Category: Korean culture

10 Korean customs you should know about before you come

I found this post on a different website (, but I just had to share it.  Every word rings true.  Especially the last tidbit about Dokdo and the Sea of Japan….don’t EVER start an argument about those with a Korean!!!  Enjoy! 🙂

1. Kimchi is culture
Kimchi is sliced cabbage, fermented with red chili sauce and anchovy paste. It is pungent, spicy, and sour. Koreans love it and eat it with every meal – usually on the side – though they also use it as an ingredient in countless other dishes.
Kimchi is symbolic of Korean culture: it’s strong, distinctive, and defiant. Some foreigners can’t stomach it, but if you can, you will earn the locals’ heartfelt respect.
2. Shoes off
When entering a Korean home, you must remove your shoes. To do any less is a sign of great disrespect.  Koreans have a special relationship with their floor, on which they sit and often sleep. A dirty floor is intolerable in a Korean home, and they view Westerners as backward savages for remaining shod in our living rooms.
3. Soju
Korea is a drinking culture, and their national booze is soju, a clear, vodka-like drink.
Soju is drunk out of shot glasses, and like all liquor in Korea, it’s always served with food. Koreans drink in boisterous groups, regularly clinking glasses, while shouting geonbae! (cheers) and one shot-uh!  At night you will see men coming out of norae bang (karaoke rooms) and staggering through the streets, laughing, singing and arguing. Just be sure to avoid the puddles of reddish-vomit often left behind, which are also known as kimchi flowers.  Koreans have strict drinking etiquette: never pour your own drink, and when pouring for someone older than you, put one hand to your heart or your pouring arm as a sign of respect.
4. Rice
Like the Japanese, the Koreans eat rice with almost every meal. It’s so ingrained in their culture that one of their most common greetings is Bap meogeosseoyo?, or ‘Have you eaten rice?”
Unlike the Japanese, Koreans usually eat their rice with a spoon, and they never raise the rice bowl off of the table towards their mouths.  Also, chopsticks must never be left sticking out of the rice bowl, as this resembles the way rice is offered to the dead.
5. Do not smile
Koreans are a warm and generous people, but you would never know it from the sourpusses they paste on in public.  Sometimes, the chaotic streets of the peninsula resemble a sea of scowls, with everyone literally putting their most stern faces forward. This is NOT true of the children however, who will invariably grin and laugh while shouting “Hello! Hello!”
6. Beware of elbows
Korea is a crowded country. It’s a cluster of stony mountains with only a few valleys and plains on which to build.  The result is a lot of people in small spaces, and folks will not think twice about pushing and jostling in order to get onto a bus, into an elevator, or to those perfect onions at the market.
Don’t even bother with “excuse me,” and beware of the older women, known as ajumma. They’re deadly.
7. Protests
South Koreans fought hard to achieve the democratic society they now enjoy, and are among the top in the world when it comes to exercising their right to protest.
Dissent is alive and well. Koreans protest with frequency and they protest with fervor – on all sides of the political spectrum.  Protesters employ a variety of methods, from the violent (angry students regularly attack riot police with huge metal rods), to the absurd (cutting off fingers, throwing animal dung, covering themselves in bees).
8. Hiking
As Korea is mountainous, it should come as no surprise that hiking is the national pastime.
Even the most crowded of cities have mountains that offer a relative haven from the kinetic madness of the streets below.  Koreans are at their best on the mountain. They smile and greet you and will often insist on sharing their food and drink. Make sure to stop at a mountain hut restaurant for pajeon (fritter) and dong dong ju (rice wine).
9. Bow-wow
Yes, some Koreans do eat dog meat, despite some sporadic attempts by the government to shut down the boshingtang (dog meat soup) restaurants, in order to improve the country’s “international image.”
Dog meat is mainly consumed during the summer and by men, who claim that it does wonders for stamina.
10. Nationalism
Koreans are an extremely proud people, and sometimes this pride transforms into white-hot nationalism.
You see this nationalism displayed at sporting events, where thousands of Korean fans cheer their national teams on in unison, banging on drums and waving massive flags.
This nationalism especially comes to a boil whenever Japan is mentioned, as Japan has invaded them several times, and occupied Korea as a colony for almost the first half of the 20th century, decimating the country’s resources and conscripting thousands of their women as sex slaves.
Finally, please remember the two following things:
To a Korean, there is no such thing as The Sea of Japan. The body of water between Korea and Japan is known only as the East Sea.  Also, Koreans fervently believe that Dokdo – the disputed islets between Korea and Japan (known in Japan as Takeshima) – belong only to Korea.  It would be most unwise to attempt to disagree with either of these points, as Koreans don’t consider them up for debate.

A concert in Korea

I wish that I could explain to you the humor, the cultural insight, the very Korean-ness that is a community-wide performance in Korea.  Perhaps I would start with describing how my host mother ran from the car to the theater in a sort of strange waddle-run, hiding under her jacket to escape the slight rain that was so light that I wouldn’t even consider it rain – more like a gentle mist.  Or perhaps I would start instead with her insistence that I use both an umbrella and a rain jacket to evade said gentle mist.Perhaps I would start explaining what happened inside the theater, with my host mother on one side of me singing lustily off-key with the performers, while my host sister sat on my other side snoring away.  Or the spontaneous, auditorium-wide clapping that would start with astonishing frequency and coordination.Maybe it would be better to first talk about the Korean propensity to show off their “pet foreigners.”  I would talk about how my host mother used me as an excuse to get permission for her daughter to miss school so that she could come – apparently Insuk was allowed to come only on the condition that she translate for me….since I would be completely lost watching dance and listening to music if I didn’t understand all of the words, lol.  Maybe I would describe how I was paraded in front of all of my host parents’ friends, all of whom, after careful scrutiny, gave the same assessment of me – small face, very pretty!  Or how my host mother bought a bouquet of flowers for me to give to my host father, and then shoved me up on stage and made me give them to him before the performance had actually ended.  Yeah, that was awkward.  Or maybe I would skip that flower story, and just tell the one where my host mother walked up to the big flower arrangements that they had decorating the entryway and just started taking flowers out of them to give to me.  I don’t think she was supposed to do that.  But she wanted to give me flowers, so that was that.

I wish I could truly explain to you the night that I spent with my host family last Friday night.  But I think, in the end, that it’s something that you would have to experience yourself to truly understand.

My host papa.  Isn’t he adorable? 🙂
I truly am one of the family… <3
They’re the cutest 🙂
They gave me all of his flowers and had me put them in my room!  I can literally smell their love now… 🙂

The Korean educational system

This is a post that I’ve been wanting to write for a while, but simply haven’t had the time.  But now that travelling  has slowed down a bit, be on the lookout for more reflective posts!My first one is about the Korean educational system.  As an English teacher in Korea, this is obviously something that I have a lot of first-hand experience with.  And goodness, it really does break my heart.  As much as I love my students and teaching, sometimes I am just so burdened for them and what they go through.  I warn you, this is not a happy post.  I can think of no other world to describe it than tragic.  But please read it anyway.  Watch the videos.  It’s something that you need to hear.Korea is generally regarded as the most competitive educational system in the entire world.  But because of that, Korean students are under enormous, incredible pressure.  You think college stresses you out?  Worried about doing well on the SAT or GRE?  This is pressure like you’ve never experienced, and couldn’t imagine even if you tried.

Students start off in elementary school already with long days – usually from about 8:00 am-3:00 pm.  Middle school students get out a few hours later, around 5:00 pm.  Even in middle school, though, the pressure has started to mount.  My friend Elizabeth, another Fulbright scholar, says that her middle school host sister gets up at 2:30 or 3:00 am – every morning.  When asked why she does that, she said matter-of-factly, as if it were completely normal, that she could get in 1 or 2 entire online lessons before school started by getting up that early.

But it’s my students, the high school students, that really bear the brunt of the enormous pressure.  By the time you are a high school student, you spend an average of 15-17 hours a day at school.  Many students arrive at school by 8:00 am, and often don’t leave until 11:00 or 11:30 pm.  That includes weekends.  The better schools have dormitories for the top students, so that they can “have more time to study.”  I’m serious.  That’s a direct quote from my co-teacher.

In a sense, it’s gotten even worse for me since I moved homestays.  My old host sisters, to be quite honest, were not stellar students.  But my new host sister is.  And so, as wonderful as she is, living with her means that I also have to observe first-hand on a daily basis the amount of pressure that Korean students are under.  It manifests itself with her physically, in frequent nosebleeds, numerous sores all over her mouth, and constant exhaustion.  I’m not talking about the “oh-I’m-kind-of-sleepy-I-should-take-a-nap” type of weariness.  I’m talking about bone-deep, unequivocal, complete exhaustion, the kind that makes everything, even just getting up and going to the bathroom, a monumental effort.

High school students in Korea have no life outside of school.  They see far more of their teachers than they do of their parents.  Many of them even live at school in dormitories.  Almost all students eat at least 2 meals a day at school, and sometimes even the commuters end up eating all three there because of the long hours they put in.  They bring blankets and pillows to school so that they can catch up on sleep in class sometimes.  Boyfriends and girlfriends are virtually nonexistent.  Most of the schools are gender segregated, and even if they weren’t, who has time to hang out??  They’re always studying.  They have no friends outside of school, no outside interests, no hobbies…their life is studying.  Period.  I wish I could say that I was exaggerating, but alas, I cannot.  I probably shouldn’t do this, but I always give a little cheer (both inwardly and aloud) when I see my students out and about in town at a time when I know that they’re supposed to be in school.  I don’t care if they have to skip school to do it, these children need a life!!!

The pressure that they are under to perform is obvious.  I gave English oral exams last week to my students.  It was a simple exam, really – they were given 6 questions in advance, and then during the test I picked 2 of those 6 and asked them to answer me in English.  Students only had to answer with 3 or 4 sentences to get full credit for completion, and the questions were simple things, like “What will you do during winter vacation?” or “What is your favorite movie?”.  My students were in complete anguish.  Some were so nervous they were unable to say even a single word.  A few of them burst out crying.  All of them were pale and jittery and nervous beyond belief.  And that was just a simple test.  It was nothing like the suneng, the big test that seniors take at the end of high school (more on that later).

And the thing is, the test wasn’t even a real assessment of their skill levels.  They had the entire test beforehand.  I was instructed to not give the lowest score, even if students did not say a single word.  I was also told to grade on “effort,” not actual English proficiency, because “we want to encourage the students.”  It was one of the worst cases of teaching to the test that I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of tests…the “Big One” just happened here in Korea a few weeks ago.  All of those years of studying, all of the after-school classes and self-study hours and sleep deprivation that they’ve endured for their entire childhood, come to a head for the seniors on November 10th every year.  This is the day of the suneng, the senior exit test.  But this is no ordinary test.  This is the test that will decide their entire future.  The grade that they get on this test will determine their university, their job, their salary, where they live, even on occasion who they marry – many people will not marry someone who did not go to a university with a certain ranking.  On November 10th, the entire country stops to cheer on the seniors.  Planes stop flying.  Buses and trains stop running.  Many stores close for the day.  This test is, quite literally, their life.  It is what they’ve been working for for the last 12 years of their lives, and it is what will determine the rest of it.

The intense pressure to succeed has obvious affects on other areas of life.  The suicide rate in Korea is the highest in the entire developed world – it has more than doubled in the last ten years.  Nearly 10% of the entire young population considered committing suicide last year.  The rapid increase has caused crisis hotlines to pop up. But the operators receive no formal training on how to handle potential suicide cases, and the numbers remain heartrendingly high.  Elizabeth, who teaches in a middle school, says that several of her students have already confessed to attempting to commit suicide on multiple occasions.  Imagine that….a 13 year old child trying to kill herself because of a bad test grade.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Korea is a remarkable country.  For decades they have astonished the world with their nearly unheard-of economic growth rates.  In 50 years they have gone from a third-world country to one of the richest countries in the world, a global superpower.  Korean students consistently lead the global pack in test scores and academic performance.  But such success comes at a price.  And I can’t help but wondering if it’s too  high a price.

I want to conclude this post not with my own words, but with the words of a Korean.  This is a quote taken from the video below.  It’s about 20 minutes long, but so worth watching.  Please take the time to do so.

“I don’t know, there are lots of options or choices for them (Korean students who commit suicide).  But actually they chose to die.  Maybe they committed suicide because of their own expectations, or maybe they couldn’t see their parents because they believed that they had failed their parents…..but something is wrong.  Truthfully, taking tests and going to college – the reason for studying -…committing suicide just because you didn’t do that well, doesn’t make much sense to me.  But that in itself is a kind of representation of how there’s obviously a huge problem in our educational system.”

Last week before October

Well, life’s clipping along at a solid pace now.  This will be my last post before the month-long insanity that is October ensues.  I’m going to be traveling every…single…weekend in October, and a few times during the week, too.  I’m already tired, just thinking about it.Anyway, I spent Saturday helping my friend Harry move across town.  That evening, we went to a dance performance called Miso II with a group of people from church.  The performance was incredible, and the company wonderful…it was very enjoyable.

The cast of Miso II

Sunday I sang again at church.  I went with a Korean named Sea-reum (Rachel) to the service.  She actually asked me if I wanted to go with her; it was really nice to spend some time with a Korean for once :).  After church we went out for lunch and, through a series of strange events, ended up in the field by the river’s edge with 2 of Anthony’s Korean students dancing the Merengue.  Such things just seem to happen in Korea, lol….

I started a Bible study within the English church.  This Wednesday was our first meeting.  We met in a cute little coffee shop near where I live; six people (including myself) showed up.  It was really nice to chill and talk about God and get to know other believers in a friendly, relaxed setting, and I’m looking forward to this addition to my schedule.

Friday night I had dance class again – this time it was East Coast Swing.  That was INSANE.  Even more so than Merengue.  You try getting over 50 giddy girls who don’t speak your language to do a rock step.  But they all had a blast – I got several hugs and lots of smiles and laughter, so I’m happy :).  Anthony helped me again, and again, I was thanking him profusely.  He’s such a good sport :).  After the dance, my teachers wanted to take us out to dinner, so the entire English department + Anthony went out to dinner.  “We will eat chicken,” my co-teacher told me.  “Lots of chicken.”  And that’s exactly what we did :).  After dinner, I was thinking that we would go home.  But no, it was time for round 2 – norebang!  All of us except Anthony went – he had somewhere else he had to go.  It was really funny seeing my outgoing and slightly inebriated co-teachers singing and dancing all over the norebang room.  So that was fun – I sang a couple of songs that I barely knew (the selection of American songs is not the largest, lol).  So after norebang, I was thinking that THEN we’d go home, right?  Wrong.  Time for round 3 – rounds of drinks at a bar!  I went along for the ride, but didn’t drink much…but my co-teachers all respect that I don’t like to drink, so they didn’t push it.  I was grateful for that.

Anyway, overall a good last week of September.  Gotta go for now – gotta finish packing for Jinju! 🙂