Korea: The Cuteness Capital

Katie Evans SC ’13 is studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea. She has been abroad all year, having spent the fall semester in Germany.

A few days into my semester in South Korea, our program took
us on a day trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I braced myself for stoic soldiers,
stare-offs with North Koreans in the Joint Security Area and uneasy silence at
every turn. Instead, we pulled into a tour bus parking lot for the first leg of
our trip and were greeted with bright, pastel letters that spelled out DMZ with a
barbed-wire rose adorning the top. Posing with soldiers was commonplace, and
every site—even the JSA—had an extensive gift shop. Ask anyone about Korea, and
one of the first things they’ll probably mention is the Korean War. Even though
it’s technically ongoing, there’s little outside the DMZ to remind you of

Korea is the cuteness capital of the world, and the
pastel-colored DMZ sculpture isn’t even the most glaring example. Whereas American
adults—and even some children—look down on stereotypically “feminine” things
like bows and the color pink, many Koreans wholeheartedly embrace them. Hair
bows can be purchased off the street for as little as a dollar, and romantic,
Victorian-style dresses never go out of vogue. At one popular café chain, warm
drinks are served in a cup with eyes drawn on; the holder is his shirt and the
top his hat. Even couples can get in on this, with matching “couple” shirts,
rings and keychains found almost everywhere, not to mention the monthly
Hallmark holidays designed specifically for them. All this makes some Americans
cringe, but I think it is a refreshing change. Back in kindergarten, I cried when
my mom forced me into pants, and it is nice to wear a dress without feeling like
I stick out. There is not as much societal gender equality here as in the States, but it’s new and interesting to live in a place where you are never
expected to “grow out” of colored keyboard stickers and animal-shaped lotion

It’s hard to imagine, but Korea’s even more tied up in their
technology than we are. A lot of phones are able to receive TV signals, and if
you ride the subway at night you’ll probably see people watching live music
programs or dramas on tiny, portable screens. The Internet is not only fast,
but also widespread beyond belief—even buses have wireless routers on their
walls. The way media has seeped into everyday life has both positive and negative
effects on Korean society. Political podcasts and online news programs have a
wider circulation than you might expect, but illegal downloading of music has
become such a problem that albums are considered a hit if they sell over
100,000 copies. Couple that with the abundance of overworked teen idols trying
to become the next big thing, and it’s enough to make you buy a whole record
store out of pity.

It was one of those teen idols that first made me want to
learn Korean as a high school senior, but actually living and experiencing
Seoul has shown me all the different sides of Korean life. Like America, Korea
is still progressing towards equality on all fronts, but I’ve been constantly
surprised by the warmth and passion of the people around me. I’ll be here until
June, which seems dauntingly long, but I’m excited to see as much as
possible—so long as I don’t go broke buying dresses.

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