My parents are coming to visit me in Korea in February! I’m incredibly excited to see them and that they will have the opportunity to experience Korea for themselves. I’ve already raved about many of Korea’s good points to them, but I am getting a little nervous about some of the parts of Korea that might give them a little more culture shock. So, I’ve compiled this list of things I want to warn them about before they arrive. As a forewarning, this post may come across as quite negative because it is a list of phenomena in Korea that Westerners may be uncomfortable with or dislike, but I just wanted to put all of these things in one place for my parents and for anyone else that may find this information useful. Don’t worry, my next post will be about some of the things I love about Korea.
There are few things to know about restaurants in Korea before walking into one. The first is that you shouldn’t try to change any menu items. Don’t ask to leave anything out, or to substitute anything. I suppose it’s possible that the restaurant might accommodate your requests, but as a general rule people just don’t do this in Korea. You are probably going to confuse your server and they will likely say that you can’t do that. Second, don’t expect a huge glass of water with your food like you get in restaurants in the US. Koreans drink a lot less water than Americans with their meals, and the cups are almost always very small. You will often get a jug of water to refill your cups, but not always. Finally, taking your leftovers with you is not common in Korea. If you don’t finish your food, you leave it behind. The only place I’ve seen that packed up uneaten food was a fried chicken place. In general, it’s best to just not ask.
- Korea’s idea of Western food
Korea has a lot of Western-style restaurants and snacks. Some of it is amazing: I’ve had some of the best Italian pasta in my life in Korea. Some of it is just…a little off. Although it is “Western” food in the sense that it is based on the foods of Western countries, Koreans have their own take on Western foods that seem to be based on their perception of Western tastes. Firstly, Koreans seem to think most Western food is sweet; as a result, many Westerns would find a lot of Western-style foods in Korea to be strangely sweet. Breads are often covered in some kind of sugary buttery spread, salad dressings are sweet and fruity, corn dogs are often coated in sugar. A sandwich with meat, cheese, and vegetables will have a sweet sauce spread on it. Finally, even if your Korean Western-style food isn’t strangely sweet, it will probably have way too much mayonnaise slathered on it. Koreans seem to love their ketchup and mayo a little too much, and since it’s uncommon to ask for menu items to be altered, you’re going to have to scrape it off your burger yourself if you don’t want it.
There are cafes on every street corner in Korea, and you will never have trouble ordering an americano or a cafe latte, but my mom drinks a cup of plain ol’ joe every morning. Unfortunately, most Korean cafes only have espresso beverages and do not sell plain coffee. I have seen a couple of cafes that do have plain coffee, but it seems to be marketed here as more of a luxury, instead of being the cheapest drink on the menu like it is in the U.S. The cafes where it is sold allow the customer to pick the type of beans they want (as in, based on the location where they were grown) and the prices are higher than an americano and sometimes even more expensive than the lattes. So Mom, get ready to be drinking a lot of espresso when you get here.
- Chocolate, bread, and cheese
I will admit, the U.S. is not known for its chocolate, bread, or cheese. That would be Europe, of course. But both of my parents are a little snobbish when it comes to these foods, and they are willing to pay the price for European imports from time to time. In Korea, European imports are harder to find and more expensive than in the U.S. and I’m sorry, but most Korean chocolate has been a disappointment for a chocoholic like me. The chocolate flavor is not strong and chocolate desserts usually just taste overwhelmingly sweet. The sweet breads are often decent, but more yeasty breads and cakes are usually lacking. Korean cheese is usually of the fake, Kraft cheese singles variety, which I will admit is often more satisfying than I would like to admit. Just don’t expect to find a good Brie or Camembert here.
Public spaces and interacting with others
- Public transportation
Korea has some extremely efficient public transportation. As a result, a lot of people use it every day, and as a result of that, it is often quite crowded. When it gets crowded, Koreans do not want to wait for the next bus or train. They will force as many people onto the vehicle as possible, so my parents need to be prepared for this. If you ride the subway or bus during a busy time, you will probably not be able to sit and you will be packed in like a sardine without any respect for your personal space. You will be expected to push back and make as much room as you can for the people getting on after you. It’s gonna get pretty toasty.
I’m not exactly sure if this is a Korean thing or a city thing, but in all of the cities I have been to in Korea, people push. Do not stand in anybody’s way, because they will just push past you. If they are young, they are less likely to be aggressive, muttering an “excuse me” as they move by without too much force, but you need to watch out for the middle-aged women, referred to as ahjummas (아줌마). In short, they just do not care. I am always surprised by the strength that these women have in their shoulders and elbows as they shove you aside when trying to get past you on the street or the bus. Maybe they would have a little more consideration for other adults like my parents, but if my friends and I are in their way we are going down.
I’m not sure how much of an issue this will be. In the area around my university and downtown, two places filled with young people, I don’t get stared at much. Koreans my age who live in bigger cities are usually more used to seeing foreigners around and more embarrassed (or at least more covert) about staring. The people who usually stare the most are young children and older people. I am curious to see if my parents will be stared at more than I have been. I fall into the most common age group of foreigners in Korea: around 20-40 years old, as most foreigners are students or in the army. There are not many foreigners in Korea younger than 20 or older than 40, and my parents fall into that older bracket (sorry Mom and Dad). I wonder if this extra factor that makes my parents more unique in Korea will cause them to get stared at more. In any case, it’s not too hard to get used to staring; most of the time, people are clearly just looking out of pure curiosity and do not appear mean-spirited.
- Coughing, sneezing, spitting, and smoking
These are probably the four things I just can’t get used to in Korea. I don’t know if I would ever really get used to them, no matter how long I lived here. First of all, a lot of Koreans do not cover their mouths or noses when they cough and sneeze. I’m sorry, I know this may sound narrow-minded or culturally insensitive, but….that’s nasty. It’s just a hygiene thing. I don’t want to get sick from your germs, people. My mom is a germaphobe and I know she will have trouble with this too, so I am giving her fair warning. It is also considered acceptable to spit and smoke in the street. Although I have seen a few women do this, it is mostly men who have these unfortunate habits. Men smoke everywhere, and sometimes you have to watch out while you are walking outside to avoid stepping in spit. Just to be clear, many Koreans also think these habits are gross, but it is still extremely common.
The main thing I want to warn my parents about Korean bathrooms is the size. They are used to the U.S., where everything is built big, and Oklahoma, where everything is built bigger. Korea is small and they need to conserve space. As a result, a lot of their bathrooms are tiny. I have been in bathrooms where my knees almost touched the stall door, and I have very short legs. Be ready to squeeze yourself into the bathroom and when you get in there, be ready for it to be a little dirty. Of course, not all Korean bathrooms are dirty, but it seems that the standards for bathroom cleanliness in restaurants, cafes, etc. are more lax than in the U.S. The last thing is that from what I’ve heard, Korean toilet paper is not made to dissolve in water (and apparently American toilet paper does?) I’m not really sure about this, but the point is that many businesses in Korea ask that you throw toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet. If you see a sign in Korean on the inside of the stall door and a trash can full of toilet paper, you should probably not put your toilet paper in the toilet in case it clogs. Was this TMI for my blog? Too late, I already wrote it. Plus, it’s important to know.
- Cars and motorcycles
The last thing I want to warn my parents about before they come to Korea is Korean driving. Driving is relatively calm in Oklahoma, although it is slowly getting worse. My mom nearly has an aneurysm every time she has to drive in Dallas or some other big city. Although my parents won’t be driving themselves in Korea, they need to be prepared for how others drive. It doesn’t matter whether they take the bus or a taxi, everyone in Korea drives crazy. Drivers blatantly ignore traffic rules, constantly cut each other off, and park wherever they feel like. I’ve been in a taxi where the brake light was on and the driver was using his emergency break to stop, and I’ve been in a taxi that ran red lights if it was clear (again, sorry Mom and Dad.) I regularly fear for the lives of old ladies crossing the street who look like they are about to be run over by the bus I am riding. Finally, motorcycles. Delivery motorcyclists drive wherever they want, however they want. You will need to pay attention at all times and frequently move out of the way of motorcyclists who are driving on the sidewalk, weaving through the crowds of pedestrians. Mom and Dad, when you come, just pay attention and try not to have a heart attack.
That’s all for now, folks. Mom and Dad, I’m so excited for you to visit me in Korea, and I know you will love it here. These are just some things I want you to be aware of beforehand so you can enjoy the good parts of Korea even more. Now that I’ve made it seem like I hate Korea, in the next post I will talk about some of the things that Korea does better than the US.