Surviving Your Trip to Korea Part 2: Etiquette

Some of my friends back home were shocked to find that things like walking over and petting a stranger’s dog, giving strangers advice on their health and appearance, and audibly slurping your noodles are all perfectly acceptable in Korea. Especially if you are old. Then, you can get away with almost anything. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been seriously shoved by an old woman on the train. So here are some dos and don’t so that you don’t look like a lost little lamb.

Do: learn to use chopsticks. It will free you for amazing authentic cuisine at restaurants that don’t have forks available. Once you know how, it actually becomes obvious that chopsticks are very rational tools for eating a variety of foods, like salad I tried to eat a dumpling with a fork the other day (hadn’t done the dishes) and it was horrible, possibly even traumatic. Trust me, chopsticks are amazing.

Don’t: stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice or noodle. This is an etiquette rule in Japan as well. It looks eerily similar to incense sticks burning, which is part of their rituals for the dead. So at best, it’s an uncomfortable reminder of funerals, at worst it can be seen as a bad omen.

Do: pour drinks for Korean friends you are dining with, especially alcohol. It’s considered bad manners to pour your own alcohol in Korea. And if you are the youngest person at the table, you should offer to pour the drinks for everyone else. To be very respectful, turn your head away from people older than you (or higher than you– like an employer) and then take your shot.

Don’t: chug soju or beer from the bottle on the street or the train. While there are no laws currently in effect banning public consumption of alcohol (though there is one up for a vote) I’ve seen many foreigners taking advantage of that by drinking on the trains and carrying around bottles, which is bad manners everywhere. Even if you’re just visiting you are reflecting badly on a large community of expats who has to try to live and work there everyday. Also, dudebro, you’re not at your frat house anymore. Okay?

Do: take off your shoes when entering someone’s home. Also, at traditional restaurants with floor seating you may be asked to take off your shoes as soon as you enter, or when you step up onto the higher floor for seating. It’s a hygienic practices that keeps are the dirt you’ve been walking around in all day off the floors of your house.

Don’t: worry about saying “sorry” if you bump into someone in a crowded street/subway station/corridor. And don’t be offended if they don’t say it to you. In the 3rd largest metropolitan city in the world, everyone just sort of bumps and brushes together. If you to stop and say sorry every time, your commuting time might double. Unless you knock someone down, or knock all their bags out of their hands, just keep going. Or you’ll look like a total newbie.skinship

Don’t: be alarmed by “skinship.” People are very touchy with their same gendered friends in Korea. Don’t assume that two guys holding hands are in a romantic relationship. Actually, homosexuality is still a very taboo issue in Korea. But you’ll see some very tender bromantic expressions. Also don’t be alarmed if same gendere Korean friends put their arm around you, link arms, or even try to hold your hand. Even if you haven’t known them a long time, if they like you or are trying to make you feel welcome and at ease they may do this. They might not realize that for some foreigners it can have the opposite effect. However, don’t try to hug or put your arm around someone Korean of the opposite gender unless you are related to them or openly dating them.

Don’t: mind the staring. Remember that if you have a physical appearance that is very “exotic”– bright blonde or red hair, extremely tall, tattoos, unusual facial hair or piercings, you’re going to get stared at. Unfortunately, if you are black, you are going to have the stares to a slightly higher degree. Even if you’re medium height and build with dark hair, as a foreigner you might get some long looks. Even in a metropolis like Seoul. You also may have people randomly approach you and try to speak English with you. This can get a little wearing. Don’t get too annoyed, but always put your foot down if anyone gets too clingy or doesn’t understand boundaries.

Don’t: try to speak Chinese or Japanese as a substitute for Korean. These languages are all very different. While some words or concepts carry over, they each have a unique sound and vocabulary. Trust me. Knowing some Korean did me next to no good in Japan. Besides, Japan colonized Korea in the early 1900s and tried to eradicate Korean national identity. For the older generation, everything to do with Japan can be a bit of a sore spot. And Korea doesn’t really like China. They think it’s kind of dirty and gross. Like many Americans might think of West Virginia or New Jersey. There may be nice things there, but they don’t want to live there. And they will make fun of them.

Do: slurp that ramen. It’s the only rational way to eat noodles with chopsticks. And it helps you get a better combination of flavors than taking bites. Just take only a few noodles at a time so it’s easier to slurp them all the way up without your mouth getting too full. Who cares if back home everyone would cringe. When in Seoul….

Any  burning questions about eating, shopping, dating, or making friends while in Korea? Hit me up in the comments!


Seoul Lantern Festival, 2014

lanternAt the end of the fall, Seoul has a lantern festival along the Cheongyecheon– the stream that cuts through the center of the city. The spring has a festival in honor of Buddha’s birthday which involves more of the traditional, hang lanterns along with some whimsical displays in the river of animals and other themed scenes.

The winter festival is pretty much exclusively big and glowing paper art celebrating the history and culture of Korea. Showing farming, traditional weddings, and scenes based on Korean myths, along with a glowing panorama of the original perimeter of Seoul.

city wallsIt’s free to come spend an evening perusing the beautiful display. As with most things in Seoul, it was totally packed when my friends and I went. We stood in a long queue on the bridge waiting to go down to the stream. We also had to do regular checks to make sure we had each other, not lost among the crowds of couples and families with young children.

20141123_201030_LLSMost of the displays were from the long and glorious Joseon era of Korean history. Above is a “turtle boat” lantern. These are a symbol of patriotism as well as military force. General Lee, whose statue occupies Gwanghwamun Square along with King Sejoeng, the most esteemed ruler in Korean history, devised these boats as a method of deterring Japanese naval forces from invading Korea. This display was a mechanical one. Steam poured out of the dragon’s mouth and the sails would rise and fall.

20141123_195808_LLSMany were playful scenes of daily life as well.

20141123_200234_LLSAnd there were even cute pandas and a few displays to appeal to children.

Where I come from in the north east of the US, most outdoor activities are under ban between October and April. In Korea, that’s not the case. Plenty of events like this still go on into the winter, and even open markets are still active all year round. Fortunately heavy snow is unusual in Seoul, so as long as you can bundle up enough against the biting wind, you’ll be fine.

Some thoughts on Sexuality in South Korea


In nearly every society in recent years the question, “Are our kids growing up to fast?” is asked. And South Korea is no different in that respect. But, as I’ve learned in the past year+, where there are major similarities, there are also some curious differences. I don’t know, I guess I felt like scratching the surface of a big topic tonight.

In some respects, Korean pop culture treasures innocence more than they do in the US. An incredible amount of popular cable dramas revolve around high schoolers and their first loves. (Think Wonder Years more than Gossip Girl regarding the romance aspect.) First love is often treated as something almost sacred in these contexts. And the first kiss… well, that’s definitely sacred.

And kpop idols often work hard to cultivate an eternal youthfulness. Preferring a cute, childlike image. Most of the talent in Korea also play those aforementioned high school characters well into their twenties (~cough~ Lee Minho ~cough~). But it’s easy to see that behind those baby faced images, the music industry has been producing some incredibly sexual songs lately. Some with provocative English, such as Sistar’s cheeky invitation “Touch my body,” in their recent single.

Even weirder is when your 11-14 year olds come in singing these songs and gyrating like the singers do in the music videos. Weirder still is when you step outside your work and find the streets littered with business cards for “hostess bars” nearby, featuring extremely suggestive photos of women. Because after you live in Korea for while you realize that the culture of innocence is largely a veneer. Though illegal, both low-level and hardcore prostitution is alive and flourishing.


Perhaps it’s a carry over from the depression era (just a few decades behind them) that has left many underground channels for that sort of thing open. Perhaps it’s because for all the appreciation they have for first love, arranged marriages are still very common. I can’t really answer that question. But, I do know that there seem to be plenty of options for ladies as well as men– there are advertisements for host bars featuring pictures of brooding flower boys scattered in the streets too.

The cultural attitude toward nudity and privacy is very different too. And in some ways I appreciate it. Most kids grow up going to the spa with their parents and seeing a variety of bodies (though of the same gender) in their mostly natural state. My male coworker told me that in his training session, they told the male teachers not to be upset or offended if their male students or even coworkers took a peek at them at the urinal. A serious no-no, in the US, it’s not uncommon in Korea. Probably because of the bathhouse culture, everyone’s kind of used to seeing each other’s business.

Even though the plastic surgery rates are off the charts in Korea, it is usually facial surgery, which I think is the opposite in the US. Breast and butt implants are slowly becoming more popular as a curvier figure becomes a little more desired, but on the whole everyone seems to want double eyelids, a narrow chin, and a pert little nose more than they want D-cups. Regardless, the openness toward nudity in Korea at least helps kids to understand that real men and women don’t look like they do in the magazines.

Regarding the urinal situation, one other curious observation has been that boys in Korea get circumcised unusually late. When I worked in a kindergarten with some students as young as three and four, it wasn’t unusual to have some pant-wetting incidents result in a bottomless child running around looking for dry clothes. None of these boys were circumcised. Research (aka delicately asking Koreans about this) has told me that nearly all Korean men get circumcised. They just typically do it when they in about the second grade.

At my new job, most of my students are late elementary to middle school students, even the occasional high schooler in my advance level classes. A few weeks ago one of my sixth grade students was out for a whole week and on the attendance card it said “surgery” was his reason for absence. After conferring with the Korean staff, who described it as “secret boy surgery,” I was slightly shocked. Sixth grade seems way too late to be messing around with that sort of thing. Even second grade seems too late to my western mind. I can’t help but think that doing it that late is slightly traumatic to the boys. How this particular facet effects the cultural mindset toward sexuality, I am really not qualified to evaluate. But man, it must effect something.

So these are just my personal observation. I am painting with a broad brush and I don’t pretend to be a psychologist or anthropologist. I just found these things interesting and thought you discerning readers might too.