High-Tech toilets, smileys which look like a butt, life jackets in water parks, funny holidays with black noodles and teaching videos in the metro which show you how to use the escalator in the right way – that’s South Korea.
I had the chance to live four months in Korea when I studied abroad. I already learned a lot about the huge differences between the Asian and Western cultures in my first week, or to be more specific between South Korea and my home country Germany. Here I want to share my experiences with you. Maybe you already went to Korea and find yourself in the stories. Maybe you are just curious, or you want to go and find one or another tip for your travels. If you’re Korean – you will see how I saw your country and what seemed funny to me (so funny I wrote a blog entry about it). Don’t take it too seriously because I love your country a lot.
Koreans love endings
Gu, Dong, Si, Gil, Do – Koreans use endings to describe places. First of all, it seems really complicated if you are not aware of the meanings. But if you know them, it is actually quite useful since it describes which places are “what”. The ending “do” markers the province you are in. South Korea has eight provinces and one special autonomous province. The ending “si” describes a city in this province. For example, the capital of the island Jeju has the same name as its island. In this case, Jeju-do describes the whole island as one province, Jeju-si is only the capital of the island.
Bigger cities have different boroughs with the ending “gu” (towns and the countryside have the endings “eup” and “myeon”) or rural districts “gun”. One level below is the district marked with “dong”. Villages are labeled with “ri”. Last but not least, is “gil” which tagged streets.
Koreans love to celebrate and give each other gifts. The biggest holiday is Chuseok (추석) which is equivalent to Thanksgiving and is a celebration with the whole family. The holiday is about three days and around autumn. Furthermore, Koreans celebrate a special New Year called Seollal (설날) after the Chinese calendar. This holiday is in the beginning of the year. Valentine’s Day is always on the 14th of February and a famous day in the whole world. In Korea, it is the day where women have to bring presents for their lovers. But Korea also has the “White Day” which is the equivalent of Valentine’s Day. It’s exactly one month later and at these days women get the presents from their partners. But Korea also has a special day for singles.
On the 14th of April, it is “Black Day”. All single persons wear black clothes and meet each other in restaurants to eat Jajangmyeon, Black bean noodles. Another commercial and unofficial holiday is “Pepero Day”. Pepero (빼빼로) are little sticks with different flavours as chocolate, berries or green tea. It is supported by the big company Lotte and celebrated on the 11th of November since 11/11 reminds to the pepero sticks.
Overnight in libraries
Since I studied in Seoul I already know Koreans are really diligent and have to learn a lot. Especially before midterm and final exams, the libraries are full of students. Some of them are so into their learning period they even sleep in the library. My friend accidentally stayed overnight in our library at my university. She didn’t know the doors close at midnight and since a lot of other students also stayed beside here she didn’t think of the closing hours. When she wanted to leave the doors were closed and she was forced to stay until 5 o’clock in the morning to get out of the library. The students told her that they stay by their own choices in the library to concentrate fully on their exams. If necessary, they take some naps or bring blankets to sleep overnight in the library to start learning early in the morning.
Free time in Seoul
If Koreans don’t study all night and stay in libraries they of course also enjoy some free time in Seoul. One of my favourite stories is my day in a water park in Seoul because I felt like I learned a lot about small differences that day. I went with three other friends to a water park in Seoul. We are all from Western countries, so for us, it was pretty in common to wear a bikini. The thing is wearing a bikini seems not so famous in Asia. In general, I also felt Koreans don’t wear low-cut tops (miniskirts are no problem). This is the reason why I felt a bit uncomfortable in my bikini. Most Koreans wore swimsuits made out of neoprene or long shirts. In general, I was really surprised how many people wore just normal clothes as jeans, shoes, sunglasses or shirts for riding a slide. I am pretty sure in Germany they wouldn’t be allowed to wear street clothes in a water park.
Another fact is that many Koreans (but also in other countries) can’t swim or aren’t the best swimmers. That is why many people also were lifejackets. Actually, that was another fact, why we attract attention. I wondered about the girls in the water park who wore nice makeup and lipstick. Because for me a water park wouldn’t be the spot where I would wear any makeup. But my Korean friend told me the water park is also a possible flirting spot so it is important to look beautiful even there. Furthermore, people had little transparent and waterproof pockets where they carried really expensive cell phones, makeup or credit cards. More stuff I wouldn’t bring in a water park so I really had to think about the difference. Another interesting fact is that in Korea it is totally fine to be naked in front of the same gender. In Germany, we have single changing rooms and most people would not show themselves naked not even under the public showers. On the other side, German television is more open showing naked people in movies or series. Whereas in Korea naked parts in movies and series are rare.
One other thing I really loved for our free time are the game places. There you find a lot of nice games you can play by yourself or with friends. Really famous is the Baseball game where the player plays the role of the Batter and hopefully hits a home run. Also famous are the machines with soft toys you have to grab in one shot with a crane to get the toy.
The most important free time activity is: Noraebang (노래방) – Korean Karaoke. It is a good opportunity to meet with friends and sing favourite Kpop music, but als hits from Japan and China and of course world hits in English. Every group gets its own room with big screen, microphones and party lights. Noraebangs are sometimes also a good opportunity to bypass the time until the first metro is running again.
Click here to read part II:
Daily life in South Korea Pt.II