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Parks, shops, bars. While these places may seem totally different, from clientele to the service hours, they are all frequently occupied third spaces. But what is a third space? Simply put, it is a public space that is separate from the home or workplace. Their purpose may be universal, but the usage of them certainly is not. This article will propose some postulations as to why they differ, and delve a little deeper into some differences between how people utilize the third space in the U.S. and South Korea.
Compared to the U.S., people in Korea seem to stay in third spaces for much longer. It is common for people to stay in one restaurant for a couple—if not several—hours. Along with this extended time is the sense of belonging. Making oneself comfortable in a public space (such as a cafe or park) by removing shoes, laying sideways, or sleeping are generally frowned upon or avoided in the States, but are not strange to see in Korea. Furthermore, these spaces appear to be consistently busy and packed, whereas in the States lulls and emptiness are not surprising.
One potential reason is the difference in eating culture. In Korea, there are often multiple rounds of eating. Each round usually has a different location. The first round is the main meal and first drinks, the second consists of snacks and heavier drinking, and this continues until everyone is too full and drunk to change locations again. These rounds can last anywhere from one hour to five or six—but, predictably, there will be several rounds. Unlike the States, there is not pressure to eat quickly and leave.
For Americans, staying in a restaurant or cafe for too long can be a bit rude, as it is seen as taking another group’s table and making others wait. We think if it is not currently being used for its purpose of eating or drinking, then we have finished with our business and should go. Furthermore, it can potentially be seen as publicly wasting time, which is frowned upon. Productivity is king, so if you appear as if you have no purpose in being there and nothing to do: you are lazy. This difference in approach to third spaces can contribute to how they’re used differently.
Perhaps it is obvious, but the U.S. is rather large. It is nearly ninety-nine times larger than South Korea, so it is sensible this would affect the way of life and, more specifically, the third space. More physical space means everything is much more spread out. As such, many Americans have to drive to most places and the options are limited. This distance can discourage going out and staying out for long periods of time in several locations. Not only is it expensive, but it also takes time to arrive in each place. And when private homes are relatively spacious and comfortable, why bother?
Meanwhile, Korea has one of the highest population densities in the world. Everyone lives extremely close to most resources and businesses; this, combined with a fantastic public transportation system, lends itself to active and convenient usage of third spaces. People live in apartments and use a lot of public transportation so it makes sense to be occupying the third space more, especially for young people attempting to have some space for themselves. More options are available in a closer range and it becomes much simpler to hop amongst a variety of places.
Another potential contributor is the different amenities that are widely available in each country. Two popular third spaces in Korea are the PC bang and norae bang. A PC bang is a computer center, open usually 24/7 with comfortable chairs and food available for purchase. It is cheap, usually only a few dollars per hour, and the computers are open for any use. Frequently, these are used for gaming. These gaming rooms are unique to Korea since in the U.S. most people have personal computers.
Just as common as the PC bang is the norae bang, or karaoke room. Whether it’s paid by the hour or per song, singing rooms are ubiquitous across Korea. More importantly, they are extremely cheap. Compared to the States, where one hour can be as much as $30, one hour in Korea is about $10, often even cheaper. This availability combined with affordability makes singing rooms accessible to most people and subsequently are utilized quite frequently. In the U.S., these amenities are not widely available due to a lack of demand and cost.
Similar to personal computers eliminating the demand for public computer rooms, this same technology has diminished another public space in the U.S.—shopping malls. Outside major cities, the advent of the internet and its readily available shopping sites in individual homes led to a decrease in usage. In the past, large shopping centers were very popular third spaces; hosting movie theaters, restaurants, and bookstores, people could spend hours inside a mall. Not anymore. These differences in amenities, and how technology has and continues to affect them, contribute to a contrast in usage between the States and Korea.
Many common third spaces also exist between the U.S. and Korea, but not all are used in the same way. Both places have public libraries that are free and popular with people from all different walks of life—families, couples, and older citizens. They also frequently host free events for the general public. Parks are another example of a free and open third space that are always available. Both of these are, in large part, used similarly.
Unexpectedly, it is cafes that differ in usage. In the States, cafes (besides the inescapable Starbucks) are few and far between outside major cities. Even when available, cafes are viewed much in the same vein as restaurants: customers should get what they came for, and go.
In Korea, however, cafes have a strong subculture. Cafes can be found around every street corner, all with varying themes and menus. Very much in vogue, cafes are popular for dates, gathering friends, and studying. With game cafes, escape room cafes, book cafes, and many more, this Korean third space is flourishing and diverse compared to the States. As previously mentioned, people are more apt to make themselves comfortable and stay for several hours in third spaces in Korea, and cafes are a prime example of this contrast with the U.S.
Personally, I quite enjoy comfortably passing time in a third space. When meeting with friends, it can lessen travel time and pressure to host (as well as people overstaying their welcome). Third spaces are also fantastic for productivity, be it studying, online work, or hobbies. While it may not necessarily be cheaper than staying home, it certainly is cheaper to stay in one place for a long time rather than move to a new location once every couple of hours.
Lastly, in Korea, third spaces such as cafes are often innovative in what they offer to clientele. Themed cafes and aesthetically pleasing restaurants have become a norm in an attempt to draw customers, and parks are kept exceptionally clean with well-kept gardens and interactive art displays.
With a different eating culture, physical size, and amenities, a divergence in the utilization of the public third space between the States and Korea is natural. This development allows for a fascinating glimpse into the ways subtle differences in culture manifest in everyday life. They seem unimportant, but within the larger context of society it can reveal quite a bit about habits and mindsets regarding these places.
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