Monday, April 2, 2012

Notes on Korean culture

A few idiosyncrasies about Korean culture:

  • It's completely acceptable to hock loogies on the street.  The pavement is covered with piles of spit and green gooey phlegm.  A walk to school does not pass without my dodging a few bubbly gobs of mucus or witnessing someone plug one nostril and shoot snot out the other side.  Nor does it pass without my listening to someone gargle phlegm as fiercely as possible to transport it from their throat and onto the ground. No wonder they don't allow shoes in the house.
  • Koreans do not make eye contact, smile, or nod hello to strangers. Ever. Not on the subway, elevator, or passing on the streets. They also will push around you and cut in lines. It's nothing against you, it's just how they interact - very little respect for personal space.
  • Koreans greet one another by bowing, not shaking hands.  A slight bow of the head will also suffice.
  • At grocery stores, there are workers posted at almost every aisle.  They are usually handing out samples of food, but others are there to guide you in your purchases.  They can be very overbearing, shouting at you, gesturing to some product you don't want.  A worker at the local Lotte Mart convinced me to buy a 10-pack of croissants today just because I glanced at them..
  • It's not uncommon for a man to carry his girlfriend's purse/shopping bags for her. Kyle's still perfecting this one... :)

  • When you are born in Korea, you are age 1 (not 0).  Koreans age at the Chinese New Year (January) rather than on their actual birthday.  So a Korean's age is 1-2 years older than their Western age. 
  • Tipping is not expected in Korea.  In fact, sometimes it's considered rude to bartenders, servers, and cab drivers alike.
  • Koreans are very quiet when riding public transportation.  Older Koreans will glare and shush you if they think you're too loud.
  • Maybe it's just my first time living in a big city, but it seems Koreans will park anywhere and everywhere.  Double parking? Why, of course.  Triple parking? Just this once.  Parking on the sidewalk? If you're in a pinch.
These are all "parked" cars
  • When you order take-out, most restaurants bring you re-usable plates and bowls along with real silverware.  You simply place the used dishware (dirty with food waste and all) outside your door, and the delivery man picks it up later.
  • When exchanging something (merchandise, money, receipts, etc.), you're supposed to give and receive with two hands, or with your right hand extended (palm up) and your left palm on the inside of your elbow.  It's rude to take with one hand, especially your left.
  • At restaurants (even fancier ones), immediately after you place your order, the bill is placed on your table.  Even before you get your food!
  • Finally, English is not very prominent in Korean culture.  Few Koreans speak survivor English, and even fewer speak it intelligibly.  I've yet to find a Korean with whom I don't have to slow my speaking down, use elaborate gestures, and oversimplify my sentences.  Here's an example of an English translation you might see around South Korea:
Not "Low ceiling," or "Watch your head." Just, "Head careful."

Like Americans, Koreans can be extremely rude, extremely kind, and anywhere in between.  I've had cab drivers shout at me to get out of the car and old Korean men shake their heads at us saying, "No, no, no..." when we're talking too loudly. I've also had random Korean women stop me in the subway station just to practice their English on me.  One even gave me her phone number in case I had any problems, questions, or needed help during my stay.  How sweet!

Overall, the culture shock has been rather weak.  I've observed some cultural norms gradually over the weeks, and most Koreans assume if you're a foreigner, you won't abide by them anyway.  The expectations are low. However, if you do put forth effort, like handing money to a cashier the polite way, or saying hello/thank you/goodbye in Korean to vendors, they express great appreciation. I wonder what else I'll observe in the coming months.

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