Korea happened unexpectedly. In the year 2020, when I the least expected to move to another end of the world. Not to mention that I’ve just spent 3 months barely leaving my apartment, for reasons known to many around the globe.

“Congratulations! We are pleased to announce that your team has been accepted as one of the Top 60 teams to participate in the global startup accelerator,” — I saw on my mobile screen one Friday afternoon in July and cried.

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Not out of happiness and definitely not out of sadness. Probably, that was my tired body’s way to say, “Hi hellooo, I’m still here, and I need one deep quality breath before whatever you’re throwing me into next.” 

So I took that breath.

I have to land in Korea in 27 days, the email said, for at least 3.5 months. All the to-dos immediately started ping-ponging in my head. All the ping-pongs started happening in my life. Visa issues, moving out quickly, breakup, getting sick, reorganizing my other business, rushed goodbyes, “but-what-if-you-get-covid-there?!”, all that jazz and rock’n’roll. No slow dance.

On the 15th of August, I finally landed in humid, hot, and hilly Seoul. The police bus took me to a 2-week mandatory quarantine place, which used to be a 3-star hotel. I closed the door, sat on a dusty bed in a room that hasn’t been cleaned since they announced the pandemic, laid down, and realized that sometimes, quite a lot of life can happen in quite a short time. 

And this was probably just a start. Great.

Me. By Leonardo de la Fuente

I knew almost nothing about South Korea. Except for a bit of history, troublesome neighbor, and… yes, just like you — Gangnam style. 

In the winter of 2018, I was driving my 18-year-old cousin somewhere, and she put BTS (Korean pop group, editor’s note) on. “What’s that?” I asked. “K-pop,” she answered. “What’s K-pop exactly?” my inner grandma asked. After a few explanatory songs and dance moves, she finished: “Anyway, if your generation grew up listening to the stuff from the States, we’re growing up with K-pop.”

K-pop is not just a mere style of music, which Korea exports a value of half a billion USD yearly, with Blackpink and BTS leading the market growth. BTS exploded in the charts in August 2020 with its single Dynamite.

“Life is sweet as honey / Yeah, this beat cha-ching like money,” the song said and is projected to cha-ching 1.42 billion USD of economic activity, also creating 8.000 jobs. 

BTS released its IPO in October 2020 before making a historic move to №1 in the Billboard Hot 100. Another historic move? Earlier same year, the movie Parasite won 4 Oscars, for the best Picture included, this way becoming the first non-English-language film to take Hollywood’s top prize. 

Korean government sees the whole Korean wave — Hallyu — as one of the main strategies to overcome Covid-19 economic struggles. The finance ministry set aside US$585 million in a budget for 2021 — a 43% jump from the 2020 allocation, seeing creative industries as a future growth driver.

I would walk in the subway station, where I’d see posters celebrating the birthdays of K-pop stars. “Happy birthday, Yeonjun!” it would say in splashing colors for a 19-year-old idol. “Happy birthday, Snuper Woosung,” it would say on another one and would hang there for the upcoming four weeks. The faces are glammed, dreamy, and… melancholic. Often melancholic.

Han is a very important defining word in Korea,” a book later would explain, “It’s a kind of deep melancholic feeling that comes from an unresolvable burden. Perhaps you have been oppressed by someone powerful; perhaps someone close to you passed away before their time; or, perhaps, someone you love abandoned you. You cannot do anything about it, so with a heavy sense of resignation, you carry the pain around with you for the rest of your life. This is Han and it describes something that is central to the image of Korea and Koreans.”

Happy birthday posters for K-pop stars in subway stations

Korea has a history of colonialist invasion, poverty, and still quite recently — division into two countries. “While South Koreans can be justifiably proud of what they have achieved in such a short time, they still tend to view their country as a tragic victim. Korean art reflects this: the most popular ballads, TV drama series, and movies tend to have a seriously melancholic, han-like aspect to them.”, a book would explain.

“Maybe you’ve noticed, but Koreans can be quite extreme with their emotions,” a friend told me while having a typical BBQ dinner — Koreans gather together and eat 2.25 million tonnes of meat yearly (2018) or around 60kg per capita, half of it being pork.

For a vegetarian like me, this very often meant seeing stress in the owner’s eyes when I’d ask if they have anything vegetarian. “Yes, we have chicken,” he’d answer, looking released. Traditional chicken-and-beer places that would serve nothing else but fried chicken and beer would be go-to spots after work or start our night out. 

“Somehow, sadness and happiness both seem to be magnified in Korea,” — a friend continued, flipping over the piece of beef.

“I haven’t noticed,” I said. 

“Well, you will. Just wait until a proper karaoke party”. 

I waited. I really did. My second name is Karaoke, and my hopes on so-called Korean noraebang (karaoke rooms on every corner) were high. But it took a while. Koreans were famously cautious about the Covid-19 situation and had high-risk facilities closed for a long time while I was there. South Korea has widely been praised for its relatively successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to its scrupulous contact tracing, mass testing, and a high degree of compliance in wearing masks.

“Why I wear a mask? So I don’t pass it on to people around me,” — a Korean said back in September while I was sadly following the news in my home country, where people wouldn’t rush to do the same when numbers started to rise again. 

Picture by my friend Jaime de Miguel

I was asked if I could write an article about Korea, hesitated, and still am. I spent 100 days there and grasped just a little about it through my limited foreign lens and lack of understanding of Asian cultures.

I didn’t want to jump on TOP10-SURPRISING-THINGS-kind-of-train, this way oversimplifying Korea and risking to anyhow disrespect something I have a very narrow look on or don’t even see at all. I wanted to keep a curious distance and stay as a humble observer.

“I’ve lived in Korea for 6 years now, and things still surprise me every. Single. Week”, one Lithuanian fellow, fluent in Korean, said while mixing distilled Korean alcoholic beverage soju with beer. “It’s called somaek”, he said, handing me this lethal-looking drink. “Expect a headache tomorrow, but never expect to avoid drinking.”

Apparently, drinking is considered an important skill, especially in business.

“Before signing any contract, you are expected to go out and drink, as they want to see your TRUE face,” we were told in the accelerator’s on-boarding process.

In English, a fellow who loves his booze is said to “drink like a fish.” In Korea, one would be a sul-gorae, or… “alcohol whale.” According to the World Health Organization (2014), the annual alcohol consumption per capita is 12.3 L, which is the 15th highest rate globally and highest in Asia. 

Me, who drinks a glass of wine a month, if any, suddenly felt super unskilled. But when in Rome… I bottomed-up the shot, frowned, and got ready for another one.

“You’re never supposed to eat alone,” Koreans say and cover your table with banchan — small side dishes, kimchi included, served along with whatever you have ordered.

A startup accelerator started with a lot of hassle, lack of sleep, an unlimited number of talkings, rapid deadlines, investor dinners, and loads of expectations. “Pali pali” — Koreans kept repeating, which meant “quick quick.” “This is how we do things in Korea,” my friend said. 

Her surname is Lee — 45% of Koreans share the same surname — Lee, Kim, or Park. 45%. 

My own head would start spinning. “Sometimes it seems I’m so stressed here I’m going to throw up” — I found a note on my phone that I wrote after spending a month in Korea. Like always, I don’t remember what I was so stressed about. But yes, I worked for I don’t even know how many hours, trying to hack my way to pali-pali business results, pali-pali partnerships, pali-pali meetings, pali-pali understandings of how I should operate in Korea in general. Pali pali. Pali pali. Pali pali.

Korea grew to the 12th largest world economy (2019) in 60 years, after long centuries of occupation. The driving force was authoritarian President Park Chung-hee, who saw industrial development as the country’s way out of poverty. A lot was invested in rote learning. The biggest chaebols — large business conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai — shined. The country’s collectivist mindset summoned people to work for the group’s best interest, for society.

The Han River’s miracle started to bloom, with the mindset that everything related to the past had to go. The spirit still exists — Korean tend to like everything new. Cell phones are being replaced most frequently among OECD countries. Slang vocabulary changes all the time. Trending app last month? Can’t even remember anymore.

This economic growth and progress has its price, though. 

Koreans work 25% more than the OECD average. Students study 3 times as much as the US students. The country is among the leading ones in terms of suicide, plastic surgery, and expenditure on luxury goods. It seems one must compete with others to be the best-looking, best-off, and best-educated. And pali pali.

One of the most beautiful hikes in my life — Seoraksan, South Korea. Picture by Jaime de Miguel

“My mom got pissed when I said I’m NOT going to do double eyelid plastic surgery and that I’m happy with how I am,” —the same friend Lee opened up simultaneously as we opened up a bottle of wine on Friday night.

She’s 39. Korean age. Internationally, she’s 37. But Koreans count years differently — on the day you’re born, you’re already 1. 

And when the new solar year starts, that’s when you add a year. So Koreans would say, “I’m 27, Korean age. How old are you?”. First, I had no idea. I’d pause, trying to understand the math, and they would wait. And wait. Knowing your age is important in Korea. Because of Confucianism — a Chinese belief system that influenced Korea for a few hundred years — every relationship is hierarchical. Not only between the manager and employee, parents and kids, or husband and wife. Between friends as well. When it comes to friends, the main differentiator would be your age. It would define how someone would address or treat you. Or sometimes — who would pay for whose lunch. So they would wait. 

“Yeah, I’d see a lot of plastic surgery clinics on the streets,” – I replied to my friend, who said I could ignore the age hierarchy between us.

South Korea has the highest per capita cosmetic surgery rate in the world and nearly 1 million procedures a year. Gallup Korea Poll says one in three South Korean women between the age of 19 to 29 said they’ve gone under the knife, though some counts put the number even higher.

“South Korea is a very competitive society, and people are pushed closely together,” said Dr. Joo Kwon, CEO, and founder of the JK Plastic Surgery Center, in one interview. “In addition, it is widely agreed upon that people who look better have an advantage in the job market,” he said. “Koreans have a special attitude toward beauty. To Koreans, beauty is something that is attainable through hard work, just like anything else. Koreans see plastic surgery, and becoming prettier, as a challenge.” 

“They see beauty not as something to be envied, but something to be attained,” Dr. Joo Kwon said.

By far, the most common surgery that Koreans do is a double-eyelid surgery — a procedure, which makes your eyes look bigger, takes 30 minutes, and has a recovery time of five days. Other popular ones are nose jobs (to make them smaller) and facial bone-contouring surgery, which helps one’s face gain V-shape. Also, glutathione injections, which slow pigmentation in the skin, thus giving a paler skin tone.

Cosmetic surgery tourism attracts nearly 400 thousand people a year — mostly from Japan and China. So many that Seoul’s Incheon airport at one point considered putting a plastic surgery clinic inside a terminal so travelers wouldn’t have to go into the city to finish their procedures. That proposal was rejected after opposition from doctors.

And beauty, it’s not just women’s business, of course. 

Men in Korea spend more money on clothes than women, and 21% of all male cosmetics globally are being sold here.

Picture by Jaime de Miguel

“Would you be alright spending at least two years in Korea if we decide to do business there?” my CEO, back in Lithuania, asked.

Would I?

Of course, I would. For ten years, I would immodestly call myself one of those tardigrades — the most adaptable animal on the planet. I lived in New York City, a bit in Malaysia, then in Thailand, then in Belgium, before that in London. I would make myself at home. I would make myself okay.

I loved the idea of managing the market and solving all the mental puzzles that come with it.

I loved the idea of living surrounded by mountains, in the country with so many things to comprehend.

But I kept hearing my intuition whispering — “something just doesn’t feel right.”

Maybe it felt so because of constant language barriers. Maybe I felt alien as people would not even look at me in the streets, and I never understood why — was it out of respect, or out of the rush, lack of interest, or something else. Maybe it felt lonely as I knew almost everyone I got along with here would leave in a month or so, even rationally understanding I’ll build new relationships. 

Or maybe — and most probably — it was a natural uncertainty, thinking where I should and want to be as the world, and my family is dealing with COVID-19 situations.

– When are you planning to go back? — I asked Claudia, a Swiss woman who lives in Korea with her husband for a few years, while hiking one of those beautiful hills in the middle of Seoul and trying to put an official response for my intuition in my head.

– Back? I don’t look at it as going back. I’m here now, and there’s no back to me, — she answered, catching her breath.

This obvious yet unsettled response helped me to relax my nexting. I’m here, and there’s no back now. Seoul can be my home. For a while. I will see.

I’m writing this last paragraph back in Vilnius, Lithuania. Things again changed a bit, and while I was adapting to the idea of staying in Seoul, we made a decision not to do it for now.

I came back to what I now call home, to a nationwide lockdown from 4 months of a rollercoaster. 

I love what I re-became in Korea. Distances I gained, proximities I built, voices that I heard. 

Life can work in so many ways; I’d think in Korea, forgetting Google apps for a while as Korea doesn’t use them. Life can work in so many ways; I’d think being shushed in buses with complete silence. 

Life can work in so many ways; I’d think comprehending that a lot of life can be defined by what you do with your ignorance. 

With all the unanswered and the unknowns, you find yourself in. Do you use them as places to grow or places to shrink in? Do you act as if they’re not there, or don’t notice them at all? 

Sometimes I think accepting things as they are is even a bigger challenge than running even a bigger project or climbing even a bigger mountain. 

Sometimes, I think, you have no idea what you can. 

“You have no idea what you can,” — told my Korean friend dropping me off at the airport after discussing what we should do next.

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