but over time it's grown on me. The most impressive aspect? The sheer efficiency and output of the industry. The major producers sign the talent really young and train them nonstop to be pop stars. It's an intensely cutthroat system - if you speak up in dissent, you're just replaced with another cookie cutter pop star - but it's hard to argue with its effectiveness. K-pop is strong and popular in most of East and Southeast Asia. The New Yorker had an interesting article on k-pop production awhile back. The redeeming aspect of k-pop for me is that there actually are some really talented musicians in there. Ailee (에일리) and Hyorin (효린) are two that come to mind, and of the major girl groups, 2NE1 has the most unique sound and look. On a side note, Korea also has an amazing indie music scene, and it's quite sad that it's so overshadowed by the factory-produced k-pop. But if you look for it, you will be pleasantly surprised.
|Still from 2NE1's new music video for 그리워해요 (Missing You)|
Social hierarchy is stronger in Korea than anywhere else I've seen. I'm not saying this is a good thing, just that South Korea does it better than anywhere else. Literally every interaction in Korean society is at least partially dictated by hierarchy, and everyone knows their role. Eonni (girl's older female friend/sister), oppa (girl's older male friend/brother), nuna (guy's older female friend/sister), hyeong (guy's older male friend/brother) - these are just the beginning. Birth year, class year, school year, junior/senior at work, etc. The extremely strict adherence to hierarchy makes for a culture where everyone knows what to do and how to act because of societal scripts, but comes with all the problems one might expect of a culture where everyone knows what to do and how to act because of societal scripts.
6) Building really big things
Most people don't know this, but Korea's heavy industries are the world's best. Guess who built the Burj Khalifa? Samsung Construction and Trading. Taipei 101? Samsung again. Petronas Towers Tower Number 2? Also built by Samsung. Make no mistake about it - Korea is the world leader in building really big things. Not content with simply making "tall" skyscrapers, now Korea is going for more challenging things like "invisible" skyscrapers. And aside from skyscrapers, everyday construction in South Korea is astonishingly fast and astoundingly high quality. It's not uncommon to leave for the weekend and come back to find a completely new restaurant where a few days before there was a convenience store or cafe. South Korea also dominates at shipbuilding, although China is a huge player there as well.
7) Economic development
Starting in the early 60's, South Korea's economy developed faster than any other country in the history of the world (although China is now doing the same thing). This was the result of focussed government-directed economic development unlike any seen before. Sure, a good deal of the growth came from "fast-following" their neighbors to the east, but give credit where credit is due - South Korea's economic development was the result of massive work and effort on the part of South Koreans. Now South Korea is essentially the most developed country in the world, thanks to a few decades of blistering labor and growth. Was it worth it? Many Koreans have suggested to me that the country was a happier place back when it had the world's lowest GDP.
8) Public transit
Korean public transportation is amazing. The Seoul metro is cheap, fast, and blankets the city and surrounding areas. And where the subway doesn't go, busses do. From small town bus to aggressive intercity express bus, Korean public transit goes everywhere and won't break the bank. Not only that, it's safe and super clean! Just watch out for the pushy ajummas.
Also fitting loosely under the public transit category, last time I went hiking up in the Bukhansan mountains north of Seoul, I was amazed to discover that the exquisitely well-maintained hiking trails are actually part of the official road system - they have numbers and "road" signs just like the highways! Super cool.
Now that public transit is solved, here's hoping that South Korea goes on to build the first Hyperloop.
9) Phonetic script
Hangeul (한글) is the phonetic script that Korean is written in. Koreans are proud of it, and I'm here to tell you that their pride is entirely justified. Hangeul is simply the best phonetic alphabet on the planet. Sure, there are a few exceptions that need to be memorized, but compared to the disaster that is English spelling, hangeul blows away the competition. Learn how to read in less than a day! Aspirations and glottalizations are built directly into the script! Each character comprises exactly one syllable! Beautiful design.
To be fair, when Korea switched from Chinese characters to hangeul, they introduced ambiguity into their writing system. I think the ideal writing system for Korean would use hangeul for pure Korean words and all verb conjugations (i.e., the entirety of the agglutinative awesomeness that is Korean), and use Chinese characters for all words derived from Chinese (한자어), but of course that would make it a lot more difficult to learn and read.
The final thing that South Korea does better than anywhere else is change. When South Korea decides to do something, they can achieve that change seemingly overnight. Before the iPhone came to South Korea in 2009, there were no "smartphones" (except of course for the numerous "dumb" phones that made video calls and played TV as early as ten years ago). Within a year, smartphone penetration was among the highest in the world. This is why I'm confident that South Korea can grow into its potential - despite all the obstacles and problems that would accompany any country after five decades of breakneck growth and modernization, the national eagerness to change is a strength that can lead South Korea into a brighter future.
So, with that I'll conclude my somewhat random list of ten other things that South Korea does better than anywhere else. Hope you enjoyed. Until next time!