When I returned to Korea after a year traveling SE Asia, Italy and USA, I was curious what I would notice, what changed, what feelings I’d re-experience, what would bother, excite or challenge me this time. Turns out, it’s the same same but different.
The language is a hard barrier, but comforting in that you don’t have to constantly eavesdrop out of curiosity. The public transit is fantastic. The food, as referenced many times before, is outstanding.
So I realized, it’s the little differences. Example. Well, you can go to McDonald’s and order a quarter pounder with cheese, but they don’t have any real hard “R’s” in their language, so you have to say, “Qwatah poundah wis cheejuh.” It’s not that difficult, but you feel slightly condescending and infantilizing to the counterperson, who is probably grateful that you spoke in a dialect they can understand. I’ve approached the counter and seen waitstaff run to grab their colleague who speaks English and then giggle along as I give my order. Therefore, here is a completely random: “short list of little differences in Korea”.
- Bathrooms have bar soap. This is not exclusively true, but in any random public bathroom you can expect to see a bar of Irish Spring sitting in a putrid marsh of ancient bubbles and stagnant water. Sometimes it’s jammed onto a small pole so you just kinda grab it like a “you know what” and get a little soapy.
- Old people can be either extremely cute, lovely and helpful OR mean, rude and disrespectful. But I imagine they feel the same way toward us foreigners. It is also highly dependent on how you are behaving at the time.
- There are NO public trashcans. This is incomprehensible. Trash is laying all over the place waiting to be picked up by neon vested men when they could just put a big black receptacle on corners to assist the 10 million Seoulites who need to toss their granola wrapper and coffee cup.
- Karaoke is a private, not public affair. In the U.S. I remember singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” and thinking, “I’ve made a huge, tiny mistake” as I bored the drunken crowd with my somehow off-pitch falsetto and histrionic gyrations. In Korea, you pay 20$ and 5-10 friends sing and dance together with plenty of soju libations.
- School NOT sports. Kids don’t play after school sports. They go directly to hagwons, i.e. “cram schools.” They may play some pick up games on Sundays in tiny playgrounds, but I rarely see a ball in hand without a bag on back.
- TV is all undisguised reality and cooking/eating. The reality shows aren’t beautiful people in beautiful places. It’s a Dad feeding ramen to his baby. It’s a guy who owns a pig and a dog. It’s an old man hiking. It’s old ladies making kimchi. The cooking shows are kind of commercials for a restaurant or locale in Korea with everyone slurping and exclaiming, as far as I can tell, the only compliment for food, “mashida”–which translates loosely to “has taste.”
- Baseball is a crazy event with hot cheerleaders, constant singing/chants and balloon waving. In USA, it’s called the national pastime and according to George Carlin, “a 19th century pastoral game…where the object is to go home and to be safe at home!” Here, it’s like soccer hooligans switched sports.
- There are no dryers. Yes, laundromats have them, but who will walk down the street to do a load? With apartment space at a premium, they just use the drying racks. I wonder if they know about the stackable washer/dryer.
- Fans can cause death. This is an old wives tale, and completely ridiculous. I lived in Texas where you use both A/C and fans. The fan didn’t push the air away from my mouth thereby rendering me unconscious leading to eventual snoozing asphyxiation.
- Food trash is separate. This makes sense. I’ve heard they used the methane from food trash to make energy. And if you’ve ever smelled week old, laid out in the humid summer kimchi, you’d want that smell working for you.
- Shoes come off inside. I tried to maintain my shoes off routine back in Philadelphia, but my socks kept getting so dirty! With small apartments (my bed is literally 5 steps from the door) you need to maintain cleanliness.
- People are terrified of dogs. My dog does look like a wolf, but my friend walks her 12 year old spaniel and says she sees the faces of terror from Koreans as they sprint away. I think they’re afraid of the returning karma for eating dogs for so long.
- Parks have exercise equipment. Lots of parks have only old lady type machines for stretching and pseudo toning, but some have pull up bars, body weight machines or an actual bar with plates for bench press. How long before those weights got stolen in America?
- Every activity requires perfect “gear.” This is a bit of the conformity complex of Korea. They can choose the color, but the style is the same. If you’re hiking, wear the cool mountain trekker get-up. If you’re biking, spandex and fancy shoes. If you’re swimming, cap and goggles. If you’re riding the subway, earplugs and smartphones.
- Diversity is basically non-existent. Sure, there are a few hundred thousand foreigners in Seoul, which is maybe 5% of the population. That means that at any given street corner, subway platform, ATM, food stall, music performance, park or beach, you are usually the only one with natural brown hair or blue eyes. And if not, you eye that foreigner with suspicion.
- Girls show legs but never cleavage. The girls have long, soft, shapely legs and generally less up top. Work what your mamma gave ya. This is best evidenced by K-Pop girls.
- Men like to dress preppy. No socks, rolled cuffs, button down, sweaters tossed purposefully casually over the shoulders, shiny watch and clean shoes. It’s like they saw that poster from my Catholic prep high school and made it the cultural norm.
- Side Dishes are free and unlimited. This goes along with the outstanding food tradition of Korea. The kimchi is free and delicious–mashida! Ask your waitress at Applebees for more vegetables for free and see if you get it.
- There are 3 kinds of beer, all with the same taste. Drinking is mostly obligatory and since all three kinds of beer suck, and soju is flavorless rubbing alcohol; it makes partying more of a chore than a tasty accident. To be fair, micro brews are booming and soju is now flavored…they’re learning.
- Men smoke the equivalent of Virginia Slims like a gangster. They have these little slim 100’s and hold them like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Smoking is already not cool, and the thin tobacco holster isn’t helping.