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 surprisingly. 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.
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!