Seoul, South Korea – Clearing up with Stereotypes about Korea

(First of all: Unfortunately my external  harddrive stopped working, so I lost all of my pictures and can’t use any right now.. I am going back home in 2 weeks and hope that I can fix it then! Will add pictures then. I hope. :()

 

Like probably everyone who plans on going abroad for more than a few weeks I spend many hours researching about my destination and it’s culture and especially it’s etiquette. (If you don’t do this, please, please, please do us all a favor and do! There’s nothing worse than uninformed foreigners who behave badly and ruin the reputation of people who actually want to move to a different country.)

After actually living in Korea for a few months I came to realize that a lot of the information on the internet is inaccurate or already out of date. So today I am going to give you a 2016 update on the things you will most likely stumble upon if you Google your way through things you need to know before moving to Korea. Is it really seen as rude if you stick your Chopsticks in to a bowl of rice? Do people really judge you and tell you about your flaws? Let’s find out!

 

Stereotype number one: Everyone loves Kpop. 

So, this is actually a stereotype that confused me quite a bit and before I came here I thought there’s no way that this is even a thing. But ever since I came here I actually do understand why people would think this way. No matter where you go (unless of course you visit a shrine, museum or temple) chances are very high that you will be hearing Kpop playing around you. Want to go to Myeongdong and shop your way through the day? Prepare to hear Kpop. Want to sit down in a cafe and talk to your friends about god and the world? Prepare to hear Kpop. In our university we can’t even enter the building without hearing Kpop play through the speakers! Yes, you read that right. Our university plays Kpop music in the morning when the students start coming.

Despite Kpop being played everywhere not all people do like it or listen to it in their free time. I asked many, many Koreans what kind of music they listen to and the answer was ’not Kpop‘ about 75% of the time. I guess hearing it all the time does get you annoyed after a while. Even if you are Korean. (Yes, hearing ‚Shy Shy Shy‘ at least 15 times a day does indeed get annoying, believe me.)

 

Everyone speaks English and you will be fine without being able to speak any Korean at all.

I read this on the internet a lot before coming here and I am really glad that I learned the basics before coming here, because it is simply NOT TRUE. I don’t even want to sugarcoat it for you that’s how untrue this is. You want to order in a fast food restaurant?  Don’t expect the waitress to understand your order if you speak in English. Instead many places like McDonalds do have computers where you can order, so if you are not confident in ordering in (even broken) Korean you can use this. Want to get around town in a Taxi? Make sure you have the address written down in Korean, because otherwise you might end up somewhere else. You want to ask somebody for the way? Good luck on that, because out of 5 Koreans you encounter only 1 or maybe 2 if you are lucky will be able to understand you or reply in English. Of course, it could be that I am just unlucky, but after living here for a few months this is my experience. Not even most of my classmates speak English and they are attending an English class. (No idea how they manage to do that by the way..)  I recommend at least learning  the Korean alphabet to be able to read signs and say what you want if it’s written somewhere. I promise you the Korean alphabet is the easiest thing to learn and it won’t take you more than an hour or two if you are a slow learner. There are many nice tutorials on how to learn it easily.

Of course, by saying that not everyone speaks English I am not saying that no one does. There are kind a bunch of Koreans (especially university students and people who were abroad for some reason)  who do speak English just fine. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t expect to be able to get along without having communication issues. Well, of course there’s always a way of communicating with your hands and feet.

 

The Subway system is great and you will be able to get everywhere you want at any time.

First of all, yes, the subway system is great and also easy to use! But it also got major flaws. The biggest one: Despite Korea – especially Seoul – being a culture that is mostly active at night.. The  subways don’t run 24/7?! I am honestly still so shocked about this. The Subway doesn’t run any later than midnight. On the weekend it stops even earlier than during the week (someone explain this to me please?!). If you want to go out with your friends or visit one of the many markets that are open during the night, make sure you get there earlier. And also keep in mind that the public transport doesn’t start running again before at least 6 AM or something like that. While Taxis definitely are cheap in Korea compared to western countries, it still isn’t recommendable taking one every single night. Unless your budget has no limit of course.

The second flaw is that it can get really really expensive on the long run. While taking the subway one time is ridiculously cheap compared to for example Germany (You pay less than 1 Euro for one trip with the subway, no matter how long the trip is) it is incredibly expensive if you take the subway 1-2 times a day or more. Because there is no unlimited access card like we are used to. If you are a student or someone who works in a different city and you have to take the train at least two times a day in Germany, you can just buy a monthly card for a fixed price. In Korea this doesn’t exist. So you are forced to pay 1200 won every single time you get into a bus or the subway. Considering you go to school once a day this will leave you with expenses of about 30,000 won just for public transportation each month. And this does not include the trips you want to take in your free time.

 

You can’t flush your toilet paper down the toilet.

Unfortunately this is mostly true. Depending on where you live it might not affect you because modern buildings aren’t affected by this.. but once you step into a bathroom of a restaurant, internet cafe or any other private public place.. prepare to put your toilet paper into a bin next to the toilet. No seriously, do it though. You don’t want everything coming out back on you.

 

It is considered rude and disrespectful to stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice.

I have read this many, many times. No matter what website I look at – they all tell you not to do this under any circumstances. I asked all of my Korean friends and none of them even knew that this is a thing. Maybe 50 years ago, but not now. So unless you are eating with elders don’t worry about this. Here are a few things that you should keep in mind while dining with Koreans though:

  • It isn’t really nice if you lift up your bowl of rice while eating. This might be common in China or Vietnam but in Korea you might get weird looks.
  • Do not blow your nose at the table. Or if you do, at least turn around from everyone else. Tapping your nose with a tissue is fine.
  • Since age is a huge factor in the Korean culture, make sure that you don’t start eating before the oldest person does. Also pour their drink for them. The youngest person is also expected to for example cook the meat if you are at a BBQ.

 

It is cheaper to buy electronics in Korea so don’t bring them with you and buy them there.

Trust me, you don’t want to do this. In my time here I have not once seen an electronics store like we are used to. (Saturn, Media Markt & Co.) And it is generally hard to find things. I am not sure why, I think most Koreans order their stuff online. It is also surprisingly hard to find things such as Video Game stores. Which is odd considering how popular these are here.

Another thing you definitely want to bring is deodorant and if you have any  favorite type of shampoo or toothpaste bring that as well. You might find it here, but it will be very expensive.

 

There is WiFi everywhere and it’s free.

Man this one was the biggest bummer. I can’t explain how many times I’ve wandered around town looking for an open WiFi when I first came here. Yes, you will find some and most cafes have one as well and they will give you the password if you order anything. But to save you a lot of time and nerves I recommend buying a Korean Sim Card and Data.. It’s not expensive and pretty easy to do.

 

Korea is a safe place to live and to travel in alone.

Huge yes. I feel much safer here than I do back in Germany. This is not only because there are always people around you on the street, but I guess also because of the fact that there are cameras everywhere. Even all cars have blackboxes. So even if one was to commit a crime, chances are high that you would get caught.

It’s really interesting to see how most people leave their doors unlocked and many street food stalls are just covered with a blanket while they are closed, simply because theft is so unusual in Korea. Even when I am out with my Korean friends we will leave our bags somewhere in a club and I will ask them to bring them with us because I am scared someone will steal them they just say ‚Nah, no need. We are in Korea no one will steal them‘.

All of this doesn’t mean that you should not be careful. Things always happen. I am just saying that you have no reason to be overly paranoid about crime.

 

Locals will judge you based on your looks and tell you about your flaws.

I read a lot about Koreans being ‚more open‘ about their opinion when it comes to look. For example people will tell you if you gained weight or if you look like you didn’t sleep much. Also I read that you will get stared at if your weight is above average. But I have to say that this has not once happened to me. I even went to a jimjilbang once (Spa/Sauna that requires you to come in your birthday suit. Yep, all naked.) and no one will look at you. People don’t care.

So if you are scared because of everyone on the internet telling you about how Koreans will judge you or stare at you because of your appearance, rest assured because no one cares. And I mean that in a good way.

 

Bonus: Here are a few little things I want to share with you about Korea

  • There is no tipping. While in western countries it’s considered rude not to give a little extra money for the waitress or taxi driver, it’s the exact opposite in Korea. If you want to give someone more money it is like you are looking down on them and think that they need the money more than you do. Only do this for example if the taxi driver drove extra careful or you got any other extra service. But even then it’s not necessary.
  • Prepare for the weather. It gets ridiculously hot during summer and way below freezing point in winter.
  • Feel free to show your legs, but leave that cleavage hidden. I am not sure why, but in Korea it’s not considered slutty to wear shorts or skirts as short as possible, but if you reveal your top you might get weird looks.
  • If you want to surround yourself mostly with foreigners go to Itaewon or Hongdae.
  • There are places where there is no price tag on the items that are for sale. This means that it’s open for negotiation. I usually try to avoid these places unless I am with a Korean friend, so I can’t really help you on that. Just thought you would like to know.
  • Most restaurants have call buttons on the corner of their tables. Feel free to press them if you need anything. I love them and wish they were everywhere.
  • If you can’t see any silverware on the table take a look at the ends of the table, there’s most likely a drawer you can open.
  • Don’t be surprised about people not greeting each other unless they are really close. It’s not normal to smile at strangers or greet them.
  • There are convenience stores literally around every corner. I got 5 around my home within 2 minutes of walking.
  • Many people spit on the streets. A lot. And it’s gross.

 

And last but not least my favorite for you. Thank me later.

  • Don’t take a black taxi. Seriously. DO NOT TAKE A BLACK TAXI. You will pay a lot more for apparently better service, but they are just the same as the normal orange or silver taxis.