Whenever I’m in a different country, I love learning about the culture. This includes the cool and quirky things about the country and traditions or customs. I spoke on a few of these in my presentation a week and a half ago, but to wrap up my month of speaking on all things South Korea, here are 10 unique things to know about South Korea if you’re going to travel or live there.
Like other Asian cultures, bowing has a huge part when it comes to greetings (saying hello or goodbye) and showing respect (especially thanking someone). A simple bow when saying “hi” or “bye” usually suffices, and even sometimes a tilt of the head. For more important meetings – such as when I met the principals of schools I taught at – a longer and deeper bow is called for.
2. Couple Culture
The couple culture in Korea is one of the things I hate to love! From head-to-toe matching to numerous couple holidays and over-the-top gestures, it can be a bit overwhelming.
One of the most notable holidays is Christmas. Not a day to spend with family like I’m used to in the USA, it is a big day for couples. Many restaurants even have special menus or setups just for couples on Christmas.
Every 14th day of the month is an official or unofficial couple holiday, but here are some of the most important to note:
- February 14th and March 14th – Valentine’s Day is a bit different in South Korea. On this day, only the women are expected to spoil their guys with gifts and treats. A month later on White Day is when the tables are turned and guys shower their gals with gifts and/or big gestures.
- April 14th – Black Day is NOT for couples, but a day for singles! You might find those without a significant other dressing up in black attire on this day and heading out to eat jjajangmyeon (black noodles). They’ll celebrate or commiserate with other fellow single friends.
When it comes to anniversaries, instead of month-a-versaries, 100 days is a milestone to celebrate amongst the younger generation. And instead of a one-year anniversary, a couple might celebrate their 500 days.
On any of these holidays, couples might also exchange couple rings which are very popular in the couple culture.
3. PC bang / PC 방
In Korean, 방 “bang” means “room.” When you walk into a PC bang, you might think it’s just an internet cafe. However, a PC bang is designed for gaming. Pay an hourly fee and you can play multiplayer games such as the ever popular Overwatch and League of Legends for as long as your heart desires.
Usually open 24-hours and for all ages, it’s not uncommon to find many younger South Koreans at a PC bang – my middle and high school students used to frequent the one on the main road in our town during my first year of teaching.
4. Noraebang / 노래방
If you enjoy singing karaoke, going to a noraebang 노래방 is for you! Unlike karaoke in the United States where it is often in front of a public crowd, you’ll find private singing rooms at a noraebang. Just like a PC bang, rates are hourly and these places are normally open 24-hours. Heading to a noraebang with friends is a fun way to spend the evening after dinner, drinks, or even clubbing!
5. Jjimjilbang / 찜질방
Going to the jjimjilbang – a Korean spa – is a staple of the lifestyle in South Korea. Families make a day of it, couples will have jjimjilbang dates, and friends will just go there to hang out. If you’re in Seoul, Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan is a popular place for foreigners.
You’ll start out in the gender-segregated bath areas where everyone is walking around stark naked. Here you can also get different services such as a body scrub – I HIGHLY RECOMMEND. My first time getting scrubbed by a half naked ajumma (Korean for a married or middle-aged lady) dressed in black lingerie was a little awkward, but I’ve never felt so clean! They are on a mission with getting all those dead skin cells off your body; seriously, it felt like they were trying to scrub my tattoos off!
Outside of the gender-segregated areas you’ll find saunas, sleeping/hanging out areas, a restaurant area, and in some of the bigger jjimjilbangs some extras such as game areas, a PC bang, or even a pool!
6. Aegyo / 애교
If you watch K-dramas or know of the Japanese concept of kawaii, you might already be familiar with aegyo. Simply put, it is a way to display affection in a cute manner. This might be in a cute/baby voice (higher pitched than normal and dragging out words) or facial expressions.
Normal when it comes to flirting, it’s also not uncommon for aegyo to be used with friends, family, or others. I used to use it with certain words (mostly saying “hello” or “thank you”) and some of the ajummas always found it so cute!
7. Elective Surgery Tourism
Elective surgery is a standard in Korean culture, even in younger Koreans. One of my high school students told me she got plastic surgery for her CALVES when she was 16 because she didn’t like the way they looked. Her parents gifted it to her for her birthday. Yup, I know what you’re thinking; I was shocked too!
Because it’s so affordable, tourists often travel to South Korea for this sole purpose, so it is not unusual to see people walking around with bandaged up faces especially in the Gangnam and Myeong-dong areas of Seoul. LASIK/LASEK surgery is also a popular surgery that tourists or foreigners living there decide to get.
8. Public Outdoor Gyms
If you walk through any park in South Korea, you’ll see exercise equipment that is open for anyone to use. You’ll mostly see ajummas and ahjussis 아저씨 (middle-aged/older Korean men) using the equipment on a daily basis. There’s an array of equipment to use – most of it using your body weight – and it’s a great way to stay active for free!
9. Shoe Changing
When I worked a corporate job in the USA, the shoes I wore to work were taken into account for my daily outfits. When I started teaching in South Korea, that quickly changed. Just as you would remove your shoes upon entering your home in many Asian households, students and teachers alike do this at school and change into their indoor shoes, so my day was spent mostly in slippers.
This doesn’t only happen at home or at school, but can happen at restaurants too – likely when seating is on the floor.
10. Service / 서비스
One of my favorite things about South Korea is their desire to truly keep customers happy. One way they do this is 서비스 “service” which is literally giving away stuff for free. This happens often in restaurants (especially BBQ restaurants), but can also happen in stores. You might see a cereal bowl taped to a box of cereal or a couple of extra yogurts taped to a whole pack.
How do you get service? Sometimes it can be the number of people you’re with – e.g. a free soda for a party of 4 or more. Other times, that aegyo comes in handy or you might even get it just because you’re a foreigner and the owner is happy to see you – both have definitely happened to me and my friends!
There’s obviously more I could talk about, but I’ll save them for another time. Of these 10 things, which one did you find most interesting? I’d love to hear from you!
With wanderlust and ‘til next time,