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I’ll discuss some aspects of the country that Koreans have built for themselves in the past fifty years that stand out to me as worthwhile, and very much lacking in the West.

Near-perfect public transport

Trains and buses will get you wherever you want to go cheaply, quickly and with minimal walking at either end. You can find your bus using an online mapping service like Google Maps or Naver Maps, and plotting routes on the subway network is easy. All the information is available and very few services are less frequent than every 20 minutes. Sometimes you need to combine the subway and a bus, but in most cases there is either one or two buses you can get that will somehow take you from almost exactly where you are to almost exactly where you want to go. And generally for less than £1, and always less than £2. The only exception on cheap prices is the intercity high-speed trains. Intercity decent-speed bus tickets are available for much less.

The upshot is that you just don’t need a car, to maintain a lifestyle that requires one in most of the rest of the developed world (at least if you don’t have children, and maybe you don’t need one even then). This is a big deal. Britain and the US don’t come close.

The public transport system in the region of the capital city runs at a big loss each year, and public subsidies cover that loss. This is a political choice that Koreans can be proud of. Making it possible for people to get around without a car, for a small chunk of their income, is an admirable way to use some of a society’s resources.

Restaurant culture & taking more time over daily eating

Eating out in Korea is sufficiently cheap that if one lives alone, as most foreigners do, it is not easy to save money by cooking for oneself every day. This means that Koreans eat out very often, with co-workers, friends or family. Groups of students or teenagers can afford to have a meal together without planning to cook for each other as university students in Britain must. Eating together is seen as important, and it’s very easy to do this with the huge number of restaurants and their economic positioning.

Part of how restaurants are able to do this is that most of them are not fancy, lavishly decorated places with serving staff desperate to fulfill everyone’s imagined needs. Though such places exist—and are priced similarly to the West—most eateries in Korea are similar to going for a meal at one’s aunt’s house.

It’s good that restaurants like this can succeed and so eating out can be cheap. I like the idea that one should leave preparing good food to people who are really good at preparing food, rather than have everyone always making it for themselves. A criticism is that, like in the West, restaurants rely on overloading with salt, sugar and making things spicier than they need to be to get customers through the door.

No student or staff member at my school, except me from time to time, brings a packed lunch. Similarly, if one visits a marketplace at lunchtime you don’t find the workers there unwrapping clammy ham sandwiches, or whatever the Korean equivalent might be (probably kimbap). Instead, they are spreading out before them various small dishes of seasoned vegetables, some kind of stew and some rice. This food is delivered by other workers who carry it out fresh and hot from the restaurants. It’s economically viable for people to more care than we do over the food they eat during their ordinary work days

Independent coffee shops

There are a lot of independent coffee shops in Korea run by people who want to create a pleasant environment for study or meeting friends. Starbucks is here and there are a few big Korean chains, but they’re not so dominant as such chains are back in Britain.

Similarly to how I appreciate the freedom Korean students have to go eat together, I appreciate the freedom to find a nice independent coffee shop and meet one’s friends there with a hot drink. Again, it’s more affordable and it’s taken more seriously than back in Britain.

Bathhouse culture

Korea has jjimjilbangs, public bath houses where one can take a bath in various temperatures of water, scrub oneself down or get oneself scrubbed down, and try to derive admittedly questionable health benefits from various kinds of saunas and steamrooms. With everyone wearing matching pyjama-like outfits, families, couples and groups of friends relax together on the heated floor. You can get food and these places are 24-hours (for a single, very low entry fee) so you can stay the night.

I won’t write too much about these bathhouses because there are so very many blog posts about them online, with some nice photos. The thing that I wish to draw attention to is that the bathhouses are seen as very ordinary and everyday, unlike spas and massage parlours in the English-speaking world. This culture values a place where people can relax and take a little care of their bodies, where children can roam around safely, and where people can sleep rather than being stuck up waiting for the public transport to start up again the next morning.

The atmosphere on the streets at night

Korea’s drinking culture is at least as bad as Britain’s. It’s also true, like most of the world, that there’s a great deal of unreported rape, and plenty of violence that gets hidden from view by the authorities. So the safety that visitors to Korea feel when they walk the streets at night is, to a significant degree, illusory. But it is not totally an illusion. People don’t start fights in bars. People will help you if you’ve lost your way. And there are plenty of people out very late who are not drinking, perhaps in the coffee shops which often stay open until 2am. This results in a very pleasant atmosphere when moving around at night.

The abilities of young Koreans in groups

There are various stories about impressive pranks pulled by groups of students in Korea, from elementary school up to university. Whole classrooms get inverted sideways, for example, or everyone wears their clothes the wrong way around. Groups of young Koreans seem to be up for doing things like this, and capable of organising themselves to do it, in a way that British youths aren’t. When I was at school if someone thought up such a prank, we would resign ourselves to the impossibility of organising other people to do it. The best we could manage would be coming to school in pyjamas for charity, and only then when such an event was organised with the help of the teachers and other school staff.

At lunchtime at school I will often see my pupils playing complicated, highly competitive games involving game pieces made from plastic or wood. It seems to me that their willingness to get involved in such things, as part of their peer group, is much higher than in the UK.

A final famous example is pupils playing rock, paper, scissors to resolve disputes. When it’s time to assign roles for cleaning the classroom, teachers need not intervene. The pupils will allocate their roles themselves and get on with it. Any complaints in a lesson where pupils complain that the teacher has made an arbitrary choice of pupil for some activity can be resolved in thirty seconds by having everyone who wants to do the activity play rock, paper scissors. They can quickly and fairly determine either just a winner, or a ranking or ordering. British students cannot readily do this.

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