Korea is a truly fascinating country, and I defy anyone to spend time here and not fall in love with it. However, there are some little quirks and oddities that even after 15 months I still struggle to get my head around. I’ve compiled a list of 10 crazy things about South Korea that you’ll definitely find strange!
1. The road rules
Or perhaps, the lack of road rules would be better. Red lights, pedestrian crossings, and giving way seem to mean nothing here. Scooters, motorbikes and sometimes even cars, freely drive along the pavement beeping at you for being in their way. As for parking, the general rule seems to be that anywhere is fair game if you can fit your car there. And there’s this strange rule that means you can turn right at a crossing, regardless of the light being green or red, which has resulted in more than a few near misses.
2. The lack of queues
Yeah, yeah, I’m a Brit, and all Brits love queueing, I’ve heard it all before, but seriously Korea, learn to wait your turn. Koreans seem to have this bizarre and frustrating idea that if they only have one thing in their basket or they just want to buy a packet of cigarettes, but you have several things to pay for, they can cut in front. Ajummas (see point 7) are the worst for this.
3. Koreans have an incredible ability to fall asleep anywhere
With or without the help of several bottles of soju. Businessmen kicking off their shoes and settling down on a park bench for a cheeky power nap, builders having a kip in the middle of a building site, falling asleep on the subway yet somehow always waking up in time for their stop, and in class, hopefully not a reflection on my teaching. Koreans have perhaps the longest working hours in the world, and many of my students only get 4 or 5 hours sleep a night, so it’s not really surprising that they need some downtime.
4. Koreans have superstitions
Every culture has their own superstitions, and Korea’s are no stranger than our fear of black cats, broken mirrors and walking under ladders. For example, the number 4 is considered unlucky here as the words for ‘death’ and ‘four’ have the same pronunciation in Korean. When you get in a lift the button for the fourth floor will often be F, instead of 4, or sometimes skipped altogether, and you should never give sets of 4 as a gift. Writing someone’s name in red is also reserved for the dead, which has on more than one occasion led to a slow-motion style ‘nooooooo’ from the kids as they dive to take the pen out of my hand. And then there’s fan death, the widely held belief that sleeping in a room with a fan on overnight will kill you. There are several theories behind this one, but the most common one is that the blades of the fan will chop up the air molecules making them un-breathable. No, really.
5. What’s my age again?
Along with several other East Asian countries, Korea uses a different way of age reckoning than the Western world, meaning that your ‘Korean age’ will be either one or two years (depending on what month you were born in) older than your ‘Western age’. Babies start life at one, as you are considered to be one in your first year of life, two in your second year of life, three in your third year of life and so on. However, in Korea, everyone ages up on the Lunar New Year (Seollal) in February, and not on their actual birthday. For example, a baby born in January would be one year old when they were born, and would then turn two on Seollal in February, even though they would only be a few days old according to the Western system. This system is used in everyday life in Korea, although the legal system uses the Western reckoning. Confusing I know.
6. Writing and reading the date
While American English uses the month-day-year format, and British English uses the day-month-year format, Koreans usually (depending on their education) go for year-month-day. So 10/9/12 could be October 9th 2012, September 10th 2012, or September 12th 2010. Frankly, it’s anyone’s guess and it makes sell-by dates an absolute nightmare.
That one word is enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned expat. Kitted out in clashing animal prints, more diamanté than the entire cast of TOWIE, and of course, the obligatory visors atop their standard-issue perm, this army of elderly women that roam the streets of Korea is a force to be reckoned with. They will push, jostle and elbow their way to the front of the queue or to get on the bus first. Although they are painfully slow when walking down the street, don’t be fooled, as soon as that subway seat becomes free they pounce. The last thing you want is to invoke the wrath of an ajumma. Do not mess with them.
This bizarre, and slightly disturbing game is unfortunately very popular among Korean kids at the moment. Where they learned it, and why no one stops them is completely beyond me. The ‘game’ involves the kids putting their fingers together like a gun, waiting for the opportune moment before jamming their fingers up your bum shouting DONGCHIP! You have been warned.
9. Magic buildings
Coming from the land of the eternal tea-break, the rate that buildings appear and disappear in Korea is nothing short of astonishing. One week you’ll walk past a hairdressers, and the next week it’s a fully refurbished restaurant. It’s like living in some kind of time-warp.
The national obsession with kimchi. I mean seriously, it’s fermented cabbage.