Published: May 26th 2012March 5th 2012
After twelve months in Korea, a list has been written. Observations on everything. All are sweeping generalisations, and there are exceptions to every single one. But. . . .
There are no bins on the streets. There is no litter on the streets. I have no idea where it goes.
Koreans hate Japan. They hate China. They hate North Korea. They love the idea of America, but aren't quite sure why.
Long hours are worked. After the Korean War, the people were desperate to rebuild the country from the ruins that it was. So they worked ridiculously hard. South Korea became successful, but the work ethic never changed. Kids go to school until 10p.m.
Koreans don't tend to holiday outside of Korea.
Old people can be shockingly cantankerous. It's not unusual to be hit by an elderly person on the street for no apparent reason.
In a restaurant, everyone shouts "yeogiyo!" at the staff: it means "here!" (As in "come here now.") There's no word for "please" (the closest is "juseyo" which means "give me"). There's also no literal translation for "sorry"; which is handy, because. . .
. . .Koreans can't queue. Won't
queue. No such thing as a queue anywhere. The most forceful bird gets the worm. On platforms, orderly lines are formed. Then when the bus or train comes, aggressive shoving and pushing ensues. Tiny, ancient women are the scariest.
Koreans are constantly brushing their teeth. They do it everywhere. The teachers at work scrub away four or five times a day while wandering around the school; the guy who owns the gym does it behind the counter; there is always someone at it in public toilets, behind counters in shops, pharmacies, everywhere.
They love recycling.
The children can be precocious. They can't deal with a tiny scratch or graze, or an insect in the room. But they will come to school with a heavy cold. To learn and to pass the germs on.
The birth rate is low so there are lots of only children. Parents are obsessed with their children succeeding, so they only have one or two to ensure that they have enough money to send them to academies (science, maths, Korean, English) music lessons and taekwando.
They're not big fans of seat belts. Korean children as young as six get their hair
permed, chemically straightened and coloured. They eat kimchi for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast: kimchi, rice, soup. Lunch: kimchi, rice soup, maybe some fish. Dinner: kimchi, rice, meat. The younger children stare in disbelief when told that people don't eat kimchi in other countries. When Koreans go on holidays, they invariably find kimchi, or take some with them.
Korean women generally wear heels. Every day, everywhere, every time of the day.
TV is shite.
There are no bath towels in Korea. They use tiny thin ones (exactly like tea towels) to dry themselves.
They use bank cards more often than cash. It's completely acceptable to pay for a 1000 won (60 cent) bottle of water with a card.
There are no illegal drugs in Korea. None. They just don't seem to exist.
Soju is a Korean drink. Jinro Soju is the most popular brand. Jinro is the top seller of spirits in the entire world. In South Korea, almost two billion bottles of the stuff is drank every single month.
Mobile phones work on the subway. Handy, since everyone is plugged in and silent.
When a baby is born, there is a
period of 100 days in which nobody sees it. Well, it depends on the family. In some, only the parents and grandparents see it. In others, it's the extended family and friends. Once the baby has reached 100 days old, they have a big party that's similar to a christening. This tradition evolved in the past when infant mortality was high, and parents wanted to make sure the child was healthy and could survive its first few months.
Family is an obsession. It's one of the many things that has come down from the Confucian principles that everyone used to live by. When children are asked where they've been recently, the standard answer is "my grandmother's house." The family is organised in a hierarchy; the wife of the eldest uncle is called "big aunt." She cooks for everyone and gives all of her neices and nephews money and presents.
They're very proud of their country and their culture. If you meet a Korean, they will ask two questions: "Where are you from?" and "Do you like Korea?"
Koreans are not terribly welcoming of, or excited about, foreigners in Korea. They've always been a very self-contained people. The
older generation in particular can be quite dismissive of non-Koreans. I read a quote from a European in the 1800s who met Koreans: "these strangely-coated people, so proud, so thoroughly uninterested in strangers, so exclusive, so content to go their own way." Still true today.
So. Koreans are quite conservative, and very set in the Korean way. This appears to be partly a result of their insular national identity, and partly because of the Confucian traditions and principles that have moulded into the Korean psyche. Hierachy, family, modesty, conservatism, and most importantly of all, frugality with praise.