Saturday, February 14, 2015

(a)Musings: Korean Quirks

For better or worse, every place/country has a series of weird little things you just never expected. For example, I didn't expect black licorice flavour to be so prevalent in Germany that it's even in the toothpaste. I also didn't expect an entire section of the (admittedly pretty fancy) grocery store to be dedicated to marzipan, or for the Denglish word for "cell phone" to be "handy".  

Go ahead, it's way too easy to have fun with that one (e.g., "Hurry up and give me my handy!"; "I was so excited when my dad gave me a handy for Christmas!").

This is just a series of things I was thinking about before leaving that only people who have lived in Korea will probably understand, and that, if you're headed there or have recently moved there, I don't think you'd have ever expected. There are a lot of other blog posts out there like it, but this one is mine.

Koreans don't usually travel independently, preferring to use travel agencies that book every detail of their trips for them, and they often to travel in large groups comprised exclusively of other Koreans. Yeah, that whole embarrassing, fanny pack, socks-and-sandals Asian dad stereotype is a real thing.
One man told me that, when he and his wife visited a particular bridge in the Czech Republic that's well-known through a movie or TV show or something like that, he felt like he was back home, because every other Korean tourist in the vicinity had the same idea. 
The Czech Republic is suddenly everyone's interesting dream travel destination the same way last year's food trend was churros and this year's is Chicago-style deep dish pizza. The groupthink mentality is very strong with this one.

They hate cilantro and Mexican restaurants will ask to make sure you want it, even though most of the leaves Koreans use in their cooking - and more than once unceremoniously described to me under the umbrella term of "lettuce" - are so pungent and bitter that they'd be considered inedible in the West. 
And, indeed, there's a good chance someone literally foraged for them by the road outside. Old Korean ladies are all about foraging. Which is totally cool, I mean, I'd love to go mushroom hunting in the German woods with Hannes' super nice parents, but like, if something tastes like a random plant you can eat without getting sick, it's just a random plant you can eat without getting sick. Ain't no survival situation up in here, grandma, just make me a salad that tastes good.

On the topic of old Korean ladies, or adjummas, they always wear purple and large visors. It's like the national uniform of being a married woman who's borne a child, aged, and officially doesn't give a fuck about anything anymore, except finding deals on practical household items and being as rude and belligerent as humanly possible.

Being a very mountainous country, hiking is extremely popular in Korea, and there is a ubiquitous, national hiking uniform. It makes people look like terribly uncomfortable Gore-Tex crayons when they flock together in large numbers, which they always do. 
Nature is always seriously fucked-with and landscaped in Korea, too, so you really have to be a wilderness or rock climbing enthusiast to find an area without stairs, guardrails, or even a convenience store to explore.

Young women especially will spend an absurdly long time furiously brushing their teeth in public bathrooms after lunch and hogging the sink, but no one ever washes their hands after using the toilet. 
To be fair, people everywhere are guilty of this. I found the notoriously widespread lack of toilet paper and soap in public restrooms in otherwise nice or at least decent places something I could accept, but only grudgingly. I'm very good at drunk-pee-balance-hovering, I'll just say that right now, and if you're a chick headed to Korea, you probably will be, too. You'd better be, I hate it when people get it everywhere. Gross.
Anyway, the most common type of public restroom soap is a blue bar stuck to a little metal thing jutting out between the sinks. And countless people have grabbed that bar.


Holding hands is totally common and acceptable at any age and for both genders. Korean parents definitely don't know when to cut the cord, I think that's a big part of it. 

Manicures aren't usually uniform across all nails. It's common to have one nail on each hand be a different colour/pattern/style/all of the above, and for women to wear only a few acrylic nails instead of just taking them all off and starting again. Same goes for toes. The former is cute, the latter looks terrible.

Things that aren't supposed to be sweet are simultaneously very sweet and bland.
Have fun with your sugared garlic bread and nacho cheese that tastes like salad dressing, bitches.

Prescription pills come in individual little plastic packets you tear open for each dose, and there's usually a little cocktail of very low-dosage pills in each one. Korean doctors are terrible about wantonly over-prescribing antibiotics, too.

Black mold is very prevalent in walls, especially in the summer when it's just disgustingly humid, largely because Koreans insist - even in their subtropical swamp climate - that wallpaper is cheaper and easier than plain white paint. 
If you complain to your landlord about the massive colony behind your bed that may or may not have developed to the point of not only having gained sentience but perhaps to the point of having a viable culture and economy, he's just going to stick more paper over it.

No really, this happened to me, even after months of a mysteriously ongoing upper respiratory infection. Some people even tried to tell me it was harmless. Problem solh-ved!

Many Koreans can't swim. They effectively live on an island, the North being a big blank spot on the map, so don't ask me why. I've seen adults wearing full lifejackets in the Han River Park Pool, which is barely chest-deep at its lowest point. You also have to wear them for every single water activity ever, even if you're just taking one of those little swan pedaling boats into a metre of water. You can't swim more than something like 10 metres from shore at any beach without having lifeguards frantically whistle, wave, shout, and sometimes jetski you back to safety, to water so shallow it's impossible to swim. People will argue that blind submission to authority wasn't a major contributing factor to the Sewol disaster - which you know I think is absurd if you read my rant about it - but you'd better believe that a whole bunch of kids started getting swimming lessons after it went down.

Speaking of water, Korean bus drivers make it their mission to simulate the sensation of surfing.

That's all I can think of right now; maybe I'll add more later. I even read another blog post that said Korean women don't drink coffee while pregnant for fear that the baby will come out brown. "Not because of the caffeine or anyhing". I mean, wow.
I've got very mixed feelings about Korea, but like any place, there's plenty of good along with the bad. Not necessarily like any place, though, I can guarantee that it's never boring.

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