If you are one of the tens of thousands of expats who call Korea your home, this entire post will come of no surprise. However, for those of you whose experience of the South (the sane one) is limited to the occasional K-pop hit, CNN, and that one guy you knew who taught there, these are some things they might have left out of their rosy tale of highlights and nightmares. You know, that mildly-interesting stuff.
1) The Kimchi Fridge
Kimchi is one of the staple side dishes in Korea with a penetrating smell that even I can sense (for those who don’t know, my sense of smell is terrible). Unless you live in Korea though, you probably aren’t aware that Koreans have a specific fridge where they ONLY store kimchi. This kimchi fridge serves three purposes.
First, it frees up space in the main fridge. Many Korean families make kimchi to last the entire year during the harvest when cabbage is cheap, accumulating to
a shit ton quite a lot of kimchi. Second, the smell is something even Koreans are conscious of. It is best to separate it from the rest of the food as no variety of Tupperware will stop it from making everything in your fridge smell like pickled cabbage. Finally, the fridge can change the conditions of its compartments to divide everyday kimchi, kimchi for soup, and so on.
2) Men Spit Before Peeing
Entering the men’s bathroom in Korea is really nothing out of the ordinary. One thing I picked up on though was Korean men’s need to spit into the urinal every single time before going. I really don’t understand why and feel weird asking about it, especially in the moment (‘hey dude, I have a question…’).
I’m not sure this is related either, but a Korean urinal shoots water before and after you use it. For a long time I thought I was doing something wrong to trigger the sensor, but alas, it seems like that is just the way they were designed.
3) They Use Windows XP
For one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, having broadband reach nearly 100% of all homes and currently testing the next generation 5G network, you would assume they already have Windows 10 and are using nothing but Google Ultron as their browser. Oh if only. Shockingly, if there is one thing Koreans refuse to upgrade, it is their OS.
The thirteen year old operating system was a favorite at the school where I worked and boy do I wish it was an anomaly. Even top universities, PC bangs (internet gaming cafes) with the latest hardware, and I shit you not, the occasional government office I visited all ran on XP.* I understand that Vista was scary enough to prevent most people from upgrading, but Jesus Christ that was nearly 4 operating systems ago.
On a related note, Koreans also tend to reject new computer hardware until there are enough reviews by the brave few who go in head first. This causes a very strange condition where notebooks with the latest hardware are often slightly cheaper than the older, tested model.
*Note: As I understand it, government offices did indeed switch to Windows 7 after Microsoft stopped supporting XP, but before they pulled Win 7 off the shelves. Progress!
4) F instead of 4
If you ever go inside of a Korean building that is a few decades or more old, you might gave trouble finding the fourth floor which is often replaced by the letter ‘F.’ This comes from the Chinese sound of the word ‘4’ which is eerily similar to that of death, making it an unlucky number. Much older buildings take this superstition much further with a 4th floor completely missing (skipping from 3 to 5) which to me, is scarier!
5) Libraries in Subway Stops
After a few months in Seoul back in 2011, I started noticing a black locker-type box with nothing but books inside. I figured it was a service unique to the nearby university but more and more subway stops have these now.
They are a sort of mobile library where you can have books shipped to you and returned without having to visit an actual library. This system is convenient for the ever busy Korean person where picking up a book at a subway stop is far easier than going to the dedicated building.
6) Take-Out is Cheaper in Coffee Shops
My first year in Korea, a buddy took me out to coffee during one of our breaks. We ordered it to go, but then decided to just stay. Alas, neither of us had any idea that it was cheaper to take-out than to sit-in and they charged us an extra 1000 won.
This is not as prevalent in the places I frequented in Seoul, but in Daejeon, most of the places I went to had a very similar system where take-out is 500 won cheaper. Korea is very compact and for a coffee shop, it is more profitable to offer a discount to go (or a premium to stay Mr. Negative) than to have people feel it’s too crowded and not even bother to go in at all. Despite the lack of a tipping culture, service is everything and no one will wait if it is too slow.
7) Exercise Equipment Everywhere
This one baffles me to this day. On some small parks and hikes in and around Seoul, you will find exercise equipment straight out of a late night infomercial. What is truly odd is that this equipment is also found on mountain hikes. As if sweating for hours wasn’t enough, you suddenly come across this ridiculous set of machines to remind you that nature cannot hide in the sea of technology in Korea.
8) Privacy is Not THAT Important
Being anonymous online is something we took for granted in the US, that is until we learned about PRISM. However, in Korea, they experimented with the very scary thought that you were not allowed to be anonymous online. Until the law was scrapped in 2012, Koreans were required to use their real names while browsing the web and commenting on forums.
Despite this, I am actually shocked to learn that no one I have personally talked to is bothered by this at all. The promise of safety is enough reason for people to feel like privacy is not that important. To me this was a much bigger cultural shock than any food or educational practice.
To take the matter of lack of privacy further, pretty much every square meter of Seoul is monitored by CCTV. Despite very recently (25 yrs or so) coming out of the rule of a brutal dictatorship (and coincidentally, the very father of the current president), the idea of big brother watching is okay.
9) Online Banking and ATMs have Schedules
The main benefit of auto anything, you would think, is the convenience of being accessible 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The very purpose of robots is that they do not tire, make mistakes, or complain. Alas, they seem to have working hours in Korea.
Certain transactions cannot be done online during ‘off-hours’ or on weekends. Furthermore, many ATMs are 24 hours, but charge a premium if you withdraw after a certain time. While of course, much like anything in Korea, this is depending on what deal you struck upon opening your bank account, in general is just seems silly.
10) The Button
You go to a sit down restaurant, only to have the waitress hover around you like if you read the menu on your way over here. When you politely excuse yourself and ask to have a few minutes, they never check up on you anymore until you get frustrated. While this is generally considered to be ‘bad service’ in the US, it really shouldn’t even be an issue at all. Korea has a solution.
In many restaurants, there is a button. Like magic, upon pushing it, a waitress or waiter comes rushing out and ready to take questions or your order. There is no unnecessary hovering and they can go about their other responsibilities while you think in peace. While not every Korean restaurant has it, it is perfectly acceptable to yell out “yeo-gi-o” which is basically the audible version of ‘the button.’