One year in South Korea…

…and what a year it’s been.

It’s hard to believe that this time last year I was standing in my bedroom at home, complaining to my mum about how I was going to fit my life into a 25 kg suitcase. Miraculously I somehow managed it! Fast forward a few hours and I was saying my tearful goodbyes to my parents at the airport, one-way ticket in hand, gazing out of the window at my last glimpse of England for 15 months and praying that I was doing the right thing. A year later I have absolutely no doubt that I was. There’s been countless highs, a few lows, and I’ve been dragged out of my comfort zone on a daily basis, but I don’t regret a single second of it.

Here’s to the next 12 months…

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If I was still in England…

  • I’d have spent my summer holiday in Filey, not the Philippines.
  • I’d be spending my Saturday evenings sitting at home watching an X Factor/Strictly Come Dancing/Jonathon Ross marathon instead of dancing the night away in some of Seoul’s finest (or maybe not) establishments.
  • I’d probably be serving some grumpy old men propping up the bar in a dingy little village pub instead of seeing these adorable little faces every day!

  • I’d still be driving my parents crazy with piles of washing, forgotten keys and a messy bedroom instead of having my own, at times slightly messy, apartment in the centre of Incheon.
  • I’d possibly be one of thousands of recent graduates desperately searching for some kind of employment instead of having an exciting, rewarding and stable job.
  • While a wander down my local high street is challenging in many ways, I wouldn’t be facing the daily challenges that I do here, and the feeling when I overcome them.
  • I’d be cracking open the piggy bank, checking jeans pockets and scraping my pennies together to afford a trip to Nando’s instead of eating out every night of the week.
  • I’d be eating fish and chips, bacon sandwiches and roast dinners instead of pig rectum, chicken feet and live baby octopus (can’t work out if this is a plus or minus though!)

P.S. Sorry England, I do still love you!

The Flower Men: A new generation of South Koreans

In a socially conservative, male-dominated, and dare I say it, slightly sexist country, it may come as a surprise to many that recent data has shown South Korean men to be the number one consumers of male cosmetics in the world.

In fact, it would seem that it is not only the women who find themselves swept up in the national pursuit of perfection. Despite there only being 19 million men in the country, they somehow make up 21% of the global male grooming market. The report, published by market research group Euromonitor International, shows that South Korean men spent a staggering $495,500,000 on cosmetics and skincare products in 2011, with an estimated $885,000,000 to be spent this year.

Gone are the days of rough, tough and ready macho men, and in it’s place is a new generation of image conscious, sharply-dressed and immaculately groomed young businessmen. Dubbed ‘flower men‘  by the South Korean media, these men have flawless, porcelain skin, pencilled in eyebrows and long, thick eyelashes.

Pale, whitened skin is very much the preferred look in Korea, harking back to the ancient belief that pale skin was a symbol of a privileged life, free of manual labour, whereas tanned skin showed a hard life spent working in the fields. Skin whitening creams, pills and even injections are big sellers for both men and women here.

Alongside a strict skincare regime consisting of cleansers, exfoliators, moisturisers and eye creams, products like foundation, eyebrow pencils, eyeliner, mascara and lipstick are fast becoming popular with Korean men. Even young men undertaking their mandatory 21 months of military service don’t have to suffer the indignity of bad skin, as some brands offer camo paint for sensitive skin.

Skin-friendly camo paint from cosmetic brand Innisfree

But what lies behind this startling new trend?

Of course there are many who point the finger at the South Korean media and its starlets, for bombarding these impressionable young men with images of their ‘peers’ photoshopped beyond recognition. However, this seems too simple an explanation for such a huge phenomenon.

Korean society places an overwhelming amount of pressure on it’s younger generations, and success is everything. The competition for jobs and for girlfriends is fiercer than ever and in a culture where “appearance is power”, first impressions count for a lot. Taking such a high level of pride in your appearance offers an opportunity to show that you are sophisticated, reliable and conscientious.

K-pop idol and Dream High 2 actor, JB

In a country with the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world, combined with the highest suicide rate in the world, where a job application requires a photo and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses (or should that be the Kims?) takes on a whole new meaning, where will this obsession with appearance go next?

염통 – Barbecued chicken hearts

Continuing my Korean culinary adventure, last night’s delicacy was grilled chicken hearts (염통). They were cooked in a sweet, sticky BBQ marinade and served on skewers. For a bargain price of 5,000 KRW (£2.75) we got five skewers, each with four hearts. We also had mushrooms wrapped in samgyeopsal (thick cut bacon), boneless chicken feet, deok (Korean rice cake) and dalkgalbi with melted cheese (stir fried chicken in a mouth-scorchingly spicy sauce).

Nom nom nom

Once I managed to get the image of Chicken Licken out of my head they were surprisingly quite good, a bit like really dark chicken meat. However, as with most of these things they did need quite a lot of chewing, washed down with a mouthful of Cass.

As my friend told me, eating the heart of your enemy makes you grow stronger. In that case, bring it on chickens…

Not looking too convinced at this point…

Korean drinking etiquette

Well, it’s Sunday afternoon and I am unfortunately suffering from a soju-induced 숙취 (hangover). After going out with some of our Korean friends last night now seems like the right time to climb out from under the duvet, stop watching K-dramas, let go of the water bottle, and write about Korean drinking etiquette.

Everyone knows that Koreans are fond of a drink or two at the end of a long, hard day at work. What is easy to forget however, is that the same social hierarchy rules still apply even when you’re all pie-eyed, holding each other up, and swaying unsteadily to Hey Jude in a norebang at 5am. As a foreigner you will of course be forgiven for not knowing all the rules, but if you do try and follow them you will earn major brownie points!

  • Never pour your own drink. Likewise, never let anyone else pour their own drink. Let them pour for you and then when their glass is empty (and not before!) you can return the favour. According to an old wives tale, if you leave someone with an empty glass for too long you curse them with an unhappy marriage…no pressure then.
  • There are three (yes, really) ways to hold the bottle when you pour. Firstly, if you’re pouring for your boss or an elder, you should hold it with both hands. For someone who is of a similar status as you, you can hold the bottle with your right hand and support your forearm with your left hand. Lastly, you can hold the bottle just with your right hand if it’s someone younger than you or a very close friend. The same rules apply for holding your glass when someone is pouring for you, and pretty much whenever you give or receive something in Korea.
  • Never decline a drink from the first round, you’ll ruin the atmosphere for everyone else. Drinking is a very important way of socialising here, so if you turn down a drink you might be seen as unsociable.
  • If you are drinking with your boss or someone of a higher social rank than you, it is polite to either turn your back or put your hand up to cover your glass while taking a drink. This stems from the idea that young people shouldn’t drink, but even when you’re ‘allowed’ you should still be discreet.
  • You can drink anytime, any place. Seriously. There are no laws against public drinking like we have in England. Similarly, drinking yourself into a stupor is not a weekend activity here, it happens every night of the week.
  • And the golden rule; the events of that night are never to be discussed the next morning. In fact, the only evidence of the evening’s frivolities are the delightfully named ‘kimchi flowers’, left splattered all over the pavement.

Holding the bottle and glass with two hands