I used to smile and reply, “I know! Getting’ my tan, pretty sweet eh!” but they’d start patting my skin saying “No… White is beautiful!”
As it turns out, Koreans and I have a very different definition of how to enjoy summer.
We were exhausted at the end of the day. And of course I’d always be sunburn, red as a crab, while my mum would rub lotion on my back, mumbling something about sunscreen. No matter how hard she tried, I would always be running away every time she even mentioned sunblock. No way I would stand still for 5 minutes!
I also got head sunburns because I refused to wear a hat. My family still recalls me dancing on the kitchen table of the unit, whipping my crazy blond curly hair all over my red face. Those were the days…
If I could’ve walked around naked I would’ve… just because I wanted to be as free as possible! Worrying about losing my top while attempting some crazy back flip in the swimming pool was, in my tiny little being’s opinion, a waste of time.
As I am now older, I am much less active at the beach. But I still get sunburn from snorkeling for hours, cover myself in sand for no apparent reason, and simply love to swim around doing random stuff.
But average Koreans? Not so much.
One of my ajumma students told me the ideal time to go for a swim is around 5pm – when the sun is weaker. 5pm? I can spend a whole day at the beach! The only reason one might go before 5pm would be to pick up some seaweed or rare shellfish, like many ajummas do.
Or just for fishing, which is especially popular at night after a big day at work.
Korean beaches are PACKED in the summer. It’s not funny. It’s suffocating. The reverie of a deserted beach is so far away from reality. For crying out loud, every single beach is efficient – with lifeguards, boat security, restaurants and convenience stores, shower rooms, rental service, and of course parasols.
The Korea Times had a picture of Haeundae Beach (in Busan) covered with parasols as over 600 000people flocked there on a Sunday. You can’t see the beach. Only people and parasols. And they cost about 10$ to rent. Imagine the profit.
I’ve mentioned before how Koreans desperately love white skin, and how they even buy (though not as much as the Thais do) whitening body lotion. But did I mention they also swim with their clothes on?
A typical picture of a family at a Korean beach goes like this: everyone is wearing long shorts, a t-shirt, a big fat hat and sunglasses. A few hot chicks wear a bikini and a few hot guys go in a Speedo –but although it is getting more common, it’s still quite scarce.
Koreans don’t want to get tanned. They’re afraid of skin cancer, but they also just don’t want their skin to get darker. And a lot of them (especially women, even if they’re totally skinny) don’t feel comfortable showing their body to the opposite sex.
However two men can totally share a sweet moment together, having a snack under a parasol without even being gay. Back home they'd be chasing women to prove their masculinity but here, they even rub lotion on each other and it's perfectly normal.
As for swimming….!! Oh boy! About half of my students can’t swim. And all my ajumma students don’t swim at all.
Here’s a typical day at the beach for a Korean couple: the girl is sitting on a yellow tube (they’re all yellow) and her boyfriend/husband is softly pushing it around. He probably has water below his waist. He might try to gently wobble the tube, but not for long as his girlfriend/wife will start screaming and hitting him.
Last Saturday a group of, I don’t know, 6-8 Korean adults were playing volleyball in the sea… with their life vest on!!!!
Doug told me he once was surfing with a some people and Koreans started yelling at him. They ignored them and kept enjoying the (relatively calm) waves… until 3 tiny lifeguards started running toward them with a yellow tube around their waist…..!! They were blowing their whistle, screaming at Doug and his friends.
Doug said “Seriously dude… I was laughing so hard! If those guys got any closer to the waves WE would have had to rescue them!! So we came back to the shore and realized they had a whole emergency team waiting for us. It was insane!”
Every beach has lifeguard boats. At least one. Sometimes many more than necessary.
Jeju is considered Korea’s Hawaii thanks to its gorgeous beaches of white sand and clear blue water, but it’s definitely no surfer’s paradise, with hot chicks in bikinis and rhum/coconuts by the beach!
That being said, this island is definitely enjoyable, especially in the summer, thanks to its huge volcano/mt. Hallasan and countless things to do.
North of Jeju is Hamdeok beach – a 20-minute drive from City Hall, there’s a small hill to hike, tons of seafood restaurants, an amusement park and lots of green spaces around. Not really the spot for waves, but great for snorkeling.
A little farther there's Gimyeong beach - similar to Hamdeok, but a bit less crowded even though there's a huge field where festivals are often held. Water sports are very popular here.
West are Gwakji and Hyeopjae beaches – both gorgeous and always packed with Koreans. It’s in the countryside so less touristy but there are convenience stores and snackshops around. Anything can be rented there as well, including life vests, tubes and snorkeling equipment.
It’s a delight to gaze at Biyangdo Island while swimming at Hyeopjae. There are countless tents for everyone to enjoy, and they also offer boat/banana rides. Like at any beach, renting a parasol is about 10 000 won.
South is Jungmun – located in the big touristy area, you get easy access to world-class hotels like the Lotte or the Hyatt. The waves can get pretty wild and of course this beach also gets packed. Haenyos (women divers) sell fresh seafood, and you can have incredibly expensive western food at any hotel.
We like to hang out at the Hyatt swimming pool while sipping piña coladas because no one asks us any questions… too shy to speak English, ya know ;)
On the East side I’m not really sure what beaches are worth checking out, but if you head to sunrise peak, just catch the (15-minute) ferry to Udo island. The beach is gorgeous and you can also spend the day walking around, hiking to the little lighthouse, eating fresh seafood and riding a bicycle.
You can camp pretty much anywhere and even if you're at the beach for the day, you'll find that many Koreans bring "their home" (i.e. tent) with them. If you get a scooter you will definitely love the experience of driving around feeling free as a bird.
Iho beach is always crowded but it's not as nice as the other beaches and many people go there to drink, party or hangout. It's a bit dirty, and close to the village.
The countryside is still quite rustic so you’ll probably in awe every time you see half-bent 70-year-old women working the field, or men driving weird tractors from the 20’s.
Lava caves are all over the place and really cool to visit. Temples are also awesome and they sell incense, Buddhist stuff and delicious vegetarian food too. Museums are diverse – from peace, to sex, women divers and tea. Tea fields are green and gorgeous.
Horse fields are all around the island. So are waterfalls. The tourist map is probably the best one I’ve EVER seen because every little thing is on it; you can just look at it and randomly decide where to go. There are many small avenues but the main ones that cover the island are big, fast, efficient and easy to find.