Upon arriving in South Korea, there are a few things that will stand out to you. These are my first impressions and interesting things I noticed about South Korea – some of these will be gone into more depth later.
- Couples – S. Korea is the land of couples. You can see them everywhere, wearing matching shirts, cuddling, and going to cafes together. Korean couple culture is intense, you can see them everywhere, wearing matching shirts, cuddling, and going to cafes together to take copious amounts of selfies (selca in Korean). Eventually I came to understand that once people graduate high school, it’s expected that you should get a boyfriend/girlfriend as soon as possible. Being alone is looked down upon and even some restaurants won’t allow you to sit by yourself (of course I’m a foreigner so that might’ve been part of it).
- Drinking – South Korea is a country full of people who love to drink and are great at it. There are rules surrounding drinking, for instance the youngest person in a group should pour drinks for everyone. But then the oldest is sometimes expected to pick up the beer. You’ll see Koreans passed out drunk on the street sometimes at night because of how safe the city is. From soju, to beer, to rice wine, etc – you’ll have a great time.
(Below, my sister with her favorite grapefruit soju)
- Manners – one doesn’t think of the USA being a place that is particularly well known for its manners (what with the gentleman culture in England and the “sorry” stereotype in Canada) but living in Korea made me miss the little polite mannerisms that Americans have. For instance, holding the door open. That isn’t a concept in Korea, they will let the door hit you in the face. Seoul is a very crowded city with many people, and as such you will get hit by people’s shoulders and bags as you walk through the city – and don’t expect an apology. In restaurants, people will chew loudly and slurp to their hearts content (this is actually good manners in Korea, showing the meal is good).
- Smoking – theres so much smoking. You can smoke in hotels and clubs and during class people would literally leave for a smoke break because they couldn’t wait until the end.
- English – around half of the signs you see will be in English. Koreans learn English in school and most are pretty good at it but they are also notorious for being shy about speaking it and thinking they aren’t good enough to converse even though they are. Learn a few easy Korean phrases (like hello, thank you, water, yes, etc) and people are usually very kind about helping you out despite the language barrier.
- Trashcans – this is random but WHERE ARE THE TRASHCANS???? How the hell does South Korea stay so clean when there are literally no public trashcans outside anywhere? Do people just hold their trash for hours?
- Umbrellas – nearly everyone will carry an umbrella here at all times (at least during the summer). Summer is monsoon season and when it rains, it pours. But on the other hand, even when it’s not raining you’ll see a sea of umbrellas held by women to block the sun from their face.
- Tinder – they have Tinder but half of the Korean guys will use it as a language exchange program and the other half are sleazy. A small percentage are good guys who just want to take you on a date but in Korea there’s a thing called “riding the white horse,” if you get the drift… many guys will try to pick you up as an experience, rather than because they actually want to date you. Other guys on Tinder are American soldiers stationed there or other students. Also a lot of profiles will only have two photos because they think it’s an aesthetic or something.
(Below, a “conversation” I had with a guy on Tinder. I matched with him because I wanted to see “You matched with You,” after this he messaged me more and was kind of a dick so I never messaged back)
- The Humidity – Korea in summer = death by humidity and heat. I have very thick long hair and within an hour, my hair completely frizzed out and was twice its normal size. Keeping your hair up and away from your face in braids (or buns if you have less hair than me) is a must.
- Mosquitos – they will kill you. Stay out late during the summer without bug spray and you will wake up with seven different bites from that night. You will also get bitten on the face, as I was 5 times.
- Skincare – if you’re already familiar with Korea, you will already know that S. Korea is obsessed with skincare. Having clean, dewy, white skin in Korea is desired above all else and Koreans will go to great lengths to achieve this. There are dozens of little shops littered around every block where you can buy relatively cheap products. Skinfood, the Face Shop, Etude House, and Tony Moly are some such places that are popular for skincare products.
(Below, my haul of presents for people from Korea. Notice how skincare is a huge chunk of that)
- The Subway – best subway system I’ve ever been on. Very clean and easy to get around and understand, even not knowing Hangul (the Korean alphabet).
- Volume – going to Korea made me realize how loud Americans generally are. We were constantly shushed on public transportation. Young Koreans are taught to be quiet and respectful of their volume from a young age, however once you become a ajumma (older Korean lady) this doesn’t seem to apply anymore.
- Sexism – really this topic should have its own post but I’ll briefly speak about it here. In my opinion, girls are treated as second class citizens here more so than any other place I’ve ever been. Obviously there are other places in the world that are worse but S. Korea is such an industrialized nation with many advancements that surpass major world powers. However, they have not advanced in their viewpoints on how women should be treated and fairness. Obviously I received a different treatment in Korea as a tall, white, foreign woman but there were definite red flags in how I noticed they treated me as a woman as well.