This entire post is going consist of generalizations and over-generalizations (if those are even two different things?) Of course all of us know that weird is relative, and one set of cultural norms isn’t objectively less strange or more weird than any other.
That said, there are a lot of things found in the daily life of your average Seoulite (which is really the only part of Korea I can speak to) that might be surprising to your average westerner (or at least North American.) And with that in mind, I present the following list.
Thanks to Nahid for helping me come up with some of these items.
Ramyeon (also known as ramen) is popular, as you’d imagine. But it is maybe even more popular than you can guess, possessing perhaps the social cache of coffee in the west. Banks give you ramyeon gift sets when you sign up. popular Kpop stars endorse particular brands, optometrists and phone shops give away ramyeon too.
- Crazy, Shut Up. Due to stigmas against mental illness, crazy isn’t really said much. In the west, or at least in the US, crazy is a very common description: “Last night was so crazy,” “That’s a crazy song,” etc. Not so in Korea, and calling someone crazy is considered rude. (This is changing though and it’s becoming more acceptable.)
However, telling someone to be quiet or, much worse, to shut up, is considered the height of rudeness. I taught little kids who would swear in English, “Oh my god this shit” but they wouldn’t dream of telling someone to shut up.
Plastic Surgery. In the west, there’s still a slight taboo against plastic surgery. Not so in South Korea, which is number one in the world (just beating Brazil). It’s a common gift to 16 and 18 year old girls as a coming-of-age present. Plastic surgery tourism brings tens of thousands of visitors every year. And when I was teaching Buddhists, all of the women (in their 50s+) said they had or would consider getting plastic surgery.Subway stations, especially in affluent areas, have many, many ads on the walls
- CCTV Other than in your house and (possibly) in the the bathroom, you’re always on tv. Perhaps this is the reason crime rates are relatively low. Thieves and muggers both have been caught, weeks later sometimes, by police who followed them over a long series of surveillance videos.
Washing hands after using the bathroom. Women and men alike use this time for a variety of purposes–to examine their reflection, possibly re-apply makeup or straighten their hair. Almost never to actually wash their hands. Culturally hand-washing is almost a non-existent concept. (I brought a bar of soap to my school bathroom during the MERS scare, and it lasted for 11 months.) This can be frustrating when you have to line up behind several people absorbed in their own reflections waiting several minutes for the chance to reach the water that no one else is using. (When there is soap, it’s a cool blue soap on a stick)
- Not just for the Toilet. Rather than use a discrete system of paper products–toilet paper for the loo, napkins for the table, tissue for runny noses, paper towels for the kitchen, etc, South Koreans have all those things, but they use toilet paper for all such purposes. Which makes sense, but for many westerners it’s odd the first time to see toilet paper on restaurant tables or clutched in student’s hands. Toilet paper is so useful that it is mostly sold in large packs–18, 24–and is a common housewarming gift.
Additionally, toilet paper itself often isn’t for the toilet. Much of the plumbing in Seoul is old and not built to handle 25 million people’s bathroom needs. So you have a separate “used paper” trash in your bathroom that you take out with your regular trash. I know what you’re wondering and, yes, Seoul does smell very bad in the hot summer sun.
Pigeons Admittedly, pigeons in Seoul can look incredibly manky, as close to the pigeons that you know as Gollum is to, say, Merry or Pippin. Both Koreans, especially women, act like they’re in Hitchcock’s The Birds when a Pigeon even gets close. They scream, run away, wave their arms and flee in the other direction at the approach of a pigeon.
- Movie Snacks. Koreans have adopted the large cineplexes of the west and even improved them, with things like 4dx being standard options for new releases. Instead of popped corn with artificial butter (which is also a pretty strange snack if you think about it) they prefer dried squid as their go-to movie snack. Like popcorn, it’s also popular at amusement parks or really anytime.
His and Hers food. I have been to a few health food restaurants where they serve one kind of rice to men and one kind to women. There is even a pizza chain dedicated to serving women’s pizza (although for some reason it’s called Mr. Pizza). And it’s not as simple as women are assigned diet foods and men get more substantial portions–I think it ties into traditional medicine.
- Packaging. When you buy a box of ten cookies, the package is wrapped, as are each of the cookies. Even fruit is shrink-wrapped as a matter of course, even BANANAS, which drives me, um, bananas.
Trash cans/Rubbish bins are a scarce sight indeed around the city. You can walk hours without seeing one. Because of this, there are piles of trash on the street that become defacto trash piles. Anyone unwise enough to have a basket on their unattended bicycle will likewise find it full of trash. Many foreigners fill their pockets or purses until they finally encounter a receptacle. (Why are there no trash cans? It is said because that way North Korean Agents can’t use them for bombs, but it is also said that the real reason is that there used to be many more but too many people used them for their personal trash to avoid paying for trash pickup at your home.)
- Funny. Never does this mean something that makes you laugh. No, it’s simply a form of the word fun, and can be used like “so much fun.” It actually is more intuitive than the way we use the word, so I’ve stopped correcting my students.
PDA. It’s really not okay to hug or especially kiss your significant other in public. But holding hands is okay! And not just couples, but same-sex friends. Old men, little girls, teen guys, business men, mothers out shopping with other mothers, it’s just kind of a cool thing here. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s not a strange thing to happen.
- Unique Situation It’s become a bit of a meme to mock this, but for some reason this is something that many Koreans say. Something like “I will be late today. Please understand my unique situation.” Maybe the closest expression in English is “bear with me” but then again maybe that’s not very close either. It’s a weird bit of Konglish that doesn’t really make any sense but that many people use.
Facemasks You wear a facemask either when you are feeling sick, or when you are not sick but everyone else is. Other times are in spring (Yellow Dust Season, when the winds blow sands from the Gobi desert throughout the city) or on a high pollution day or when biking along the river. In other words, any day is a good day to wear a mask. The one time I wore one, back when I had the swine flue, it was really hard to breath and vastly uncomfortable, but I guess its something you get used to.
- Names in red. As a teacher, I have a red board marker, a blue one, and a black one. Never, never never can I use the red to write a student’s name. The reason: Traditionally the names of the deceased were written in red on registers, gravestones and plaques to ward off evil spirits so now using red to write a name means they will die soon or you want them to die.
Getting shoved. Personal space is fetishized in the west, but isn’t much of a thing in Korea. If you are in between an adjumma and her seat on the subway, she won’t even think twice about shoving you out of the way to get to her seat. For you to react to this shove in any way would be considered very rude indeed.
There are lots more things I could cover but I think that’s good for now. If you want to add any, please tell me in the comments.