Let me start off by saying that in no way, shape or form am I trying to be a negative Nancy throughout this post. However, there are a few things in Korea which need to be addressed from an expat’s point of view. I figured I would use my blog to inform everyone about the things you will encounter while living or visiting this country. Without further ado, let’s start!
NUMBER 1: TOILETS AND BATHROOMS IN GENERAL
Where do I begin? During my first week in Korea, I had the wonderful opportunity to experience my first squatty potty. That’s right, folks..S-Q-U-A-T-T-Y P-O-T-T-Y. Although my workplace and apartment have Western style toilets, this is not a common luxury. Unless the establishment you are visiting is in a foreigner friendly area, is a department store, shopping mall or airport, chances are that you are going to run into these bad boys:
Scary looking isn’t it? It quite possibly is a clean freaks worst nightmare. Not only is the floor often wet (from what I assume to be urine), but there lies that little white bin, which they actually expect you to touch! Yes, you guessed it. You are supposed to place your used tissue in that mini garbage pail. Where is the toilet paper, you ask? NON EXISTENT! At least that’s what I thought the first time I entered a bathroom like this one. I was forced to use the air dry/shake off technique. I soon discovered that Koreans typically place a single roll of toilet paper outside of the stalls or outside of the bathroom altogether. If you are in a Korean style restaurant, it is also likely you will have to ask for a key to a single stall. At this point, an employee will hand you a toilet paper roll or ask you to tear off the amount you require (but how do will you know how much toilet paper you’ll need!?!?). I’m not sure whether this is done to deter people from using excessive amounts of tissue or whether they just truly believe this method is more efficient than any other. Either way, I am not a fan. But it doesn’t end there. After conquering the bathroom stall battle, you want nothing more than to disinfect your hands. WELL, if you’re lucky, you’ll be greeted with this gem:
My first thought, “how many other people have touched that thing?” Who knew that automatic soap dispensers would be something I would miss dearly. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so to avoid this issue, I carry these around:
That way, I don’t hyperventilate when I see these horrific soap sticks.
Now onto the Korean bathroom in general. The most annoying thing is that when taking a shower, EVERYTHING gets wet – the toilet, the sink, as well as the floor! Currently, my bathroom is Korean style. Luckily, the previous English teacher installed a shower curtain so that only a portion of the bathroom actually gets wet.
Seriously though, who decided on the placement of my shower head!? It’s common practice for me to be raping the sink while I shower. Oh well, I guess it could be worse.
So, while I usually attempt to avoid the squatty potties at all costs (and I’ve done well, thus far) – when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. I advise making sure you’ve got some extra toilet paper and paper soap packs in your purse or pockets. In terms of the Korean style bathrooms, that’s just one thing you have to come to terms with. Sometimes I catch myself wondering what it will feel like to use a fully enclosed, tiled shower stall when I return home.
#2: PERSONAL SPACE
…Or lack thereof.
Koreans do not have any understanding of personal space. Nothing is off limits. Every inch of space surrounding your body is fair game. If you’re standing on the crowded subway, they will be sniffing your hair. If you’re keying in your password at the ATM machine, they will be dry humping you from behind. If you’re sitting at a restaurant, of course, they will choose to sit right next to you. At first, I found this really uncomfortable. Now, 6 months later, I just have to laugh it off.
Here is a prime example caught on camera while I was in Busan a few weeks ago. The owner decided to envelope me while he spoke to the woman NEXT TO ME about menu options. Why was this necessary!?!
#3: GARBAGE CANS
I’ve come to the conclusion that Koreans don’t believe in garbage cans. Good luck trying to throw away your apple core while roaming the streets of Seoul. Finding a garbage can is a real treat. This means, you’re forced to shove your trash back into your purse or hold it until you reach your destination. Yet, on weeknights and weekends, the busy bar and restaurant filled streets are flooded with garbage, club flyers, takeout containers and endless piles of puke. After doing some quick research, I found out that the majority of Korea hire elderly people to clean up in the wee hours of the night. Therefore, everything is usually in order by the time you’re on your way to work the following day. Also and more importantly, that there were terrorist trash bomb threats which originally steered Koreans away from using them.
#4: AGGRESSIVE AJUMMAS
Ajumma (ah – joom – ma) n. – middle aged woman
They tend to travel alone and be sure not to cross their path. They will elbow you out of their way on the street, stomp on you to get that last seat on the subway and roll their carts over your feet if you venture too close. Nevertheless, you are never to disrespect them. There have been a few of them that I have encountered who are quite rude and scary. During my first week in Korea, I had my first traumatic experience with one of them while taking out my garbage. Before work one day, I walked out with my bag filled with a few water bottles, tissues, yogurt containers and whatever else. An irate ajumma approached me, started yelling hysterically and pointing. She ripped the bag out of my hand and pulled out my yogurt containers. I had never been so terrified in my entire life. What had I done wrong? A man was with her, I assumed to be her son. Flustered, I said, “I just moved here. I have no idea what she is saying.” He spoke a bit of English and said, “You need to sort garbage. She says security cameras will catch you and police will come after you.” Let’s just say that ever since then, I started taking my garbage out after midnight.
They are easy to spot. They are short, tough-looking and most often have short, curly permed hair. They are almost always wearing a sun visor, mask, a floral shirt and a windbreaker. Beware of the bitter ajummas!
This being said, there are plenty of ajummas who are very sweet and friendly. I had one offer me a tangerine while I waited for the bus once, and I’ve had more than I can count come up to me, physically squeeze my cheeks and tell me I’m pretty, cute or that I have beautiful big eyes. These women are usually just so curious and excited to see someone who is different. THESE ajummas are not to be compared to those who are hostile and unpleasant.
#5: REPUBLIC OF COFFEE
Korea has an obnoxious obsession with coffee shops. Just when you think a new restaurant is opening up in that empty nook and cranny – THINK AGAIN. You can almost bet that it will be another coffee shop. At the moment, there are approximately eight coffee places within a 5 minute walking distance from my work (Caffe Bene, Ediya Coffee, Dunkin Donuts, Twin Beans, Indigo Blue, Indigo Cafe and two Cafe Terra’s). Ridiculous. Not to mention, coffee here is quite expensive (or at least compared to Tim Horton’s at home). A fancy latte, cappuccino, macchiato or just a simple Americano will usually set you back on average around $4. Yes, it’s totally convenient for those days I need a caffeine boost but how are all of these shops staying in business? Why not open something different to attract customers, with the exception of a fried chicken restaurant. No more of those either.
#6: EXPENSIVE PRODUCE
The main staples found in Korean cuisine consist of ramyeon, rice, kimchi (rotting cabbage) and slabs of grilled meat. This is why, more often than not, I find myself craving a big salad or some fresh fruit. Fortunately enough, tangerines and bananas are usually reasonably priced. In contrast, anything “exotic” will burn a whole through your wallet. Watermelon, pineapple, Asian pears, apples, strawberries, kiwi, mango and cantaloupe prices are all through the roof and can cost you upwards of almost $30. Don’t get me wrong, if you spend the money, you will get perfectly polished red apples, a dozen perfectly plump strawberries or a set of massive, juicy pears. Nevertheless, to avoid high prices, I usually buy my produce from the smaller street markets and vendors. They still taste just as good and I don’t feel so guilty if I don’t end up eating everything before it spoils. Also, when fruits are in season, they are cheaper as there is an abundance of them.
During my first grocery shopping experience, my jaw dropped when I saw the price of a watermelon (I had to take a picture). At that moment, I was glad I had savored that slice of watermelon on my flight to Korea.
Well, there you have it! You can’t say you weren’t warned. Don’t let this sway your opinion about Korea though. This was meant to be an entertaining analysis of the strange things I have noticed while living here thus far. There’s no doubt that there are benefits and hidden perks to living here as well, which I’ll be sure to discuss next time around. Until then, have a good rest of the week!