I have officially been in Korea for over a month. Wow! So crazy. Although it’s a fairly short period of time, the amount of cultural differences I have experienced so far is astounding! I definitely did my fair share of research on Korean culture before arriving here, however being PHYSICALLY immersed in this culture cannot compare. I’ve been trying to keep track of these experiences for my own benefit, and also to share with you folks. My memo pad on my phone is now pretty full with these little notes, so I think it’s about time I share them.
Disclaimer: I am still in the early stages of learning and experiencing Korean culture. I am no expert here. These are examples that have personally stood out to me so far!
1. Selfie Sticks
For those who don’t know, a selfie stick is a plastic (i think) pole that holds your phone or camera further away from you while taking a picture of yourself. This allows the phone/camera to capture more scenery than what you would usually get by just holding it with your arm. These are abundant in South Korea, especially in more touristy areas. Selfie sticks are just another new and normal technology here, and people are not shy to whip out these 10 foot poles. I’m curious to know if one day they will gain popularity and acceptance in Canada.
P.S. In case you were wondering, yes I do have a selfie stick. It was waiting for me on my desk at work one day. (Sometimes people come in to school and try to sell you things, and if you listen in on their presentation you usually get something for free. This was one of those times.) I was ecstatic.
My new selfie stick. Collapsible, extendable, and so portable.
2. Public Display of Appearance (PDA- get it)
Selfie sticks are a great segue into my next point, which I have coined Public Display of Appearance. South Korea is very focused on appearance, as many countries are! However it expresses itself a bit differently in South Korea. Apparently, South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the WORLD, with 1/5 women having had plastic surgery, compared to 1/20 in the United States. (Don’t forget to take population size into consideration, too!) These are facts. What I mean by PDA specifically is (mostly) women fixing/applying their makeup in public. At my workplace, almost all the women have a mirror that is permanently fixed to their desk (and students, too!). And most of them, a makeup bag in their desk. I had a conversation with my co-teacher about this, which I thought was quite interesting. Women back home are more shy and embarrassed about applying makeup in public, and therefore if we do need to “touch up” we usually do so in the bathroom. In my opinion, I think this has to do with makeup having a bit of a negative connotation. We need to distance ourselves as far away as we can from the actual process of applying makeup, therefore applying in the bathroom, hidden away from others. However in Korea, this is not the case. Which, I think is great! Makeup, no makeup, public, private, it’s all gravy.
3. Heated Toilet Seats
Do I really have to elaborate? The title says it all. But seriously, it’s so great. They aren’t everywhere, but they are in a lot of places, like my school and many restaurants/hotels. Having heated toilet seats in a FREEZING school is a definite plus, which brings me to my next point….
4. FREEZING SCHOOLS!
Ok, so my school is freezing. Not just because we haven’t turned the heat on yet (I’m not sure if that day will even happen), but because the doors and windows stay open at all times. This is not exclusive to my school. From my conversations with friends and other teachers here, this seems to be commonplace. I am still confused by this. If we just closed the doors and windows….it would be warmer? And it’s not like all the other teachers are not cold, they are cold too! (Side note: YES South Korea does get very cold! Right now it averages between 7 and 13 degrees Celsius). I swear it feels colder though…..
I’ve noticed many of my fellow teachers wear winter vests on top of their outfits, perhaps I should invest in one?
5. HEATED FLOORS!
Yup, heated toilet seats AND heated floors. Well, heated floors in my apartment, not school. I’ve only had to turn the heat on a few times, but let me tell ya, it’s so great. The heating is in the plumbing which is in the floors, which is why the floors get heated. Yeehaw.
6. Toilet Paper
Toilet paper is used for more than just going to the bathroom here in South Korea! I noticed this on my first day of work when I was handed a roll of toilet paper by my co-teacher while sitting at my desk. At first I was confused. Was this my own personal roll of toilet paper that I take with me to the bathroom? (Side note: at my high school that I am only at once a week, you have to take toilet paper from the office before going to the bathroom. There is no toilet paper in there. I found out the hard way).
Despite my confusion, I gladly accepted the roll of toilet paper and put in on my desk. My co-teacher later asked me something along the lines of, “do you use toilet paper for many things in Canada too?” Maybe she could sense my confusion earlier that day. We then had an interesting conversation about toilet paper! Here in Korea it is used for Kleenex, napkins, etc. However back home you generally see Kleenex boxes, and stuff like that, but toilet paper makes so much more sense. Less garbage! Speaking of toilet paper, when it is used for it’s main purpose in South Korea (going to the bathroom), it is not flushed. It is disposed of in an (open) garbage bin that is in every bathroom. I still have a hard time remembering this. And when I do remember, well….sometimes I still flush it.
I could dedicate an entire post to this, but I will try to keep it brief. Alcohol is a staple in most meals, especially mekju (beer) and soju (Korean rice vodka). And yes, you can even defy all rules of mixing different types of alcohol since one of the most popular drinks is somek: beer and soju. So = soju, Mek = mekju. One thing that stands out the most to me, is where alcohol is consumed. Aka everywhere. We had a teacher volleyball tournament at the school (around 3:oopm, students still in school). There was food at this event, and lots of alcohol. On the stage in the gym, the tables were just lined with food, soju and beer bottles. This was definitely a sight that you would not see at home (at least not while the students are still at school, right?!). Another big thing that stands out to me is the pouring etiquette. Some examples:
- Never pour your own drink. You always pour other peoples, and then they will pour yours right after.
- Empty cups do not exist. If you see someone with an empty cup, fill it!
- When pouring: have the person you are pouring for hold their cup with both bands. Then, hold the bottle with both hands, and pour. Sometimes, instead of using two hands, you can place the hand that is not directly on the bottle near your elbow, or under the opposite side of your chest. (Side note: A general rule in Korea is to give and receive things with two hands. Money at the store, passing papers to coworkers etc.).
My first driving experience in Korea (that wasn’t a bus) was getting into a taxi after our bus had arrived in Gwangju. It was probably the scariest drive of my whole life, and I don’t think it had to do with how delirious I was from all the hours of travel. This was fitting, since it seemed to set the tone for what driving is normally like in Korea. For all my Canadians/Ottawatians out there, it is basically 10 times worse than Quebec driving (excuse the stereotype, I am sorry). There is minimal signalling, and when it is done, sometimes they just turn on their 4 ways instead. Sometimes, a red light is more of a suggestion. Texting and driving is not hidden, it is made blatantly obvious. HONKING! So much honking, people drive with their hand half on the horn ready to go at all times.
They are of course accustomed to this way of driving, so in reality it is pretty safe I guess. However this foreigner is still getting used to things. One positive aspect of driving is that drunk driving is also largely frowned upon here (however I‘m sure it still happens here, as it still does back home, and probably anywhere). Korea also has a service where someone will come pick up your car and drive you home. It is WIDELY used here. We definitely have this back home, but I don’t think it is used as frequently.
I had eaten Korean BBQ a few times back home, but that obviously doesn’t fully prepare you for living in Korea and eating Korean food everyday. But, let me just say, the food is so good sometimes it still feels crazy that “this is what they eat” on a regular basis. Especially the school lunches. It honestly feels like you are eating at a Korean restaurant everyday! There is always the standard rice and kimchi, of course. There is also always a soup, that changes everyday, as well as a main meat dish, and another vegetable type side dish. Sometimes there will be fruit, or a dessert, or both! There is definitely a lot of different foods in Korea that we are not used to back home, but I can’t really think of anything I’ve eaten so far that I wouldn’t eat again. I probably go out to dinner once or twice a week, and I am always impressed by how delicious it is, and how cheap. From my experience with groceries so far (which is still a struggle), I honestly think it’s probably cheaper to eat out than buy groceries. I was definitely surprised by this!
Since arriving to Korea, the number one thing that stands out to me is the generosity of the Korean people and the huge aspect of sharing that is embedded in their culture. At work, we get spoiled. There is always food or fruit around that someone brings in. As soon as it arrives and if you haven’t had a chance to get up and eat it yet, you can guarantee that one of your coworkers is on their way to bring you one, or calling you over “Laura! Laura!”. For my co-teachers birthday, I picked her up a few things, and one of them was this mug filled with candy. The first thing she did after she opened it was ask, “Can I share with everybody?”. She then went around the Teacher’s Room and handed everybody a piece of candy. I thought this was the sweetest thing. On my first day of Elementary school, my Principal handed me a bag filled with 5 persimmons. He apparently owns a persimmon farm! I was so grateful. P.S it is now my new favourite fruit. But sadly they are slowly going out of season 🙁
A cooked Korean sweet potato I was handed at work. I was confused as to how I was supposed to eat it at first, but I just followed everyone’s lead: pealed the skin off and ate in like an ice cream cone!
This food was made by students in their Home Ec class and a whole platter of it was brought to the Teachers’ Room. This happened THREE times last week! All the teachers gathered around the table and shared. Notice the spaghetti at the top! They usually make something “Western”, like sandwiches too.
You will also get handed food in the most unexpected places from kindest people. For example, a lady turning around in her seat on the bus and handing you a clementine, or getting handed a yogurt at the bank. The people of Korea, especially my wonderful co-workers have made me feel so at home in this country. Even though there is a big language barrier, there is undeniable bond and connection I feel with these people.
And there you have it. The Top 10 Cultural Differences I have experienced thus far. Many of these of surface level, and I know I will only continue to learn about the people and the culture on a deeper level.