observations

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.

Observations in Korea / 02

Observations 2

I’ve been in Korea almost two months (time flies) and have been doing a lot of exploring during my short time here so far. I’ve been trying to keep track of the things I observe, but it’s actually harder to do than you might think! I’ve felt pretty settled here remarkably quickly, so the cultural oddities have been fading into the background more than I would like them to. It’s hard to believe that I wrote my first observations post a little less than a week after arriving (!) when everything was fresh in my mind. Here are some more observations I’ve collected over the past couple months.

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You can get Burger King and McDonald’s (among a million other things) delivered to your apartment by a guy on a motorcycle. It seems like a miracle that most people here are as petite as they are.

Speaking of motorcycles, they’re allowed on the sidewalks here and use them constantly. Which means that the sidewalk isn’t necessarily a safe pedestrian zone. You have to always be on the lookout for a rogue motorcycle heading your way!

There are a ton of public bathrooms everywhere, which is excellent. They don’t always have toilet paper and are often squat toilets, but at least the facilities are there.

In most washrooms, there is a small garbage can where you’re meant to put all your used toilet paper instead of flushing it. In public bathrooms it’s often overflowing, and I can never bring myself to put it there instead of flushing it.

There are not a lot of trash cans anywhere, which is not so excellent.

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Around hiking trails (and there are many here) there is often a little station for cleaning off your boots with a pressurized air nozzle.

A lot of Korean food is bright red due to their use of gochujang, a spicy red chilli paste. I love to watch well-dressed women like my coworkers eating gimbap or tteokbokki (Korean rice cakes) smothered with red sauce with chopsticks and not spill a drop on their lightly coloured clothes. I’m not always so lucky/skilled.

There are whole lanes and traffic signals devoted to U-turns. As one of my coworkers described it, this is because the country is so small that they can’t make all the lanes we have room for in Canada, so U-turns are a simple solution.

Even very young children (we’re talking maybe 6 years old) have cell phones. And most people have very large phones that they make even bigger by adding a huge, brightly coloured case.

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Since it’s Buddha’s Birthday next week (a national holiday and four day weekend!) there are bright, beautiful paper lanterns hung absolutely everywhere. It’s really quite delightful.

Even when you’re downtown, seeing locals decked out from head to toe in bright, neon-coloured hiking clothes (complete sometimes with windbreakers, hats, gaiters and hiking poles) is an everyday occurrence, though it happens even more on the weekend. The Koreans love to hike on trails, but sometimes just wear their hiking clothes while walking around in groups in the city too!

My Korean coworkers will not hesitate to exclaim that I have dark circles under my eyes or that I look really tired. This isn’t meant to be taken as an insult, from what I understand, though when one actually is tired, it can be hard not to take it that way.

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People seem to love Canada. Whenever cab drivers or strangers ask where we’re from and find out, they always light up and say that Canada is very good. America, not so much. We’re still trying to figure out exactly why.

I’ve seen people pushing around strollers designed to hold a cat or a small dog. No comment.

There are a lot of pizza places here, but it’s usually like North American-style pizza with a Korean twist. Often plain cheese pizza will come with corn on it, and they offer other interesting combinations like sweet potato pizza (I have yet to try but have heard it’s really good) or of course bulgogi pizza.

I often feel stared at by Koreans, especially men. It’s a bit unsettling but I don’t ever feel unsafe or threatened. I think it has more to do with the fact that foreigners are the overwhelming minority in Busan.

In my last post, I wrote about how Korean cars always look brand new. Well, to build on that: when I’ve been given a ride by coworkers I’ve noticed that some cars have the factory plastic still inside on the backs of seats or on seatbelt buckles or on the flip-down mirrors. And a huge number of cars have little foam blocks on the outside of their cars, approximately where the door handle is. From what I understand, these are to minimize dents if a car door swings open and hits another car.

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On the whole, life in Korea isn’t hugely different from life anywhere else, which seems like an insane thing to say, but it’s true! The biggest difference is that besides foreigners and people who work at English schools, hardly anyone here speaks any English (but I can still get by with just my few phrases in Korean). Yes, there are some cultural idiosyncrasies (for example, I still get disgusted every time someone horks and spits up phlegm, which happens everywhere and all the time) but overall it’s been a very nice place to live. I love the beach and try to spend as much time there as I possibly can – it makes any minor annoyance seem tiny and insignificant. On Saturday evening my friends and I had a glorious few hours sitting out on the beach with beers as the sun set slowly, and it made me so excited for what promises to be an incredible summer.

Observations in Korea / 01

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I made it! I’m in Busan, living in a small apartment in a great part of town, about five minutes from the school I’m working at and only about a minute away from where my friend Dylan lives. Things really ended up working out perfectly – the timing, the job, and the location are all great. My coworkers are all Korean, and they’re all very sweet and friendly. My first few days were a bit rough in terms of the jet lag, but I think I’m slowly (sleep by sleep) getting back to my usual self with my usual energy levels. My apartment wasn’t quite as furnished as I had hoped (my kitchen contained the following: a few bowls, one wok, no cups, a spoon and a pair of chopsticks – the essentials), but after a few trips to the store, I’m getting settled in just fine. 

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On Sunday afternoon, following my first and only-so-far minor panic attack about moving halfway across the world all on my own for a whole year, I managed to wander my way to the beach, which calmed me and buoyed my spirits immediately. It’s a little chilly here at the moment, but still warm enough to sit in the sand for a while, enjoying the sunshine. Such a wonderful change from the cold Canadian weather. I’m sure there will be lots of things I’ll miss about Canada during this year away, but winter will not be one of them. The beach is a 15 minute walk from my apartment and is utterly gorgeous, so if you need me, I’ll be at the beach! 

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I recently began following an Instagram account of a girl who moved across the world from LA to Bahrain. She’s been posting her observations of what daily life is like in a different part of the world, and I thought it was such an inspired idea. I’m sure I’ll get used to so many of the small cultural differences and they’ll no longer seem interesting or remarkable, but for now I’m trying to record all the things that seem noteworthy about Korea – maybe you’ll think so too!

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  • A lot of the buildings here are done up with coloured lights and animations. We have that back home too, especially in Montreal, but it seems more prevalent here. The Gwangalli bridge is particularly awesome – it has all these neon lights moving around and although I was totally dazed from a long day of plane rides and time differences when I was driven across it, I still noticed how cool it was. 
  • Classical music is really common here. I’ve noticed that it plays in a lot of public places – on both my Korean Air flights en route here, they played classical music during boarding and de-planing, and I’ve heard it in the supermarket too. I even visited one convenience store whose door chime was Pachelbel’s canon! No complaints from me, it’s pretty soothing. 
  • Speaking of Korean Air, their flight attendants are dressed impeccably. Most flight attendants are, of course, but their uniforms are so crisp (they have these very architectural bows tied around their neck like the one shown here) and perfect hair. 
  • They sell shampoo and conditioner in Costco-size bottles with pumps just at the regular supermarket. I could not be more pleased about this. Also, when you buy hand soap, it’s packaged with a refill! Of course this isn’t true of every product, but it happens much more often here than back home from what I’ve seen so far. 
  • The tables at Korean diners have buckets sunk into the table with chopsticks and spoons inside. Very convenient. 
  • The major Korean alcohol, soju, is incredibly cheap. Like, $1 for a 375ml bottle.
  • In my building, there is one set of elevators for odd-numbered floors, and another set for even-numbered floors. At least, that’s what I was told, but I admit I haven’t experimented yet. 
  • Most apartments (from what I’ve seen), including mine, are unlocked by a code punched into a number pad, not a key. I love it.
  • There are sidewalk fruit vendors everywhere, selling mainly apples, strawberries and oranges for cheap.
  • A lot of the toilet paper here is lightly scented. 
  • I’ve seen a lot of people wearing face masks both while walking around and riding motorcycles. I’ve also noticed that people do spit more on the street and even inside. 
  • Korean potato chips taste the same as Canadian ones, except perhaps less salty. 
  • The majority of the cars I’ve seen driving around look very clean and brand new. That being said, I do live in a pretty expensive part of Busan. 
  • Their version of a dollar store is Daiso, which is a Japanese store. It’s full of brightly coloured, adorable things, and offers more than our dollar stores back home – I just bought a yoga mat and a cute little succulent plant in a vase for around $5 each. 
  • Taxis are very, very cheap.

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All in all, my first impressions of Korea are very positive. I live in a great part of town and I’m slowly discovering all the different things it has to offer, one step at a time! 

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