We have been living in Korea for over 2.5 years now and my friends and family back home are always asking us to share our experiences living here. Throughout our time here we have definitely noticed little things that we find very interesting and/or amusing and very different from back home. Originally I was planning on listing 10 things, but as I started generating my list, it just kept growing. Without further ado, here are my top 13 quirky things in Korea! They are in no particular order….
1. Side dishes
Side dishes are an important part of any Korean meal and I don’t just mean meals that include Korean food. From pizza parlours to burger joints across Korea, you will almost be guaranteed to find your food served with a small dish of pickled daikon and pickles (Vlasic could make a killing here!).
2. Hair curlers
So most people think that hair curlers are used to get that perfect hair-do before you go out on the town, but here in Korea, you will see young ladies with curlers on their bangs wearing them out in public with pride, I’m talking restaurant, subway, you name it, I’ve seen it!
Now the question is, are they preparing for a hot date and don’t want flat hair?! Well seeing as how I’ve seen plenty of girls wearing them while having dinner with or walking down the street with their boyfriends, they are definitely not prepping for a hot date! The only thing we can deduce and the only time we see them take out the curler is when they are taking a selfie. I guess their virtual appearance is way more important than their real life appearance….
I have been to many countries and Korea is the first in which I have seen so many people who are afraid of dogs! Many are afraid of any dog over 15 lbs and there’s still quite a few who are scared of any dog. We have a 40 lb Jindo mix (Jindos are Korean National Treasure #53 by the way) which I would say is considered a medium size dog, but here in Korea she is considered a very large dog. People tell us how big she is all the time and we can’t even count the number of times we have seen Koreans jump a foot in the air or gasp in terror at the mere sight of her.
Does she look vicious to you?!
4. Kimchi odors
Speaking of side dishes, kimchi is one of the most popular. I am not sure how much kimchi the average Korean eats, but I’m certain that it’s considerable. So where am I going with this?….. let’s just say that copious amounts of kimchi really permeate through a person’s skin, clothes and pretty much everything. I think I now know where that saying “you are what you eat” comes from!
I am by no means a stranger to the unexpected unusual or unpleasant smells on the subway or elsewhere, but sometimes I’ll get into a subway car and immediately be hit in the face with the smell of kimchi. The only choice is to keep on moving to the next car and hope for the best! During the summer it can get particularly pungent on public transit.
5. Who wears short shorts?!
Well I think the Nair slogan has been fully adopted here in Korea. When I first arrived to Korea, I was under the impression that Koreans were pretty modest. Well they are, kinda….so showing cleavage or any part of your décolletage is a pretty big no no, girls will often be seen with very high necklines and long sleeves even. But with that being said they’ll pair that with an itty bitty mini skirt and surprisingly this is just fine with everyone. So remember this little tip when assembling your outfit, make sure the girls are locked up, but feel free to flaunt your legs and maybe even a little cheek!
Driving in Korea has been a very interesting experience, there are so many things to list that I decided to combine all of the driving quirks into one item. Let’s start first with, everyone drives without much regard for traffic laws. But the biggest offenders are cabs, buses and scooters who have zero regard for traffic rules. They will get in the right lane to turn left, they will run red lights, they will change lanes in front of you with no notice, it’s some nerve wracking stuff that requires an intense level of vigilance I’ve never experienced in America.
Everyone wants to park on the top parking level. No matter if there is a 4 story parking garage everyone wants to park on the first parking level, even if that means waiting for a spot, squeezing yourself into a very tiny spot, or making up your own spot…… The funniest thing is we always avoid the first parking level and find plenty of spots! Go figure!
Merging into traffic is a nightmare in Korea. I think the mentality is that “if I let you in front of me” then I’m going to be even more behind! I mean this leads to some really aggressive nosing, and quite a few scary moments.
The right lane is also a parking lane. The right lane of any road serves as a parking spot. Anytime, anywhere. Spots are not marked and the lanes appear to be traffic lanes, but it is perfectly acceptable to just stop your car, put on your hazard lights, and pop into the convenience store, bank, coffee shop, etc.
7. Buttons on the table
One of my favorite things about a Korea is the buttons on the table which are used to summon the servers. Servers in Korea will not keep coming to your table to check up on you, and honestly that’s not a bad thing, I mean no more will you be caught mid-chew by someone asking you how the food is (I swear this happens to me everytime without fail!). This allows you to enjoy your meal and call for service when you need it! I absolutely love the button system, we so need this in America!
8. Closing times
Closing times in Korea don’t mean the same as in America. When a restaurant says it closes at 10 p.m, you would think you could walk in at 9 – 9:30 p.m. and still get seated. Well not in Korea, we have been to countless restaurants an hour or more before closing and been turned away, some of the restaurants have the chairs stacked up and the kitchen has already been scrubbed clean. Same thing with stores, if they say they close at a certain time, that means the door is closed and the employees are walking out then.
9. Couple culture
I know that couples outside of Korea love eachother a lot too, but Korean couples not only demonstrate their devotion in their hearts, but with their clothes. Matching outfits are a key component of being “in love!” Some couples have multiple matching outfits, so that they can show the world how coordinated and in sync they are. My question is, what happens when you break up and find a new significant other, do you have to buy a bunch of new outfits?
10. The infamous Korean squat
The Korean squat is better than a chair and as you can see, it doesn’t matter if it’s waiting for the bus, a short ride in the elevator or a long relaxing smoke break. There’s no time like the present to pop into a Korean squat and take a little rest. Foreigners who wish to try this move be warned, its takes many many years of training starting at an early age to master this. Note how their heels are completely down and their feet totally flat, they are perfectly balanced and comfortable, no easy feat!
11. Alcohol is cheap
When a bottle of soju costs a mere ₩1,500 at the convenience or grocery store, it’s no wonder that you will find people knocked out drunk on the streets. When we first arrived to Korea and I saw people passed out, I honestly thought they must be homeless. But no matter your economic status, Korea has a pretty big drinking culture. If you work in an office and the boss wants to take you out for dinner after work, that most certainly means that you will not only be eating, but drinking. When groups of friends go out to a restaurant, usually it isn’t just to enjoy the food, it’s non stop bottles of soju and beer. Even more astonishing is that these drinking extravaganzas can occur on any night of the week, not just a weekend!
12. The elderly roam the streets
It’s a sad sight, but all across Seoul, you will see the elderly pushing around carts in search of cardboard to sell. From what I understand, there is a mandatory retirement age for Koreans, for many companies that age is as low as 55! For many elderly people, picking up cardboard and selling it for money at the recycling center is the only way they can earn a little money to live. I’ve even seen some who have “deals” with convenience stores to haul away all their boxes.
13. Wear an apron when you eat
If you thought bib/aprons were just for lobster restaurants, you’re mistaken! Here in Korea, many restaurants will provide you a small bib/apron while you dine. This occurs mostly at BBQ restaurants and other places where the food cooks at your table, but it’s definitely a good way to keep food from randomly ending up on your clothes.