Saturday, April 9, 2011

Living in South Korea: Early Impressions

YAY: No tipping. 

As in some other countries, tipping here is viewed as something of an insult. Takes some getting used to. This meal costs...what it costs? That can't be right.

NAY: Tiny trash cans.


This is, apparently, as large as trash cans get in this country. When your trash can gets full, you empty it into a shopping bag from a convenience store (you have loaded up on these), and then bring the bag outside to be collected. Since I produce the same amount of trash as I did in America, I do this every 8 minutes.

UPDATE (3/7/12): You actually were not really supposed to put trash into just any plastic bag. There were special green ones you could buy at the store designed for that purpose.

YAY: Bars do not close.

Sweet, but kind of a careful-what-you-wish-for thing. If you can stay at a bar all night there's never an obvious time when you should leave, and it's easy to find yourself ordering a pitcher at 5:30, and not even really knowing why. Drunk You at 4am will rarely choose NOT to continue drinking. Sometimes it's good to be saved from yourself. 

Still, the bars don't close, which is sweet.

NAY: Toilets.


You'll see this sign in a lot of public restrooms, with "trash" in this context referring to soiled wipes. Putting your wipe in the trash can never stops feeling very, very wrong, but maintenance staffs must keep two eyes on the situation, because there's a never any kind of poop mountain in there, and actually most of the time the can is empty.

YAY: Cheap cab rides. 

The initial price is 2400 W, and this moves up 400 W every three minutes or so (1000 W = a little under 1 dollar). A ten minute ride will cost less than 5000 W in total. Basically, if you're traveling with someone else, the two of you can go just about anywhere and not worry too much.

NAY: Soju.


Soju is an alcohol that tastes kind of like vodka mixed with water and sugar. Soju IS cheap, and strong, and it's "the national drink." Still, shit is gross. Said to give rough hangovers, too, although that's probably because it goes down pretty easy and people tend to overdo it.

YAY: Public drinking is legal.

Haven't taken advantage of this much yet, I imagine that will change as the weather gets nicer. But yeah convenience stores actually set out tables so you can buy beers and then just post up and drink them. We went to a park last night and there was a guy walking around selling rice wine and another guy selling gin and tonics. Chill.

NAY: Yellow dust.

From Wikipedia: "[Yellow dust] is a seasonal meteorological phenomenon which affects much of East Asia sporadically during the springtime months. The dust originates in the deserts of Mongolia, northern China and Kazakhstan where high-speed surface winds and intense dust storms kick up dense clouds of fine, dry soil particles. These clouds are then carried eastward by prevailing winds and pass over China, North and South Korea, and Japan, as well as parts of the Russian Far East."

Yellow dust "is known to cause a variety of health problems." Two of my co-workers got sick enough to see a doctor, I got off easy with just a cough. Not sure the YD is 100% to blame, but doubt it helped.

YAY: Phones work in the subway.

Your move, New York. 

NAY: Can't buy shit online with credit card. 

Like if you want to buy tickets to a concert or something you have to go to the bank in person and transfer the money. Co-worker informed me of this about an hour ago. No personal experience, but sounds pretty wack.

YAY: Taking your shoes off.

You have to take your shoes off immediately upon entering someone's home and certain restaurants. So much to be said for this custom. It makes you feel comfortable and at home. It commits you to wherever you are. It lends an intimate and unguarded feel to your gatherings. Sliding on wood paneling is fun. Also, when someone has guests over, a big pile of shoes will collect in their entryway, and it looks pretty cool.

NAY: The fact that "nay" means "yes."

YAY: Doug Funnie-looking motherfuckers turning up in our schoolbooks.


NAY: Internet restrictions.



Not unique to SK, but still unwelcome.

YAY: Utopian society.

When I first got here my recruiter took me straight to a McDonald's. I still had all my stuff with me, and when we walked inside she said, "Just leave that here so we can go order." I looked at her. 

"You mean leave all my stuff right here?" 

She nodded. I laughed. 

"Are you serious?" 

She nodded again. "Oh yeah, no one will steal it."

I didn't listen to her, but this claim has since been echoed by pretty much everyone I've met: you don't really have to worry about crime here. You can leave your computer in a coffee shop and go run errands, and when you come back it'll still be there. Most of my co-workers are girls, and if it's late at night and they have to walk home alone, they will do so without a second thought. My friend told me you'll hear sometimes about people getting into drunken fights, but that's about as bad as it gets. So, that's nice.

UPDATE (6/27/12): This is an exaggeration, of course. There are rapes and murders in the ROK, and there appears to be at least one documented case of an American English teacher being killed by a South Korean ( In general though, my co-workers and I felt 100% safe everywhere we went and, actually, re-learning street smarts was one of the tougher adjustments of coming back home.

NAY: Dinner drinking customs.

When you order beer at a restaurant, you order it not for yourself but for the whole table. The waiter brings out a large(ish) bottle, and this is poured into tiny glasses and divided amongst everyone. The whole thing is gone in 10 seconds and you never really feel like you got anything. It's such bullshit. How much one chooses to drink with their meal is one's own business; it should neither affect nor be affected by anyone else at the table. 

And we get off easy. South Koreans are subject to all sorts of rules when it comes to the consumption of alcohol (usually soju) at group meals. You're not supposed to fill your own drink, you're supposed to hold your glass with both hands while it's being filled, you're supposed to turn away from an elder when you're drinking, etc. Christ. Hold this with two hands, South Korea [points at dick].

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