I’ve been playing it cool here on the blog for the past few days, but in real life I’ve been totally freaking out in the best possible way: my mom is coming to visit me in Korea in just 2 weeks!!! No amount of exclamation points will ever be enough to explain how excited I am. When I left for Korea back in March, I never thought anyone would come to visit me – it’s just so far away! And although I had a few friends flirt with the idea, ultimately I just didn’t see it happening. Flash back to one week ago today, when my mom somewhat spontaneously decided to visit. In 3 weeks. Incredible.
Literally: I still don’t believe it. Or, I do believe it and I’m thrilled, but it still feels a bit surreal and so, so wonderful. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing my family, and it really does feel unnatural. I’m very grateful I’ll get to see my mama, talk to her incessantly, and show her around my corner of Korea. Before she arrives, though, I wanted to tell her the top cultural differences to be aware of while she’s visiting. So I decided to share them with you as well. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Don’t assume the sidewalk is safe
This may be the case in other foreign countries I’ve not yet visited, but I know for sure it’s different from back home. Here in Korea the “sidewalks” are actually bike paths, with no real designated area for pedestrians to walk. Everyone does walk on the paths, of course, but it’s important to be aware that at any moment a motorcycle or bicycle could come riding down the sidewalk towards you. In my experience, the motorcycle drivers (mostly delivery guys) are excellent drivers, and are used to slowing down and/or dodging pedestrians, but even so, people usually get out of the way for them so it’s good to be aware.
2. Don’t assume that crosswalks are safe
Let me put both safety considerations up front, because of course I worry about these ones the most. Crosswalks are not really respected here the way they are back home. Don’t assume a driver will stop for you or even slow down. Taxi drivers regularly and possibly obliviously block pedestrian access to a crosswalk. At big intersections obviously the cars stop for traffic signals and you’re safe to cross. But at little ones sometimes you have to be careful – there’s one very near to my house that cars come whipping across constantly and it really is the pedestrian’s job to check if there are cars coming and whether it’s safe to cross. I’m not saying every driver is like this, but I have definitely noticed a consistent pattern.
3. Korean Toilets 101
Western toilets are becoming more common, but especially in public bathrooms they are usually outnumbered by the good old squat toilet. I hadn’t used a squat toilet before coming to Korea but I’m comfortable with them now and it doesn’t bother me at all to use them. They’re really not that bad!
You will probably need to bring your own toilet paper. You can buy little tissue packs almost anywhere here (don’t worry mom, I’ve got you covered) and they’re worth carrying around. All bathrooms at private businesses and restaurants will have TP, and many public bathrooms will too, usually in a big roll on the wall outside of the stalls (so remember to grab some before you go in!), but a lot won’t.
The bathrooms are fairly clean but they can smell pretty bad. Strange, I know (get used to it, there are a lot of juxtapositions in this country) but let me explain. Bathrooms are usually well-maintained, but there is the (forgive me) unpleasant* practice of putting used toilet tissue in an open wastebasket in the corner of the stall which is unsanitary and smells bad.
*I try not to use negative adjectives when I’m describing Korea or any other foreign country but this is one of the things I really don’t like.
4. You will be different
Especially if you are not visiting Seoul (but even if you are, sometimes!) you might get stared at more than you’re used to. This is usually by the older generation or very young children who see foreigners rarely. I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, and it’s not usually hostile, but it can still be very disconcerting at times. I’ve had young girls point and say “waygook!” (foreigner) to their parents, or a middle-aged man stare at me for entire subway rides all while whispering to his wife and them laughing together. My friends and I have been the only foreigners in an entire several train cars. I have a twenty minute walk to work each way and it’s rare for me to see another foreigner.
So you may be stared at or approached because you look different. Very often older people want to talk to you and practice their English a bit, asking where you’re from and how old you are (this is a very common question that is not considered rude in Korea). For the most part, none of this attention is necessarily negative, just perhaps surprising.
5. Public transportation is very quiet (except when it’s not)
There can be a touch of a double standard when it comes to volume on all forms of public transportation here. Most of the time, the subways are close to silent, but it’s okay if people talk quietly. My friends and I have gotten shushed more than once for talking at a reasonable, normal volume. On the other hand, you’ll often encounter locals talking very loudly into their phones or families being very noisy on trains. Either way, it’s a good idea to be a little quieter than you’re used to.
6. You should give and receive politely (even though it’s okay if you don’t)
Traditionally in Korean culture you are meant to give and receive things (especially money) with either two hands, or one hand while touching your elbow. Most people don’t expect foreigners to know about this practice so you can get a pass if you forget, it won’t be overly offensive. Some places I go, such as grocery stores, they don’t do it, even if I do (and I’ve observed this with Korean customers as well), so it’s possible that the tradition is being phased out in more casual places.
If you’re eating with other people, it’s respectful to never pour your own drink, instead pour for someone else using two hands, while they hold the cup in both hands as well. My little kids always give me everything from homework assignments to board markers with both hands and it’s so incredibly sweet.
7. Koreans are very expressive people
Koreans are very expressive with their language and sounds. When they listen, they make little noises, almost to confirm that they’re listening actively and sympathizing with the speaker. There are also certain words that are meant to be said in a very particular way. For example, my kids taught me the word that means “oh my goodness” or “oh dear me…” which gets said a lot. I repeated it with good pronunciation but they told me it had to be said in a far more expressive way, basically with feeling. (You can see some examples of how to pronounce “aigo” here, if you’re curious.) From what I can tell from my limited Korean knowledge, this is really common.
I actually love this tendency to make sounds and be expressive. My friends and I have unconsciously adopted it, and I think now I probably make way more sounds when people are talking than I ever did before. It feels natural and it’s kind of fun.
8. But sometimes Koreans are hard to read
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought something was really serious based on facial expression and the aforementioned tone of voice only to discover that it was not a big deal at all. This happens a lot at work, especially when you feel like you’ve done something wrong but in the end it was completely fine. It can also be very hard to read people’s facial expressions if you don’t know them. For example, I’ve been stared at many times (see #4) with what seems to me to be a very hostile expression, usually from an older woman, which has made me feel uncomfortable. But a few times I’ve tried smiling back, only to see a big grin pop onto the person’s face! It’s a good lesson that you can never tell what anyone is thinking, but I think Koreans are more guarded about their emotions showing on their faces than most. I’ve found it’s very easy to misunderstand people’s meanings and moods here.
9. You can get by knowing only a little Korean
This is surprising but true. Sure, you won’t know what’s happening around you a lot of the time, but in general you’ll probably be okay to navigate through subway stations, buy groceries and find your way around. It’s not ideal, but Korean is a notoriously difficult language for English speakers to learn so I would suggest arming yourself with a few key basic phrases and the rest of the time relying on big smiles, little bows and giving money politely (see #6). My top sentences are: Hello “annyeong haseyo”, Thank You “kamsahamnida” and I’m Sorry “mianhamnida”. More here.
10. It’s not that scary or different
In general, Korea is a very nice place to visit. It’s clean, fairly modern in the cities, and doesn’t feel totally foreign or exotic most of the time. Granted, I live in one of the big cities here and it’s quite different if you go to some of the more rural towns. And that’s not to say that there aren’t big cultural differences, there are definitely several. But for anyone who is nervous about travelling to such a foreign country: you’ll be just fine. The signs and menus are in Korean, but there are some in English too. There are apartment buildings and roads and a subway system. There are bananas at the grocery store. There are rocks and trees and the beautiful ocean. It’s a bit intimidating to arrive in a country so different, in some ways, from your own, but you’ll quickly get used to it. In fact, it may not feel very foreign at all!
I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the more glaring differences between Canada and Korea, so if you spot any I should add to the list please let me know in the comments below! These are the things that stick out in my brain the most, the most interesting or important differences, but there are hundreds more, large and small that differentiate the two cultures. That’s what’s so brilliant about living in a foreign culture, you get to experience the subleties, both good and bad, of the people and the country, in a way that’s very hard to express in writing or photos. Which is why I’m so thankful I’ll have the opportunity to show my mum what it’s like here, so that she can really understand this part of my story.