People scurrying to catch their bus, delivery men nearly running you over on the sidewalk, and taxi drivers speeding at 95 mph along the street. Within the first few days of arriving to South Korea, I noticed a sense of urgency. Everyone around me seemed to have somewhere important to be. It felt as if the world was suddenly being played twice as fast, but why exactly is everyone in such a rush?
‘Balli balli’ (빨리빨리), or ‘quick quick,’ culture is a way of life in Korea that is characterized by the idea that time is precious, leading to a fast-paced society that seldom rests. Coming to South Korea, many foreigners-like myself- will encounter ‘balli balli,’ culture for the first time and it can be a jarring experience. The speed can bring with it a new discomfort and frustration as a result of feeling rushed into purchases, shoved on the subway, or vendors getting angry at you for taking too long in stores.
‘Balli balli’ culture often has a negative connotation as it can be a term used to describe Korean society as impatient. Koreans themselves will sometimes complain about the cut-throat feeling present within the society as a result of ‘balli balli.” However, there is more to it than just a desire to be quick. Its existence isn’t always a cause for frustration. Rather, it can open doors to a deeper understanding and respect of Korean society.
Gwangjang Market is one of the many places ‘balli balli’ culture can be felt. Narrow walkways are clustered with people pushing through one another, large shipments are being carried in and out constantly, and the air is filled with the heat of boiling oil from Korean pancakes, dumplings, and other various treats being made.
The vendors shout left and right for you to come eat at their booths as their hands fly between grinding ingredients, mixing batters, and moving batches of food. Sweat drips down their brows as they serve dish after dish and the routine doesn’t allow for a single moment of rest.
The competition is intense. Gwangjang market is especially known for its 빈대떡 (Korean mung-bean pancake). In the cluster of stalls, you will find nearly every vendor serving it.
Mounds of fresh vegetables for making 비빔밥 (mixed rice and vegetables)…
Not only do you have endless options of what food to get, but also of who to get the food from. Looking at the people of Gwangjang Market, the hard work and dedication to succeed is undeniable and within an environment where nothing is niche the urgency to sell is necessary.
The moment you pause to look at a menu, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be called at to come sit down. If you do choose to sit down and order, soon enough you’ll be told to move out of the way for newer customers.
Here, the true meaning of, ‘balli balli,’ is that one must move quickly because there’s always work to be done. From this perspective, ‘balli balli’ can hopefully be better understood and appreciated. The value of such a hard work ethic is also rooted within Korean peoples’ history, stemming from the historical traumas of Japanese occupation and following IMF crisis, where a strong will was necessary to survive. This mindset has continued to push the society forward in the modern day.
However, the market isn’t always daunting and with a little effort you can meet some great people. When I went to Gwangjang Market to take photos, I would ask the vendors if I could stay around and snap some shots. I was surprised by the number of smiles, approval, and light conversation I got in return.
One woman I approached was selling traditional Korean snacks and rice cakes. After trying some samples and purchasing a small snack box, the lady began asking me about where I’m from and why I’m in Korea, showing interest in my studies.
Another woman I asked was busy making kimchi. She responded by saying, “Of course! Quickly quickly, take many nice photos!”
‘Balli balli,’ culture is embedded within Korean life and is recognized by everyone. Among foreigners it can be daunting at first but, if you can get past the initial shock and peel back the layers, what you’ll find underneath is a deeper understanding into Korean life: it’s fast but friendly.
Rather than simple impatience or annoyance, “balli balli,’ is the result of the peoples’ desire to achieve. Korean’s have a type of fiery passion, a “fighting spirit,” as they call it, which leads the society in a race for success. Everyone wants to thrive and especially within a competitive environment like the markets, time truly is money. Outside of this, though, they are still people who enjoy others’ company and will happily spend some of that precious time with you.