Seoul is weird.
I recently spent a week there teaching. Between what my class told me and my own experiences, I thought I’d share my observations of Korean culture.
• The language: It sounds awesome. They take a huge breath, and slowly exhale as they passionately get their point out while gradually rising in volume.
• Rock paper scissors: It’s a pandemic here. I first saw it on the way from the airport to the hotel as a couple walked down the street playing match after match. The loser of every hand got either a flick on the forehead or slap on the wrist. Apparently it is massively used throughout Korean classrooms to settle disputes.
• They drive on the right side of the road: And by right side of the road, I mean the correct side of the road. You heard me, world. #’Merica
• Gangnam smells like farts: I have no idea why, but as I walked around the district, there was a constant smell lingering on every corner. I have a feeling it may have something to do with the next point.
• Taco Bell!!! When I found out they existed here, I got an instant food boner. I probably looked like a crazy person as I sat by myself, smiling ear-to-ear, smashing countless cheesy gordita crunches. And by countess, I mean 2 before I was full. I also went back a second time to take stuff to-go.
• Cigarette biting: Sounds weird, and it was one of the more subtle things I saw, but Korean people smoke their cigarettes differently. Whether they’re lighting it or just in between puffs, there’s a lot of teeth involved. Think of like an old mobster smoking a cigar. I noticed it once then couldn’t stop seeing it.
• It’s illegal to pull into a parking spot straight on: It’s actually the law that you have to back into parking spaces. As a long time backer-inner, I applaud you Korea.
• PDA: This one was only weird because it is so non-existent in Thailand. Look, I find the subway as romantic as the next guy, but to quote Dave Chappelle, “Put your god-damned cock away, I don’t wanna see it anymore.” (Disclaimer: there were no weiners visible on the train. Previous quote used for dramatic purposes)
• Suicide: Due to the heavy pressure placed on kids to succeed in school, suicide is the leading cause of death for people under 30. Really sad.
• Side dishes. Apparently the more expensive the restaurant, the more side dishes you get. Every meal had a main course (which was always awesome), but there would always be at least 4-8 small bowls per person scattered about the table to nibble on. And you can get these refilled fo’ free.
• Indoor shoes: I’ve gotten used to taking my shoes off before going inside, but Korea goes one step further. When you go inside, you then put designated indoor-flip-flops. I felt really silly teaching TESOL wearing a suit, tie, and sandals with socks.
• Obsession with smart phones: Now this is one that isn’t entirely unique to Korea, but when I was on the subway, I literally counted and about 90% of people were plugged in and glued to their phones. I sat trying to make awkward eye contact with people the entire ride and not a single person noticed me.
• Metal chopsticks: Historically, I’ve been extremely bad at chopsticks, let alone heavy metal ones that get slippery as anxiety and hand-cramps kick in. I got better, but I still missed Thailand’s spoon-and-fork style the whole time.
• Lack of Westerners: I guess I’m comparing it to Bangkok and Hua Hin, but for a major metropolitan Asian city, there were very few of us around. I got the same stares I’ve become accustomed to, but they weren’t nearly as friendly and curious as the ones that I’m used to.
I’m probably grossly over-simplifying a culture with a deep and rich history, but these were just my observations as a sociology major that visited for 6 days. As for the people, our partners Cid and Hero (his real name, I’m so jealous) were awesome and took care of me the whole time I was there. As for strangers though, they were way taller than Thai people, and did not appear to be nearly as friendly. That is until the last night on the subway home. I was jamming out with my headphones in, and this old man gets on carrying a new set of drumsticks. After we caught each other’s eye, he got a fat smile, and I shot one right back at him. Before he got off, he came over and asked where I was from. I told him US/California, and he smiled real big again and said, “Ooohh, USA #1! Obama #1!” He didn’t speak much English, but we were able to chat about how he loves music, has a full drum set at his house, and prefers Korean music to rock music. I told him I was a teacher in Thailand and that I was just visiting. When I told him I liked Korea, he smiled the biggest smile I’d seen all week and thanked me over and over. It was really cool and I realized all it takes is one person to help shape your opinion of a place. So thanks old Korean rock star man, you were one of the highlights of my trip.