Seven Years in South Korea… The More Things Change…


The folks here in the Southern half of the peninsula like to keep things moving, you might say (if you’re prone to making massive understatements). As of this hour they are roughly 357 years ahead of their starving Northern cousins and arch enemies, who were the economic superiors until about 40 years ago.

Over a few bottles of makeolli in the street the other day, a couple of friends and I were chatting about some of the changes we’ve noticed in Seoul in the last seven or so years since arriving. Here’s a few of them, in no particular order.

Declining Korean-speaking abilities… Curiously, my own ability to speak Korean has lessened dramatically since shortly after my arrival seven years ago. I know this because when I first arrived and memorised how to say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ask how much something cost (without giving thought to the fact I wouldn’t actually understand the reply), people constantly praised me for my remarkable linguistic skills. Now, even though I lie to taxi drivers about how long I’ve been here, they still tell me my Korean should be better.

Less wildly inappropriate English on clothing… Parents these days appear to be more willing to invest two minutes researching whether to take their darling 6-year-old out wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘Too Drunk to Fuck!’. Why the hell do they make those shirts in those sizes anyway?? (The Chinese do have a wicked sense of humour).

Kids dressed like this are getting slightly rarer these days
Kids dressed like this are getting slightly rarer these days

Smart phones… Seven years ago subway commuters pretended to be asleep so as not to have to give up their seat to an older person. Now they just stare at their screens (or simply no longer give a fuck).

Private lessons… Random people don’t habitually hassle foreigners in the street these days, offering 50,000 won to sit and speak English for an hour (foreign EFL teachers now compete online for illegal side jobs… for 35,000 won).

Foreigners!… Yep, the foreign population has absolutely exploded!! (from just under 2 percent in 2006 to around 3 percent in 2013). Of course, the vast majority of foreigners in Korea remain ethnic Korean Chinese, and Vietnamese farm brides.

Smoking… Young women smoke in public now (brazen hussies!)

Spitting… Unbelievably this is even more prevalent (see above).

Cars… The domestic auto industry continues to evolve, and an ever increasing number of people around the world actually would be caught dead driving a Korean car (NB. driving while dead is not advised).

Korean cars aren't a joke anymore.
Korean cars aren’t a joke anymore.

Gay people… Yes, South Korea has homosexuals now – all those gay and transgender clubs in Itaewon, Jongno etc. are no longer mere figments of a deranged collective imagination.

Beer… Yes! Due to recent FTA-related legislative changes that make people happy (as opposed to ridiculous, hindering changes that make no sense, such as the abolition of the ‘but I was drunk’ defense), beer drinkers are no longer limited to a choice between cASS and sHITE (this “choice” was kind of like being asked if you’d like to sleep with your sister, or your other sister).

The ‘but I was drunk’ defense… Inexplicably, having been drunk is no longer (officially speaking) a valid legal defense against pretty much any criminal charge.

Psy… Now everyone in the world knows about K-pop, whether they wanted to or not.

Hairline, liver function and patience… All have lessened.

Haebangchon… A new coffee shop and burger joint each week. From unnoticed North Korean/foreigner ghetto to hipster capital of North-east Asia.


Four seasons… hey, climate change is a global issue. Many older Koreans who learned at school however that Korea is the only country with four seasons (because there are clearly no other inhabited landmasses at this latitude) remain proud of their unique four seasons, which are of course Hot, Cold, Rain and Poison Dust.

Seoul Pub… Apparently you can actually get kicked out of that joint now for being too intoxicated – and you can’t even smoke in there anymore! Oh well… there goes the neighbourhood (thanks to Senad and Logan for that one).

Back blanket babies… A few years ago mothers (and more frequently grandmothers) would carry babies around on their backs, secured in just a blanket, as opposed to now where almost all babies travel in strollers the size of SUVs (thanks to Marie Eaton for that one).

Meanwhile, the people of Seoul keep reinventing themselves and I’m sure there are dozens (hundreds?) of transformations I’ve forgotten to mention. Feel free to help out with additions to this little list. Cheers!


  1. The tight, shiny, silver office suit……. Eight years ago, no salary man could hold be seen on the subways of Seoul without this piece of designer apparel. The silver suit was original gangster chic, and matched with an even tighter black shirt it could be worn at all social occasions from booking clubs to your kids first birthday party. And hell yeah, you could even sleep in it while on the last train home and you would still look a million Won the following day.
    In what other country could you go to work dressed as the Tin Man with your large head squeezed out of the top.

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