Photo by Frédéric Reglain
“We are living on a tiny peninsula with almost no resources”, says Sooyong. “So the only way for us to get rich, and we have always been eager to be rich, is to study and work very hard.”
Sooyong, a 52 year-old guide working in Seoul’s palace district explains: “During the 1960s and 70s we sacrificed a lot to give our children better lives than ours. We managed and now there is a fever among our young people to achieve more and more.”
The relentless pressure to excel in South Korea has in part led to a heavy drinking culture in Seoul. Smoky rock joints; iridescent "Chicken and Beer" shops; subterranean cocktail bars in upscale hotels; brash karaoke rooms: Seoul’s throbbing streets are full to overflowing with places to get sozzled.
“Alcohol is our main release,” says Han, a 22 year old student. “We go out straight after work and often party all night. It helps us cope with the stress of life in this city and we sacrifice our sleep for it. Ironically, many of us are probably not that productive at work the next morning.”
Ignoring labour laws, many South Koreans work a six-day week and (unofficially) endure the longest working hours in the developed world, often starting work at 6.30am and leaving at 11pm or later. Several people tell me that those who do not conform will miss out on promotion or be bullied. What’s more, this culture of working long hours begins well before adulthood. “My sister is at high school and she averages five hours of sleep a night. It was the same for me,” says Han.
It is 4am and Han, his friend Bae and I have left Hongdae and moved on to Dongdaemun Market, a colossal 24-hour establishment that stretches across several city blocks and where you can buy anything from ginseng roots to knock-off Armani sunglasses. But we are here to buy neither.
We are savoring the last few hours before Han and Bae are back at their desks with a glass of makgeolli, a fizzy milky rice-wine — and, gulp, a carton of braised silkworms. “People always find something to eat with their drink in this city,” says Han. Something to line their stomachs to prepare them for another long day at work, perhaps.
Do your friends rely on you for travel recommendations? TRVL is a peer-to-peer travel booking platform. Tailor-make trips for your friends and earn up to 10% per booking.