Note: This post is continued from the earlier post because I had a ton of comments after a long conversation I had with Lisa about a few unusual double-standards I'd already seen quite prominent in South Korea after only a few days there.
Please note that this is not meant to be overly critical, my goal is to be observational and to have a place to write the feelings of culture shock that I had while on this trip. Also, I am sure that these issues don't exist everywhere in Korea - these are things I noticed as well as comments I gathered from foreign teachers I talked to in one very specific area of South Korea. In other words, please don't take these as generalizations for all of South Korea. It's possible that some of these issues might be country-wide issues, but I don't have enough information to clearly extrapolate to that.
I chatted with Lisa at the Roti place a whole lot more about the recent history of South Korea and it really is very interesting. The country has really rebuilt up quickly from problems back in the '70s. I believe Lisa mentioned that South Korea was really quite poor back then too. At least in Suncheon, it feels like South Korea is "In Progress", whereas Japan is already "Complete." The train system in South Korea seems fast/efficient/modern, but comparing the organization of the modern train system to other transportation in Korea is unexpected: roundabouts on the street are totally dangerous, crosswalks have no stoplights, and everyone is driving like crazy all the time.
Something unusual is that "old wives tales" have permeated the culture so much that they can affect government policy. People do not turn on air fans inside because they are concerned about "fan death" - because they think blown air can dehydrate old people. There is another old wives tale that washing your hands with cold water for 30 seconds gives you as much hygienic benefit as using soap . I would imagine hot water could possibly do the trick in some cases, but cold water only with no soap is probably pretty inadvisable. The train station had a sink with cold water only and no soap in the bathroom. I thought this was just because it was empty or maybe it was a new train station and the soap dispensers hadn't been installed yet - apparently not! This was truly culture shock for me. I thought the world figured out that soap was necessary to combat disease way back in England during the black plague - not sure if this is just in smaller towns or something, but that seemed pretty unexpected to me. At Lisa's school, they also just use cold water. There is no soap in the school bathrooms. This seems like something I would have expected would be standard in all 1st world countries by now, and it seems very dangerous (health-wise) not to follow.
There are a ton of counterfeit goods here in the markets. So far I've only been to small towns in South Korea, so it will be very interesting to see how the big city of Seoul compares to cities in Japan. I presume it will be much closer to Japan - more English, more health regulations, more organization, and less counterfeit goods.
Strangely, Hand Sanitizers are now very common, since the swine flu scare. This is unexpected given the lack of certain sanitary issues in public places (eg. no soap in the bathrooms, and people spitting in public a lot).
The hand sanitizer popularity brings up something that's been clear on my trip already: there are some unusual double-standards here. Sex is not talked about openly in Korea, but there are a LOT of morally-questionable businesses that are very popular. Love Motels are a place where businessmen and their secretaries can go and have affairs. Barber shops marked with double barber poles outside are where you could go to get your hair cut and have other services as well. There are "special" noraebongs (karaoke rooms) where you hire ladies to come and hang out in your Karaoke room. Nightclubs are weird too, some nightclubs have "pairing up" where if you see someone you are interested in, you go speak with a club owner and they pair people up together. Love Motels in general (even when not used intentionally for extramarital affairs) are strange because they are a place where young couples can go together because they are living at home with their parents and couldn't have privacy at their own homes so they want a discrete location to spend time together, but... Love Motels are advertised like crazy and have big, bright, neon signs. So the idea of using a love motel is supposed to be a secret, but they are very extravagant and obvious, and most have big neon hearts and cupids on them and so on. Very strange, indeed!
The education pressure seems unsustainable. Kids are worked like crazy. School is often followed by private and extra lessons, sometimes until midnight! TV shows teaching English are on TV at all hours of the day. Kids are not allowed to play video games at home. So, naturally, kids sneak out of their houses at night and go to a "PC Bong" (Computer video game arcade) at night. These arcades have networked video games set up on computers and are open 24/7. Kids stay up all night playing video games, and then fall asleep during school hours! Seems like a lot of rigidity, and this results in a lot of sneaking around so that kids can disobey the rules.
Corporal punishment is still legal in South Korea. Teachers work students insanely hard, and kids think of high school as "jail", but the rules for the teachers themselves are much more lax - they can have alcoholic drinks at lunch time if they like. When kids finally get to University, they party like crazy because they have just left their parent's house and finally get their first taste of freedom and personal identity.
There is apparently a high suicide rate in South Korea. A theory is that kids are worked so hard in school, and there are a lot of built-up expectations. But when these kids become teenagers and then adults, many don't amount to what they expected they would amount to, and this causes depression.
It seems that there is a lot of hard work going on all the time by Korean students (which, ultimately, is a good thing), but maybe it's not always directed carefully. Seems like a lot of "working hard" but not necessarily always "working smart." There appears to be a lot of very strict attitudes and expectations, but this is not always followed up with a logical train of thought about what the fallout of the overbearing expectations will be.