Observations in Korea / 03

Korean Observations 3

Once again, I’m amazed that two months have gone by since the last one of these observations posts (you can see my first two here and here). That being said, even though I’m coming up on the end of my fourth month, I feel like I’ve lived in Korea for much longer than that. I think that the stress and slight upheaval that came with the announcement about my school closing down took the wind out of my sails a bit because it brought up a lot of the more frustrating and difficult aspects of life in a foreign country. The dust has settled and I’m back to feeling more balanced and positive about life here, but the experience definitely expanded my sense of how long I’ve been in Korea. Fortunately, I’m still really enjoying myself, and I haven’t stopped making observations about the funny and interesting parts of this culture. Here are some more of them:

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In some bathrooms, instead of liquid soap dispensers they have a bar of soap on a stick. It looks exactly like this.

Every time I’ve taken the inter-city train here, it’s always been totally packed. They sell “standing” tickets for trains, so lots of people stand in the aisles, sit on the stairs between train cars, or sprawl out and sleep literally across the entire floor in the dining car. To me, that last one seems like a fire hazard, but it’s totally normal here.

Koreans make excellent ice cream. At your local convenience store you can choose from a huge variety of individual ice cream bars and cones in the freezer that are very cheap and very good. Some tiny convenience stores also have soft-serve ice cream machines! And my absolute favourite part of the pre-packaged ice cream cones is their packaging ingenuity: they have pre-scored lines at every inch or so, meaning you can easily unwrap the cone strip by strip as you eat. It’s so simple but so smart. You can sort of see an example here.

When I opened a new bank account last week, the woman told me to choose a 4 digit PIN number. A few minutes later, she said I needed to make a 6 digit number as a type of security code, but that the security code needed to be my 4-digit PIN plus two zeroes at the end. This struck me as fairly hilarious and ridiculous, because of course if everyone is told to do the same thing, how is it any more secure than the 4-digit code?

In a lot of bathrooms, there is a little button you can press to make a loud “flushing sound”, presumably so you can do your business more discreetly. In some bathroom stalls I’ve also seen an “emergency call” button.

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Some Korean couples dress exactly alike, and I mean that they literally wear the same things from head to toe: same shirt, same pants, same shoes. Everytime I see it, I do a double take and have to laugh. Yesterday my friends and I spent a good deal of time discussing the mechanics of how the couple makes that decision, since most Koreans live with their parents until they’re married and so the younger couples presumably don’t live together and share a closet. Do they text each other about the outfit? Does the girl pick out his outfit or vice versa? You can see a bounty of examples here.

Cellphones seem to be much more common in the workplace here than they are back home. For instance, in addition to the bank phones on their desk, tellers at the bank will also have their cell phones out right in front of you, will use them to check things, and last week the woman who was helping me took a cell phone call right in the middle of our transaction.

In general I have to say that Korean women seem to care not at all about panty lines. This is not to say that I think they should, but it’s just very different from back home. Even young stylish women wearing pencil skirts or pants usually have visible panty lines.

When you walk into big stores (similar to Wal-Marts back home), there is a designated “bower” on every floor who bows to you as you enter and leave. On trains too, the customer service agents who walk between cars often bow as they enter and leave a train car – and this is even on the very cheapest, most run-down train line!

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Koreans have a hilarious preoccupation with “dong” which is Korean for poop. They have these red bean treats that are shaped like piles of poop, and in Seoul we even went to a café that was, for all intents and purposes poop-themed, but in the most cutesy and least-gross possible way. Picture fairy lights strung around a tree that has cartoon, multicoloured piles of poop hanging off it. It’s equal parts funny and totally baffling.

In Busan, foreigners often get “shushed” or asked to stop talking by Koreans on the subway, even when objectively they’re not speaking very loudly. Granted, the subways are often very quiet (sometimes almost freakily silent, with everyone fully absorbed in their phones and not talking to one another) so speaking even quietly is a disruption, and sure, sometimes we foreigners might deserve it when we get a bit too loud, but usually it’s unfair and unpleasant. Especially considering that in a huge number of circumstances (including on quiet trains), Koreans can be extremely loud, especially when speaking to their families or on the phone. We’ve heard from Korean friends that when it does happen, it’s usually because Koreans find our accents and language deeply annoying, moreso than because of the noise level itself. This is just one of those times when you really feel like a minority in a culture different from your own.

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A lot of people, mostly middle-aged and older women, walk around with umbrellas up when it’s sunny outside so that they don’t get any kind of tan, since Koreans think that tans are not beautiful.

Most stores and jobs seem very overstaffed. Tiny kiosks and totally empty stores usually have at least three employees, I’ve seen 5 people on hand “helping” (watching) one guy change a vending machine, and of course there are the aforementioned bowers.

Once at the local track, my friends were annoyed by a woman walking slowly around the track with a huge antenna sticking up from the tablet she was holding, watching a Korean soap opera on full volume.

Korean Baseball GameAt the baseball stadium, everyone is allowed to bring their own food and drinks (yep, even alcoholic ones) in from outside, and there are convenience stores inside the stadium with the exact same prices as outside. At the end of the game, they pass out bright orange plastic bags which everyone ties into big balloons or bows and loops around their ears. The bags are meant to be used for everyone to clean up their garbage at the end of the game, but they’re used for a bit of fun beforehand, ha.

Take out food culture here is really very excellent – it’s usually free delivery, and the food is brought wrapped in plastic but on real plates with real utensils and often with all the side dishes that Koreans eat with their meals. After your meal, you leave the dirty plates and bowls on the floor outside your apartment or in the corner of your office, and the delivery guy comes back to pick it up later. Yes, really.

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It’s funny: the longer I spend living in Korea, the more funny differences I notice between here and home. I thought that this country’s idiosyncrasies would start to fade as I got used to living here, but actually the opposite has happened. I had to hold back on this post because there are still so many things I could add (for instance: elevators don’t have sensors and sometimes eat you alive; I had to open a new account at a different bank for my new job because my boss (inexplicably) refuses to do a transfer to the bank I am already with; dried sweet potato is a popular snack), but I’ll save a few for the next installment. This is a very different culture than the one I grew up in, and while there are some frustrating parts, mostly the differences are just funny and interesting.

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