7 shocking things you absolutely must know before visiting Korea
Visiting another country or living abroad can be the experience of a lifetime, however, no matter how much you are in love with a country, there are bound to be things that might take some getting use to. Here are 7 things that you may encounter during your stay in Korea that might surprise, shock, or perhaps even disturb you!
1. Public displays of affection?
Every culture has its own definition of “personal space” accompanied by various rules, etiquettes, and customs meant to define those boundaries. South Korea is, of course, no exception, however, if you come from a place where casual physical contact is a cultural faux pas, or if you just prefer to guard your own personal space judiciously, this one will definitely take some getting use to! It is not uncommon in Korea to find people hand in hand (or even arm in arm) walking, shopping, and even relaxing. Now I know you might be thinking that this is natural for couples out on a date, but the majority of such public displays of affection are commonly found between same sex friends showing off their platonic fondness for each other. Both Korean women and men, of varying ages (although more common in youth) are not afraid to show off some psychical bonding when out with friends and having a good time. So if your new Korean bff throws an arm around you while you are looking for a place to eat, it might just be the start of a great friendship and not an attempt at harassment.
2. Sharing is caring?
As many of you may already know, food in Korea is a very communal activity. With all those amazing side dishes laid out, when the main dish arrives on a single steaming large plate or a bubbling pot, many visitors’ first instinct will be to reach for the serving spoon. However, don’t be dismayed if you cannot find one! More often than not, Korean food is meant to be shared with all those present at the table, and, yes, with the very spoons and chopsticks that will be put in your mouth. I know that all of you who have been taught never to double dip just cringed, but dipping the same utensils you use to eat over and over into the same soup or dish everyone is having is the cultural norm in Korea! If you really can’t stand the thought of sharing more than food with those sitting next to you, you can always ask for a bowl or plate to serve yourself before everyone else digs in.
3. Am I in the wrong bathroom?
In Korea, most public restrooms have designated janitors, which almost always seems to be an ahjuma (older woman). This can be quite distressful for some (especially men) who are trying to take care of business when seemingly out of nowhere a woman with a mop casually walks in and begins to clean. While this might shock you the first time it happens, these nice ladies are just doing their job! Oh, and ladies, have no fear, you won’t find men cleaning your restrooms!
4. To squat…or not to squat…
If camping has been your worst nightmare because of, well, the saying “squatting in the woods,” this next one might be visiting you in your dreams. While most restrooms in major cities and tourist destinations have been updated to feature Western amenities, it is not rare to come across more traditional facilities of the squatting variety when traveling around Korea. If you have never used one of these before, it really is just as it sounds, but sometimes you might be lucky and find an educational image to guide you in its correct usage.
5. How long is long enough?
In some bathrooms in Korea you will find that there is no toilet paper in the stalls. You might frantically search around while wondering how people could go to the bathroom without it. Shock will likely change to horror, if in your panic state you manage to recall that you passed by something that resembled a toilet paper dispenser outside of the stalls, especially if you didn’t realize this until after business was taken care of. While more common outside of the city, many bathrooms have the toilet paper set up outside (usually by the entrance) so that people can grab their share before entering the stalls. You might be wondering, "what if I need more?" Many Koreans carry around some tissue paper with them just for this reason! Plus, there is no guarantee that the toilet paper roll was replaced in time for your visit! As they say, it’s better to be prepared than caught with your pants down.
6.Throw out what? Where?!
This one follows very closely on the heels of #5. Now that you have finished what you came to do and you even remembered your toilet paper, what do you do next? The answer is seemingly simple, right? No. In Korea, it is not rare to come across signs forbidding, or even pleading, visitors not to flush down the toilet paper! You might be confused and wondering, “wasn’t toilet paper made specifically to be flushed down the toilet?” However, while most new restrooms have been made to handle what has now come to be common practice, some older pipes in Korea are not equipped to handle the additional load. In such restrooms, you will likely find a sign instructing you to throw out the used paper in the trashcan next to you. I know that some of you might ignore such signage and flush away, but do so at your own risk. You might end up with a bigger mess than a wastebasket full of used paper!
7. Soap on a stick?
When you thought that nothing about a Korean bathroom would shock you anymore, here comes #7! Soap and bathrooms are a seemingly straight forward combination, right? Well, while most of us are used to seeing liquid soap dispensers on the wall, or even the occasional bar of soap by the sink in public restrooms, Korea presents the hybrid: a bar of soap on a stick coming out of the wall! While this creation itself is enough to surprise many a bathroom goer, some bathrooms in Korea don’t stock soap at all. Once again, this is something many Koreans carry with them. Dry soap sheets can be found easily all over Korea and is an item you should make sure to always have with you just in case!
Which one of these shocking facts do you think you would have the hardest time getting use to? Have you personally run across anything in Korea that shocked you?