Is that strange?

10 things you get used to living in Korea

After eighteen months here, so many things that once seemed awkward or strange now pass for normal.  Occasionally I recapture the wide-eyed amazement of my early days and smile at the big steel cauldrons of soup bubbling away on gas burners outside a café, or the tiny old ladies bent double from a lifetime of work in the rice fields, dragging wheeled baskets of pumpkins or cabbage down the street. Other things have already faded into normality.

1. Squatting to pee

There’s a lot of sense in the floor mounted urinals in the Ladies; good exercise for the leg muscles, no sitting on someone else’s splashes and it feels just like camping, but indoors.

One for the ladies

2. Not flushing paper

No sense at all that I can see.  Though there is probably a whole eco-argument to be had around the use and disposal of toilet paper, overflowing bins of smelly, used tissue cannot be the best method of dealing with the problem.

3. Eating with chopsticks

It is hard to imagine how a grilled fish can be dissected using a cumbersome knife and fork.  And if things are bigger than a mouthful, then yes, cutting it with scissors is a simple and effective solution.

4. Eating things without knowing what they are.

“Try this”.  “What is it?”  “It’s a ….. a…a kind of… a  … it’s too hard to explain, just eat it.”  Related to:

4a. Eating things you wish you didn’t know what they are. Boiled octopus head, loach soup (a kind of fish/eel/leech) or spoon worms – best eaten quickly without too much reflection.

Spoon worms - a.k.a. 'sea penises'

5. Bowing

Handshaking is equally strange if you think about it.  As a woman, I’m not called upon to do the full bow too often; I usually get away with an extended nod of the head on meeting people.  The in-car driving bow never fails to amuse me, and there is a certain pleasure to be had from receiving a respectful ninety-degree-er from students as they pass in the street.  And any class that didn’t begin with the ritual “Attention – Bow” just wouldn’t seem right.

6. Being kidnapped

No, not by the North Koreans.  By colleagues or acquaintances who sweep you along with the collective activity like wildebeest moving across the plains.  Any plans that you thought you had are now cancelled.  Get over it.

7. Running the ‘hello, nice to meet you’ gauntlet.

Every child, and even some young adults, will use the opportunity of passing you in the street to practice the little English they have learnt.  Old ladies will stop, smile and stare, now prepared to die happy having seen a real foreigner.  Enjoy it while it lasts; one day you may become invisible again.

8. Being asked how old you are.

Age is important in Korea.  Peer groups are as binding as a Masonic pledge.  Personal names are used less than other forms of address; ‘older/younger sister/brother’, ‘aunt’ or ‘teacher’ even from people you have just met.  My first name has fallen into disuse – too many ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds for the Korean tongue.  My surname is easier for people to pronounce.  Well, if it’s good enough for Morgan Freeman, it’s good enough for me.

9.  Free gifts

Packs of toilet tissue every time you put fuel in the car, free samples when you buy cosmetics, free socks when you buy shoes.  Rice bars and fruit left on your desk at work.  Beautifully packaged gifts of shampoo, toothpaste, towels, seaweed and noodles for no reason at all.

Spam - a popular Chuseok gift

10. Can you eat spicy food?

Grrr.  I CAN eat anything I want to, and anyway I’m British – the nation that invented the vindaloo.

And things I may never get used to?  Table manners; spitting bones and unwanted bits directly onto the table, eating at a volume that requires very loud music to drown, slurping soup and noodles.  Everyone’s spoon dipped into a shared pan of soup doesn’t bother me, though when a man at my table took a big slurp directly from a bowl of broth I was a bit reluctant to pick out more of the pressed fish floating in it.

Though I don’t dislike it, I struggle with the ritual of drink pouring.  Koreans fill each other’s glasses so no-one ever drinks alone.  It is admirable, but laced with rules that I never quite master.  I recently got it right when offered a glass by my school Principal at a teachers’ dinner.  Everyone applauded.  Good job, waegookin.

3 responses to “Is that strange?

  1. Holy cow, they DO look like sea penises. Awesome.

    I’m not sure if I could ever manage the pee-squatting thing. But this makes me wish I were teaching in South Korea.

  2. And they taste how you would imagine – not my favourite thing. Have you never been camping Candice? Squatting to pee is a joy!


    Have you thought about recasting the content into an instructive evergreen piece for publication somewhere? For example, a “10 things to know before visiting South Korea” or “10 things to expect when you visit South Korea” or even “South Korea: Know Before You Go.” I think this could be easily done by making some of your points less “personal” and more “authoritative” in tone (e.g. number 10).

    –Mike (A fellow MatadorU student)

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