Let me begin by advertising the newest section of The Seoul of Wit – The Proof. The Proof will be updated Tuesdays and Thursdays. To find out more, click on the link in the main menu above, or go here.
Anyway, back to business. I may have mentioned before that I teach a class to the English Teachers in my building on Wednesdays. I usually try to keep it conversational to give them an outlet in which to practice their spoken English. This past week, the topic was cultural differences between America and Korea, and it got them talking. I sparked the discussion by showing them a list of “Things you may find strange about Korean behavior” that was given to me at orientation. I told them, “This is what EPIK is showing all of the new teachers. What do you think about this?” There were 25 items that westerners may find “strange” about Korean behavior. I want to share the first half of those with you, along with my comments on how true they have proved to be. There is also a list of “Things Koreans find strange about western behavior.” Maybe I’ll share that in the future some time, along with the other half of this list.
Things you may find strange about Korean behavior:
1. Koreans bumping into you in public.
For me, this one holds little water. Yes, if you’re taking the subway in the morning during rush hour, there are a million people and some will bump into you, but I don’t feel it is any more pronounced than normal. However, I should note I have heard stories of people being shoved out of the way for a subway seat or being run over by old ladies (who are notorious here).
2. People not saying “sorry,” “excuse me,” “please,” and “thank you.”
This one I find very true. In fact, I’ve actually been told I say, “thank you,” too much. It just isn’t a huge part of their culture. The Korean teachers had many questions about when to say, “thank you,” if they were to visit the United States. I told them to ere on the side of safety and use it most of the time.
3. Avoiding eye contact during conversation.
This is one my co-teachers and I disagreed with, though I kept my opinion to myself. It actually doesn’t happen often, but sometimes people will look the exact opposite way while holding a conversation. Seriously. Although, I think this has to do with the whole “honoring” system, because it mostly happens when I’m talking to someone much older than me.
4. Shaking hands for too long and very limply.
I disagree. I just think it depends on the person. Then again, I don’t analyze hand shakes like some people.
5. Spitting in public.
Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes. They aim for corners. It’s hard to find a public baseboard not soiled with a plethora of loogies. They’re like camels. The women do it to. I will duel with anyone who says otherwise. I’m not passing judgment. I’m just saying: it happens.
6. Staring at Foreigners
Okay, again, I haven’t really experienced this. When it does happen, though, it is mainly small children doing the staring. One time a toddler pointed at a friend and I from across the subway and starting saying, “America, America.” That’s the most that’s ever happened. Let me also say that this one may be true outside of Seoul, or so I’ve heard. Foreigners are just too common in the capital.
7. Avoiding sun on skin and the use of skin whiteners.
This one I can’t speak to. There are some Koreans with questionably pale skin, however. I can tell you that foreigners without white skin, sadly, are discriminated against. I’ve met Philippinos who speak flawless English who can not get hired to teach because they look Asian. This is the evil side of how appearance is everything in Korea. Schools want to show off their native speaker as someone who “looks western.”
8. Making/changing plans at the last minute.
Oh, I have no classes today? And you’re telling me 10 minutes before the bell rings? Sure, no problem. Maybe it’s because I don’t speak Korean that I don’t get these type of warnings earlier, but it sure seems to happen a lot. This one is true, for sure. Luckily, I can roll with the changes easily enough.
9. Not contributing much to discussions.
My co-teachers didn’t have much to say about this one.
10. Rarely saying, “no.” Instead, Koreans will say “maybe,” but mean “no.”
I agree with this one, and I think it has to do with saving face, or “face theory,” which we were warned about at orientation. Koreans don’t want to “lose face” in front of other Koreans by making a mistake, and everything they do tries to ensure that people around them don’t lose face. Saying “no,” outright would confirm a mistake, so to speak. So there’s a lot of beating around the bush. This is one of the most frustrating things I’ve had to deal with, so far. I just want a straightforward answer!
11. Everyone shares from the same plate, and sometimes drink from the same alcohol glass.
Kind of. Everyone takes food from the same platter and pours from the same jug. But then it’s yours. This seems to be more a mindset. As it was explained to me at dinner one time, by a Korean: “In the United States, you have ‘your’ food. In Korea, we have ‘our’ food.”
12. Slurping loudly when eating noodles.
This, like number 5, is just a fact. Everyone does it.
13. Talk with their mouths full.
I would say they chew with their mouths open a lot, at least more than Americans. But I’ve never found it overtly disturbing or ridiculous. If this one was a myth being tested on Mythbusters, it would be labeled as “Plausible.”
Looking back on these first 13, I’m noticing that the ones that generated the most discussion in my class on Wednesday were in the second half of the list. I will have to share the other 12 soon.
As a bonus, and since I’m talking about Korean behavior, let me mention “fan death.” Though it wasn’t mentioned on this list, fan death is a widespread belief in Korea. Fan death is the belief that if you leave a fan running in a closed area for a long time (like when you’re sleeping) you can die. I’m not joking. In fact, ALL fans have timers on them that shut them off after a certain period of time. Don’t believe me? Check out the wikipedia article:
When I first heard of fan death I thought it was just a silly myth and that no one could actually believe such a thing. However, when I brought it up to the teachers in class, they became very stoic and told me, “Yes, that can be very dangerous.” They honestly believe it. When I told them I let my fan blow on me at night, they strongly suggested I use the timer feature.
I will not be using the timer feature.