24 strange things about life in Korea

Korea is undoubtedly the most unique country I’ve ever traveled to. Having lived here for the past 14 months, I’ve grown accustomed to the different lifestyle and traditions of the country. That being said, my initial experience was a culture shock and there are still a few things that are pretty strange and bizarre to me.

Life in Korea

Korea is a country rich in culture with strong traditions

Understanding and respecting cultural differences in Korea

Here, I’ve written why I love Korea and the positive impact it has had on my life. However, people love to hate, and along with the good, comes the bad!

What may seem strange to me is perfectly normal in the eyes of the locals. This is what they’ve grown up with and it is their country so who am I to criticize. And yes, when Koreans travel to South Africa they too will find differences that they don’t necessarily understand (like why everyone wants to be tanned, and why we eat with knives and forks, and not chopsticks!)

What’s important is to appreciate our differences, understand where they come from, and have the patience and respect for the culture and traditions of other countries, even if you perhaps don’t necessarily understand or agree with them.

So here are 24 strange things you probably didn’t know about life in Korea

1) Koreans are 1 year older than the rest of the world

Korean culture

In Korea, everyone turns a year older on the 1st of January each year

In the Korean culture, when babies are born, they are considered to be one years old. This is because the Korean age takes into account the time spent in the womb!

To complicate things even more, Koreans do not turn a year older on their date of birth. Collectively, every Korean turns one year older on the 1st of January each year.

So, if you’re born on December 31st, you’ll be one years old, but you’ll turn two on January 1st! However, according to the rest of the world, you’d only be one day old!

2) You throw your used toilet paper WHERE?

Whilst Korea is probably the cleanest country you will come across, their bathroom situation would make you think otherwise.

Many public toilets have signs on the doors asking you not to throw your used toilet paper into the toilet as it’s believed it will clog up the plumbing. Instead, you are to dispose of the loo paper in the trash can next to it. Oh, and did I mention that these waste bins do not have lids!

However, due to criticism and hygiene concerns, the government announced that as of 2018, waste bins in public bathrooms will disappear. However, it’s been 8 months and I’ve only seen these changes in the more touristy areas of Seoul, and not in the rest of the country.

3) No need to hug – a bow will do

Understanding Korean culture

Bowing is an important part of Korean etiquette

In Korea, hugging is reserved for couples and close friends or family who are saying goodbye for a while. In contrast, where I’m from, a hug is a form of greeting or show of appreciation for something. Hugs are given to people you’ve just met, co-workers as well as friends and family.

So, bearing this in mind, after receiving a gift from a coworker, I leaned forward to give her a hug. She stood there, her body stiff and tense not knowing what to do! I left feeling awkward and embarrassed, and I fear that she may have felt the same way too!

If you want to greet someone or show your appreciation in Korea, a simple bow will do as it is a core part of Korean etiquette. And for the guys, this also applies to a handshake. Rather keep your hands to yourself and present a deep bow.

4) The language barrier is real

Despite efforts to increase the presence of English in the country, the language barrier is still a notable challenge for many foreigners. The likes of Seoul and Busan have a more fluent community but you’ll struggle to find many English speaking people living in the countryside. Also, be prepared for some long stares as many Korean children have never seen foreigners in their lives before.

Try setting up a phone plan, opening a bank account, going to the doctor or even ordering food from a restaurant. Simply daily tasks have proven to be a struggle and one can truly appreciate the effort it takes to learn another language.

5) The extreme weather

Skiing in Korea

One positive thing about the icy cold winters in Korea – skiing

Korea has 4 distinct seasons with extreme temperatures defining the winter and summer months. Winters in Korea are harsh, bringing along freezing cold temperatures with snow all around the country. Summers are excruciatingly hot and unbearable humidity levels are common.

Luckily the country is well prepared for any kind of weather. Apartments, shopping centers, and schools are all fitted with air conditioners and underfloor heating. In South Africa, this is a luxury, but in Korea, it’s a necessity!

6) Short skirts are ok, but showing your collarbone isn’t

For the ladies, it’s perfectly fine to walk around in miniskirts with your legs on show. However, don’t even think about exposing your shoulders, collarbone or cleavage.

This is a big no-no in Korea as it’s seen to be promiscuous and will attract attention from everyone you come across. You may get away with it in Seoul or Busan, but in the smaller cities, it’s taboo.

7) Military service

Visiting the DMZ in Korea

Visiting the JSA in the DMZ where most military personnel are stationed

In most countries, enlisting in the military is voluntary. However, in Korea, it’s mandatory for men between the ages of 18-35 to enlist in 21 months of military service.

8) Pushing, shoving and standards of politeness

The notion of saying “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” when trying to pass by someone while walking, on an escalator, or in a jam-packed shopping center is virtually non-existent in Korea. Pushing and shoving has become a social norm here and people do so unapologetically.

Everyone is always in a rush and they’re not shy to run each other over in the process. The only way to deal with this is to conform and reciprocate the behavior. And no, you will not be judged for doing so (but perhaps the tourists will give you the evil eye).

Speaking of which, people will not hold the door open for you when you enter or exit a building. It’s every man for himself! So, be on guard at all times as you may find a door swing into your face!

9) Gaming in Korea

PC Bangs and gaming in Korea

These PC Bangs are found on every street corner in Korea

The online gaming culture in Korea is a booming business with more than 50% of the country’s population playing games. Professional gaming has grown in popularity and Korea has become the home of many die-hard eSports fans.

These game rooms, otherwise known as “PC Bangs” are on every street corner.  Part social club, part internet cafe, part gaming venue, PC Bangs are a popular spot for men and women of all ages. It’s quite remarkable to see the sheer size of these gaming centers and the number of enthusiastic gamers who visit them daily.

10) “Bless you”

Sneezing followed by “bless you” has been entrenched in my everyday life. Imagine hearing “bless you” every time you sneeze for 28 years and then moving to a country where “bless you” is unheard of!

In Korea, you sneeze and go on as if nothing has happened. Out of habit, I often say it in class, and my students look at me in shocked every single time. I guess old habits die hard!

11) Brushing your teeth

Koreans brush their teeth after every meal as oral hygiene is extremely important. This brushing doesn’t only happen in the privacy of your own home. People carry their toothbrushes with them when they go to work, a business meeting or even lunch with friends.

Bathrooms in public spaces such as universities, shopping centers, and subway stations are filled with people queueing for the sinks to brush their teeth. When at work, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit at your desk, with your mouth full of toothpaste, brushing your teeth whilst you continue the task you are doing!

12) The traffic lights are painfully slow

Traffic lights in Korea

The traffic lights in Korea have a count down timer to show how much longer they will be green for

Never have I ever seen people run for a green pedestrian light as I have in Korea!

At first, I found this amusing. I then realized the importance of ensuring you cross before the light changes over to red. If you don’t, you could wait a good few minutes before it’s your turn to green again. So yes, running, even sprinting, for the traffic light is perfectly normal and I highly encourage it (for your own sanity).

Oh, and you do not jaywalk in Korea! Even if there aren’t any cars on the road, you still wait for the light to indicate that you may cross the street.

13) The education system and professional work ethic

Hagwons in Korea

Korean children spend their afternoons in after school academies called hagwons

Korea’s suicide rate is among the highest in the world and is attributed to its high-stress society.

Education system

Education in Korea is extremely competitive and getting into an esteemed university is of utmost importance. Therefore, from a young age, kids are sent to schools and afterschool programmes to prepare them for their final high school examination that they will write in the future.

Korean kids start attending school from as early as 3 years old where they learn basic math, reading, and writing, as well as languages such as English and Chinese. Once they begin Elementary school, their afternoons are jam-packed with after-school academies or “hagwons”.

These extra classes include art, music, English, Chinese, math, and science. After a 12-hour school day, the students return home for dinner and begin their homework. This routine continues every day, and weekends are a great opportunity to catch up on extra homework or attend supplementary classes. The kids feel the weight of this pressure and are often tired and miserable in class.

When students reach high school, the pressure reaches the boiling point which often sees them studying throughout the night at study cafes. This unhealthy stress put on students, especially teenagers, has led to South Korea having the highest suicide rate in the world for children aged between 10 and 19.

Work ethic in the working world

These stresses continue into the professional working world and the level of output in Korea is extremely high. Koreans work exceptionally hard, for long hours and the same is expected of foreigners working in the country. Depression and anxiety are common and is often caused by stress from the workplace. The law recently changed, reducing the work limit from 68 hours per week to 52 and hopefully, this will see less pressure put on the public.

However, Korea does have one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but it makes you wonder at what cost does this affect the people who work so hard to make it possible.

14) Apartments everywhere

Apartments in Korea

I was in shock to only find apartments when I arrived in Korea

Korea is a small country that’s made up of 70% mountains and over 51 million people need to squeeze into this tiny space! It’s no wonder everyone lives in apartments. Skyscrapers fill the cities with apartments built higher and not wider.

Speaking of apartments in Korea, they are small with a few distinct characteristics such as a “wet room”, ondol heating system and a shoe corner. The entry system for your apartment is a pin code which you type into an electronic keypad. This is genius!

15) Slurping/Spitting/burping

This one took me by surprise! When traveling to Korea, do not be surprised when the person next to you gives off a powerful burp! And when drinking coffee or eating noodles, it’s perfectly acceptable to slurp whilst doing so! If you plan on moving to Korea, this is something you will need to get used to it.

16) Pollution

Air pollution in Korea

The air quality in Seoul is said to be the worst in the country

Air quality is a big issue in Korea with most people monitoring the levels to ensure it’s safe to brave the outdoors. When it comes to the cause of these alarmingly high levels of pollution, most Koreans pass the buck onto China, but some of the blame rests within Korea as well.

So, this is where the facemasks come in handy. Before moving to Korea, I had only seen a handful of people wearing facemasks. I just assumed that they were trying to avoid picking up a deadly virus whilst on their travels. Little did I know…

Facemasks are multipurpose!

Yes, you wear them when the pollution and fine dust levels are dangerously high. You wear them when you’re sick so that you don’t infect the people around you. And you wear them in winter to keep your face warm! Some people even wear face masks as fashion accessories!

17) Animal cafes

The cafe culture in Korea is unlike any I’ve seen before. Everything from cute flower cafes, Hello Kitty cafes, figurine cafes to “poo” themed cafes. You name it, Korea has it all.

However, along with these fun, quirky cafes, come a few that I don’t agree with, namely the animal-themed cafes.

These cafes include the popular meerkat cafe in Seoul. Apart from meerkats, this cafe has a baby wallaby, arctic fox, and genet which is indigenous to Africa. There is also a popular sheep cafe in Seoul where you’re able to take selfies with these animals whilst you sip on your cafe latte!

Bearing in mind that these cafes are driven for tourism, it’s clear that they only see these animals as money making objects. I do not know the circumstances as to how they managed to get the arctic foxes and wallabies into Korea. Perhaps it’s all above board. But I still feel that these animals should be in the wild, and not bound to tiny cafes in the city center of Seoul.

18) Nightlife culture

Koreans tend to do things in the evening, instead of in the morning or daytime. Children study late, parents work late, and this filters down to their daily routine which continues till after midnight.

When it comes to the youngsters, it’s common to see children out in the convenience stores with their parents late at night. My elementary school students often go to bed after 11 pm, and this is acceptable in Korean culture.

Partying in Korea

Drinking in South Korea

Soju and beer are always the drink of choice!

So, if midnight is the standard for weekdays, what are the weekends like?

If you go out in the afternoon, you’ll find the restaurants deserted with no vibe or atmosphere to get the party started! My city, Cheonan, is like a ghost town if you venture out anywhere before noon on the weekends!

Korea’s nightlife culture is vibrant and fun. But for the early sleepers (like myself) it can prove to be a bit too much! When it comes to organizing a party, a picnic, or even just a catch up with friends, you plan your activities for the late afternoon or evening. They then continue until the early hours of the next morning. And yes, staying up this late is extremely common.

When you walk through the streets of Itaewon at 8 am, you will still find people sitting at the same spots they were 5 hours ago, finishing off their soju and beer! They then head home, sleep the entire day and head out later that evening. And this is how the cycle continues.

I, on the other hand, am used to starting my day a bit earlier than what Koreans deem normal! I like going for a boozy lunch, followed by a pub crawl, more drinks, perhaps watch a sports game and then by 10 pm it’s bedtime! However, this does not happen in Korea.

19) Kimchi, rice and soup are eaten every day!

Food in Korea

Kimchi and soup are served with all meals

Kimchi is Korea’s national side dish that’s eaten every single day. It’s supposedly the reason for Koreans living long, healthy lives, so why not test out this theory.

Along with Kimchi, soup is served with most meals in Korea. This isn’t a heavy soup but rather a light broth to compliment the meal.

Rice is yet another staple food of Korean cuisine. It’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I still find this rather odd but one thing I can say is that the rice in Korea is as good as it’s gonna get!

20) Plastic surgery and beauty

Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world and holds the title of the highest number of cosmetic surgeries performed per capita.

This is because Koreans have unrealistic beauty expectations that have lead many people to undergo some form of cosmetic surgery to enhance their physical appearances. It is believed that one in three Korean women below the age of 29 have gone under the knife.

These procedures are extremely popular in the country and the streets of Gangnam in Seoul are filled with people walking around with bandages wrapped around their faces, proudly advertising their recently performed operation.

The most popular surgery is an “eyelid surgery” to achieve a visible crease and double-eyelid. Korean teenagers are gifted this on their birthdays or after completing school or college. Other popular surgeries include anti-aging procedures such as facelifts and they even go as extreme as jawline surgeries.

Surgery isn’t the only solution to enhance your looks. Skincare products and cosmetics are a huge industry in Korea with both men and women investing a good chunk of their salaries into their skincare routine. This extreme fixation on beauty is something I’ve never seen before.

21) The lights will get you

Lights in Korea

The streets come to life at night

Korea certainly does not have any electricity issues!

This is obvious from the hundreds of buildings that come to life at night. Bright red, green and yellow lights flicker all night long in an attempt to attract visitors into their restaurants, singing rooms, pubs or hotels.

22) Personal space, or lack thereof

Personal space – you know, that invisible bubble that surrounds every person, and should not be violated? Well, in Korea, there is no distinction between “my” space and “your” space.

Expect strangers to get uncomfortably close in elevators and public buses or trains. I kid you not, there will be 20 empty seats on a bus, and the one person that hops on will make a beeline and sit next to you! Why? I do not know!

23) Sizes of clothes and shoes

Planning on moving to Korea? Make sure you stock up on clothes and shoes if you’re anything bigger than a size medium! There aren’t many plus sized Koreans and this is attributed to my point above on beauty.

Most international retailers such as H&M, Forever 21 and the like will have bigger sizes but expect only a small variety of options to choose from.

If you’re looking for shoes, your struggle will continue! Gary has been looking for a pair of hiking boots and trainers and cannot find a UK size 11 anywhere in the country! The biggest men’s size we’ve found is a UK 9 and ladies is UK 6!

24) The high cost of living

Cost of living in Korea

The most expensive tangerine I’ve ever eaten – 3 000 KRW ($2)

Korea is an expensive place to live. This is from my experience as a South African living in the country. Most Americans I’ve spoken to say that Korea is similar, if not cheaper than America but as a South African, it’s unfortunately not the case!

Everyday groceries are almost double the price in Korea than they are back home. Fruit in particular is super pricey! A watermelon costs around 20 000 KRW ($18) and a bag of apples will set you back 9 000 KRW ($8). A half a loaf of bread is 2 500 KRW ($2) and other items like tomatoes, chicken and beef are also pretty expensive. When it comes to eating out, the prices are also high. A pizza is around 18 000 KRW ($16) and a Mcdonald’s Big Mac meal cost 6 400 KRW ($5,5) whilst in SA it is only R47 ($3.5)!

And alcohol? A whisky and water or gin tonic will cost roughly 9 000 KRW ($8) but in SA I’d only pay R50 ($4). The moral of the story, if you’re looking for a place to visit, South Africa is extremely affordable!

My goal whilst living in Korea has been to save money. In order to do this, I stick to the local food which is more affordable and I choose beer over my preferred whisky! I also don’t treat myself to mani’s and pedi’s like I did back home, and I haven’t been shopping in over a year!

Other notable odds about life in Korea:

  • Small towels – Most hostels and pensions provide you with towels, if that’s what you call them! They’re basically hand towels and that’s what most Koreans use.
  • Koreans don’t drink the tap water – even though the water is perfectly safe to drink, Koreans boil it first and I’ve followed suit!
  • For the love of seafood – Koreans are obsessed with seafood. Fish, mussels, and shrimp can be found on most menu items. Shrimp burgers from McDonald’s are also a favorite.
  • Seaweed and beauty packages, including toothpaste and soap, are often gifts of choice.
  • Cars park everywhere and in all directions.
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