I’m sure that there are many, and at the same time not all that many, things that are unique to Korea and Koreans. This is a list of some of those things based on observation. Some of these things are great, some just are, and some are pretty annoying to Jon and I. Fortunately, we have added another coping mechanism to our repertoire. Now, when we don’t get why someone(s) is doing something we say “Oppa Gangnam Style!” with a shrug and have a little giggle. You gotta do what helps, right!?
In no particular order, I present to you…some observations:
* I drink 1-3 Americanos outside of the house every single day. And each time, my Americano comes with anywhere from one to three inches of empty space at the top. And YET, there is no milk available to coffee drinkers. Ever. Anywhere. And should you ask for a hit of milk, they will tell you that what you really wanted was a latte. So I ask you…what the heck do I need all that extra space in my cup for!? Fill ‘er up to the brim with hot water! I want that coffee to last me as long as humanly possible, I say! I do not get it. This might be the thing that stumps me the most in this country. (Also, brewed coffee is basically non-existent. I haven’t gotten all snobby on you with my Americanos, or anything. I still love you, brewed coffee).
* Koreans make a lot of low, guttural noises. The men, especially, but the women as well…especially the women of a certain age. For the longest time I thought it was only when they were upset. But I have come to understand that these noises can be used in a variety of instances, many of which seem to be just “being heard”. There is often minimal intent behind them. At other times, however, they can convey a very strong “move it, youngster/foreigner/giant”, “kamsa hamnida (thank you)”, or “I’m standing here, don’t squish me” and the like. It’s basically the human interaction version of the way they drive (a beep here, a beep there, a beep beep everywhere).
* Speaking of driving, I recently found out why the bus drivers are INSANE. It’s because they are paid by number of completed routes per shift. WHAT!? That seems to be just asking for trouble. And yet…we do get places in a timely fashion…so there’s that.
* Strangers will occasionally hold your things on the bus or train. Especially the bus because the drivers, as mentioned directly above, are crazy and it can be traumatic if you are standing with no (or even one) free hand(s). This includes bags, purses and children, but is not limited to said items. I think it’s pretty great that they will think nothing of swinging another woman’s child onto their lap to help someone out, or that when I am trying to cart a cake home for a birthday and getting tossed about, someone might take the cake and save me from splatting it, or myself, across some unsuspecting Korean on the commute home. It’s happened to me twice, and both times I felt like I was being invited in, like it was some grand gesture of acceptance, and it made me so happy. Maybe it was!
* Koreans, especially women, sometimes laugh when they are embarrassed. At first you think this means in a certain set of situations – maybe trouble at work, or on a date. In fact, it also involves most interactions with foreigners. It took me five months to figure this out. In the meantime, I was feeling self-conscious because Koreans were laughing at me! Here’s an example, and this kind of scenario has happened to me at least three times and Jon probably many more (because the women are even gigglier/more easily embarrassed/he’s just soooooo handsome): A young Korean guy looks over at me 2 or 3 times. He is sitting with women and I am with Jon so I think little of it. Jon goes in to grab our coffees and the young man says “hi” with a big smile and then looks away and giggles with his friends. He does it again, and maybe this time one of his friends says hi as well, and they both give me a little Korean nod, and then look away and giggle. As you might imagine, by now I am all “Crap! Is there something on my face!?” and beginning to feel anxious. It’s about this time that one of them, male OR female, will find the courage (I guess?) to tell me they think I am ……. (insert compliment here). Then they will all giggle and blush and go back to their coffees. It is absolutely adorable, now that I know what the heck is coming. But I tell you, being laughed at (or so it felt!) by groups of Koreans while you are trying to casually enjoy a coffee is very unnerving the first few times it happens! It turns out they are just embarrassed to be a) speaking to a foreigner, b) speaking in English and/or c) complimenting a stranger. Delightful, really. It’s been a long time since a guy blushed when he spoke to me and I rather like it 😉* There are basically no public garbage cans anywhere. In any of the parks. I have heard rumour that this is so people don’t put their household trash in them – because you pay for all your trash here – but in the meantime, there is litter virtually EVERYWHERE. It’s not so clean as I once thought. I mean, the trains are. And there are people who are paid to go around constantly cleaning up trash off the ground. Which springs to mind another question about cost of occasional household trash versus paying an army of humans to clean up…but then, maybe it is the Korean government’s way of finding jobs for people? Anyways. Trash, and lots of it, everywhere. But often in big piles that people seem to designate as “this is where a trash can should be” spots. This includes the public toilets and outhouses, sometimes rendering them unusable.
* There is minimal consistency when ordering at restaurants. They serve what they have, when they have it. Sometimes that dish does not come with meat and so you (ME) think you are in the clear. Then, suddenly, the same dish is being served to you with meat on it for the first time in five times of ordering this exact dish. The same goes for when you try to order specifically. The very same person may or may not understand you in the same way, two times in a row. It’s entirely frustrating to me, mostly because of my limitations, but I imagine not that big of a deal to many. It just is. I blame a lot of it on my lack of Korean skills, however other foreigners tell me it’s not uncommon to speak clear Korean and have them still not “be able” to understand you. Curious. I chalk it up to the way some people back home, for example, can’t understand someone speaking English with an accent. Maybe they just haven’t been very exposed, you know?!
* Also. Koreans eat with their mouths open, often shoved quite full (I’ve seen food quite literally spilling back out), and make big, full smacking sounds as they do. I don’t know if the smacking sounds are on purpose or if they don’t notice. I think it’s a show of enjoyment though because nearly everyone does it, and many people reeeeaaalllly get into it. You can hear them two tables away. These are the times when, to keep from going CRAZY, I have to do the Oppa Gangnam shrug and giggle (referenced above – try to keep up :D). I have yet to find a way to politely ask anyone if this is just a normal way to eat or if it specifically shows enjoyment of the food. SHOULD I be smacking my lips a bit more if I am out with a Korean?? I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t know if I care to find out because cultural or not, I’m not sure I can go there. Harding, however, seems to be fitting right in…. ;-D hahahaha.
* Male hairstylists are extremely prominent. Some salons seem to have exclusively male stylists, whether by design or fluke.
* Koreans do not rub things in. Ok, let me explain. I am referring to lotion, facial mist, shampoo, conditioner, etc. Anything that you apply topically. They do not RUB these things in. They pat them in. All of the above and more, I’m sure. It’s not really a thing one way or the other, except that it makes little smacking noises and I have noticed it very often. And when my hair is being professionally shampooed, the shampoo and then the conditioner are patted into my hair…and then patted right back out. It’s different from the way we use said beauty products.
* Most Korean males smoke. If Wikipedia is to be believed…smoking is the nation’s leading cause of death. At least 80% of adult males admit to smoking.
* Korean men seem to think any Caucasian woman is probably a prostitute. Given the number of English teachers in Korea, this seems a bit ridiculous to me. But there it is. Wishful thinking or precedent-based? You decide.
* Koreans are extremely close, by my cultural standards, with their same-sex friends. Both genders hold friends hands, remove things from each others’ faces, rest a hand on the small of a friend’s back, sit on each others’ laps (this is not restricted to the young, either), feed each other food, stroke each others’ hair, and so on. It’s not strange here. I find it quite refreshing, if a little odd, to be honest. Grown men will hang out with a hand on each other’s legs without being teased. Girls can stroll hand in hand without a double take. It’s loving, not strange, to feed your friend from your plate. It shows a lot of quiet warmth in a culture that tends to strike me with their verbal silence at times.* Koreans mostly only have same-sex friends. Almost exclusively. I gather it is considered lower class of women to hang out with men but I have not fully verified this remark with any sources. Nonetheless, it is extremely rare to see a group of men and women together. A man and a woman, yes, but never more than one and one. Maybe someone can set me straight on this subject? Do you know?
* When men are with friends, they drink and eat. When women are with friends, they go to coffee shops and have coffee and eat. I like that eating is always involved 🙂
* South Korea has the world’s highest, or second highest (depending on the year), suicide rate. How upsetting is that? I surmise it has a lot to do with the stress of school obligations and expectations as a child, the stress of seeming always busy and drinking too much as an adult worker, and the stress of being unable to lose face in any situation. But that’s a lot of surmising.
* The university you get into will largely determine your future status and success. More so than grades in university or career path or company after that. This is why the young kids, and especially teenagers, have so very much pressure put on them. The university entrance exams basically decide the rest of their lives (by Korean standards).* A lot of signage includes English and yet no one ever has this English grammar or spell checked before paying money to have it put onto a huge sign. I don’t get it. Even signs for the city, on construction sites, do not make grammatical sense. If the city is going to push English, I think at the very least they need to push correct English. Am I right!?
* The Korean version of good customer service when you are shopping is to trail you as you meander. They are so close at times that if you turn back to have a second peek at that yellow sweater, you bump into them. They tidy the moment your hand leaves something and follow you to the mirror and back to the rack, etc. It would be kind of funny to pull a little prank and just zig zag through a store until they noticed…but I’m not that cruel. AM I!?
That’s all I can remember for now! I hope you enjoyed. I love knowing these little things about a country. They are the kind of thing you don’t generally get to know unless you live there. And I definitely want to remember them! I might have to do a part two once we’ve been here for another six months (it’s been SIX months already!)
Lemme know if there’s another country/culture you know that does any of the above – I live for this stuff!