5 weirdest things about Korean culture
Yesterday I put on the floor a loaf of bread we would be using that day for English camp, and my co-teacher screamed in horror. The bread was in a plastic bag, but just the same she quickly snatched it up, before the ground could contaminate it, and placed it… on an air-conditioning vent. At that time I started to think about the weirdest aspects of Korean culture: the things I doubt I will ever completely understand. Here is my top five list.
Cultural definitions of what is “dirty” vary a lot. As an example, washing your hands after going to the bathroom makes a lot of sense – until you think of the other things we do with those parts of our body, without immediately running off to wash our hands. Not to mention the irony of people who use their mobile phones or ipads on the toilet, then wash their hands, leaving their phone unwashed…
Just the same – Koreans are paranoid about germs. In particular, the ground and floor is indescribably dirty to Koreans. I realized this at my first school, when my co-teacher, a lovely woman, would frequently come along behind me and pick up my bag – which I had casually placed on the floor – and put it on a chair or table. After this I noticed that Koreans never put their bags on the floor. Nor do they ever sit on the ground – not even in a park.
This is all fine until it gets absurd, as in my bread example above. I like the idea of taking off your shoes in the house. It makes sense. But it gets weird when you come to school, take off your shoes and change into slippers, then go into another room in the school and have to take off your slippers. It reaches the heights of irrationality when you go to a restaurant or jjimjilbang, take off your shoes, then go to the bathroom – where a set of plastic, never-washed, communal slippers are awaiting you. Gross. I’d rather take my chances with the floor.
OK, Koreans are clean, Koreans are cautious about germs. There is nothing wrong with that. When they have a cold they wear face-masks so they don’t infect outher people, which is nice.
It’s all good – until you go to a restaurant and the waiter brings out a big bowl of warm soup for the table. Petri-dish warm. And everyone starts digging in to it with their spoons.
I pointed out this irony out to a Korean friend once. They laughed and said, “Yes. But that is Korean culture.”
Koreans think about atmosphere a lot, and with a lack of obvious rationality.
I probably don’t need to get into fan death here. The Korean, at Ask a Korean blog, makes a good defense of fan death here and here. I always like his posts on Korean culture – as a person born in Korea with a fluent, intelligent approach to both Korean and Western culture, his opinions on these things are more valid than mine. I’ll accept his argument that in certain unusual circumstances, when the air temperature is above 35 degrees Celsius, an electric fan can act in a manner similar to a convection oven. The trouble with this argument is that this is simply not how Koreans see fan death. They see electric fans as menacing breath-sucking devices which can’t really be trusted, like the old wives’ tale of cats sucking a baby’s breath. The Korean’s arguments aside, the idea that an electric fan left on at night will kill you if you don’t also leave the window ajar is just absurd.
But Koreans generally have strange views about air, particularly internal air. My co-teacher insisted on humidifying the office air all through winter. Then summer came along, the air-conditioners went on, sucking all the humidity from the air – and the humidifier went away. Odd. Koreans, fans or no, are mistrustful of air inside a building, so even in the depths of winter they will usually insist on the windows being ajar. I heard once that this was a legacy of Korea’s rapid industrialization, when materials in internal furnishings may have been made from ill-regulated products that gave off noxious fumes. I don’t know if this is true or not – I just know that it makes rooms damn cold in the depths of winter.
Late notice, no notice
Probably the number one complaint of foreigners in Korea (other than desk warming). In Korea, you are frequently advised of things at the last minute – or not at all. Sometimes the things you are asked to do are by any rational measure impossible. When your co-teacher asks you at four o’clock to prepare a semester’s worth of lesson plans by tomorrow, you will understand the frustration.
I have to say that this doesn’t bother me too much anymore. I still find it peculiar, but have learned how to deal with it. I’ll even take a guess at the reasons for it.
Firstly, how to deal with it: in my experience, impossible tasks do not demand impossible efforts. A request for a semester’s worth of lesson plans, translated into something more reasonable, is actually this: “Can you put together a shitty document, with lots of copy/pastes, that I can use to satisfy the paperwork demands of people higher up than me?” In your native country, this is probably how the request would be phrased. Korea is a high context culture that expects people to understand what is going on without being explicitly told**See also nunchi.
Also – when I have been given a last minute task or burden that is genuinely impossible, I’ve never had too much trouble resolving the situation in a way that is satisfactory to everybody. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone through a ritual similar to this one: a co-teacher comes to me before the holidays, saying, “There is a problem. The vice-principal has decided that we have to do a three week winter camp. So you will only have four days of holidays.” In such a situation, many native teachers seem to lose their shit, throw a tantrum, and cause irreparable harm to their relationship with their school.
Instead, calmly say, “I think that is very difficult. Because, as you know, we have already made plans for a one week camp. And I have booked plane tickets back to my home country, which can’t be refunded. Also, I think I am supposed to have 10 vacation days.”
Invariably, what happens next is this: my co-teacher nods and says, “OK. I will talk to the vice principal again.” 10 minutes later, she will return and say, “Good news! The vice-principal has changed his mind. There will only be a one week winter camp after all!”
I don’t know why this ritual is necessary, but I have been through it so many times by now that it doesn’t stress me too much. My best guess: it allows everyone the opportunity to demonstrate their Confucian virtues. Your vice-principal gets to demonstrate his expectations of hard-work and benevolence, and your co-teacher gets to be a dilligent advocate for you. It’s weird – but it’s not worth blowing up about it.
As for the last-minute habit: In a society where the people above you have so much power, it is a good idea to give them everything you are supposed to give them at the last minute. It makes it harder for them to change their mind and insist you do it a different way. These days, I do everything at the last minute, too. If I finish my work early, I will save it and wait until the last minute to pass it on. Of course, that doesn’t explain why demands are also made at last minute when they are handed down the chain – perhaps it is just habit.
I don’t understand gift-giving in Korea, and suspect I never will – I think perhaps you have to be raised in this country to understand the complex expectations and mutual reciprocities surrounding it.
In Korea, lots of gifts are given. They are given on big holidays, like Chuseok, and they are given randomly, with I don’t know what significance. On my first day at this school, a co-teacher gave me some socks because we were the same age, and thus chingus. Occasionally one of my co-teachers will give out cans of tuna to everyone in the office. Everyone occasionally contributes some nice bread, dokk, or donuts to the office snacking supplies.
If you take an overseas trip, you should bring back something for your principal and co-teachers. It could be worse: my vice-principal recently went to America. We all had to troop together to her office to say goodbye (she was only going for one week). Upon her return, she presented every staff member – maybe 70 people – with a souvenir pen. It must have been the cheapest souvenir she could find – mine wrote for about half-a-line before giving out – but even so, buying them for everyone must have cost a bit.
A while back my parents came to Korea to visit me. They came to my school, met my principal, met my students, and it was a really nice day. Before they came, I sent my co-teacher a message, asking if they should bring a gift for the principal. I had already decided that they should bring something for my co-teachers, who were inevitably going to go to a lot of trouble to be good hosts, and had already helped me re-arrange my schedule so I could have some extra time off. So I didn’t bother asking if they should bring a gift for my co-teachers. I knew what they answer would be if I did: “Of course not. Don’t worry about it.” But how to interpret that statement…? Better to just be safe and bring a gift.
My co-teacher replied, regarding a gift for the principal: “No need. Just enjoy the day.” But I decided that since the principal was hosting my parents, it would be best for them to bring a gift anyway. I helped them pick out a gift: a set of three nice jars of cookies. We bought two sets, one for my co-teachers, and one for the principal.
The principal accepted his in a manner that made me think it was the right thing to do. My co-teachers said, “Oh, thank you. There was no need.” Whether there was or not, I still don’t know.
What I know is this: on the last day my parents were here, two of my co-teachers disappeared for an hour and came back with a bag. As I was leaving, they said, “Oh, this is a gift from us to your parents.”
It was a set of three cookie jars. Very similar to the ones my parents had given them. Except slightly but noticeably better in quality.
I still don’t know how to interpret that…
The Korean beauty check-list
Imagine for a moment that I am describing to you a girl who I think is really beautiful.
“You should see her. Her face! It’s so small. And her nose is really high. She has the palest skin, and her eyelids have a perfect crease in them.”
Sound strange? Not in Korea. If you happen to be blessed with pale skin, a high nose, double eyelids†,†Double eyelids is a confusing term if you’re not familiar with it. It means to have a crease in your eyelid, something that Caucasians invariably have and many Koreans do not. It is different from an epicanthic fold, which is the feature most Westerners probably immediately think of when they think of East Asian eyes. Double eyelids can have the effect of making the eye appear larger, although to my eyes the most beautiful Korean eyes are often ones that don’t have it. and a small face, come to Korea. You will get called beautiful or handsome a lot.
Korean beauty standards is a topic deserving its own post. It’s strange, and culturally interesting, and in some ways tragic – but for now I’ll just note that it’s weird, and leave it at that.