Things I’ll probably never fully understand in Korea

Things I’ll probably never fully understand in Korea

Now that I’ve been in Korea for longer than 5 minutes there a million things I can do now that I never would have been able to when I first got here. For example, there’s now a system to my washing and drying methods. I am capable of walking what is likely miles and miles in a day without trult feeling it. Most importantly, I can now order food entirely in Korean and even ask for more of something if I want it. That was literally lesson like, 2 for me because I refuse to go hungry because I can’t speak the language.

Still, there are some things during what I’m almost positive will be a two year stint here in Korea that I will always butcher or mess ul because I don’t understand.

1. The Recycling Process

Recycling in Korea is a HUGE deal, and I don’t mean you just put paper and cardboard and plastic all together in a separate trash can and put it out on the curb on Sundays. Here, everything has it’s place. Even at McDonalds there are separate receptacles for your leftover liquid, the paper you used, the lids and straws, cups and then food. I’m not even joking when I say I pause everytime I’m going to throw away fast food trash and I’ve been so often they know my order. Now imagine having to seperate out everything like that but by yourself at home. Its not that I don’t try, but I know people who have been here for years or are still unsure about the whole process. I’ll more than likely be running my recycles across the street in the dead of night forever.

2. “Rules” of the Road

I’m sure there are actual rules to the road in Korea but I have yet to figure out what they are. Watching people drive in Korea is both a fascinating and anxiety riddled experience. It’s like a paradox: I’ve seen cars inexplicably stop in the middle of the road and then skip across 4 lanes of heavy traffic after almost hitting a pedestrian, but I have yet to actually wear a seatbelt in any taxi or bus. Not because I am a fearless warrior who does not fear death, but because it all seems like they’ve got a good system of controlled chaos going on here and if you can’t beat em, join em!

3. Sitting Cross Legged While Eating

When I was a kid I loved sitting on the floor for any period of time. Even now at 22 there are chairs where my feet dangle so anytime I can avoid that embarrassing moment I’m down. However, when eating at traditional restaraunts where you’re expected to sit on the floor, all Koreans sit cross legged with their legs under the table. For someone who hasn’t sat on the floor that way in years it aches after just a few minutes. Whenever I try to sit what I consider comfortably with my knees on the floor and my feet under me, I get lightly teased by whomever I’m with. This way of sitting is considered very formal in Korea so whoever I’m eating with simply wants me to relax. They have no idea how much I feel like every bone in my legs is turning into jello throughout dinner…

4. How close can you get…
…and I dont mean in a familial sense. Back home, personal space is a big thing. You just make people generally uncomfortable when you stand too close. There is no such thing as personal space in Korea. Just when you think you can’t fit one more person on the elevator, 7 more people pile in. Standing in line with someone breathing down your neck? Not uncommon. They’re not being rude, they just dont think that it bothers you. For the most part I dont mind, but I’ll let you know come Summer how comfortable I still am.

5. Curiosity aka The Stare Down

People will stare at you as a foreigner regardless of what kind of foreigner you are. Still, I get paid special attention because I’m darker than the foreigners they show on TV. To say I was uncomfortable with the attention when I first got to Korea is the understatement of the century. It’s been months and I still sometimes find myself shrinking under people’s gazes. What gets me the most though is how, even when you make eye contact, they will continue to look at you no matter whether you greet them or not. Some people are just curious and will look away eventually. Others are merely amused at my sudden appearance. The small few actually look disturbed by my presence, but I dont truly think anyone means any harm as they are all genuinely curious. Still, I’ll probably never leave the house in sweatpants out of sheer respect for the people who are so interested in seeing me.

6. The Genuine Niceness of Complete Strangers.

Let me tell you a quick story that is close to my heart: a couple of weeks ago I took the train for the first time. It was a quick trip, maybe a 45 minute ride from Chungju to Cheongju airport. I got on the train and was seated next to a sleeping ahjumma. A few minutes into the trip she awoke and started speaking to me in Korean. She asked me small questions like my name, where I was from and then, where was I going. I told her the airport and she then told me I looked tired. I laughed and told her I was, so this woman CLEARED OFF A SPACE ON HER LAP and told me to lie down, that she would wake me at my stop. I was super surprised at first, but then I shrugged it off and actually got a good 20 minutes rest on this nice woman’s lap. As promised, when it was time to get up she woke me and then helped me put my backpack and jacket on like a mom sending her kid off to school. When I got off she told me goodbye and I teared up a little knowing I’ll probably never see this woman again. Though this particular story is a tad uncommon, the fact is things like this happen all the time because people are incredibly helpful here.

7. Comments on your appearance
It’s no secret that Koreans are OBSESSED with appearance. There are probably more mirrors here than there are people, and that is not an exaggeration. Because its such a big deal, normally when people first meet you they will comment on your appearance, and really at any point after as well. They dont mean to be rude or negative in any way when they tell you you look tired or like you’ve gained weight, but they want you to know that they see you. They will notice every difference about you as well. One of my co-teachers asked if I wasn’t feeling well one day. I was dressed nicely and was acting relatively normal, normal enough that she was the only one who had commented on it. I asked how she knew. She shrugged and went, “You look thin. Also, you only ate one snack this morning.” I have since tried to cut back on snackage in the morning.

In short, Korea is a marvelous country full of tiny nuances and cultural differences that make it very unique. It’s all these differences that make everyday an adventure, no matter what’s going on.

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