Posted by: C. Cali Martin | January 21, 2010

Shit I Have Learned in Korea

After being in “Dynamic Korea” (just one of Korea’s many comical slogans) for 5 months, my perspective is starting to shift. The newness has worn off for the most part; however, I find that I can now focus on Korean culture more in-depth. It was not my intention to come here as an anthropologist. Unfortunately, that is where my training and interests lie, so it would be pointless to fight my natural instincts. As such, I have begun paying more attention to the minute details and finer aspects of Korean culture. I’ve compiled a list of such things, and will enumerate them below in no particular order. As a disclaimer, I’d like to say that these generalities do not, of course, categorize every Korean. On the other hand, the focus of Korean culture is on the whole and not the individual like America, so generalities cover a much wider percentage of people. Here, let me teach you somethin’:

  • Korean Education: Students study the majority of the time (as they should) to pass tests. Their main goal at school is to be best in their class. Once they reach their third (and final) year of high school, they take an exam which basically decides where they will go to college (su-noon). If they get a mediocre score, they will go to a mediocre college. Pretty much every Korean student dreams of getting into 1 of the country’s top 3 colleges (Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, collectively called “SKY”). Kids freak out over this exam (and with due cause) – it is not unheard of for students to commit suicide based on either their grade or as a result of the stress and pressure before the exam. Some students may take it 3-4 times before accepting their low score and moving on. More on Korean college entrance exams:
  • Healthcare: Korean healthcare so far has been pretty handy – and exceptionally efficient. Going to the doctor is quick, often taking half an hour if you have an appointment. Pharmacies are a convenient way to get anything you may need and are on every street corner. Medicine and doctors’ visits are relatively inexpensive (although I do have insurance). The cost of 8 days’ antibiotics, congestants (don’t ask), anti-histamines, and pain killers totaled a whopping 9,000w (less than $9 US).
  • Queuing: Koreans do not queue. Getting onto public transportation or an elevator could easily turn into a shove-or-be-shoved, first-come-first-served, all out brawl if the conditions were right. When it comes to things Westerners would normally queue for, the bank, the post office, etc., Koreans have adopted the old take-a-number strategy. It’s amazing to me how often this does not work. It may be your number that is called next on the screen, but another person will already be standing at the counter and more often than not, be served before you. If you can assert yourself well enough, you often get service when your number is called – but be quick! The same technique applies to the grocery store or mart ’round the corner: people who should logically be served after you will set their items on the counter as if you don’t exist.
  • Personal Space: Forget it. Does not exist. If you think you have a bubble, any bubble whatsoever, you are wrong. You are always wrong. Bubbles do not exist. Even if you are a weird, smelly foreigner, your bubble will be invaded at all times. It’s not that Koreans are rude, they are just ruthless.
  • Sidewalk Dancing: In America, if we were to pass someone on the sidewalk, we generally pass as we do in our vehicles – over our left shoulder. In Korea, the opposite appears true. Now, I have done some social experimenting with this theory. If I go out of my way to pass on the left, I can see a sort of mental breakdown happening in the Korean I’m passing. There is a moment of hesitation, a fearful look may briefly cross his/her face, and in a couple cases, the individual will actually swiftly change places so as to pass on the right. I can never remember to pass on the left, so there is, in fact, quite a lot of sidewalk dancing.
  • Addiction: It has crossed my mind that the vast majority of adult Korean men are alcoholics. The proliferation of men drinking after work and remaining insanely pissed from 6pm until 6am is astonishing. The amount of vomit in the alleys and the main streets on a Saturday or Sunday morning is appalling. The catch is that these individuals will never admit to having a drinking problem, or even consider that their habits were unusual. Students who may be legitimately classified as addicted to games in America would never be counseled in Korea – there would never be a question of addiction. The Korean mentality is such that individuals will consider their “extreme” habits as just that – extreme. That there is a problem is inconceivable. Mental healthcare facilities are nearly nonexistent and certainly not as developed as Western mental institutions. Depression is not acknowledged; illness must be severe for a doctor’s visit. Fascinating.
  • Fan Death: This is my most favorite topic of Korean culture. How it works: If a fan (a household electrical fan) is turned on while an individual is in a room where all the windows and doors are solidly closed, then that individual will die. This happens while one is asleep. Why this happens: The oxygen is sucked from the room and one suffocates. Uses in popular culture: This is a convenient way to glaze over suicides by children/teenagers as a result of the enormous pressure of schoolwork. Many Koreans actually believe this myth to be true and will unknowingly open a window or door if a fan is operating….
  • Love Motels and Infidelity: In Korea, divorce is very much discouraged and frowned upon. As a result, many men (and some women) in unhappy marriages resort to cheating. This is more publicly accepted than divorce. Love Motels are dotted throughout the cities and even on the outskirts of towns. I have yet to stay in one, but I’ve heard stories… some include boxes/bags of “goodies”, vibrating beds, sewing kits passed out to women and condoms given to men, etc. Prostitution is also fairly common – the slickest way to find a lady of the night is to book a room in a Noraebang ( a “song room”, Karaoke room) and ask the attendant for a “service”. These ladies come to entertain their clients by helping them drink, drinking with the men, and singing songs. If you luck out, your lady will also service you in any way you like.
  • Kimchi and AIDS: Recent research has been published to suggest that Kimchi cures AIDS. Yes. Kimchi. Cures. AIDS.
  • Driving/Walking: Koreans drive insanely fast, weaving in and out of traffic, and potentially nauseating their passengers. Because the majority of my traveling takes place using my own two feet, I have learned to recognize certain dangers: an approaching moped or car, learning to predict where they will turn, calculating the distance between the opposite side of the road, my position, and how fast a car is approaching, etc. All these things turn into second nature after a few months, although I have been in some serious traffic-related incidents, usually involving being surprised by a vehicle and narrowly missing a “Big Daddy”esque lawsuit (remember, the foot?).


  1. Hey,
    Rebecka Eades suggested that I check out your blog. I will be leaving for Korea in about a month and would love to pick your brain some. Email me if you get a chance

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