In a previous post, I discussed certain aspects of culture shock that I experienced when coming to Korea. But in retrospect, I think those examples came from observations made over a longer period of time and they don’t really get at the immediate experience of adjusting to life in a new country. So in this entry, I’d like to recreate some of the tiny, unexpected things that made my daily routine jarring and unfamiliar right from the start.
If you’ve lived in one country for most of your life, you have a pretty good idea of how houses work. Even when you go over to a friend’s house for the first time, you have a general sense of where to find things and how to operate the facilities just based on collective experience and intuition. But when I walked into my Korean apartment for the first time, I was starting with a clean slate.
The key to the front door was a shape I’d never seen before.
I couldn’t get the stove to light because I didn’t know about the valve that turns the gas on and off.
I didn’t know how to operate the air conditioning unit. Instead of central air, most Korean buildings use individual wall units in each bedroom (but often not in common areas, like kitchens). Most wall units are adjusted by remote control, but mine was long gone.
Before I could use the hot water heater, I needed to use Google Translate to decode all of the buttons. Even still, it took months before I fully understood how to use the boiler properly. Korea uses a heating system in the floor called ondol (온돌) which has a very long history, stretching back almost 3,000 years. The wall thermostat that controlled the hot water also controlled the heated floors, so there was a steep learning curve. One time I accidentally left the hot water heater on too long and while I was at work, it switched over to room heating. Almost boiled myself when I came home to an apartment that had reached 40 degrees celcius.
Using the washing machine was also a new challenge. For awhile, I had post-it notes stuck to the machine to help me remember which buttons controlled which settings.
One thing that would be a shock to most Americans is the shower. Korean apartments and hotel rooms have what is called a “wet bathroom” as opposed to the western “dry bathroom.” This means that rather than having a shower stall that is separate from the sink and toilet area, the entire room becomes the shower, with a large drain in the center of the floor. In fact, the showerhead is often attached to the wall directly over the sink, and you have to flip a switch to redirect the water supply from the sink faucet to the shower hose. God forbid you forget to switch it back after you finish your shower… There were a few times when I went to brush my teeth and accidently blasted the top of my head.
On the second night in my new apartment, I discovered that houseware shopping was a a challenge, too. Top sheets are pretty much impossible to find. Koreans also don’t use bath towels. Instead, they use tiny little hand towels to dry off after a shower, which still confuses me after almost four years of living here, and nobody uses hand towels to dry their hands. That drives me crazy because I HATE walking around with wet hands after I wash them.
Another thing that has caused me unending frustrations are brooms. Instead of having a long handle that lets you stand comfortably while sweeping, most broom handles in Korea are no longer than 18 inches, so you have to stoop over like a little old woman just the clean the floors. Why? WHY.
Eating at a restaurant in Korea can be very intimidating, and not just because of the food itself. The rules of ordering and paying are a bit different than in America.
Most restaurants have self-seating unless there’s a wait. Since many places are quite small, there may only be one or two servers for the whole establishment, and there’s no assigned sections.
The thing that is difficult for a lot of Americans, including myself, is that you have to call the server over to the table. It’s normal to shout across the room to summon the server or even just to yell the order at them where they stand. Some places have buttons on the table, which is nice if you’re shy. But unlike in American restaurants, you can’t just wait and expect that someone will eventually come to you.
Things like water and side dishes are usually self-service. Chopsticks, spoons, and cups are already on the table. Fast food restaurants and ramen shops are replacing cashiers with touch screen ordering systems.
Korean meals are traditionally communal, with meat and side dishes intended to be shared, so some restaurants won’t allow customers to dine alone. For barbecue pork and beef, you need at least two people to get a table and you have to order at least two servings of meat. However, as more and more people are dining alone, new restaurants have started popping up to cater to solo customers.
Ordering take-out is common, but getting your leftover food “to go” is not. Either eat all of your food at the restaurant, or just leave it behind.
Instead of having the bill brought to the table, you simply pay at the register before leaving. Since the restaurant is small and menu options are often limited, the server can easily remember what you ordered. And Korea doesn’t have a tipping culture, so paying for your meal is no fuss.
One thing that’s frustrating to me and my friends is that it can be difficult to “grab a drink” at a bar in the American sense. Korean drinking culture is very structured around eating, so many pubs require customers to order food with their alcohol.
Like eating, drinking alcohol is also communal. When Koreans go out as a group, there are usually different “rounds” throughout the night. The first round is dinner. Beer is served with dinner in large bottles that are meant to be shared among the group rather than enjoyed individually. Soju bottles are also passed around. The second round takes place in a pub, where everyone orders more food, even though we just finished dinner. This food is called anju (안주), the Korean equivalent of bar food. The third round often means going to a karaoke bar, and yes, there will be even more anju with drinks.
So finding a bar where you can just enjoy your beer or cocktail can be a little more challenging, especially if you aren’t in a trendy area. Neighborhoods like Itaewon or Hongdae that have more western-owned or influenced businesses might have more choices. Craft beer bars and brewpubs are a bit more forgiving if you’re not ordering food. The “self bar” is also a good option and an ingenious concept. The self bar (often called a “beer warehouse” or 맥주창고) has giant coolers stocked with a variety of beers both domestic and imported. Prices are posted on the refrigerator doors and customers can just grab bottles and chilled glasses to enjoy at their tables. When it’s time to leave, you present your empty bottles to the cashier and pay your total.
And if you reallllllly want to keep your drinking casual, you can go to the local 7-11. In America, drinking beer in front of the convenience store might get you arrested for loitering, but in Korea, it’s a good time for all. Many convenience stores have picnic tables outside where people can enjoy their snacks, beer, and soju. In fact, some stores are the hottest places in the neighborhood for hanging out with friends and meeting new people.
The good news for Americans is that Korea has mostly adopted western-style toilets instead of the traditional squatty potties that cause anxiety for tourists. Some older buildings still have the old style toilets, and older subway station bathrooms are half and half.
Public bathrooms are thankfully abundant in subway stations, public parks, and any large building with a public entrance. But there are a few things to watch out for, especially when using bathrooms that are shared by multiple businesses.
Many places don’t stock toilet paper in the bathrooms, either for fear of theft, lack of regular maintenance, or an attempt to discourage non-customers from using the facilities. Some bathrooms have a communal toilet paper dispenser outside the stalls, to guarantee equal distribution, rather than having some stalls run out of paper faster than others.
Other restrooms may forgo toilet paper altogether. In this case, it’s the responsibility of individual businesses to provide toilet paper Let’s say you are eating at a restaurant and need to go to the bathroom. The restaurant has a roll of toilet paper next to the exit and you should take some with you when you go out. It’s important to pay attention to these things so you don’t find yourself stranded on the toilet with no paper.
A lot of these public toilets don’t have soap and they definitely don’t have paper towels. And even if there is an electric hand dryer, it’s usually disconnected or blows freezing cold air.
I recommend hand sanitizer.