It has become strangely clear after 8 months, our culture (American) and Korean culture are completely different, especially when it comes down to customs, etiquette, and manners. I am still constantly learning ‘no, no’s,’ which a concerned Korean will so gently mention to me AFTER I have done something ‘offensive.’ Sigh. Yes, I know the stereotype is that we’re all just rude, loud, obnoxious foreigners, but I really wouldn’t mind living life without offending the natives each and every day. What am I talking about? Check out the list I’ve composed of rules to live by.
1. DO NOT blow your nose in public…or wipe it for that matter. For the first several months I was constantly sick. I swear I’ve never had so many sinus colds in my life. The doctor even ruled one of my sinus infections as a ‘super bacterial infection.’ Coming from the USA where, if you had to blow your nose- you blew your nose, it was pretty darn hard to suffer through a spicy, eye watering meal of chicken and kimchi, while trying to refrain from liquids streaming down from the nose (sorry for the mental picture). I still don’t quite know what to do in this situation, but I do know that if you want to take care of your nose business, you do it in the discretion of a bathroom.
2.Always give and receive items with two hands. Unfortunately I did not learn this one until two months ago. It is considered ‘rude’ or ‘lazy’ to give or accept anything with just one hand. Oops. I had noticed, even when I was in a grocery store, the cashier would touch her right hand to her left arm as she held the left out to give me my card/cash back. I had also noticed that whenever I would give my students tests, books, pencils, etc..they would display the same mannerisms. Now I understand…and will hopefully appear less rude.
3.Never ever pour yourself a drink. I’ve known this one since day one, and it still doesn’t make sense. I don’t really know how they justify this one either…but it is customary. It does seem rather strange to pour everyone else drinks then ask for someone to pour yours. I’ve also heard if you are ‘the one’ pouring everyone else drinks and you pour to someone that older than you, putting one hand over your heart while you are pouring is a sign of respect.
4. It’s ok, actually it’s a must, to share food. This culture is all about sharing, and spreading germs. They aren’t as into keeping your sickness and germs to yourself as we ‘Americans’ are. It’s the strangest thing to go out for a nice dinner with a Korean family and be sharing a salad bowl with the mother. Maybe it’s simply because I’m not that confident with my chopsticks yet (especially those silver, slippery, metal ones)…and it takes me a while to fumble around and get a good grasp on the food, all while she’s sitting there staring me down.
5. When passing someone on the sidewalk…move over to the left so they can pass on the right. This goes against all the laws of everything in my head. I am used to the regular flow of traffic (cars pass us on our left as we drive on the right)…and that’s how we walk in the States. I still regularly get confused, and I don’t know who the guy was that decided the Korean walking rule was going to be different then the driving rule (yes Koreans drive on the same side of the rode as Americans…thank goodness).
6. Traffic laws are more of a suggestion than a hard fast law. I was scared senseless to drive for the first three months on account that traffic around here is crazy. Between the old ladies that are 80+ years old and just learning how to drive a brand new 2012 Hyundai Genesis (big sedan), the maniac 30-somethings that just want to get to work, and the suicidal delivery boys that have no regard for anyone else as they weave in and out of traffic on their little motorbikes, I figured I was doomed. Here you can run a red light. You can speed, just as long as you slow down at the traffic camera…which you’re given a kilometer’s warning of anyway. You can park anywhere just as long as you turn your emergency brakes on…seriously a traffic lane on a busy highway though? Some people take this unspoken parking rule a little too far.
The craziest road rule of all? Seat belts and car seats are also just a suggestion. I don’t know how many children (countless) I’ve seen hanging out of rooftop windows, sitting on mother’s laps in the front seat, or jumping around in the back. I can’t get over the shock of the lack of safety precautions they practice while their driving. Especially with their children.
7.Take off your shoes. This is a rule I’m familiar with. I’m pretty sure as a child I heard this every day when I came tromping into the house with my muddy shoes. “Take off your shoes at the door please.” This rule is taken very seriously in Korea, and you’re even required to talk off your shoes at restaurants and in schools. Feels weird teaching in socks, but whatever.
8.If an ajumma (older woman) wants to cut you in line…let her. Our second week here we had three similar encounters. We had been waiting in line to check out at the grocery store when an older lady would cut in line, push our stuff out of the way, and check out. Each time the cashier never blinked an eye or gave a startled look. The ajumma never turned to us to wave or to even glare…it’s like we weren’t there. After asking our co-teachers about this they smiled and laughed. For some reason it’s traditional for older men and women to do this. It’s not considered rude or offensive. So now? We just grin and bear it.
9. Never write a person’s name in red ink. I found this out the hard way as I pulled out my red dry-erase marker and wrote a naughty student’s name on the whiteboard. The reason I wrote their name was so that my co-teacher would know who the bad student was and she could handle them (in Korean) during her class. I realized my mistake when I turned around and that ‘bad student’ had burst into tears. Another student chimed in, “Teacher, you want ____ to die?” After a brief explanation I found out that writing a person’s name in red is bad luck and that person may die soon. Geez.
10. DO NOT ever sleep with the fan on and the door closed. Fan death. If you’re new to Korea your boss, co-teacher, student, or any other concerned citizen may warn you about fan death. Some Koreans believe that if you shut your bedroom door at night while leaving the fan on, the fan can chop up all the oxygen molecules in the air and you’ll suffocate to death in your sleep. Where they get this idea I have no clue. It’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. You can wikipedia it if you’d like to know more.
I know there are probably lots more rules to live by in Korea, but it will just take time to learn what those are. If you come to visit or to work, if you know these ten you’ll do pretty good.
OH I almost forgot.
11. Smacking. A person smacking their food is not only my biggest pet peeve it’s strongly discouraged in America. Unfortunately for me and every other American, smacking and slurping is a sign of enjoyment and satisfaction with your meal. Darn the luck. I can guarantee you I will never fall prey to this habit while here in Korea, but I supposed I’m going to have to figure out how to tolerate it.
Have a great weekend!