Day 6: Culture Differences


Before I get further into today’s topic, which is a little different, I have news: the university has allowed me to move rooms on Monday evening so I can live with my friend two floors down (exactly the same room just on a different floor, and with a non hoarder for a roommate and a not sticky and smelly fridge).

So on Monday I will move. Monday is also when I should get internet access on my computer, so it will be a good day.

Today will be a little different than usual since I haven’t done a lot today. I only really slept until midday, and then walked to Hongdae with my soon to be roommate.

Hongdae is a hip part of town, and it’s also where we were drinking last night. It’s always busy with people and amateur singers, dancers, rappers and other performers in the streets. It’s a wonderful place that is buzzing with life all day and night.

Today I went back there just to shop for a few things. I needed some vocabulary cards and notebooks for school, and also some body lotion, hair treatment and B.B. cream (a foundation like make-up product that has been popular in Korea for years and years and only recently imported to the west in a not nearly as fluid version).

Yep, that’s pretty much all I’ve done today, but yesterday, I went out and while I was out and about late at night, using my Korean and holding conversations without a single hiccup, I reflected on a few culture differences that I will share with you today.

Although many culture differences pass over my head because I’m used to South Korea, these are things that even I reflect over and can't help but notice.

Toilets

I am sorry to start out this way, but we have to take a moment to talk about toilets, sewage and toilet paper, because in South Korea those three things don’t go together as well as they’re supposed to do.

While my bathroom in the dorm looks normal, it is an interesting experience to go to the toilet in a restaurant or anywhere public.

The toilet looks normal, and often it has a warmed seat and a bidet with fancy buttons too, and it all looks very fancy, and yet, upon a visit to a public bathroom you will immediately notice that something doesn’t quite fit.

Next to the nice fancy toilet is a waste basket filled with used toilet paper. And as you sit down on the comfortable and heated seat, right in eye-height is a huge sign, often in red and almost impossible to miss, that will say something like:

“Dispose of toilet paper in the waste basket or the toilet will get clogged.”

The message is clearly written both in Korean and English and every restaurant or cafe or public restroom has a slightly different version of the message but they all insist that flushing toilet paper results in clogging.

When you talk to Koreans about this, they often point at the sewage system in Seoul as the problem, or to the lack of water pressure as the problem which means that the toilet paper is left behind and results in clogging.

Neither of these really speak true though, because although it’s true that the water pressure isn’t incredibly high here, that alone would not result in such clogging, and besides the toilet paper often dissolves quickly anyways.

From what I have been able to read up on, the sewage system is highly praised by experts and also isn’t to blame, so why oh why, are there waste baskets for toilet paper next to the ultra modern toilets?

Because some people decide to flush other things than toilet paper and ruin it for everyone else. But also because originally, when South Korea began to use flush toilets, the toilet paper they used didn’t dissolve in the water and did indeed pose problems. From there on the myth.

In the past six years though, I have seen significant change on this front. For one, our dormitory no longer mentions anything about toilets possibly clogging, although they used to make a big deal out of it. Also: Public restrooms in places like museums and other government buildings are now simply asking visitors not to flush anything other than toilet paper. Considering the speed at which things change in South Korea and with the efforts already being made by the government, I give it the toilet paper and clogging issue a lifespan of maximum ten years until it is completely non-existent in the country.

(Wow. I had a lot to say about toilets....)

And this brings me to...

The Smell of Korea

During my time away, I had forgotten this crucial detail, and it was an unexpected realisation.

The streets of Seoul carry a very distinct smell. Most big cities smell bad, in my experience. Of sewers and other unpleasant smells, but in Seoul there is something more.

The city carries a heavy and warm scent that is a mixture of many others. Such as the great street food, of spices and heat and fried fish cakes and meat. But also the smells from stores and restaurants and coffee houses.

Every part of the city has a distinct smell that characterises it, and just thinking about it makes me want to walk around Seoul with my eyes closed and map it based on smells.

Safety

I have traveled many places in my life. I’ve lived in the countryside and I’ve lived in the city, and yet on this earth, I have yet to find a place where I feel as safe as in South Korea.


Think of all the places you have been and consider the following scenario:


I’m sitting in a cafe in a huge city. There are hundreds of people around, and a steady stream of people coming in and out of the cafe. I’m sitting at a table not far from the door and working on my assignments on my laptop as I sip a coffee. Suddenly, I feel hungry, and the cafe doesn’t serve food. But on my way here, just on the other side of the block I saw a place that sells nice waffles. I decide to go buy one.

This is what the European in me does:

I look around to see if there is anyone who looks really trustworthy at a nearby table. I think about asking them to keep an eye on my things, but I’m not just going to the toilet, I’m going all the way around the block, so instead I wrap up my things, pack everything to go get waffles.

The Korean in me just grabs some money, and walks out of the cafe, leaving everything; bag, laptop, etc. on the table by the door without giving it a second thought. i go around the block and buy my waffle and then walk back and all of my things are untouched, exactly as they were. Because why in the world wouldn’t they be?

That is how safe South Korea truly is.

I must admit that I feel a little less safe being in Korea this time, but that is uniquely due to its recent influx of non-Koreans in the country.

In Korea, surrounded only by Koreans, I doubt I could ever feel safer. Except for one little detail...

Traffic

There are few things in South Korea that are as dangerous as crossing a street, or walking down the sidewalk.

Now, I am not saying that you will be kill d walking on the streets in Seoul, but...

Keep your eyes open and ears peeled.

Never jaywalk! When crossing the street, always do so at the light.

But don’t just wait for the light to turn green and then cross! When the light is green, look both ways, and keep a look out for cars and scooters as you cross and reach the sidewalk on the other side.

​​You’re on the sidewalk now, so you’re safe, right? Think again.

On the sidewalk we’re now introduced to two new sets of problems. The first is cars driving up on the sidewalk to park on the other side, but doing so in Grand Theft Auto Style, swinging up at speeds that may not kill, but can certainly injure.

The second problem is much more fatal and presents itself in the form of delivery scooters.

​You can get pretty much any food you want delivered to any address you want. It doesn’t have to be at home. If you’re out in a park with friends and really craving fried chicken, just call up and order some and pretty soon there’ll be a scooter racing along the busy sidewalk to deliver it to you.

Delivery bikes are the most dangerous thing in South Korea that I can think of. They drive at phenomenal speeds through thick crowds and not all of them are as amazing drivers as they perhaps ought to be.

The only good thing about it is indeed that delivery service makes life in South Korea so very easy.

Drinking Culture

This one struck me again last night when I was out, but the drinking style and culture truly is different in South Korea.

Food and alcohol is pretty cheap from a western perspective, and when considering prices of ingredients too. In fact a cup of coffee in South Korea that is plastered with coffee shops everywhere, will often cost you more than a meal.

So since food and alcohol is so cheap it is perhaps unsurprising that the local drinking culture ensures a maximum amount of consumerism.

I drank quite a lot last night. Three different kinds of alcohol, shots and mixing alcohol too. In Europe I would have been hammered, but in South Korea I only felt my cheeks flush a little and perhaps that was also due to how warm and cozy the bars were.

Korean culture is very focused on food (and with the kind of wonderful food they have, I entirely understand). Their drinking culture is also food focused.

It starts at the first restaurant. In our case last night, and in most cases, it begins at a Korean BBQ place where you grill meal on a grill in the middle of the table. Soju (korean version of hard liquor like vodka) and Beer are usual drinks here and start the night hard with soju shots while you’re eating your pieces of grilled meat and filling your stomach with food as well as alcohol.

When the meal is done and the last soju bottle is empty, it’s time to head out to the second round.

Maybe a classic bar for some more soju or beer or both, or something else. A classic bar in Seoul looks more like a cozy coffee shop and unlike how things work in Europe you don’t just order drinks, you order a dish to eat. Often places like this aren’t allowed to serve you alcohol unless you buy something to eat, so you choose something tasty, order a plate of it for the whole table.

Oh yes, I may have forgotten to mention it (part of things that I’m so used to that they go over my head) food here is shared. It’s put in the middle of the table and then everyone gets small plates and dig in.

Drinks are equally ordered on a large scale. A bottle of soju for the table (bottles are not that tall) and a pitcher of beer (yep not a bottle or can or glass).

Drinking games are popular, and there are dozens and dozens of them, but here is the trick: while you’re drinking, you're also continuously consuming the food on the table as well as drinking water, and this makes the real difference.

Only certain bars, and dance clubs serve you alcohol without food, and usually these are merely one stop in a long chain of stops.

On a regular night out one easily goes to three different places and up to as many as five, half of which will be restaurants.

A night out is a common to meet people because different drinking parties with one or two people who know each other will join up and your friend suddenly becomes my friend.

And this brings us to the next topic:

Age Hierarchy

One of the very first questions you get asked when you first meet someone, oftentimes before even having told them your name, is: how old are you? Or: what year were you born?

​In South Korea age is everything. It’s a topic so intricate that I could write a hundred page report on it and still have things left to say, so I shall only brush over it quickly here, at least this time.

The Korean word for friend is “Chin-gu” but here’s the catch: that word only applies to people who are the same age as you. If someone is older than you, they are not a friend, they are an older brother or an older sister and a younger person is equally a younger sibling.

Both the older person and the younger person have certain responsibilities. Older people are often expected to buy food and drinks for the younger people and the younger people are in turn expected to always be polite and pour drinks, fetch things and do as asked.

This system of hierarchy has been around for many years and while it is still in use, it is also changing with the times and the roles are not nearly as restricting as they were ten years ago.

Conformity

The above is only possible because of the conformity that unites the Korean population.


This is the only point where I, as someone who has never fit into norms, occasionally struggles in South Korea.


Let me clarify something right away before your thoughts start putting on their running shoes: South Korea is by no means a communist country.


​However, it often seems to me that the South Koreans treat their conformity the same as putting on a uniform.


Their will to fit in is incredible and what results is that most people end up wearing the same things, doing the same activities or acting in similar ways.

Trends sweep across the nation within days and weeks. Suddenly everyone is wearing the same jackets and make-up and carry the same bags.

This winter everyone has agreed that long padded black jackets are the trend. Everyone is wearing them. Everyone.

Fast Change

South Korea, both as a country and as a culture, changes incredibly fast. As fast as its high speed internet (oh I can’t wait to get internet on my computer again).

The speed at which the country changes is something that will never cease to amaze me about South Korea.

South Korea is a country that progresses very quickly, and this is perhaps most visible on its hold on technology which so impressed me last time I was here where smart phones were being used in Seoul exactly as they are now, six years later, starting to be used all over the world.

But this also applies to cultural changes.

Six years ago, when I was last here, eating alone was a taboo and one had to search for specific restaurant and places where one could get away with eating alone because it was so looked down upon. These days it’s no trouble at all. As simple anything in the world and at pretty much any restaurant you go to, you will likely see someone or several people eating alone.

Six years for something to go from taboo to normal. That is incredible.

Holding onto Old Beliefs

Yet, while South Korea changes incredibly fast, it also holds on to mystic and old beliefs. And I’m not talking about the belief in some strange gods or demons or folklore, but simple myths that are considered as truth.


For example, the myth of fan death, which is still believed to this day. In Korea it is common belief that having an electric fan running in a closed room (with no open doors or windows) can be fatal. The government has even gotten involved in this in the past and issued warning that electric fans are among the most common injuries in the country, citing dehydration as a cause.


The toilet paper issue falls under this category too. As does Koreans’ lack of willingness to drink their perfectly drinkable tap water. Households instead spend lots of money on water purifiers.


There are so many of these beliefs that instead of basic fact there are simple rumours with no proven basis in science.


Why do Koreans believe these things?


This is for much the same reason as why Koreans and sarcasm don’t go well together: Koreans are incredibly trusting.


In the West we’re brought up on sarcasm and when someone tells us something that to us sounds strange, we are most likely to wrinkle our nose and say: “yea, right, as if that’s true.” Whereas a Korean person would be much more likely to respond saying: “oh is that how it is? I didn’t know that.”


The reasoning makes sense. Why would someone want to lie about something as obscure as toilet paper clogging up their toilet? Or any such myths.


Being so trusting is an incredible skill to have, but when it comes to myths and rumours that may have no trustworthy source it becomes tricky.


Still, it’s a quality that I hope Koreans never lose. Because it makes me feel very safe talking with Koreans as I am not constantly doubting their words or motives. If they tell me something then I trust that they truly believe it to be true.

#SouthKorea #Seoul #Culture

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Thilde Kold Holdt

I am a novelist by profession, currently working an epic fantasy series about 7th century Korea. My epic fantasy trilogy about Vikings, the Hanged God, is currently being published. I have lived

enough different places that the most difficult question to answer is: "where are you from?" I am, quite simply, from the planet Earth, for I have yet to set foot on Mars. Someday, though...

© Thilde Kold Holdt