On Facebook the other day I realized that it has been exactly one year since I was accepted by EPIK. (Not one year actually living in Korea, but just having the job.) This reminded me of the all the hours I spent trawling through the internet reading other peoples blogs; doing my best to prepare myself for life in another country. On the whole I believe that I was adequately prepared and confident in my knowledge. However there will never be enough blogs in the world to fully relate all the quirks of a country. So I decided that it was my turn to compile a list of things that I didn't expect when I came here. This list is not in any particular order or rank it's just literally my stream of consciousness as I was thinking about it. So without further ado:
I know that this has appeared in many other blogs but reading about it can never truly prepare you for that spine crawling wave of revulsion that goes through you when you hear that lougie hacking throat clearing hock that brings horrifying flashbacks of tobacco spit cups and sunflower seeds. I absolutely hate it. I consider myself to be a tough girl who adapts well to her surroundings but I cannot get past the spitting. Unfortunately it's freaking EVERYWHERE. (Mostly I've noticed it's the older generation but young people are not exempt.) My first week here I was looking for the bus stop so walked inside a convenience store to ask. This little old lady was lounging in the resting area. When she got up to walk past me she spat (10/10 for size and consistency) directly on the floor inside the store.
I'll be the first to admit that I have some personal hang ups about people spitting (if you haven't noticed already) So if you're reading this thinking about moving to Korea don't worry this isn't a deal breaker. Just be prepared.
I'll admit this was one of those "huh... how bout that" moments for me when I felt exactly like the ignorant American tourist. Universal truths that I had taken to for granted were now being questioned. Lemonade is not the same everywhere. In fact the United States appears to stand alone on it's definition of lemonade. In Korea (and everywhere apparently) Lemonade is a carbonated beverage. The best way I've found to describe it is to think of Hawaiian punch with fizziness. It tastes exactly like that. Also "ade" is just a description of this particular type of drink. Lemonade, grapefruitade, citronade, strawberryade, are variations I've come across in cafes. All brightly colored barrel drinks flavor with bubbles.
3) How forward people are
This is kind of a strange one. If you're waiting for constructive criticism from your coworker about how to be better at your job; you're gonna be waiting a long time. That's information that you have to actively seek out and you have to do it when no one else is in the office because no one want's to be seen bullying the waygook. On the other hand they will waste absolutely no time informing you of your appearance. I have deep set eyes so dark circles look 10x worse on me. If I miss even an iota of sleep I can tell because my coworkers will hand me a cup of tea and tell me to sit down because "you look so tired." Winters are rough on me since I basically spend 6 months impersonating the Michelin man. Warmer weather finally appears and as soon as I transitioned to my spring wardrobe my co teacher told me that I looked so much healthier :) This isn't just limited to acquaintances or women either. People on the street have stopped me to a) tell me I'm beautiful or b) ask about my health. (My favorite encounter so far was the lady monk who patted my face as she walked past and told me I was pretty.)
Also, while living in the United States I have had people, whistle, catcall, stalk me through aisles, and hang out of car windows; but I have never been stopped on the street and asked out for coffee or drinks; Which has happened to me here. (and while I appreciate the civility in which I have been approached I'm still not going to follow because that's murder waiting to happen)
4) Everything has a mascot. EVERYTHING.
Maybe people in America would have a better opinion of the police if they had a cute little mascot representing them. I don't know if it helps or hurts, but Korea's police force is associated with these adorable little figure heads.
It's not just them though. As far as I can tell every major and not so major city, organization, and event has some sort of character in charge of public relations. They are masters of marketing and product placement. You see these little guys?
They're currently adorning Coca Cola cans. There are statues all around that you can take pictures with. What are they? Kakao is a messaging app that also has maps, taxis, and bus apps affiliated with it. (extremely useful btw. If you're living in Korea and you don't have it you must live under a rock.) Mascots' here have an almost religious like following. Again this is something that I thought I understood but I didn't grasp the full reality until I arrived.
5) How foodcentric everyone is
In an eating contest a Korean child would wipe the floor with me every time. Their eating capacity is truly astounding. I'm a major advocate of having three square meals a day but I can guarantee that my idea of meals is not the same as theirs. My two pieces of toast with Nutella would not be considered breakfast. It's not a meal until the rice, soup and kimchi has arrived.
Eating in Korea is a very social activity. It is my goal to one day bring a friend to my favorite honey chicken place so the lady who owns it will stop judging me for only taking one toothpick. If I walk into a fast food place they automatically assume its to go because only losers eat by themselves in public. Since coming here I've attended three different staff dinners. These dinners only reinforce my theory that all Koreans have two stomachs. Dinner and dessert. Without fail at these dinners we stop at a restaurant first, then a coffee shop to digest and eat cake. It's just so much food.
Another major difference which I think stands out the most is eating on the go. It almost never happens here. I have not seen a single drive thru. (they must exist somewhere though) It's considered rude to walk down the street and eat. It's a very common sight here to see kids on their bikes crowded around a convenience store eating their snacks before moving on. Basically eating equals relaxing.
How many of you remember the last time you walked into a restaurant and the host asked you smoking or non? It's been about twenty years right? You can imagine my shock the first time I went to a cafe that had a designated smoking room. Not area, room. Smoking indoors (albeit in designated areas) in public areas is allowed. Smoking, especially for men is a common past time. There doesn't appear to be any etiquette as to where it's appropriate to smoke either. People will stand on the side walks, outside of doorways, entrances to alleys; where ever they happen to be. This stood out to me because I'm used to seeing people who smoke stand apart from others, hiding behind buildings and what not. I have noticed that it's not as popular for women to smoke and those who do generally try to hide.
Taxi drivers worldwide are notorious for crazy driving so this didn't surprise me too terribly. (I don't wear a seat belt in taxis' though because that is not the accident I wan to survive.) No what causes me to send a prayer to the Lord anytime I'm near a motorized vehicle is the lack of regard for traffic lights. Red is just a suggestion. I've been on too many buses that blaze on through red lights. The first time I saw a cop directing traffic I was confused. the light was working so why were they standing in the intersection? I get it now. If there is not someone to literally force people to stop, they won't. (I have also seen no evidence of traffic cameras so that could contribute to this delinquency as well.)
Another thing that simultaneously entertains and frustrates me is crosswalks. If you miss that light be prepared to stand there for 5 minutes. Unless you're willing to jaywalk. Which is illegal (like everywhere else) and; so I'm told, highly frowned upon. I live out in the country so jaywalking isn't a big deal but it's a different story in the bigger cities.
8) It's ok to sleep at work, just be there.
Feeling under the weather? don't think you can perform at work because of illness? Drag your disease ridden body to work anyways, you can sleep in the office. If you're not dying or not headed to the hospital you need to come to work. This doesn't sound as extreme as you would think. Koreans go to the hospital for anything because it's dirt cheap. Whereas I have a mental block against going to the hospital because I refuse to sell my organs to the healthcare system. (it's an American thing) I have a difficult time explaining this to my Korean cohorts. When I had the stomach flu I didn't go to work but I didn't go to the hospital either. I didn't think I needed to. I knew what was wrong with me and how to correct the problem. Dragging my pukey self to the hospital just to have someone tell me what I already know is not appealing to me. Unfortunately that seems to be the name of the game here. So the moral of the story is this: You're not allowed to be miserable at home. If you're not miserable at the hospital be miserable at work. It's ok, they'll let you sleep it off. (one of my schools has a special nap room especially for this.) Just where a mask so everyone knows.
Viola! My list of 8 things I didn't expect. Did any of these surprise you? Are you thinking well duh you should have known about that! Feel free to tell me about it in the comments :)
****Disclaimer***** None of the images in this post are mine. I pulled them off of google. I own nothing.
My name is Arielle. (Not actually named after the mermaid, but a character from Thundar the Barbarian) I am an English teacher in South Korea.