Sunday, March 1, 2015

Korea in a (Big) Nutshell

Now that I've been in South Korea for 6 months, I’ve learned and observed some interesting things about Korean culture that I think are worth sharing. 

First, some basic differences between Korea and the U.S. that I should've mentioned a long time ago:

Such a handsome fellow.

-1000₩ (won) is about the equivalent of 1 USD, though technically it's 91¢ now. It makes conversions easy—just chop off 3 zeroes to get to U.S. dollars.

-Korea is 14 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone, which means 5pm here is 3am in New York. When Daylight Savings starts again, it’ll go back to being 13 hours ahead.

-Koreans calculate age differently than Westerners. First, they consider newborns to be 1 year old to account for their time in the womb. Second, they use people's birth years instead of their birth days. Accordingly, everybody turns a year older on New Year's Day. For example, if you were born in June of 1990, your Western age would be 24, but your Korean age would be 26. I can’t say I’m a fan of this system. 

-I was warned from the very beginning not to drink the tap water here because it contains hard metals that will eventually build up in your system. So that's comforting. 

And now, in no particular order:

1) Koreans are NOT short. What a misconception on my part. Ha. Apparently they have the tallest average height of any Asian nationality.

Beachside "camping"
You can find hiking gear stores in
any market.
2) Koreans love to go camping—and by camping I mean setting up one's tent in a park, bringing tons of food along or ordering takeout, and going home at the end of the day. But what they love even more than camping is hiking, or, more specifically, hiking gear. You can see middle-aged or old people decked out in full hiking outfits at any time of the day, whether they just came back from a group hike or they're making a trip to the grocery store. It's as ubiquitous as the American t-shirt and jeans. 

3) Unfortunately there are no laws against too much noise in Korea, which means being woken up in the morning by a truck blaring advertisements for fresh fruit is relatively normal.

4) Every now and then I’ll see a sign whose title is in English…and then everything else is in Korean. Please tell me how a sign whose only English word is “Information” is going to help me.

5) Koreans really like Maroon 5….random.

6) Many buildings and apartments use a type of heating called ondol (온돌) heating. You press a button on your thermostat and it turns on a big machine that heats the water running through pipes under your floor. Then, since heat rises, eventually your whole room becomes warm. It tends to be expensive and can take quite a while before it's really effective, but at least it makes the floor nice and toasty for your bare feet. :)
This looks like a Kit Kat,
you say? Nonsense.

Of course this has nothing
to do with Monopoly.
7) Korea seems to have no copyright laws, at least when it comes to copying Western brands. I've seen small stores use well-known logos from companies like Apple and Burger King to falsely encourage name-brand recognition. The popular Korean cosmetic store Nature Republic uses the exact same typeface as Banana Republic in the States. And while you can see many Koreans with North Face clothes and gear, there are also the equally popular brands North Cape and The Redface. What a conveniently familiar choice of words! 

8) There is a strange fascination with watching toddlers play/eat/throw tantrums on TV—even at the bank. Koreans also love to insert cutesy speech bubbles and cartoony sound effects into reality TV shows. And I find it interesting how, despite the prevalence of smoking here, the cigarettes in shows like "The Simpsons" are blocked out.

9) THERE IS SO MUCH SPITTING. Old men, young men, young women, dainty old ladies. Anywhere you go you can hear someone hacking up a huge wad of spit and letting it splat very loudly onto the sidewalk. Some people will even spit indoors. It's gross and it makes me cringe every time. 

10) Koreans are known for having really nice skin. Many of them use skincare programs that involve 8-10 steps; I don't even try to keep up. Accordingly, you can find brightly lit cosmetic stores everywhere you go. Sometimes you'll even see three or four different stores lined up right next to each other.

11) One thing I've grown to appreciate is that people here aren't too self-conscious to protect their faces against the cold. You can see people of all ages wearing cotton face masks in winter because they don't want to breathe in the cold air. That makes so much sense! I propose we adopt this in the U.S….you start.

12) I had read on multiple sites before I left that bedsheets and full-sized towels would be extremely difficult to find. While not impossible to find sheets, each piece of a sheet set is sold separately and is very expensive, so I've learned to live without them. As for towels, for some reason, Koreans use the equivalent of a hand towel for their bath towels, too. It doesn't make sense. But I was able to find a beach towel pretty easily to do to the job. 

Definitely a legitimate parking spot.

13) I'd also read that the driving in Korea was quite bad, but I've seen much worse in other countries. However, there are no rules when it comes to parking, whether that's on the street, on the sidewalks, in the middle of crosswalks, or in incredibly tight spots that make it hard for even pedestrians to squeeze by. One interesting thing I noticed is that half of the cars I see have little styrofoam pads on their doors to prevent them from accidentally denting other cars. They're pretty nifty. 

Practicality at its best.

14) Biking is really popular here, both as a method of transportation and for exercise. You can also find many bikes with small wheels and high seats that fold in half for easy transport (see picture). As I mentioned before, the bike lanes in cities are usually part of the sidewalks. Unfortunately, that means people on scooters and motorcycles (the main method of food delivery) also see it as their right to ride on the sidewalks, so pedestrians had better jump the heck out of the way.

15) Public transportation is great, cheap, and extremely reliable. Taxis are much cheaper than in the U.S. The subway (in Daegu, at least) is about $1 each way regardless of distance, and both the subways and the subway stations are very clean. Some cities even have heated subway seats in winter. If you want to get to another city quickly, there’s the expensive but very fast KTX train. If you prefer a cheaper option, the inter-city buses here are incredibly prompt. If the bus to Seoul is scheduled to leave at 6:30, it leaves at exactly 6:30. The only thing to beware of is the intra-city buses. As soon as you board, you'd better grab something quick, because that bus driver is jamming on the gas the moment the last person's foot is in the door. Multiple times I've seen people—including the elderly—half-fall onto other passengers because they didn't grab onto a pole or seat in time. The jerkiness of these buses tests both your balance and your strength—in other words, how well you can hang on for dear life. 

These warnings are everywhere,
just in case you forget.
It's watching you.
16) Korea is known for being an extremely safe country. I've often heard that bike theft is the most common crime. For example, this study was done to show just how trustworthy Koreans are. Knowing this has allowed me to take less precautions than I probably should. Then again, I've also left a bag with my jacket, iPod, and phone charger on a city bus, and I got it back from the Lost & Found with nothing missing. While I've been told that the police force doesn't have much power (you sometimes see groups of neon-clad police officers strolling casually around), there's this thing called CCTV that is constantly watching you. There are cameras on every main street and sidewalk, and in every park, playground, store, and classroom. Some of these cameras even have ominous red lights. Big Brother, anyone?

17) I also recently learned that there are absolutely no sort of self-defense laws in Korea. If someone punches you and you punch him back, you're both getting arrested for assault. If someone breaks into your house and you stab him, YOU'RE serving a full sentence in jail. Your best bet? Scream and run away. 

18) The bathrooms here were somewhat of a shock when I first came to Korea. The majority of stalls have normal toilets, but some still have traditional holes in the floor. (No thanks.) Also, in most public restrooms, the toilet paper dispenser is outside the stalls, so you have to stock up before you go in. And in some bathrooms, there's no toilet paper at all. In subway bathrooms, you sometimes have to BUY your toilet paper from a machine first. Other bathrooms don't have soap, or have this weird soap-on-a-stick contraption. And all bathrooms are weirdly insistent on not throwing tissue away in the toilet. I've also really learned to appreciate hot water. Since hot water must be manually turned on from a central source (which costs extra money), most sink water in winter feels about two degrees away from coming out as pure ice.

19) Another annoying thing is that public trashcans are so rare. This is because the government wants people to take their trash home and recycle it/pay for their own trash bags. The unfortunate side effect is that there is trash everywhere, even on nice streets or in beautiful places like temples. It's an eyesore, and it's often old people who can’t afford to retire who go around picking it up.

20) Speaking of the elderly, there’s no sort of retirement system here—if your kids don’t take care of you, you’re screwed. You’ll often see older men (ajishis) and women (ajumas) hunting through trash like hawks and picking out all the cardboard, which they then strap in enormous piles to their bikes or carts and lug to the nearest recycling plant in exchange for a very small sum of money. I suppose it’s an efficient way to encourage recycling, but it’s also kind of sad to see people old enough to be grandparents scavenging to get by.

An ajuma parks this cart in my
apartment building every night.
I don't know how the hunched, wrinkled
little ajuma in my neighborhood
manages to haul so much stuff around.
This is pretty normal.

You can only access this workout area
after a small hike up a mountain.

21) Other than that, old people in Korea seem to have a pretty healthy lifestyle. They're the main demographic by far in any given park and on most mountain trails. You can also seem them using the public “exercise” machines scattered about in parks/ playgrounds/halfway up mountains/in the middle of nowhere. Many of these machines are fun to play around with but have dubious practical use.

The very popular leg-swinger.
Get too excited and you might
just pop a hip out of place.
Randomly placed on the side of
a bike path.

Somehow spinning this wheel is
supposed to stretch you out…?

It doesn't actually say "soju"
anywhere on the bottle, but
everybody knows what it is.
22) Koreans are known for their love of drinking—and their most popular drink is the notorious (and extremely cheap) soju. There’s also makgeolli, a famous and inexpensive rice wine. In convenience stores, these drinks can be even cheaper than water. On any night of the week you can see businessmen stumbling around drunk as early as 10pm. You could call it "efficient drinking": they know they have to go to work the next day, so they don't mess around with the business of getting drunk. That also means there's a lot of vomit around. Many bars downtown will stay open all night, which means a night out often ends at 6 or 7am.

23) South Korea is also known for having by far the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. Many Koreans have the unfortunate idea that, in a situation where everyone has similar qualifications, looks are the only way to come out on top. One result is the ever-popular double-eyelid surgery to make one's eyes bigger and more Western-looking, often given to girls as a middle or high school graduation present. But one can also get total facial reconfiguration—including getting one’s jawbone shaven or chiseled down. Some people even get restalyne filler injections: little gel particles injected under their eyes to make their lower eyelids puff up. (Somehow it’s supposed to make them look younger because it’s what kids have naturally.) The ideal Korean face has an oval shape, pointed jaw, narrow nose, and big eyes—and I guarantee that you can see this in 9 out of 10 K-pop stars. Therefore it shouldn’t be surprising just how many ads for plastic surgery and implants you can find in the subways. Getting plastic surgery here is relatively cheap, so that people from other Asian countries often come to Korea for this reason. Unfortunately, aiming for one ideal face can lead to lots of people looking very similar. There was some controversy last year over these beauty pageant contestants. If you look through their pictures quickly, it looks like they’re all one person who simply has many different hairstyles and outfits. But nope, they’re all separate women.

From Cinderella Plastic Surgery in Seoul (in the same building as a movie theater):

That's not beautiful; it's creepy.

How are these the same person?!

24) On a lighter note, I love reading Korean transliterations of English words. Christmas, which has two syllables in English, becomes five syllables in Korean: Kuh-ree-sa-muh-suh (크리스마스). There is also a tendency for English-learners to add “-uh” to the end of words and stretch out short “i” sounds, so “this” becomes “this-uh” and “it” becomes “eat.” Furthermore, Korean students have a particularly hard time with their “r”s and “l”s, since the Korean equivalent is a weird in-between letter (ㄹ)—so “rock” sounds like “lock” and one student spelled “looking" as “rooking.” And there's no “v,” “z” or “f” in Korean. That means “Fighting!”, a popular word of encouragement for Koreans, sounds more like “Pie-ting!” It’s also led to some confusion when my students insisted they went to the Jew last weekend…when really they meant the zoo. Oops.

And there you have it: my foreigner impression of Korea. I’m aware that I would probably have a very different perspective if I understood more of the language, but it’s the best I can do for now. Let me know below what you thought was the most interesting or surprising!