10 Things To Know When Visiting Korea

10 Things to Know When Visiting Korea

I’ve been playing it cool here on the blog for the past few days, but in real life I’ve been totally freaking out in the best possible way: my mom is coming to visit me in Korea in just 2 weeks!!! No amount of exclamation points will ever be enough to explain how excited I am. When I left for Korea back in March, I never thought anyone would come to visit me –  it’s just so far away! And although I had a few friends flirt with the idea, ultimately I just didn’t see it happening. Flash back to one week ago today, when my mom somewhat spontaneously decided to visit. In 3 weeks. Incredible.

Literally: I still don’t believe it. Or, I do believe it and I’m thrilled, but it still feels a bit surreal and so, so wonderful. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing my family, and it really does feel unnatural. I’m very grateful I’ll get to see my mama, talk to her incessantly, and show her around my corner of Korea. Before she arrives, though, I wanted to tell her the top cultural differences to be aware of while she’s visiting. So I decided to share them with you as well. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. Don’t assume the sidewalk is safe

This may be the case in other foreign countries I’ve not yet visited, but I know for sure it’s different from back home. Here in Korea the “sidewalks” are actually bike paths, with no real designated area for pedestrians to walk. Everyone does walk on the paths, of course, but it’s important to be aware that at any moment a motorcycle or bicycle could come riding down the sidewalk towards you. In my experience, the motorcycle drivers (mostly delivery guys) are excellent drivers, and are used to slowing down and/or dodging pedestrians, but even so, people usually get out of the way for them so it’s good to be aware.

10 Things to Know When Visiting Korea

2. Don’t assume that crosswalks are safe

Let me put both safety considerations up front, because of course I worry about these ones the most. Crosswalks are not really respected here the way they are back home. Don’t assume a driver will stop for you or even slow down. Taxi drivers regularly and possibly obliviously block pedestrian access to a crosswalk. At big intersections obviously the cars stop for traffic signals and you’re safe to cross. But at little ones sometimes you have to be careful – there’s one very near to my house that cars come whipping across constantly and it really is the pedestrian’s job to check if there are cars coming and whether it’s safe to cross. I’m not saying every driver is like this, but I have definitely noticed a consistent pattern.

3. Korean Toilets 101

Western toilets are becoming more common, but especially in public bathrooms they are usually outnumbered by the good old squat toilet. I hadn’t used a squat toilet before coming to Korea but I’m comfortable with them now and it doesn’t bother me at all to use them. They’re really not that bad!

You will probably need to bring your own toilet paper. You can buy little tissue packs almost anywhere here (don’t worry mom, I’ve got you covered) and they’re worth carrying around. All bathrooms at private businesses and restaurants will have TP, and many public bathrooms will too, usually in a big roll on the wall outside of the stalls (so remember to grab some before you go in!), but a lot won’t.

The bathrooms are fairly clean but they can smell pretty bad. Strange, I know (get used to it, there are a lot of juxtapositions in this country) but let me explain. Bathrooms are usually well-maintained, but there is the (forgive me) unpleasant* practice of putting used toilet tissue in an open wastebasket in the corner of the stall which is unsanitary and smells bad.

*I try not to use negative adjectives when I’m describing Korea or any other foreign country but this is one of the things I really don’t like.

10 Things to Know When Visiting Korea

4. You will be different

Especially if you are not visiting Seoul (but even if you are, sometimes!) you might get stared at more than you’re used to. This is usually by the older generation or very young children who see foreigners rarely. I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, and it’s not usually hostile, but it can still be very disconcerting at times. I’ve had young girls point and say “waygook!” (foreigner) to their parents, or a middle-aged man stare at me for entire subway rides all while whispering to his wife and them laughing together. My friends and I have been the only foreigners in an entire several train cars. I have a twenty minute walk to work each way and it’s rare for me to see another foreigner.

So you may be stared at or approached because you look different. Very often older people want to talk to you and practice their English a bit, asking where you’re from and how old you are (this is a very common question that is not considered rude in Korea). For the most part, none of this attention is necessarily negative, just perhaps surprising.

5. Public transportation is very quiet (except when it’s not)

There can be a touch of a double standard when it comes to volume on all forms of public transportation here. Most of the time, the subways are close to silent, but it’s okay if people talk quietly. My friends and I have gotten shushed more than once for talking at a reasonable, normal volume. On the other hand, you’ll often encounter locals talking very loudly into their phones or families being very noisy on trains. Either way, it’s a good idea to be a little quieter than you’re used to.

10 Things to Know When Visiting Korea

6. You should give and receive politely (even though it’s okay if you don’t)

Traditionally in Korean culture you are meant to give and receive things (especially money) with either two hands, or one hand while touching your elbow. Most people don’t expect foreigners to know about this practice so you can get a pass if you forget, it won’t be overly offensive. Some places I go, such as grocery stores, they don’t do it, even if I do (and I’ve observed this with Korean customers as well), so it’s possible that the tradition is being phased out in more casual places.

If you’re eating with other people, it’s respectful to never pour your own drink, instead pour for someone else using two hands, while they hold the cup in both hands as well. My little kids always give me everything from homework assignments to board markers with both hands and it’s so incredibly sweet.

7. Koreans are very expressive people

Koreans are very expressive with their language and sounds. When they listen, they make little noises, almost to confirm that they’re listening actively and sympathizing with the speaker. There are also certain words that are meant to be said in a very particular way. For example, my kids taught me the word that means “oh my goodness” or “oh dear me…” which gets said a lot. I repeated it with good pronunciation but they told me it had to be said in a far more expressive way, basically with feeling. (You can see some examples of how to pronounce “aigo” here, if you’re curious.) From what I can tell from my limited Korean knowledge, this is really common.

I actually love this tendency to make sounds and be expressive. My friends and I have unconsciously adopted it, and I think now I probably make way more sounds when people are talking than I ever did before. It feels natural and it’s kind of fun.

10 Things to Know When Visiting Korea

8. But sometimes Koreans are hard to read

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought something was really serious based on facial expression and the aforementioned tone of voice only to discover that it was not a big deal at all. This happens a lot at work, especially when you feel like you’ve done something wrong but in the end it was completely fine. It can also be very hard to read people’s facial expressions if you don’t know them. For example, I’ve been stared at many times (see #4) with what seems to me to be a very hostile expression, usually from an older woman, which has made me feel uncomfortable. But a few times I’ve tried smiling back, only to see a big grin pop onto the person’s face! It’s a good lesson that you can never tell what anyone is thinking, but I think Koreans are more guarded about their emotions showing on their faces than most. I’ve found it’s very easy to misunderstand people’s meanings and moods here.

9. You can get by knowing only a little Korean

This is surprising but true. Sure, you won’t know what’s happening around you a lot of the time, but in general you’ll probably be okay to navigate through subway stations, buy groceries and find your way around. It’s not ideal, but Korean is a notoriously difficult language for English speakers to learn so I would suggest arming yourself with a few key basic phrases and the rest of the time relying on big smiles, little bows and giving money politely (see #6). My top sentences are: Hello “annyeong haseyo”, Thank You “kamsahamnida” and I’m Sorry “mianhamnida”. More here.

10 Things to Know When Visiting Korea

10. It’s not that scary or different

In general, Korea is a very nice place to visit. It’s clean, fairly modern in the cities, and doesn’t feel totally foreign or exotic most of the time. Granted, I live in one of the big cities here and it’s quite different if you go to some of the more rural towns. And that’s not to say that there aren’t big cultural differences, there are definitely several. But for anyone who is nervous about travelling to such a foreign country: you’ll be just fine. The signs and menus are in Korean, but there are some in English too. There are apartment buildings and roads and a subway system. There are bananas at the grocery store. There are rocks and trees and the beautiful ocean. It’s a bit intimidating to arrive in a country so different, in some ways, from your own, but you’ll quickly get used to it. In fact, it may not feel very foreign at all!


I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the more glaring differences between Canada and Korea, so if you spot any I should add to the list please let me know in the comments below! These are the things that stick out in my brain the most, the most interesting or important differences, but there are hundreds more, large and small that differentiate the two cultures. That’s what’s so brilliant about living in a foreign culture, you get to experience the subleties, both good and bad, of the people and the country, in a way that’s very hard to express in writing or photos. Which is why I’m so thankful I’ll have the opportunity to show my mum what it’s like here, so that she can really understand this part of my story.

Steph Loves Autumn

Mosaic 2

A couple months ago, I shared some of the photos I’d been taking throughout the summer and posting to Instagram with the hashtag #stephlovessummer. When the seasons changed, I changed the tag to #stephlovesautumn and have been happily posting there ever since.

I’ve definitely been posting less over the last few months. As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been trying to go for quality over quantity when it comes to posting my photos. I now no longer post anything taken on my iPhone, only “big camera” pictures. I tend to like those better.

Mosaic 3

I know it sounds like a bit of a strange thing to say, but I’m actually quite proud of my Instagram feed lately, and by extension of my photography. I love having the motivation to take the most beautiful photos that I can, and to be able to share that beauty with other people. Living in Korea has been amazing for many reasons, one of them being the absolutely stunning things I’ve been lucky enough to see. Korea has more than its share of natural beauty and I feel so excited to capture it on film and share when I can. (Well, not literally film, although I have been feeling a hankering to have a film camera after seeing the photo series from Tara and Elise. I’m thinking of offering to buy my Dad’s off him..haha.)


Safe to say, I am still absolutely loving taking and sharing photos. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, although I want to try to take more photos of people and food than I have been. When you have such beautiful outdoor subject matter, you forget about everything else. Stay tuned for Steph Loves Winter… (Spoiler Alert: Steph loves every season).

Ps. You can follow me on Instagram @lifeinlimboblog.

The Busan Fireworks Festival

Busan 2014 Fireworks Festival Busan 2014 Fireworks Festival Busan 2014 Fireworks Festival Busan 2014 Fireworks Festival Busan 2014 Fireworks Festival Busan 2014 Fireworks Festival Busan 2014 Fireworks Festival Busan 2014 Fireworks Festival

I think the Busan Fireworks Festival must be one of the most spectacular in the world. I know that would seem unlikely, considering the fact that it’s not Sydney or New York – it’s not even a well-known city. But the fireworks last for 45 minutes and fill up the entire sky, framed by the gorgeous Diamond Bridge and ocean and I think they must be some of the best there are.

We were warned that going down to the beach to watch would be crazy because it would be so crowded, but all those people were wrong. We camped out in our own little blanket village for most of the day and while there were a ton of people, no question, it was also so great to be down there. We had tons of friends, food, and drinks and the day passed so quickly. Finding bathrooms was a fun challenge. Finding a convenience store without a line out the door was even more fun (and even more challenging). And the fireworks themselves were completely amazing.

I think I can count that whole day (and the night that came after) as one of my favourites from my time in Busan. We just had so much fun.

24 Before 24: Run a 10K Race!

Photo by race photographers
Photo by race photographers

You may remember that a while ago, I announced that I was going to be doing the Busan Half Marathon this fall. I started out that journey feeling really motivated and positively, but unfortunately my body had other plans. After about a week of running high mileage days every day, my knee started complaining and eventually went on strike one morning and I could barely put weight on it, let alone run, without it screaming in pain. I am very stubborn and did not want to give up, especially since I only had 3K more to go to meet my training goal for the day (…) but finally I was forced to listen to what my body was trying to tell me: “too much”. Having started my training a bit late, I wasn’t able to take rest days or chip away at it over a longer stretch – it was all in or nothing, and my body had decided for me. I went to see a specialist at the hospital who didn’t speak much English and told me, in essence, not to run. Ever.

Busan 10K View

After that, I decided not to be an idiot – a surprisingly difficult thing for me to do. I knew I could run 10K, since I’ve been happily working on my 10K endurance this whole running season, and so I could give myself a break in training and still do the race. Also, considering the fact that I’ve never run a 10K race before it should have been my logical first choice for my birthday list goal in the first place. So I amended my goal to be a 10K race instead of a half-marathon. This sucked for me because I really hate changing goals and because I had just announced I was going to do the half here on the blog so suddenly I was embarrassed as well as disappointed. Thanks to some good friends telling me (in kind words) not to be an idiot (I need constant reminding), I got over it. I took some weeks off and then went back to my normal running schedule of about 2-3 times a week. And then this Sunday morning I woke up bright and early and ran one of the most beautiful runs of my life with a seriously great personal best time.

Busan is home to the Diamond Bridge, a beautiful suspension bridge that stretches across the water connecting two parts of the city. Along one length of the bridge is Gwangalli beach and the mountains, along the other side is ocean as far as you can see. It’s absolutely stunning from the mainland, especially at night, but it turns out it’s just as beautiful of a view when you’re actually on it with thousands of other people on an impossibly beautiful, blue-skied, windy day.

Busan 10K

Due to a strange flaw in the registration system for the race, our alien card numbers weren’t accepted and our registration was rejected after the deadline so we couldn’t try to register again. We’d heard from friends that in years past it’s the easiest thing to run it without registering but I was still nervous about not being a registered runner. Up until we were on the bridge I felt sure someone was going to pull me off to the side and tell me no. I needn’t have worried! It was easy to get in (really, no sneaking of any kind was required as there were no barriers or blocks) and nobody was checking.

The race itself was funny, as so many things in Korea are: there was no security at any stage of the race, people walking in totally normal clothes carrying shopping bags, little kids walking along with their mothers, selfie sticks everywhere, and people stopping smack in the middle of the bridge to take photos of each other from every angle. At the water stations they were giving out water and….wait for it….choco pies. Yeah. I also saw a mom and son walking the wrong way up the very narrow shoulder into oncoming running traffic just as the route had narrowed for the final burst to the finish line, presumably to try and cheer the father on from the least ideal spot imaginable. The bridge speakers loudly played some seriously bizarre music, it sounded like the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic action movie. And so on and so forth.

Busan 10K

Walking up to the start and for the first kilometer we were moving slowly, shuffling basically, in an enormous crowd of people of all shapes and sizes. Many people were using the race as an opportunity to just walk across the bridge and I don’t blame them, it was beautiful – I only wish there had been more division of lanes so that the people walking wouldn’t have stretched out so much across the wide bridge that the race, at certain parts, was an endless dodge of people walking or pushing the occasional baby stroller. That being said, there were great volunteers clearly showing people where to turn back for the 5K (it went halfway over the bridge and back) or which lanes to stay in for the 10K.

After the first kilometer, it opened up a lot and I was able to run, albeit sometimes needing to dodge people like I said. Having never done another 10K race I don’t know if this is normal or not! I almost instantly lost my friends after agreeing on a spot to meet up at afterwards, but it was for the better anyways, I prefer to run alone. I turned on my music and my training app and just enjoyed myself, the breeze, the beautiful view and the blue sky. I’m so used to running alone that it was bizarre to be around so many other people. I had to remind myself to just try for my own personal best, to dig deep when I needed to and appreciate myself for trying when I needed to.

Busan 10K

I only stopped once for a split second to take a picture, and the rest I ran at a steady pace. Within the last 3K, two of the half marathoners passed me – the half marathon did an 11K loop before running our same 10K route – and I marvelled. They were so beautiful – two African runners with the most effortless gait I’ve ever seen up close. And they flew past me and everyone else, practically catching up with the car that drove slowly ahead showing their time. They had run literally double what I had in the same amount of time and it really fired me up. I dug deeper and ran the last 3K much faster than the previous 7, in the end shaving close to 30s off my average time per kilometer! I had started my tracker about 0.2 km into the start of the race, but I ended up running 9.79 km in 1:03. I trust my app measurements, and that means I ran at a pace of 6’26”, which is a personal best for me.

At the end I felt amazing. It had been like a wind tunnel on the way back, and my ankles were a touch sore, but I sprinted to the finish line and felt totally incredible. I got a little medal saying I did the 10K race and I am still so proud of myself. It would have been foolish to try and run the half marathon, I know now that the 10K was absolutely the perfect goal for this stage in my life. After the race, I found my friends and we were all feeling great. We stepped around picnics spread out everywhere on the pavement with tons of bottles of makgeolli (rice alcohol) and beer and lots of Korean food – all at 10 in the morning! We hopped on the subway and treated ourself to some delicious, well deserved brunch before heading home.

Busan 10K

I’m so excited I did this race, and it only inspires me to try to do more scenic races in different beautiful locations in the world. I’m so happy to call this one crossed off my birthday list.