As is the case with living in any foreign country, you’ll inevitably run into aspects of society that are simply different than your own. Even as I continue to acclimate to life in Korea, the following 8 things are peculiarities that I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.
1. Matching Gym Outfits
Say goodbye to the ripped 50-year old guy wearing his Gold’s Gym cut-off from his peak in the 80’s; in Korea, no such specimen exists. Instead, nearly everyone can be found sporting the same gym-provided uniform – one color for men, and one for women.
There is practicality to it, as using the gym’s clothes undoubtedly saves you laundry, but I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing everyone around me exercising in the exact same outfit.
2. No Talking on Public Transportation
In Korea, it’s pretty acceptable to speak during a public presentation/concert, but there is one place that you better not raise your voice; public transportation. The majority of time spent on buses or subways is confined to a mere whisper. And believe me, people will, not-so-subtly, confront you for being loud (especially as a foreigner).
Coming from the boisterous New York subways where spontaneous dance crews and paper-bagged Bud Lights seem to be the norm, this took many a dirty stare before the unwritten rule registered in my mind.
3. School Slippers
As customary in Korean society, it’s essential to remove your shoes before entering homes and many restaurants. While I do appreciate the cleanliness of this, the rule also applies, far less-practically, to schools.
Rather than just socks, students and teachers alike wear what are universally referred to as ‘slippers’ – or essentially the equivalent of Adidas slides or Crocs (yes, Crocs are 100% fashionable here).
The catch, however, is that many people wear their slippers outside as well; whether it’s teachers walking in from their car or students wandering the campus during lunch. Despite this, you will still be reprimanded if you wear your normal shoes inside.
4. No Hand Soap in Middle School Boy’s Bathrooms
Speaking of schools, let’s pivot to the lack of soap in my Middle School boy’s bathrooms. By no means am I a germaphobe, but let’s be honest; if there’s one demographic of humans whose lives most necessitate the need for hand soap, it’s probably boys between the ages of 13-15.
True, even if it was available, most would not use it in the first place. But by having the option, one would think that it would lead to at least a 50% use. 40%? Okay, we’ll settle on 30% – still better than nothing.
5. Corn, Corn, Corn
Now let’s talk about something that Korea does better than most; food – or corn in particular. In America, we too eat a lot of corn – whether it’s as a staple in BBQ, backyard grill-outs, or everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving meal.
But how about pizza? Breakfast sandwiches? Hot dogs? Ice cream?!!! Korea takes this ubiquitous gastronomic parcel to a new level, as it seems to find it’s way into your mouth in ways previously unfathomable to the human mind.
6. ‘Stamina’ Foods
This is one of my favorite quirks of Korean food culture. As a male, we are often told that the food we are eating will help to give us ‘stamina’. Whether it’s octopus, chicken soup, fish, or wine-like drinks, I am led to believe that seemingly most-everything I enjoy is ‘good for man’.
While one can infer the meaning of ‘stamina’ in this context, the explicit message seems to always be left ambiguous (certainly the language barrier doesn’t help). For now, we’ll stick with my interpretation of: why drink coffee for energy in the morning when you can eat live octopus?!
7. No Napkins or Water
At restaurants in the West, I’m pampered with large cloth napkins and giant glasses of ice-water. As a shamelessly messy eater who drinks water like a fish, these are luxuries that I have grown quite comfortable with.
Here, however, the napkins represent something closer to frail tissue paper and hardly protect you from Korea’s messy soups and sauces. Also, water cups (usually not brought unless asked) are typically the size of a small paper bathroom cup. First-world problems, I guess.
8. Bowl Cuts
I want you to take a look at the following picture and tell me a similarity you notice amongst the boys:
If you guessed their haircuts, you’d be right. More specifically the bowl cut. This look, synonymous with the American boy-band craze at the turn of the century, is all the rage these days in Korea.
An impressively fashion-forward country, Korea is equally as homogenous in it’s style trends and one look at any of the major KPOP groups shows exactly where they stem from. I’m not sure if it’s always been this way here but as of now, the bowl cut is running rampant.
While the above list may seem like petty complaints I have towards life in Korea, they are absolutely not. Rather, I see them as subtle charms of society that often times, force me to stop and laugh.
Living here, I’ve learned to take things in stride and appreciate the peculiarities that make a country different. After all, if traveling didn’t expose you to new experiences and ways of life, what would be the point?
I hope you enjoyed this Rat Tale and that you have a wonderful holiday season with your friends and family!
Until next time; cheers,