5 Unusual Things I’ve Learned about Living in Korea

There’s been a few things I’ve wanted to share about living here that are….difficult to just pop out during a normal post. For the most part, these unusual things are mildly uncomfortable at worst and terrifically intriguing at best. I think I’ll get used to the mildly uncomfortable ones, but they do push me outside my comfort zone. In case it isn’t clear, I’d like to say that I don’t mean to point any of these things out to be mean spirited, as I actually love Korea so far. And I’m no expert, so if you have greater knowledge about some of this stuff, then please share it with me. I’m enjoying finding these strange cultural differences. Me and my roommates have spent plenty of time comparing and contrasting differences between the US, Canada and England.

1. Pedestrians don’t care: I’ve been to rather large, crowded cities, but Incheon and Seoul are quite different in pedestrian culture compared to say, Detroit, Toronto, even Tokyo. Basically, unlike Tokyo, which you generally just stay to the right and you’re good, and if you bump into someone you give a slight bow and say “sumimasen” and everything is fine. In Korea, there isn’t really a standard side to walk on. I’ve been told that it used to be on the left, but the government is trying to standardize walking on the right, and I have seen ads showing how a person should walk on the street, but it doesn’t seem to have spread yet. And it might not. Most pedestrians are just used to this. If they see something they want to look at, they will stop dead in their tracks without warning. If they’re lost in thought or using their phone, they’ll walk right into you. And no one will utter a word of apology, as if it never even happened. To me, this seems fairly rude, but clearly it isn’t here. For me, being a pedestrian in Korea is like the most brutal game of dodgeball in existence, with me spinning, strafe-jumping, and sliding like a badly coordinated Michael Jackson whenever I’m walking in a dense area like the Bupyeong Underground. It is an aggressive sport and it is exhausting. But now I’ve been here for two weeks. Already I find myself stopping whenever I want to look at something and sometimes people run into me. And it doesn’t bother me as much. I still to aware to walk into anyone in front of me, but maybe that will fade too. (Sarah had told me that she became increasing aware).

Oh, and this rule applies to mopeds as well. There are delivery guys on mopeds everywhere. They’ll drive on roads, sidewalk, alleyways… nowhere is safe. I’ve never been hit, nor have I seen anyone be hit, nor have heard of anyone being hit, but it still scares the crap out of me every time. Which brings me to number 2:

2. You can have it delivered. It doesn’t really matter what you want to eat, there’s a guy out there who will bring it to your apartment on a moped. At least, it seems so. Even McDonald’s will deliver. Another interesting thing, is that many of the local places will deliver your food in a bowl from their restaurant with actual metal utensils, not disposable styrofoam. When you’re done, you set the dirty dishes outside your door and the delivery man will pick it up later on when he passes by, or at the end of the day when the restaurant is closing. Pretty wild, but I love it. If it means I have to lookout for moped traffic, then so be it! (Side note: I can’t actually order food myself yet. My Korean is too bad).

3. Attendants in Department Stores: This is actually one of the things that I like about Korea, but that makes more uncomfortable than anything else on the list because of my limited language ability and semi-illiteracy. If you stand in a department store, like Lotte Mart, and look too intently at something, or look sufficiently confused, then you’ll be approached by a uniformed attendant. I’ve reached a point where I can more or less read Korea, but I can’t actually process most of it, I can just read the characters. This means I’m still more or less illiterate. In addition, I can’t make heads or tails of how Lotte Mart is organized, so I look perpetually confused. 

Now, the attendants I’ve encountered are determined to make sure you get what you want. I’ve encountered two general types. First, the attendant who looks at me with eyes filled with a mixture of dread and pity. She knows that I’m lost, I’m obviously not used to being in Korea, and she wants to help me and it is her job to do so. She also knows I won’t understand anything she says, so she’ll use her two or three English words, I’ll use my two or three Korean words, and we’ll both be forced to stand next to each other, trying not to let our eyes meet. I’ll be unable to tell her I’m fine and that she can leave me alone in anything that is even in the realm of polite speech. She’ll be obligated to stand next to me because that’s her job. Thus far, I generally repeated say “thank you” in Korean and use gestures. Usually it results in me bowing, apologizing and retreating. I can get the attendant to bring me to t-shirts, but I can’t communicate to a level that I can get her to bring me to shirts that match my other clothes or shirts that I can afford. And Lotte seems to be sorted more by brand and less by type of clothing.

The second type is the kind I’ll really appreciate when I have a better grasp on the language, but are currently more terrifying then the first type. The second type are usually the older attendants. They see me and the walk towards me with absolute confidence. They don’t attempt to communicate with me like I’m a foreigner. They approach and immediately ask what I want in Korean. This type of attendant doesn’t care how little I understand, I’m treated just like a normal customer, despite the fact I possess the understanding of a Neanderthal. If I touch a shirt, she’ll tell me things about it I can’t understand. If I reach to look at a tag, she’ll tell me the price in Korean and will act mildly annoyed if I still look at the price despite the fact she plainly told me what it was. Fortunately, I now understand numbers, and this kind of attendant is actually very helpful if I’m buying things like clothing. I also feel really guilty if I don’t buy anything after the help. However, when I was buying shampoo, one of these attendants followed me through toiletries trying to help me. The problem is I know absolutely no shampoo vocabulary. She was also trying to push me towards a brand on sale, which was a better deal (again, very helpful) but I couldn’t express to her that I wanted to buy the smaller size to try out first before I commit to a full 3 liters of shampoo. 

I look forward to this excellent service when I understand things, but it’s just beyond me currently. 

4. Korean Age. Korean’s have a different way of calculating an age. When a baby is born, we round down the 9 months spent in the womb making the baby age 0. In Korea, you start at 1, since they round up the time spent in the womb. In addition, your age changes at the lunar new year instead of on your birthday. In general, this means you’re 1 or 2 years older in Korea than in the US. (Current Year – Birth Year +1). Even Koreans identify that this is social construct, so things like drinking age, age of consent, the year you can get your driver’s license…..All that is calculated using the persons actual birthdate and chronological age instead of a Korean age. But in social situations, Korean age is what is used. Meaning I’m 26 instead of 24, which is a bummer to me. Well, except….

5. Korean Age. Being 26 has advantages. Conversation in Korean is hierarchy structured. Age is the fastest method of determining the amount of respect a person deserves. What this means is that the first thing I’m always asked when I meet a new person is “How old are you?” Being 26 means that I deserve more respect than if I were 24. This is fascinating to me and I like that I get a title. In many cases I get the special Seonsaengnim since I’m a teacher (although my students have to speak English at all times, making me “James Teacher” instead) but the friend I made in the market told me that since he was older than me he was like an older brother (hyeungnim). This was one of the first things established. This is strange to me, because in the States asking a woman you just met her age is considered incredibly rude (especially if she isn’t very close to your age), so the fact that I’m supposed to lead with that is strange to me. At the same time, it really does simplify the rest of my interactions with that person. 


For the most part, I’m not feeling much culture shock, but these are things that have kind of stood out as quite different to me. If I encounter enough other unusual cultural things, I’ll make a new list. 


~ by James on March 4, 2012.

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