Now that I've lived in Korea for a couple years, here's my list of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the 'Land of Morning Calm':
Koreans are super-friendly. I'm speaking generally, of course, but I find most Koreans to be surprisingly friendly and generous. And not just when they're selling something. A few examples: I was caught out in a rainstorm without an umbrella, and a complete stranger offered me an extra one he had! Another time I went to a computer store to buy a CD, and the salesclerk gave it to me for free! I'd never been in the store before.
Religious tolerance. About half of Koreans are Buddhists, the other half Christians, but they seem to coexist without any rancour. I've never heard of any incident of discrimination or violence between members of the two religions. That kind of tolerance and mutual respect is very rare in the world today.
Koreans recycle. For serious. Korea has a 5 cent tax on all take-away cups and bottles, as well as plastic bags, to encourage recycling. At the major supermarkets, such as Homeplus, the stores provide boxes for customers to pack their groceries in, and most people use them, or bring a bag from home. Rarely do you see anyone buy a plastic bag.
Seoul Subway. This is the most extensive subway system I've seen, except perhaps London's. It covers Seoul very well, but it also extends to surrounding cities, such as Incheon, Ansan and Suwon (sort-of TTC and GO transit in one, at half the price). Not only that, it has television monitors in every car (mostly playing advertising, it's true, but still better than nothing) and bilingual announcements for every stop. The only problem is it's overcrowded.
Korea is safe. Pretty much. I often walk around late at night, and I've never felt threatened here. It's true, my apartment was robbed, but despite that, I would say that this is one of the safest countries, and Seoul one of the safest big cities, anywhere.
Driving. According to the unwritten rules of the road in Korea, it is okay to do a U-turn, a left or right turn, or to go straight through, on a red light. I see it daily. Hourly. The motorcycle-delivery drivers are the worst. They drive on the road, the sidewalk, anywhere, at a minimum twice the speed limit. (What am I saying? There are no speed limits in Korea!) Often, they're carrying a huge box full of food and dishes with one hand while doing this.
Public washrooms. Although public washrooms are plentiful in Korea, rarely do they have all of the following essentials: a sit-down toilet, toilet paper, a sink, hot water, paper towels OR a handdryer, soap and a mirror. I've seen about three washrooms that had all of these, and one that actually had NONE. All it had was a squat toilet. I don't think it even had a door.
Finger jabbing. Korean children have a 'fun' game, whereby they jab each other (and unsuspecting foreign teachers) up the butt with their first two fingers. Don't ever turn your back to a Korean child. You've been warned.
Korean education. Here I must admit to being part of the problem. I mean, it's great that Korean kids are learning English. And Japanese. And Chinese, the violin, the piano, the flute, tae-kwon-do, gung-do, art, extra math classes and girl guides or boy scouts. But do they have to learn/do all those things? When do they just play? Never?
(I don't want to get too nasty here, so I'll just mention a few things.)
Sexism. This is not a good country to be a woman. A woman is expected to work only until she's married or expecting her first child, when she is expected to leave her job and become a full-time housewife. She goes from living at home, where her father rules, to living with her husband, where he rules. I've heard of cases where a father roughly cut off part of his teenage daughter's hair to keep her from leaving the house. We won't even mention what a husband is allowed to get away with. The flip side is that if a man loses his job or gets demoted, his wife will often leave him, in search of better prospects. Saddest of all, if a young couple is expecting a daughter, she is often aborted (even though prenatal gender tests and abortions are illegal).
Racism and Xenophobia. Both are directed at foreigners, but the worst racism is reserved for South Asians, Southeast Asians and Africans or African-Americans. A Korean, whom I otherwise like and respect, told me that black men "don't look quite human", while my Korean students, whenever they see a picture of a black person, always say how 'ugly' he or she is. This is not just the attitude of a few people, but is widespread among Koreans.
Public Drunkenness. Koreans never talk about this, but it's a serious problem. When you see, almost every night, several drunken businessmen, college students, or other Koreans throwing up on the sidewalk or staggering drunkenly home supported by friends, and it's not even 10 o'clock yet, you know there's a problem.
Prostitution (worth 4% of GNP) and 'love motels.' Ironically, this is a country that doesn't allow movies that show full frontal nudity. But prostitution is okay...?
Every country has it's good and bad points. Korea is actually a fairly nice place to live, I think. I'm going to miss it!
It's surprising how quickly the extraordinary becomes commonplace. When I first arrived in China, I walked around thinking in awe: "I'm in China! I'm actually living in China!" But before long the daily routine and challenges of my job drove that thought out of my mind, and when I did think "I'm living in China!" it was with surprise that I'd actually forgotten. As the novelty wore off, the petty annoyances of living in a foreign culture where I was constantly the centre of attention, where I couldn't get my favourite foods, and I couldn't communicate, made me almost wish I hadn't come.
But then, walking out of a school building where I'd been talking to students, one cold winter night, I suddenly looked up and saw big wet snowflakes drifting down. The snow frosted the trees, the ground, and the bridge across the frozen river. Grey old Taiyuan was- if only briefly- beautiful! As the snowflakes melted on my cheeks and hands, I thought "Snow in China!" And all the wonder of my first day there returned.
The reason I say 'economists are stupid' is because they are. Economists have many theories about how economies work- but if their theories are worth anything, shouldn't they be able to predict major booms and busts? If a tornado destroys your home, and the local T.V. weatherman failed to predict even the possibility of tornadoes in your area- worse, he said to expect nothing but clear skies- would you trust him ever again? No? Well then, lets look at the track record of economists over the last few decades, shall we?
Late 1990s: many economists talk excitedly about the "end of the business cycle" (the same prediction economists of the 1920s made.) When a small minority of economists, and many non-economists, start fretting about the boom in 'dot.com' stocks, of companies which have never made a profit, most economists say not to worry, and even say that profitability no longer matters- just market share. Then the Nasdaq crashes.
1997 (or thereabouts): 'The Economist' (a newsmagazine) predicts that oil will reach record low prices within 6 months. 6 months later, the cost of oil per barrel had doubled.
1997: The Asian Financial Crisis. The currencies of South Korea, Thailand and several other East Asian and Southeast Asian countries lose up to half their value. Economies in the region are sent into a tailspin from which many have still not fully recovered, nine years later. No respected economist expected or forewarned of it.
Early 1990s: In the United States, as the American economy recovers from a brief recession, with few new jobs added, many economists start talking about a "jobless recovery." By the mid-1990s, unemployment in the United States was lower than it had been in almost 30 years.
1991: Japan's real estate bubble bursts, beginning Japan's "Lost Decade" (actually 15 years, and counting) of 1.1% growth, on average, and no less than four recessions. Few if any Japanese or foreign economists predicted it. Of those few who did predict the property crash, none predicted the long period of stagnation which followed.
1987: The biggest stockmarket crash in New York since 1929 catches economists by surprise. Stockmarkets around the world crash in sequence- despite safeguards which supposedly would make such a chain reaction impossible. But there is no immediate recession afterwards- again, despite economists' predictions.
1950s Post War boom in the U.S. and Canada: the majority consensus among economists was a return to recession following World War II.
Black Friday stockmarket crash in New York, 1929: the most famous financial disaster in history. Did economists predict it? Heck no. If you had followed the advice of economists in 1928, you would have put your life savings into stocks, as too many people did.
The moral: economists are stupid. Trust them at your peril.