Is it hard to live in Seoul

The young generation of Korea: a life between karaoke bars and pressure to perform

Culture & Society

by Lara Leipholz, 01/29/2021

Life in Korea is always a tad faster. The internet, trains, delivery services and education: everything seems to be moving much faster. Anyone who has ever experienced Korean culture, and in particular life in the metropolis of Seoul, knows exactly what it means: the "balli-balli" (German translation: "fast, fast") - Korean culture. This fast pace is indispensable in many areas of Korean everyday life and means that priorities are or have to be set differently. There are few opportunities to find time for yourself besides work, learning and the constant pressure to perform. From an early age, Koreans are used to performing. Teenagers need to get top marks. It is not uncommon to have tutoring well into the evening to help you prepare and stay one step ahead of the rest. Having free time in the afternoon to play sports or meet friends is unimaginable for many young people. The fear that even a Masters degree at an elite Korean university might not be enough for a good job is pervasive.

At night in the streets of Hongdae (홍대) (Copyright photos: Lara Leipholz)

If you succeed in getting a place at one of the best universities in Korea after the tough Abitur examination (the exams are considered to be among the most difficult Abitur exams in the world), the pressure does not decrease. Attending a Korean university can cost 3,000 to 10,000 euros per semester [1]. There is great hope for a scholarship because many parents cannot afford that much money. Those who do not manage to get hold of one of the coveted scholarships have to look for a part-time or part-time job; in some cases, however, only a loan helps to cover the high study costs. Once the studies are over, social pressure patters down on the young people: getting married, starting a family and finding a good job. The pressure and the comparison with the other person does not end and runs through the entire life. And of course that has an impact on how young Koreans spend their free time.

A normal day for young employees or students starts early in the morning around 6 a.m. with a good breakfast: food is sacred in Korea, and everyone tries to take this time in the morning too. A hot meal consisting of a soup, a few side dishes and the usual bowl of rice is a typical breakfast in Korea; Meanwhile, however, a bowl of corn flakes or a slice of toast can do the same. If time is short, you can quickly go to a convenience store to buy a roll of kimbap, for example. Because the subways are full and the trip to university or to work can take more than an hour.

The rents in the big cities of Korea like Seoul or Busan are very high. Most young people in Korea live in very small one-room apartments or shared flats because there is not enough money for more. The driving time is often used to check messages on the smartphone, to answer the latest e-mails or to stream videos. Often women can be seen putting on make-up on the way to work and still having their curlers in their hair. When you arrive at university or at work, a very long working day begins. Working hours of more than 10 hours are not unusual. Overtime is the norm. The lunch break with friends or work colleagues is probably one of the highlights of the day and the opportunity to relax briefly and switch off from the hustle and bustle. Eating alone is alien to Koreans and is not welcomed. Either go to the cafeteria that every university or large company in Korea has to offer, or choose one of the many restaurants in the area. Work usually doesn't end before 8 p.m. Whether during your studies or just started your first full-time job: the day is packed with work or study until the evening.

A small park in Hongdae in the evening - this is where Koreans like to go for a walk with friends, and street artists and bands present their performances.

And now the question rightly arises: Where is there still time for the young Koreans to relax or to pursue leisure activities? On the weekend? Only during the holidays? In Korea, recreation usually takes place in the evening hours. Weekends are often also planned with other activities: abandoned work, university projects, homework, studying in libraries and preparing for work. Many Koreans also try to catch up on sleep at the weekend that they missed due to working hours or late business lunches.

But of course, besides all the pressure, there is still time for typical activities of the young Koreans. Although this is less than here in Germany, it is much more appreciated and enjoyed. As stressful as the everyday life of young Koreans sounds and it actually is: Despite all this, Korea is a wonderful country to live in, in which a lot of emphasis is placed on enjoying moments of togetherness, having fun, gathering experiences and, in particular, indulging in enjoyment and harmony .

There are a few leisure activities that are particularly pronounced in Korea. One of them in particular is the “park life” of Korea. It's not uncommon for people to pitch their tents in parks in spring or summer and spend their free time there on weekends, holidays or in the evening: whether it's a picnic with friends, ordering chicken or pizza from the delivery service, or a bike tour. Young families in Korea especially love to go on a little camping trip with their children. Parks are a popular destination. You can also go on a short hike in one of the beautiful mountains of Korea - equipped with lavish hiking equipment.

Since time is limited, Koreans love everything that quickly promises a little happiness and lets you forget the everyday pressures and worries. This includes in particular karaoke (in Korea there are small rooms, the so-called "Norae-Bang", which can be rented alone or with friends and in which you can let your singing skills run free) or PC rooms with the possibility of computer games to play with friends and experience a brief moment of carefree.

At night in the streets of the Sinchon district of Seoul (신촌동)

In addition, Seoul is always awake, and especially in the young quarters like Hongdae, Itaewon or Sinchon, there are many people out on the streets. Small music bands play in the corners, dance groups show their talent in order to get as much attention as possible and possibly be discovered.

The typical convenience stores are a specialty of Korea. It's hard to compare them to our late night shops or kiosks. In addition to the large assortment, Korean convenience stores simply have a completely different and higher status than similar shops in this country. It's a place Koreans like to sit together for a while, have a snack, and chat. They are a place to stay. There are microwaves to warm up the instant noodles or the lunch box. There are chairs and tables both inside and outside to sit with friends over a bottle of soju. If you don't stop at a convenience store to have a bite to eat with friends, you will find a snack on every street corner in Seoul. They typically have tteokbokki (rice cakes in a hot sauce), skewers with meat or fishcakes, chestnuts, baked sweet potatoes or hotteok (pancakes with a cinnamon-sugar mixture).

Of course, there are certain things and activities that young people around the world love. Here in Germany, too, it is popular to go out to eat with friends, watch a movie or stroll through the city center. But in addition to the peculiarities of Korean leisure activities, it can be observed that the limited free time in Korea is valued much more. Moments of togetherness and "pure coffee drinking" are perceived as much more precious due to the pressure that is on every young Korean. We Germans also have to deal with the pressure to perform. But it is not as present and very different from that for many young people in Korea.

Korea is known for beautifully decorating its shopping malls and the streets of Seoul.

Even if we in Germany are lucky not to be subjected to such extreme daily pressure to perform, we can definitely learn from Koreans how even small moments in everyday life can be valued much more. Koreans have a talent for seeing these moments, to use them for themselves, and thus to recharge their batteries for the work that awaits them the next day or the next moment. Because of this, and shaped by the long working days and the resulting lack of sleep, some of the most popular activities in almost every Korean's free time are: watching TV and sleeping.

Whether reality shows or Korean dramas: People like to relax in the evening or on the weekends just in front of the TV and so come to rest.

Life in Korea is not always easy. Pressure to perform and a high work ethic are omnipresent. And even if many young Koreans often emphasize that something should change in this regard: They love their country and life in their homeland. There is something magical about Korea. The atmosphere, the little moments and experiences that you can collect in everyday life and in your free time are very special.


Photo: private

is a passionate photographer and studied law at the Free University of Berlin. After completing her studies, she found her way into brand management. She has already developed many vegan and vegetarian products as Head of Brand and Product in a Berlin food e-commerce. She has been studying Korean culture for more than 9 years, has been to Korea many times, is learning the language and has been writing articles and reports for the government website for many years. Her wish is to emigrate to Korea, to become part of the vegetarian and vegan development locally and to promote it in a Korean company.