Bibimbap and K-Pop: Culture and Beauty in Seoul, South Korea

By Derek Craker, ISA Alumni Relations Coordinator

After studying and living in South Korea for a year, it became increasingly evident that Korean culture and business have been significantly influential around the world. Those trends you see in tech and skincare? Look no further than the capital of South Korea. From music and technology to design and architecture, Seoul continually pushes foreign competition to match its level of innovation. Whether walking down side-streets or large avenues, the bright lights and neon signs highlight a culture that effortlessly blends modesty with competitiveness. This type of duality within Seoul is dynamic and intriguing, giving the city a quaint and charming ambiance. By the simple act of turning a street corner, you can be surprised by the number of traditional elements mingling with the modernity of a large city. In shopping districts, storefronts beckon displays that showcase the products and services that Korea does best (Hint: nearly everything). Need the evidence?

Here are just a few of the reasons South Korea may be the right country to study abroad.

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Skin

While the snail-paced U.S. finally got around to banning microbeads in beauty products, more businesses should look toward South Korean products for some inspiration. South Korean skincare companies, often noted for being trendsetters in the global industry, consistently innovate and expand. With so many products, some of the most complex skin care routines come from South Korea.

Got a minute to spare? Taking the time out to apply these products (some specifically made for day and night) can be intimidating. Do you know the differences between essences, emulsions, ampoules, skins, etc.? It will likely be difficult at first, but once you get the hang of it, your skin will thank you.


This may not be exclusive to Korea, but the experience is unlike anything in the U.S.. Similar to renting a hotel room, hallways of doors open to reveal private rooms filled with flashing lights, televisions, and a microphone. Think you have what it takes? Order snacks and drinks with a few of your closest friends and let the superstar in you shine! Duets are always encouraged. Karaoke nights out are not just for the weekends – so take your talents to the “noraebang” any day of the week to fulfill your fantasy.

Bye Psy…Theres More To KPOP​

The difference between a music video and a blockbuster movie are completely indistinguishable when it comes to Korean pop music (better known as K-pop). The complexity of the visuals, choreography, and cinematography all combine to make a mesmerizing music experience. Sure, ‘Gangnam Style’ was a global phenomenon, but there is much more to be seen and heard.

Am I biased? Clearly. But give it a chance and you may recognize that it is a pretty compelling argument considering many western music videos have less impact nowadays. The music industry has taken note, however, with the impending U.S. crossover debut of K-pop artist CL.


Perhaps you’ve heard of this side dish before, but if not, prepare to get very familiar with it in South Korea. Kimchi is a staple in traditional Korean dishes (made typically with fermented cabbage and radishes) and is sprinkled with a variety of spices for flavor. Kimchi can be mixed in many dishes, a personal favorite of mine being gukbap (a hot soup with rice and vegetables). Due to fermentation, kimchi contains probiotics (healthy bacteria, like in yogurt) that aid in digestion and overall health. While I never went too far to eat kimchi as a side dish, it was great mixed in warmer dishes (especially during the winter months.)

An Affordable Spa Day…And Spa Stay

Korean “jimjilbangs” are probably one of the greatest escapes after a long work week. The spas, which vary and range in size, are designed for complete relaxation — food, saunas, sleeping areas, massages, etc. Each spa has something unique to offer, but some spas simply have it all. If you really need to escape, you can even spend the night at the spa. Spending the night can be comfortable, but depends on the spa lodging and how easily you can fall asleep. While some spas have sleep areas with a few beds, other spas use common areas where you sleep on the floor.

Wifi As Common As Kimchi

Korea is a country that, without a doubt, is innovating the way in which connectivity meshes with everyday life. In 2017, Seoul began offering free city-wide WiFi. It may not be the first city to do this, but the speeds and usage of WiFi are noteworthy. It is not only prevalent in the city, but also embedded in the culture. Korean “PC Bangs” are popular spaces designed to house internet gaming and high-speed streaming. This made my decision not to get a phone plan in Korea wise. At times I did not have WiFi, but my reasons to stick to free WiFi far outweighed the need to pay for a phone.

There’s a Magic Button that the USA Needs

Most of the time you don’t need anything at a restaurant, but the moment you do, your waiter is no where to be found. Let’s be honest, being a waiter/waitress is tricky business. The list goes on and on, but the fact is that it can be pretty draining and emotional.

Isn’t there a more efficient way for both diner and server to live in harmony? Imagine just pressing a button when you needed something. After all, why does it have to be such a guessing game for servers? Trust me, your drink refill will happen a lot faster, your experience will be more positive, and you will definitely enjoy the freedom to converse in peace. Being back home, I really do miss those buttons.

Bonus: Age Is More Than Just A Number 

When I first learned about Korean age and “international age,” I was puzzled. Even though I was 24 years old, in South Korea I became 25.

In Korean age, as part of East Asian Age Reckoning, the day of your birth is also your first birthday. So, asking a parent how many months their baby is doesn’t really exist. For Koreans specifically, a universal birthday is celebrated with each new year. That means if you were born on December 31st…you would’ve turned 2 the next day (Happy New Year and Happy Birthday! — you sure do grow up quickly).

Bonus: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Being conscious of your personal responsibilities is key in Korea. To illustrate, take the time when I stepped foot in the kitchen of my school to heat up a meal. It was an ordinary action to say the least, but in the process, I inadvertently offended a senior cook who was preparing meals. Her space and her work had been approached without acknowledgment, and my presence felt intrusive.

A day later, when my manager spoke to me about the senior cook, I was both surprised and confused by how unexpected and unprovoked my actions felt. “I was only down there for a moment,” I thought, “Had she even made any sign or signal to me at all?” However, what was most important was my attitude moving forward in the cultural space. Bowing and recognizing moments of respect are important in Korea. Mindfulness is reflective of your attitude, and that means taking a moment to carefully behave relative to the people surrounding you.

The accessibility and convenience of living in a particular culture is something we take for granted until we leave. While I missed so many things about the U.S., I now miss a lot of food, drinks, and products from Korea.

Picking and choosing cultural practices isn’t something we can do, but it does have a profound effect on our growth and development. Maintaining a balance in our comfortability is not always an easy task, but it is a rewarding experience in discipline. As we pack our bags to leave a country, we should be thankful that we live in a more interconnected world. While you may be leaving a country that you quickly fell in love with, there are now many ways to feel connected from afar. I hope that by reading through this you find South Korea as an exciting country to study in with a lot of opportunities to grow!


Learn more about study abroad programs in South Korea!

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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