April 19, 2010

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My impressions of Koreans and Korea

About how do I see Koreans, my impressions and encounters

South Korean flag.

My trip to Seoul was not my first time to interact with Koreans (every time I'll say Koreans I'll mean South Koreans). Last year in summer a (then) Korean friend and his friends went on a backpacking tour around Europe and I guided them 2 days around my country. So I've met and spoke to Koreans before and I've also written about it here. And now, if I compare what they've told me about their country before with what I saw in Korea, I must say most things turned out to be true. But meeting four Korean backpackers in Europe is something totally different than seeing people and way of life in Seoul. Although my trip was only 4 days short, I tried my best to observe Koreans, especially during my many rides on the subway. That's where the common people commute and where you can see all kinds of interesting situations. More about that later.

Let's see some of the things I have observed and focus on them separately:

1 Koreans were friendly and helpful

I don't know, what other travelers experienced on their Korea trips, but I've read a lot of negative things about Koreans. All I can say is, I did not have any single bad encounter with anyone, be it old or young, male or female. The first day I must have looked very lost. I had a big backpack on my back, two smaller bags on my shoulders and a big map. Obviously that sparked some interest with the people, who rode the same train with me. I've noticed some of them discreetly talking about me, but they really tried hard not to make it obvious. Some Taiwanese, for example, hardly hide their curiosity about me, so that was a bit different.
Something that really surprised me, was how many times a (usually) men asked me, if I needed help, when I was checking my big Seoul map. The people really helped me so many times and I saved a lot of time (and possibly money). I was amazed, because on no trip before did I have so much help from the locals. Most of them spoke some basic English, but if they didn't, we used sign language and I still understood what they were saying. Also many asked me where I was from and I just answered Europe. From my numerous travels I have learned that saying "I'm from Slovenia" only leads to confusion, because people don't know where it is and whether it's a city or a country. Once someone thought Slovenia is part of Canada. Lol. And also I need to add, that few Koreans wished me an enjoyable stay in Korea. it made me happy and feel welcome.

2 Seoul is clean and quiet

What amazed me about Korea is how well things run. The country is extremely clean, definitely more than my country Slovenia, Taiwan, Malaysia or Macau. I'd say only places like Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Singapore can match up with that. Seoul is huge and the roads are very very wide, they're like avenues. Koreans like to drive cars (big ones), which is very different from Taiwanese, who like to ride scooters. It was so refreshing for me to walk around without someone on a scooter slowly driving behind me and horning.

Wide road around Hyundai Department store, new part of Seoul.

And there's almost no noise. Sometimes I wondered, how can such a huge city like Seoul be so peaceful and quiet at times. Sure, big cars make less noise than hordes of scooters. But on the streets or day markets Koreans don't make a lot of noise, unlike Taiwanese, who sometimes even use megaphones to repeatedly play a message to advertise food or a tea they sell. That's real noise pollution, something that's rarely seen in Seoul.

3 The Seoul subway is huge and complex

The subway trains in Asia are always top. They're easy to use and very convenient to travel. So one of my first things to do, when I came to Seoul, is to buy the subway card, because I planned to go to many places around Seoul and the subway is the cheapest way of transportation.
I must say, the whole subway system is huge and sometimes too confusing for a foreigner. Most things are written in Korean. Sure, there are announcements in English and the names of the stations are also written in Latin letters, but sometimes things just don't run well. Like when they say: You may exit on the right, but actually the door opens on the left. Happened many times. Maybe that's because the Seoul subway is currently run by 4 different companies? (source) This may seem like a minor problem, but when you're squeezed in between the people (at rush hour) like sardines in the tin, it's very important to know which door opens. I was new in Seoul and had no clue how each station looks like, so sometimes I was a bit lost.

Koreans waiting for the SMRT train.

Speaking of sardines: The Seoul subway gets really crowded between 6-8 pm, you literally have no choice but push yourself through the people squeeze in somehow. It's normal to touch four or more people at the same time. It's something I don't like, but what can you do? I've seen crowds in Hong Kong and Taipei, but Seoul is something else. I really like the Taipei MRT more. It's less crowded and easier for foreigners to find their way. In Seoul, almost every station looks different: Some are big, some are small, some are old, some are new, some even have a certain theme. One looked like we're in a cave. And eating in trains is allowed, while in Taipei it isn't. I don't know, whether that's good or not, but I've seen some crumbs on the floor. But really few. Even those Koreans, who were eating, did it carefully.

4 Weird things in the subway
  • It's amazing, what I saw in the last 2 days while riding the train. First there was a blind man playing a harmonica and slowly walking from one side of the train to another holding a small cup to collect money. People just moved aside and let him pass and I haven't seen anyone giving him anything. It was a bit surreal.
  • Then one time someone started to play music and talk loudly (like on a day market). Apparently she was promoting a music CD, but I had no clue what was that about, since she spoke Korean. People seemed uninterested.
  • Then there was a guy selling a magnifying glass and presenting it to everyone like on those "Teleshop" channels, lol.
  • And another time a lady tried to sell mops. Mops! On the subway! She had a whole bunch of them in a small cart she was dragging along the main aisle. I was just thinking: Wow, you can't even allow people to have a few minutes of peace on the subway?
It was really my first time to see something being sold on the subway. You don't see that on Taipei MRT (or Singapore and HK).
  • Another funny thing is that many Koreans don't like to hold the handrails, they just stand and try to hold balance. And when the train makes a sudden turn, you can see all of them lose their balance a little and it looks like a choreographed jump, hehe. That was really funny to see.
5 Some parts of Korea reminded me of Europe

I stayed in the area near the Hyehwa SMRT station, which is located very close to Seoul's historic center, somewhat in the north-eastern part. A famous gate named Dongdaemun is just one station away. And from that station you can transfer virtually into every direction and arrive at the most of the famous sights very quickly. I will blog about my hostel in the days to come.

View from the hostel's window.

This part of Seoul is very neat and nice. The people who live here must be middle or upper class. All the houses were pretty big and looked new. It reminded me of Europe. Actually the whole time I was in Seoul, I felt I'm somewhat home, just that the people are different. The climate is very similar. The cold spring days and a quite strong sun reminded me of our spring in Slovenia. My face is still a little red, because the sun caught me big time. I was walking 10h a day under the strong sun and even though it was only 11-13 degrees Celsius, I got tanned. And the air was so dry. My lips were really dried out after so much of walking and I was constantly thirsty. I know our winters and springs are dry, too. Another thing that reminded me of home was the flora. The blossoming cherries, the pine trees and spring flowers are also typical for my country. And Koreans drive on the right side of the road, just like we do. And there are many churches all around Seoul, which also surprised me (Where are the Buddhist temples?). But that's about it with the similarities.


Typically Korea: Kimchi jars on top of the roofs.

6 How are Korean people really?

It's really hard for me to give you a comprehensive answer on that question. My time in Korea was too short. All I can give you is some random impressions, things that I saw during my extensive travels across Seoul. I really rode the subway many times, been to numerous day and night markets and I really tried my best to observe Koreans thoroughly to report to you.

Myeongdong, a fun district with shops and street food. Very crowded.

I must say: Koreans are unique. They're so different than Taiwanese or Japanese, even if they're all East Asians, who have a lot of history in common, be it the good or the bad, but it's obvious, that Koreans not only look slightly different, they also behave in a different way, their culture is unique. I must add, though, that my impressions are mostly positive.
Koreans seemed very polite to me. In the 7/11s they will always greet you when you enter and leave, some even bow. Bowing is very important and I've seen in a lot of times. I'd say Korean people in general are quite self-confident. They take good care of themselves and seem very hard working. They dress well, seems like their appearance and image is very important to them. But now let's focus on some specific groups.
  • Korean older men
They were the most interesting group to observe. The first thing I noticed is most men wear neat suits and ties. Everywhere around Seoul you'll see older men in suits. It's just amazing. And really many of them smoke. Be it young (20+) or old (50+), you'll see them walking on the street with a cigarette. You'll also see groups of men outside office buildings having a smoke break. Many Taiwanese men smoke, too, but Korean men surpass them big time.
Another thing that you see many times around Seoul are older men spitting and snorting on the street. I guess it's common in Korea and accepted. Of course you don't see that all the time, but it's certainly something you won't miss.

Korean men walking

Another thing about Korean men is they are very touchy-feely among themselves. And by that I don't mean they are gay, but I've seen (and also I've read), that friends walking on the street and putting arms around each other is normal here. I even saw two men walking, where one guy had his arm under his friend's arm, like couples usually do. The same goes for women. I've also seen many women touchy-feely among themselves. But it's funny, you seldom see couples holding hands and showing affection publicly. Some do, but it's not common.
  • Korean young guys
I must say they looked pretty cool, many of them. I was surprised how many tall guys there is and most of them look skinny. Generally speaking, I have not seen any obese Koreans, be it women or men. It's just amazing. In comparison with the Taiwanese, I'd say Korean guys are a bit neater, they take better care of themselves. Their hair is always well cut, their clothes seem to be wisely chosen, everyone has a certain style. You won't see them walking in sandals on the streets of Seoul (unlike Taiwanese), but maybe in summer they do. And also many young guys would wear suits. I've also seen a lot of guys with iPhones, usually watching some drama on the subway. They seem very tech savvy and having the latest gadget must be normal for them. So my impression of young Korean guys is positive, but I don't know what's behind the image. Maybe a different story? Anyone knows more?

  • Korean kids
I've had some funny encounters on top of the Namsan mountain. There were many groups of kids with their teachers, probably having an excursion. Every time they passed by, many of them said hello to me. They were pretty wild and all over the place at a famous observation deck. Other than that, kids are kids, same like everywhere.
  • Korean older women
What I've noticed is that the older women, those over 50 and 60 years, also take good care of themselves. I've seen many with make up and nice hair.
  • Korean younger women and girls
I will write about this in my next post and compare them with the Taiwanese women. There's a lot to tell and see, so stay tuned. ;-)

Typically Korean: People eating hawker food under a tent.

7 To summarize
  • Koreans were friendly and helpful to me
  • Many spoke English, even if not so well, they still tried to talk
  • Seoul is huge, with wide roads, it's clean and quiet
  • Some parts reminded me of Europe
  • There's many churches all around Seoul
  • The Seoul subway is complex and a challenge for a foreigner
  • Personal space is scarce in trains, people push and don't care
  • You can see people sell stuff on the subway
  • Koreans seem very self-confident and hardworking.
  • Most older men wear suits and smoke
  • Some men spit and snort in public, friends are very touchy
  • Young guys are neat and stylish
  • PDA between men and women is not very common
  • Bowing is common and important
  • I haven't seen any obese Koreans
There could be so much more said about Korea and its people. But I already wrote so much. If I missed anything, I will write it in the posts to come. There will be a lot about Korea in the coming weeks, I need to write about the things I've seen, because they were interesting and awesome.

So what's your image of Korea and Koreans?

[All photos by MKL, 2010, excep Hyo-ri]

40 comments:

  1. wheeeeeeee pretty boys in suits lolzzz

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  2. @Manju: So the point you're trying to make is something like "wheeeeeeee pretty boys in suits lolzzz", right? Please correct me, if I'm wrong :P

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  3. I'd love to visit Korea and I love reading about that part of the world from your point of view. Im gonna stay tunned for "younger women post" ;)

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  4. yeah boys keeping hands on others shoulders is preety common in india too (mind you not that type)

    well you summed up all the things waiting for the women part

    better be good ;)

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  5. @Lily, Kasia and Amogh: Thank you.

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  6. very interesting and informative...i'm eager to hear all about those lovely Korean women so make it good! :)

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  7. Greatt post! I'm so excited to go to Korea now. Did you spend a lot of money while you were there? Did you think it was as expensive as say HK?

    It's funny because they all say Korea's subway is a great transportation and super easy to use... I hope I won't have any problems with it. =S

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  8. Mops???? LOL!!! Classic

    But i hav t say Korea sounds really fascinating! Can't wait to travel there...along with Japan!

    Hope the lips are better *wink*

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  9. @adamantixx: Thank you. Coming up in few days :)

    @ko0ty: Well, I didn't shop and didn't eat at many places, so I didn't spend a lot. I only had 4 days and wanted to see everything, so most of my money was used for the subway and also when you enter some palaces, you need to pay from 1000W-3000W, and the main one can be 15000W at Thursdays, when they allow you to visit without a guide. That palace is like holy for them, that's why it costs a lot. If you join a guide any day during the week, it will cost you 3000W, but you can't walk around as you like. So for me, that's a bit boring. Street food can cost between 2000W-3000W, if you go to simple restaurant maybe 5000W-6000W, but I went to a place with traditional Korean barbecue and had to order for 2 people, because that's their rule in that restaurant and I paid 21000Won, quite expensive, but the food was yummy and I had soju as well :) So, if 2 people go, you pay about 10000Won each, which is about 6-7 euros. Still cheap, if you ask me. As for beauty products and clothes, I have no clue, how much they cost, but you have a lot of places to shop. Hope that will help you a lil :)

    The sub is easy to use, if you read some Korean, hehe. Well, it's still ok, the problem is, that it's so huge, whole Seoul is huge. So you need some time to get your orientation straight.

    @Saby: Yes, you should visit, if you have the chance. It's awesome :) My lips are so so. A bit better :)

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  10. I don't like men to be touchy on me. The only place men should place their hands on me is my shoulders.

    But if it's a gal, it's a different thing. =p

    Enjoyed reading the observations. Certainly neutralise the more negative stories I heard.

    It's interesting that Korea is a quiet city. This I got to go visit and see someday.

    I guess the Korean diet is healthier than oily chinese food, and the typical western diet.

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  11. can you write more on Korean guys perhaps?? lol.... they all look so darn handsome for some reason! sighh...i wanna go to korea too!

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  12. Mops??????
    I don't hold on handrails either... sometimes they're so sticky and disgusting I prefer trying to keep my balance as if I was snowboarding (years of snowboarding help!!!)

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  13. i agree, in Korea everywhere is so clean and tidy (based on my K-Drama experience, LOL)
    How your Soju btw? ^^

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  14. BRO!!!

    Geez, I'm soooo outdated here >.< It's been so long since I've been online. Apparently you've travelled across Korea already, gyaaaaa *shrieking like a banshee* :P

    Wish you have a pleasant trip! XOXO!! :D

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  15. @Shingo: People have different experiences, good and bad happens in every country. If I stayed longer, something bad would've happen to me in Korea, too. It did so in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. But I still think these countries are great. I try to be reasonable in my observations as much as I can. I wonder what stories you heard.

    @Crystal: Haha.. Some guys are really handsome, true true :)

    @Daisy: Haha, exatly. It looked like snowboarding to me, hehe.

    @Ceecile: The K-drama must be right :D

    @Selvy: Siiiiiiiis :D Glad to see you back. I only went on a short trip, that's all. But it was fun. I'm back in Taiwan already :) Please DM me, if you're free, update me on your situation.

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  16. wow, korea does look clean! kinda like singapore??? i've never been to either places though.

    i've totalllly noticed the touchy feely thing with korean men... i think just asian men in general! I see that a lot amongst them!

    p.s - i stand corrected re: bees vs. wasps professor neeno. haha!

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  17. @Kym: Yes, it's very clean. You'll see that on many pics I will post :) As for touchy Asian men, I'd say Chinese aren't. It depends. :)

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  18. I am not sure why, but the fact that it's a quiet place intrigues me. The only other quiet city I know is in Brunei. I guess Koreans like peace. :]

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  19. Your post confirms some of my previous notions about that part of Asia. Clean and polite people :) That is the stereotype isn't it? That and hardworking, I keep picturing a Japanese person who keen bowing and bowing :) Do they great that way in Korea? Or Taiwan?

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  20. interestinggg, I find a lot of taiwanese and chinese people spit in general. I'm not a fan of korean food but I would like to visit korea one day!

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  21. Interesting, interesting ! It's funny that korean men are touchy-feely because here in France they wouldn't do that in fear of looking gay :p

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  22. @Nashe: I was also surprised how quiet it was. Maybe it's because they drive huge cars, not scooters and ride the subway, so the noise is under ground :)

    @Carina: Koreans bow same like Japanese. Taiwanese don't really, only sometimes nod a little. Maybe some politicians bow at some official meetings here, normal people very seldom.

    @Julie: Yes, Taiwanese men here spit a lot, but you can't compare to Korea, really. Men snorting and spitting is really much common there.

    @Carine: I've read somewhere that people in Korea will say: "There are no gays in Korea." Hehe.. But the touchy-feely thing is not seen as gay at all, it's normal, it's their culture :)

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  23. though i'm a fan of korean tv dramas, i've learned so much in just reading your post. very informative. :)

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  24. A lovely range of perceptions and exodriences.

    Two places we experienced helpfulness, especially when map-reading was in New York, USA, it happened several times; then in Istanbul, Turkey. A lovely man, well travelled and retired from business was so interesting to talk to. Others, if we could speak some other European languages couldn't do enough to advise and guide.

    Children in Istanbul were healthily curious; wanting the opportunity to speak with native English speakers to practice what they had been learning at school, while at the same time assisting us.

    Being helped inside quickly, table service and all, when caught in a sudden storm in Toronto.

    A caring off-duty Italian fireman who helped when an accident occurred.

    These warm and thoughtful human traits are the things that are indelibly memorable.

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  25. Korean women are HOT!

    And it's a pity their entertainment industry is so stressful until their pretties are killing themselves because of it. Then there's the sleeping with the big guns to make it big. Sigh. That's just too sad.

    And Seoul quiet? Erm.. when did you go? Last time I went it was packed all the time.

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  26. why would someone wanna sell magnifying glass on the street? hmmm.. strange.

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  27. Very interesting post again :)
    Yeah, the whole snorting, burping, spitting thing is just digusting. I can't get over it. Thank goodness the men here in Toronto don't make a habit of it (at least not the ones I hang with). Yeah and it's strange how people of the same sex are touchy feely there whereas couples of opposite sex rarely display affection in public there. Definitely different.
    Oh I wish Toronto streets were as wide as they are in Seoul! Maybe I would actually drive then! LOL
    I've heard a lot about their subway system and how advanced it is. Terrible - puts Toronto's to shame. You'd have a laugh at ours! It's the same here though - during rush hour after work it's just crazy and dangerous - especially since we don't have a rail or any sort of device to stop you from falling off the platform and onto the train tracks.
    I've seen a couple of pan handlers on the subway but nobody selling mops before LOL. I remember one lady in particular was asking for money to buy McDonalds. Yes, specifically to buy McDonalds.
    Yeah some Asian guys ask me why I'm not attracted to Asian dudes - as you pointed out most of them are skinny. Waif like. Sorry, as one my girlfriends said, if I can't fit into my dude's pants that's a bad thing LOL.
    Hope your week is going well :)

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  28. @ZACL: Wow, you also had many great experiences like me. And I couldn't agree more with These warm and thoughtful human traits are the things that are indelibly memorable. Wonderfully said :)

    @Izso: You have a point. I still don't understand, why some feel so pressured to kill themselves. That's the sad part. But apart from that, Koreans are awesome. Well, Seoul was quiet during the day, been there a week ago.

    @Zewt: It wasn't on the street, it was inside the MRT train, while we were riding it.

    @Karen: Now you make me research Toronto more. I always thought that it's such an awesome place, huge, but modern. Now I really wonder, how it is there. In case I end up there, will you guide me around? ;) Oh, Asian guys there are so skinny? So I guess that's worse than my small tummy, that just doesn't seem to vanish, even if I diet :P

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  29. I've saved some penny coz I don't need to travel Korea but can also feel it through your blog. :) Seriously.

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  30. @Stefanie: Sis, thanks a lot. I put a lot of effort to write good posts and share good pics :)

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  31. Hello! I just discovered your blog and I want to say how content I am to hear your opinions! I prepare to go To Seoul for 8 days, next April, and I'm trying to read what I can about it. Your post here is interesting because you let us know your opinions about people there. Thank you. I will read your other posts too.

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  32. @Traveling Hawk: Glad you discovered me :) And I'm happy that my posts are useful to future travelers. Check my Seoul page, you have everything there. I wrote every detail :)

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  33. Hi! I just started reading your blog, and I really like your post about your visit to Seoul. I'm a little envious because I really want to visit S. Korea. I've read a lot on s. Korea and the way you describe the friendliness of the people and how helpful they are really, really convinced me that a trip to S. Korea will definitely be an awesome trip full of fun experiences.

    Btw, your blog is really fun to read.

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  34. @Felecia: Thank you for your compliments :) For me, South Korea is an amazing country and I really had a great time there. But there are bloggers who had bad experiences, especially if they were White women or Black men for example. It's good to read all of the blogs, those who had a lot of fun and those who experienced something unfortunate. I know I will definitely visit Korea again in the future. I wanna see Seoul again, but I also would like to travel to Busan and see more of the country.

    Thanks for reading my posts. That's what I find so rewarding about blogging. People actually reading what I write :P

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  35. Hi! I'm a Chinese Malaysian living in Korea. I found your blog today & I agree with you on most things about Korea - great blog! =) My observation is .. Korean girls are more modest & everyone does puts on make up everyday (yes they do! just not as thick as Taiwanese/ Japanese girls. nude makeup) Another comment.. When a Malaysian girl tells a Western guy he's good looking, I think she really means it =) I'm not sure about KL but in places like Penang people are usually sincere.

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  36. @Sabrina L: Hey, nice to meet you. Thanks for sharing your additional views. I only had few days to observe, hehe. And thanks for adding that part about Malaysian girls :) I appreciate it :)

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  37. nowadys, korean teenagers are becoming problems for korea,, their appearance is not all. I'm a korean so i can tell u. there are lots of bullying and suiciding and disrespectful behaviors going on,,, it's getting more and more serious,,,,

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