Friday, June 15, 2012

The Top Five Baffling Things in South Korea I Can't Even Partially Understand

One of the most interesting things about living in a country so different from my own is observing the differences in culture.  South Korea is vastly different in many ways than the USA.  Some of these differences are simple and easy to understand, like taking off your shoes in many establishments or bowing when you say "hello" or "goodbye."  Some of these differences are a bit more complicated but you learn to understand them over time, such as the Confucius hierarchy system or the fact that napping at work is completely acceptable.  However, after being here for some time now there are still some things in Korean society that I have never been able to grasp.  I have compiled my top five most baffling and mind bending cultural differences in Korea that my American brain just can not fully absorb.  For those that have lived in Korea these are nothing new, but to others prepare for a virtual trip to Ripley's Believe it or Not.

5.) Guy Love

I will say that this one is not on the list because it is completely confusing, but for the fact that it still makes me giggle each time I see it after being here for almost two years.  The sight of two grown men in business suits walking hand in hand is so unnatural to me.  Prolonged amounts of touching between two straight men is as natural in Korea as a chest bump is in America.  So when you see two company men seemingly skipping down the street with interlocking fingers it means they love each other, but they don't love-love each other.  Of course if you tried this America your friend would probably smash a beer can on your forehead.
"Hey ladies, wanna hang out with two dudes who are totally secure with themselves?"
The first time I was exposed to this is when I met some of my male co-workers after I arrived in Korea.  Shaking hands is pretty much the norm for me but the grips loosen after 2-3 seconds.  In Korea the grip never seems to loosen.  In fact after 2-3 seconds the shake just turns in to a hand holding love affair.  Then I'm stuck trying to form words within the small talk, but my mind can only focus on how I can unlatch myself from the man hand.  I don't want to be rude and tear my hand away, so the strategy is to make the conversation as short as possible.  So it usually ends with me saying "I have to make copies now" or "I don't understand what we're talking about" and a vacant stare.  Awkward on awkward is the best way to get out of the man hand.

So next time you see two grown Korean men walking in each other's embrace, just remember it's Guy Love.



4.) Ajummas

What does retirement look like for the average Korean woman?  A perm, a huge visor, ridiculously non-matching clothes, sharp elbows, a cranky demeanor, and days spent pulling weeds, foraging for recyclables, or selling produce on the street corner.  Korean woman inevitably end their lives as what is referred to as an ajumma.  While the word ajumma technically means any married or middle aged women, it is generally used to describe the old grannys who have all adopted the exact same lifestyle.  So if I were to call one of my married female co-workers an ajumma it might come off as a little insulting.

What baffles me is why all the old Korean woman have subscribed to this way of living out their golden years.  I understand Korea is a country of communal thinking, but this is just beyond that.  I can not imagine anywhere else you could gather more than three grandmothers together and they all have matching non-matching outfits and the same haircut.  It's like Korea is cloning old women to pick up the country's trash and landscape the government buildings.  I swear after a certain age some one must hand a Korean woman a pamphlet with certain instructions on how one should dress.  It must also include tips on how to body check bystanders, cut in line, and give foreigners the stink eye.
The pamphlet comes with pictures like this.
Most young Korean woman are beautiful and quite obsessed with how they look.  They are also very fashionable and like to show a lot of leg.  It's rather difficult for a foreigner to see the difference between a 20 year old and 40 year old Korean woman.  So what's very confusing is how the transition from an up-right beauty to a bent over faux pas happens.  Maybe one day they just wake up like that.  I just don't know!
This pretty much illustrates my point. (

3.) The Never Ending Battle With Climate Control
This one probably infuriates native english teachers the most, especially in winter.  It is generally believed that South Korea is a modern society.  One of the things that defines a modern society is possessing buildings and homes with the ability to adjust the inside temperature relative to the outside temperature.  Koreans even went so far as to install an ingenious floor heating system in every up to date establishment.  However, they have difficulty in properly using these advantages that their country has afforded them.  Every native english teacher has the same story.  The teacher has their classroom to a respectable temperature in the dead of winter.  The students shuffle in to do some learning and within minutes they are complaining that the room is too hot.  The teacher politely explains to them that if they were to remove their winter jackets, sweater, hats, etc., then they would be perfectly comfortable because they're indoors after all.  The students refuse and begin to open the windows instead.  At this point the teacher is all like:
"What?  Why?  Take off your coat!"
So the teacher decides this is not happening and closes the windows and explains again for the students to remove their winter clothes meant for the outdoors thank you very much.  Then the students complain more and come up with excuses like "I have two dollars in my coat pocket" or "I have no shirt on underneath my coat."  By this point the teacher is all like:
"Don't make me say it again."
So then teacher agrees to a compromise and decides the window is allowed to be open for one minute and no longer.  After a minute the window is closed and the teacher attempts to continue the lesson but now the students are sweating and complain even more.  Now the teacher is just like:

What's even worse is that Korea considers itself one of the most environmentally responsible countries in the world.  However, in the winter the windows are opened when they're too hot inside with their coats on.  I can't think of anything more wasteful than letting all that energy flow outside.  My whole youth my parents would yell at me not to heat/cool the whole neighborhood!  This phrase does not exist in Korea.

2.) It's Good For "Stamina"

I should really title this one Anything For A Boner, because that's pretty much I'm going to talk about.  I thought it might be too crass.  Anyway in America, when a man loves a woman, he wants to share his love in certain ways.  When that man gets older he may have more difficulty expressing his love in that way.  If it comes to it, a doctor may prescribe that man such innovative products as Viagra or Cialis.  Products designed to help the man and have been proven to work.  Proof is an important element to this one.
Wow!  It really works!
Koreans tend to still have beliefs in the old ways, or as I like to say "Hocus Pocus."  When ever I'm out for a Korean dinner with my school and something is put in front of me that looks like a tongue and is still slightly moving, one of my co-teachers explains, "It's good for stamina."  It's a fairly polite way of putting it.  I applaud the Koreans for their use of the word stamina.  So if there is something unrecognizable on your table chances are it's good for stamina.
Question: Live octopus?  Answer: Good for stamina.

Question:  Dog meat?  (Which I have tried).  Answer: Good for stamina.

Question:  Rhino horn?  Answer: Good for stamina.

Question: Dead baby pills?  Answer: Good for sta.....wait what?!

Yep check out what was discovered a couple months ago.  This is real:
Good job!  I have no idea what the logic is behind this.  It's also probably the same logic that women don't drink coffee when they're pregnant because it will turn the baby brown.  Not because of the caffeine or anything.  So that's what we're working with in Korea.  Just take some Viagra.  Really.


1.) Fan Death

This was the easiest and most obvious choice for number one.  Everyone that has lived in Korea has heard of Fan Death and of course it is outrageous.  It's a widely held belief that a simple house fan can straight murder a person.  No joke.  Of course America has it's share of urban myths but no one actually believes them.  This is an urban myth that Koreans truly believe.  Supposedly in a closed room the fan can suck out the oxygen and the victim can die of asphyxiation.  It looks something like this:

Can't argue with science.

In fact, the Korean media reports on fan death and its dangers.  All fans are sold with timers and consumers are encouraged to use them.  You know, so it doesn't suffocate you.  Another potential risk is hypothermia.  A fan can lower your body temperature to the same point as falling through the ice of a frozen lake.  Somehow this phenomenon only exists in Korea.  How have I survived the 600 or so nights that I've slept with a fan on in my bedroom in Korea?  Well I consider myself the luckiest man alive and not everyone gets a second chance at life.  Seriously, I've asked several Koreans if they believe in fan death and most of them do.  Wikipedia has a great article on it that everyone should read: Fan Death. 


In conclusion I'm not trying to say Koreans are stupid or anything, I'm just making light of some of the quirks.  So if it seems like I'm generalizing I am, but I found these things to be mostly true when it comes to Korean culture.  Of course I know there are exceptions to the rule.  Anyway, I hope it was baffling.