Korea, Why Are You the Way That You Are?





05/23/19. 23:20. P17

/Korea, Why Are You the Way That You Are/

/Category: Global/Intercultural Fluency/

/Guide Question: Describe your surroundings – where you live, with whom you live, the locals, the food, and/or the environment. What are you experiencing in your host country that you cannot experience back home?/

Numerous times in previous posts, I mentioned that besides my love for the language and culture, my favorite thing about Seoul is it such a convenient place to live in. For instance, referring to my previous post on Seoul’s transportation system (see it here:https://fundforeducationabroad.org/journals/field-notes-seouls-public-transportation-system/), throughout the time that I’ve been here, I never had the need for a car, nor do I foresee a real need for it in the future unless my work in audit calls for it. Services are fast and efficient, there is national health insurance, there are numerous things to do and places to see that are nearby, and living alone is so much easier than in the U.S. Just recently when I did a project on Seoul’s topography that I’ve come to realize the immense impact the environment has on what food people eat, the seasons they experience, a nation’s economic history and how its people live overall. Just as an animal species’ anatomy evolves over time to adapt to its habitat, humans have also learned to make the best of the land they reside in. In this post, we are going to focus on South Korea’s geography and topography and how they are manifested in Korea’s development both as a country and as a people.

South Korea is found on the southern part of the Korean peninsula, located in East Asia. Because the southern peninsula protrudes out of the Asian continent, the only land route is the North Korean border, and that area (famously known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone) is inaccessible to Korean citizens. After all, Korea remains the only divided country that is still at war, with no peace treaty and only an armistice to keep the two sides from firing at each other. With land travel closed off, it makes sense for South Korea to have well-developed ports and airports as means of international transportation. Incheon International Airport is currently one of the busiest airports in the world and has been consistently recognized globally as one of the best and cleanest airports, with its golf course, spa, ice skating rink, Korean culture museum, private sleeping rooms, and duty free shopping areas to entertain the many visitors it receives daily.

One of the focal and more interesting characteristics of the Korean topography is that the land consists of 70% mountains and mountain ranges. I did not know this at all prior to coming. With a current population of 51.3 million (2019) and a land mass approximately the size of Indiana (about 100,032 square kilometers), this translates to having too many people in a limited amount of habitable land. Thus, there is a strong tendency to conserve space and make use of space as effectively as possible. As a point of comparison, in the United States, most houses are bungalow-type units with yards and are built with families in mind. Even apartment rentals are quite spacious. College students that decide to rent apartments commonly need to room with other people. I believe that in the U.S., expansion is horizontal, meaning development happens by transforming unchartered territory.

A hike at Gwanaksan.


Mountains and mountains and mountains.


A temple built on the mountainside.


Buddhist lanterns hanging in the temple.


The many buildings that make up Seoul.


Can you see the mountainous terrain surrounding Seoul?


My close friend Frits from the Netherlands enjoying Seoul from a distance. (Thank you for taking the awesome photos at Gwanaksan!)

However, in Korea, especially in the major cities, apartment complexes in the form of tall buildings are more common. It is also common to see restaurants, offices, and stores all in the same building. Instead of having one physical store per business, the businesses just occupy different floors. There is no concept of “downtown” and “the suburbs.” Commercial and residential areas co-exist, with some areas just receiving higher foot traffic than others. An “officetel,” a building that is part-commercial and part-residential, embodies this co-existence lifestyle.Currently, I live in a studio known as “one-room.” This is a common type of living quarters suitable to students and single households, along with loft-style flats and officetels. Rooms often come furnished but vary with what they come with. My room already included a desk and chair, a bed, a fridge, a washing machine, an air conditioner, the floor-heating system (ondol), a microwave, and a stove. Buildings often have underground-level floors, further illustrating the ability of Koreans to make do with their mountainous terrain. In South Korea then, expansion seems to be vertical because there is no other choice than to build up, which is why everything seems to be in one place.


A clothes shop on the first floor, restaurant on the second, and hair salon on the third.


Different businesses on different floors.


An example of an officetel with stores on the lower levels and homes on the upper levels.

The mountainous terrains of Korea may not be conducive to agriculture, but Korea has been blessed with three seas from which to gather seafood, the Yellow Sea on its west, the Sea of Japan on its east, and where the two meet on its south. This is why seafood is very abundant in Korean cuisine, especially in the southern regions. This is also the reason why in South Korea’s economic history, agriculture was never a big factor, as there is only 22% arable land. This might also be the reason why fruits are really expensive! Most Korean foods are balanced, with a good ratio of carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables. Korean cuisine also uses many fermented dishes and sauces that provide good bacteria. It’s also very “red”, meaning they use a lot of red pepper paste in their cooking, but there are non-spicy dishes too. Besides the main dish, the several side dishes (banchan 반찬) that accompany the meal are unique to Korean cuisine. Some places even offer so many kinds that the whole table is filled with these side dishes. Korea has four seasons, so the side dishes change depending on what’s available. The winter tends to be harsh and long, so Koreans traditionally fermented many of their foods in order to preserve them so they can enjoy vegetables all year long. We use a pair of metal chopsticks (cheotgarak 첫가락) and a long-handled spoon (sootgarak 숟가락) to eat as metal is considered more sanitary than other materials, and in the olden days, it was a way of protecting the king, since the silver would change color when it came into contact with a poisonous chemical.

Koreans use metal utensils to eat.


Marinated spicy pork stir-fried with onions.


Slightly sweet bulgogi pot.


Kimchi stew warms you right up!


Assorted side dishes.


My German friend Anna and I enjoying Korean food together.

Korea sits on stable land with no major fault lines, so earthquakes are not a big issue. Furthermore, its physical location is less vulnerable to typhoons than its neighbors such as Japan, Taiwan and eastern China. But with no arable land to produce food, Korea must make sure it has favorable trade agreements and diplomatic relations in order to make money through its exports and buy food through imports. Also, due to real estate development, there is danger of soil erosion. This has actually been a problem in the past and has led to flooding. Later, reforestation efforts were adopted to correct the mistake of cutting too many trees. However, Korea’s biggest environmental problem is air-pollution and micro-dust. Although this definitely has man-made causes, it’s also a case of unfavorable geographic location as the pollution is being exacerbated by winds that blow yellow dust and smog originating from China and blowing to the Korean peninsula.

I think Koreans try to balance development and nature as much as possible. Homes are built near the mountains, and if possible, on them, too! Even my school, Yonsei University, is built on the side of a mountain. Space is conserved, resulting in vertical expansion. Hiking has become a national pastime of Koreans, especially among the elderly. Hiking trails are numerous and accessible due to their proximity to cities and transportation. Many trails are also relatively easy, which is why the elderly have become hiking fanatics. In fact, if you ever get to see the elderly Korean people, you will find that their energy and vigor puts many young people to shame. Just by understanding the environment, one can understand so many facets of the culture as well.