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Cultures Explained: South Korea — Are What We See in K-dramas Real or Reel?

Will I bump into a handsome oppa on the streets of Korea too? 😍

As someone who watches hours and hours of K-dramas, I think I’m pretty familiar with Korea’s culture. From meeting handsome oppas to drinking cheap soju all day, I had high expectations on my very first trip there.

But as I explored Korea, it wasn’t long before realising that what was on screen would not actually reflect real life — at least not all of it.

So let’s debunk seven stereotypes in K-dramas and let us know in the comments below if you believe it’s true or false in representing Korean culture!

1) Everybody is good-looking — False

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: @markuswinkler via Unsplash

In K-dramas, all the main characters look really beautiful and handsome with seemingly flawless skin. But hate to break it to you — speaking from first-hand experience, give up on looking for a Song Joong-ki or Cha Eun-woo on the streets in Korea 😭.

What we see on screen definitely does not represent everyone in South Korea. Most locals are average-looking, regular people like you and me.

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: tvN

That said, the media and entertainment industry does play a part in shaping the concept of beauty standards in Korea. People want to look like their favourite actors or actress by having smooth skin, big eyes, and cherry lips.

In Korean culture, there’s also pressure to conform to society and to hold onto a certain standard of beauty. So while not everyone is naturally good-looking, they do put effort into their appearances!

2) Chaebols or rich families exist — True

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: KBS

My favourite K-dramas are often those romances between a rich guy and a poor girl such as Boys Over Flowers and The Heirs. And stereotypically, the rich guy would be a bratty chaebol — someone whose family owns a large industrial conglomerate.

Have you seen the huge mansion that the main character Gu Jun-pyo (Lee Min-ho) in Boys Over Flowers lives in? Not to mention his very expensive suits and sports car.

It may sound made-up but chaebols do exist in Korean society. Some famous examples are Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and SK Group. Although, it’s a bit unrealistic to meet them in school and fall in love as portrayed in K-dramas.

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: LG

Nevertheless, some real-life chaebols are actually pretty cool. After his uncle passed away, Koo Kwang-mo became LG Group’s chairman at age 40. He is known to be a smart, polite and open-minded leader. Additionally, the grandson of Hyundai’s founder, Chung Kyung-sun, founded Root Impact — a non-profit organisation that encourages new social enterprises.

Looks like not all chaebols are spoiled and rude after all!

3) Locals are loud and rude — False

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: tvN

One common theme in K-dramas is that Koreans are portrayed as really loud and can come across as rude. I thought I witnessed it first-hand in Korea but this specific incident changed my impression instead.

I was in a small eatery having my lunch when I heard an ahjumma talking loudly, almost as if she was scolding someone. After her tirade was over, she looked over to our table and apologised for being loud — apparently, she was agitated by some political news on the television and calmed down after. She then wished us a good day before leaving.

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

So lesson learnt: not everything is as it seems. While it’s true that they can be quite rowdy at times and raise their voices, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are rude. It could also just be how the language sounds, like for example, Japanese naturally sounds courteous while Hokkien sounds rowdy.

I also remember the times when locals gave me directions when I was lost or even paid for my parking ticket after I got stuck in a car park. Contrary to what we see on the screens, Koreans are really kind and friendly!

4) Respect for the elderly — True

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: JTBC

Though sometimes it might be a little exaggerated, K-dramas often portray respect and care for the elderly. By exaggeration — I’m talking about some dramas showing the main character pushing an old man out of the way just to get hit by a car, for instance.

But the regular ones, of helping the elderly cross the road or giving up seats to them on public transport are not just acts on shows, it’s actually embedded in Korean culture!

Based on Confucianist teachings and traditions, Koreans are taught to respect those with seniority. This can be in the form of age, family position or job title. So it’s not surprising to see people giving up their seats to elders on the train or bus, regardless of whether it’s empty or full.

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: Business Insider

There are even reserved seats on public transport just for the elderly, so take note if you ever visit Korea!

Here are other unspoken rules you may want to note when with an older person:– Use two hands when receiving something– Turn your head away to drink– Shake hands with two hands
– Wait for them to start eating first before diving in

5) Plastic surgery is frowned upon in Korea — False

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: JTBC

Korea is known as the plastic surgery capital of the world and it may be a touchy subject to talk about because some people view it negatively.

However, there have been dramas like My ID is Gangnam Beauty that focuses on this very topic. The main character Kang Mi-rae (‎Im Soo-hyang) decides to undergo plastic surgery after being bullied for her looks. But it backfires as her classmates gossip about her “fake” appearance.

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: JTBC

But is this sort of negative judgmental reaction a reflection of what it’s like in real Korean society? In reality, it’s not uncommon for locals to undergo plastic surgery.

In fact, it’s even widely sought after because people believe that better looks give them a higher chance of landing a job or getting ahead in their career. Teenagers even look forward to receiving plastic surgeries as a graduation gift from their parents!

6) Koreans are always drinking 24/7 — True

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: KBS

No matter the day or the time, you often see Korean people drinking soju — in dramas and in real life.

First off, it’s really cheap and can cost around ₩5,000 (~S$5) for a bottle there, compared to other countries like Singapore which sells for around S$13 😩 The reason being that the ingredients used to make soju are cheap and widely available in Korea.

Secondly, unlike Singapore, there’s no cut-off time limit to buy alcohol. So you can basically just walk-in to a convenience store at 1AM and continue drinking outdoors.

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: KBS

There is one difference between fiction and reality though — you don’t usually find people bawling over broken hearts with soju in hand. But there can be a few drunk people roaming the streets in the evening, so just make sure to get out of their way 😂.

On that note, soju goes really well with Korean barbeque meat as well as fried chicken! Check out our Seoul food guide for other amazing food recommendations.

7) Romanticised relationship between North and South Korea — False

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: tvN

If you’ve watched the news, you might have heard of missile threats or altercations between North and South Korea. So it’s pretty easy to guess what kind of relationship they have. Hint: not good.

For some historical context, Korea was divided into two after the defeat of Japan during World War Two in 1945. The Soviet Union occupied the North while the United States occupied the South.

Later, war broke out and Korea became two separate states — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South). The line in between was then named the 38th parallel or the Korean Demilitarised Zone!

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: tvN

Despite this rocky relationship, it doesn’t stop K-dramas from painting a romantic picture of it. Take Crash Landing on You for example. A rich South Korean heiress falls in love with a North Korean general and he risks everything to take her home. While it’s hard to believe this might happen in real life, it’s still a great drama to make your hearts flutter💓!

Bonus: Getting slapped by kimchi — False

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: Netflix

I’ve got to say, Koreans have the most creative food slaps in dramas. From throwing pasta in Eve Love to fried chicken in Gracious Revenge — they have it all 🤣.

But the most well-known would be kimchi slaps, because well, it’s a popular side dish in Korea. With that said, never in my life have I seen anyone being slapped with kimchi.

So what made it so famous? After doing some digging, apparently, it went viral from MBC’s morning drama Everybody Say Kimchi. In this show, the ex-mother-in-law visited her ex-son-in-law to berate him for sabotaging her daughter’s kimchi business. After he insulted her and her daughter, it was a well-deserved slap to the face.

The best part was that the iconic slap wasn’t even scripted! It was initially supposed to be a simple slap but the actress improvised it as she only had one take to get it right and she wanted it to look good.

Needless to say, it turned out so well that it sparked memes and also appeared in other K-dramas in various forms!

So, should we believe everything we see in K-dramas?

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

Photo credit: SBS

As much as I would like to believe I could bump into a rich and handsome heir on the streets in Korea, it’s just not realistic 🥲. But it doesn’t mean K-dramas don’t contain some sort of truth like respect for the elderly and the drinking culture — after all, inspiration has to come from somewhere.

Having been to Korea myself and doing some research on the internet, it was really interesting to see where some of these stereotypes came about and how Korean culture plays a part in portraying what we see on our screens.

cultures explained, k-drama, south korea, cultures explained: south korea — are what we see in k-dramas real or reel?

While we shouldn’t believe everything we see in K-dramas, it offers a glimpse into this beautiful country — be it the history, cultural values or even the food!

But as always, the best way to truly discover for yourself is to get off your couch and actually travel to The Land of K-dramas ✈️!

This article is part of a series where we uncover and honour the cultural differences of communities all over the world. What other cultures would you like to know more about? Let us know in the comments below.


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