From my experience of being a resident in Korea for a while, I can confirm this country is a very unique place. Because of its distinct culture, traditions and social norms, a majority of travellers and foreign residents in Korea are expected to experience a degree of culture shock both in positive and negative ways. Korean food is amazing. The population density in the city of Seoul is insane but manageable. From the extremely punctual public transport to people wearing T-shirts with English phrases that make no sense, there are so many things that continue to amuse, surprise, or perplex me daily.
When you are visiting a different country, you should have a degree of cultural tolerance and openness and act based on the principle ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ However, there are certain odd cultures, customs, and habits practiced normally in Korea that you never seem to get used to even after spending years and years in this country. In this blog post, the Expat Guide Korea will let you in on 5 things in Korea that might be hard for non-Koreans to get used to.
In addition to littering, illegal waste disposal is one of the pressing social issues that Korea has been fighting. Photo: 그린포스트 코리아
Arguably, Korea is one of the most developed and modernised countries in Asia. The Korean economy is the 12th largest in the world in terms of GDP while the country is surely one of the global leaders in the field of IT and technology. Based on such images, many people would expect Korea to be a very clean country prior to their relocation, only to find out that reality shows otherwise.
For instance, in the Gangnam area, which is one of the major business and shopping districts in Seoul, you will find a series of high-end brand retails, business towers, and fashionable cafes standing along the main street. However, once you step into an alley, you will encounter the shocking reality of an uncountable amount of plastic coffee cups and rubbish bags piled up literally every 10 steps you take.
In Korea, finding a place to dispose of your trash is surprisingly difficult, and the country’s lack of public rubbish bins seems to be a contributing factor to people just throwing their takeaway coffee cups away recklessly and illegally on the street. Korea’s trash disposal system is also pretty complex and seems to change quite frequently, which has created confusion among the expat community. As a result, many people dispose of their trash anytime they want, leading to the everyday example of streets full of litter.
Delivery guys riding scooters on footpaths are so commonplace in Korea that pedestrians just go on with their lives. What always surprises me is the fact that the police don’t even bother to give tickets to such hazardous driving behaviours. Photo: Korea Joong Ang Daily
I recall a time when I was having fun at my friend’s birthday party and missed my last train, so I took a taxi back home. And I literally had a near-death experience when I saw my taxi driver driving his Hyundai at 130 km on a normal highway. There are never-ending lists of stories and anecdotes I’ve heard from my non-Korean friends, in which they had trouble with their cabs driving recklessly and changing lanes every 2 seconds.
The culture of reckless and aggressive driving is so real in Korea, and I can confirm that many Koreans from ordinary citizens to professional public bus drivers honk a car horn more often than they use indicators - something that many people use not before, but a few seconds after actually changing driving lanes. Some drivers don’t even bother to speed down at all at pedestrian crossings while delivery guys without helmets riding motorcycles on pedestrian footpaths have become a commonplace sight. You just have to come to terms with the reality that vehicles have priority over pedestrians on public roads in Korea.
There is one Korean phrase that hits me in my mind when I think of the Korean traffic rules -‘pali pali’ (빨리 빨리). This expression, which literally translates to ‘hurry up’ or ‘faster,’ is a very common (and useful!) Korean expression, which some say is an integral part of the Korean culture. If there is one thing that reflects this ‘pali pali’ culture, it’s the way Koreans drive. Traffic laws seem to be very loosely enforced and vaguely observed in Korea. After driving alongside Korean peer drivers for a few years, I now understand why my Korean friends always tell me “you can drive anywhere if you can drive in Seoul.”
When my Korean friends and I want to order pizza delivery, we always get into a verbal fight over what to order. While I usually prefer basic types of pizzas like margarita and pepperoni, there is always at least one friend who is a hard-core corn-lover and claims that corn goes well with any food including pizzas.
Korean food is truly amazing. I can literally eat Korean BBQ every single week while Korean little side dishes that you get at your local restaurants have been a steadfast source of my life in Korea by adding different flavours to every meal. But Korean toppings - like corn - have a clear division of likes and dislikes. There are just a few super weird combinations of food and ingredients in Korea that I never get used to.
In addition to corn, I still haven’t been able to embrace the Korean love affairs with sweet potatoes, affectionately called ‘Goguma’ (고구마) in Korean. I do acknowledge that sweet potatoes are tasty and nutritious per se, but there are certainly some foods that should not be meshed with them. One representative example of this is sweet-potato flavoured milk which my Korean friend forced me to try and made me determined not to touch it ever since. If you go to a Domino’s in Korea, you can also get a pizza that has layers of sweet potato mousse over conventional pizza ingredients like pepperoni and ham.
Everything is quick-moving in Korea’s ‘pali pali’ culture. The country boasts one of the fastest Internet in the world while I do benefit from Korea’s amazing same-day delivery. On the other hand, it sometimes gets exhausting to keep up with ever-changing trends. Photo: Chosun.Com
If Korean people are disposed to behave and act ‘pali pali’ (빨리 빨리), so do their businesses. Everything moves at a lightning speed in this country, and I bet you are witnessing examples of this every day. Recently, I went to Jeju Island on holiday for a few days. When I returned to Seoul, I was shocked to find out that a little bakery that used to be inside my subway station was completely gone within a few days I was out of town. Well, not only was the bakery gone in a short amount of time but also a new convenience store was already there operating.
It is just shocking as to how fast one business collapses and gets replaced by another in Korea. And the quick business turnover in this country explains why there are constructions always going on in front of your house. Korean businesses have to survive a fierce competition in the market. Cafes and convenience stores are found literally every 10 meters apart, and they are desperate to maintain the status quo in fear of getting kicked out of the race. And even if a business is seemingly doing well, it could be gone the next morning without prior notice. If you have local cafes or restaurants that you have been meaning to go to, do go visit them while you can.
Age in Korea is as confusing as a maths question. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Korea
When you go to a different country, you might have to adjust your watch to a different time zone. But in Korea, there is one more thing you need to change - your age. Korea has maintained its centuries-old tradition of counting age from the year of birth. In Korea, when babies are born, they automatically turn one year old. And they turn one year older when the new year comes. Hypothetically, this means that if a baby is born at 11:59 pm on December 31, he or she has an unfortunate destiny of turning two years older just a minute after their birth.
Now, this cultural difference appears very odd, but you have to take it seriously since age is considered extremely important in Korea’s vertical society. If you think about the Korean language, maybe you find yourself still struggling with getting all the honorifics and titles (i.e. oppa, noona, hyung, unni) right even a few years after being settled in this country. Because of this age counting system that is different from the rest of the world, it is pretty common for people to say their birth year to describe how old they are. Apparently, Korea is the only country where this old custom of age reckoning is kept alive, showing how modernisation and tradition coexist in this country. To clarify, the Korean age does not make you younger, which means it does not cause inconvenience to activities with age restrictions, such as drinking or driving. You can think of it as more of a trivial thing that makes you do the maths every time you meet someone for the first time. If you don’t know your Korean age, click here to find out.