Let someone meet your standard instead of you lowering yours to meet theirs all the time. Know your worth. – Author Unknown
Since I’ve been in South Korea for just over two-weeks, there have been an array of interesting cultural customs and facts about the country that I was born in, yet is still foreign to me that I’ve learned and experienced. Some things that people have asked that I can answer quickly or give some insight on: The style of clothing is certainly cutting edge fashion and stylish, quite outside my backpacking clothing repertoire. Men, it is fitted everything from jeans to shirts and suits and for women, it is what you would expect for any major city; dresses, stillettos, big brand names, etc. Handing something to somone is always done with the right hand while your left hand is on your right bicept, while receiving an item you typically receive with your right hand or both hands extended. Never place both chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice, this signifies that you would like them to die. Politeness is as expected with Asian culture in general and Korea is no different. Unlike the subways in Rome, Paris, or NYC (where I’ve actually heard New Yorkers yell at people, “left foot, right foot it’s called walking, move it!”) the experience I’ve had in Seoul is that they are much more polite, standing and waiting in ques and exiting up the escalators or stairs with a semblance of order. Lastly, I cannot rave enough about the food! Incredible. Unbelievable. Scrum-diddly-umptious. Are there enough adjective in the English language? I doubt I can return to the States or any other Korean BBQ restaurant where my palatte will feel satisfied. I’ve heard the same from Ray after having authentic sushi in Japan. He said even eating at some of the most expensive and top rated restaurants from San Francisco to New York, it was still a disappointment. Ahh, first world problems. I am excited to try sannakji, which is small live octopus or nakji (낙지) probably some time next week sharing this delicacy with a few others since it can be quite expensive (₩ 30,000 or $28 or more). Well I’m sure more interesting and humorous facts will emerge as I am still in Korea for a little more than two weeks, but let’s get to the (drum roll purr-ease) 10 interesting facts, I find, about Korea thus far:
As you may expect, there is still a high respect for the elderly (bowing relatively low upon meeting an older person as a sign of respect). During meals it is typically customary that the eldest person never waits to have their glass filled or to be handed their chop sticks or napkin, but at the same time if you are in a group you are never are to fill your own glass but always wait for another to do this. Last year in April of 2013 Bill Gates came to Korea to meet the President and there was a photo of him with his hand in his pants pocket during this meeting and this is seen as very disrepectful, even outside of meeting a prominent person. I asked, since the weather is cold if placing your hands in your jacket pocket is viewed the same, and was told no, but hands in your pants pocket upon meeting another person is a social faux paux. And there was an uproar on the Internet as many Koreans voiced their opinions of this greeting, especially since it was female President Park Geun-hye, and apparently a few years before he did not do this gesture when meeting the former male President. (Photo is © of AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
While most Americans understand the social courtesy of giving up your seat for the elderly, handicapped, pregant mothers, or mothers with small children, there is an unspoken rule of the subway that I did not realize. On all of the subway cars there is a maroon section of seats, which is reserved for the elderly. Ingnorant of this unspoken rule, before I was told about it I would often sit down in this area because there was an open seat. I never realized that I was being scolded by the looks of other elderly people sitting around me, and while looking like your typical Korean that should know this custom, it was something I learned through being told by another local. Important! Also the subway stops running at midnight on the weekdays and actually stops around 11:30pm on Friday and Saturdays, so if you find yourself standing at a station late at night, you are out of luck, but thankfully taxis are inexpensive in Seoul. Also if you have a T-money transit card and you use to for say taking the bus to the subway station the transfer if free. There is about a 30-minute window to do this, but you will notice there is no additional charge for this transfer.
While taekwondo is the national sport of the country, baseball was introduced in the 20th Century by missionaries and has become extremely popular. I realized this when two CouchSurfing hosts Kakao’d me asking if I would be interesting in spending some money to go to one of the playoff games one weekend. In the States we have the World Series (of Fall Classic) and in Seoul you have the Korea Baseball Championship 한국야구선수권대회 which also occurs in the Fall. Unfortunately the 70,000 capicity stadium sold-out of tickets within 17-minutes and we were unable to acquire tickets. Unlike Major League Baseball (MLB) teams are not named after cities but after corportations, for example you have: the Samsung Lions, the Haitai Tigers, and the previous Hyundai Unicorns, which are now the Nexen Heroes. Since, Ich bin ein einhorn (German) I certainly would have been a fan of team Hyundai, I can already hear my German and Swiss-German friends laughing at this now. (Photo is © of Hyundai Group)
When you are born in South Korea, at the time of your birth you are considered to already be a year old, which for many women in the States, this would be a dreadful horrible thing.
Crime, specifically liberal crimes (i.e. rape and murder), in South Korea is an experience that forces the accused to participate in public humilation rituals which begin with the police incarcerating the invidual and making them go through the entire process of their crime. To add further humiliation, the media is often invited along to document the events. Those that have seen films such as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance or Mother, are not unfamiliar with this practice. The most infamous example of this is the story of a comic book store owner, Jeong Won-seob, which was accused of raping and murdering a schoolgirl in 1972. (Photo is © of Korean Joongang Daily News)
This is not nearly the hidden-secret from travelers since it’s been occuring since 1998 and draws millions of people from all over the world, and probably brings in the largest number of international visitors specifically for this event, which generally occurs in July. Last year (2012) an estimated three million people participated in the diving, throwing, slipping, and stomping in the gray clay that is shipped from the Boryeong flats to the Daecheon Beach area. The event was originally created as a way to advertise mud cosmetics, but now has become just a great excuse to play in the mud. (Photo is © of SacBee.com)
Unlike the States where Valentine’s day puts all of the pressure on the men to create the most romantic day, in South Korea the pressure is on the women and all about pampering the men. The Catch-22, however, is on March 14th (White Day) the role is reversed and men are expected to spend up to three times the amount on the gift they have received on Valentine’s Day, which is typically white in color. Looks like Hallmark knows how to capitalize on both sexes within a two month period. Also, on the 14th day of every single month there is a holiday in South Korea, click here, for the list and a brief description. (Photo is © of Jewon Lee)
The Yoido Full Gospel Church may not be the largest church in physical size, statistically it is the largest congregation in the world with close to one-million members, and any given Sunday there can be upwards of 200,000 faithful attendees at the service, not including the several hundreds of thousands watching the sermon live on television. According to Wikipedia, five of the ten largest Protestant churches (Megachurches) were in South Korea. (Photo is © of JSC)
The College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) abbreviated as Suneung (수능) is given every November and is highly stressful for high school students. The score that is calculated is said to determine the individual’s entire professional life because it determines, which University you may get accepted to (Seoul National being the most coveted apparently), as well as the career path and generated level of success for the person. This year the test is set to take place on November 7, 2013. Once the test is administered during the verbal section of the test (roughly 20-minutes) all air traffic (commerical and military) will be brought to a screeching hault. If there are surrounding or shared middle or elementary schools nearby a highschool often classes are canceled on the day this annual exam is given. And to show how stressful and serious they take this, if it weren’t enough that air traffic and even emergency vehicles attempt not to use sirens during this period wasn’t enough, if you are a student and running late to your school you can actually flag down a police car and they will drive you hastily to get you to your destination to take the test. Even some business will have delayed starts in the morning in order to cause less congestion on the public transportation system. (Photo is © of Newsis)
South Korea is the only nation in the world that is completely broadband connected, at speeds of 100Mb. Tech giants, LG and Samsung, have their origins in the country and working for either typically guarantees a very comfortable lifestyle. Also from personal experience, unlike all of the other major cities that I have traveled to, I have never been able to walk down public streets, block after block for miles, and continue to pick up free Wi-Fi, which as a backpacker and frugal budget traveler I try not to purchase pre-paid SIM cards. Plus, once again since everyone in South Korea uses the free mobile app Kakao to communicate this makes for a huge convenience to me. Smartphone usage is also taken to an entirely new level in Seoul. People often barely look up, whether it's walking down the street, on the subway, at dinner, etc a permanent fixture of looking down playing games or using social media. (Photo is © of Samsung Group)
Did you know that South Korea is in the top five worldwide for cosmetic surgery? One in five women in Seoul have had some type of procedure done and one of the most popular that I was unaware of blepharoplasty, also known as "double eyelid surgery" and can be done for as cheap as $400. Men are not exempt from this category, whether it be surgery or purchasing cosmetics. Apparently men spend on average $900 million a year on a variety of facial cleansers, anti-ageing moisturizes, eye creams, and skin-whitening or bleaching creams. Yes, the lighter your skin, the more prominent person you are in Korean society. This seems to be a reverse ideal from what it used to be in the States–meaning those that were more pale in color were of higher ranking in society, while the more tan or darker you were signified that you work outside doing a lower-class manual labor job and over time now it signifies the darker or more tan you are is not only more attractive but typically shows that you have more leisure time to enjoy lounging around the pool.
Since yesterday was quite the surreal experience with meeting my birth mother for the first time, the actual flood of emotions didn’t hit me until later last night as I was alone in bed and just brokedown. It was something that I have dreamt about and I could have never guessed that our first meeting would have gone as well as it did. Still thinking back to leaving her at the subway station and having her watching me walk away and looking back about halfway down the block and she was still standing in the exact spot, watching my every step and as she saw me turn back she was there with the biggest smile on her face waving at me–this still gets to me. And after posting the blog about the experience I cannot be thankful and feel blessed by all of the incredible support from family and friends that left such encouraging comments. So again thank you all!
I will say that since my backpacking lifestyle has been a very open lifestyle with a lack of any specific daily or weekly plans at time, this is certainly a drastic change and has been the most structured itinerary I have had to deal with in almost 2-years, but regardless it still has been amazing to be surrounded by other Korean adoptees and to be in a place where we feel a connection to our heritage has been wonderful. Knowing and discussing that we are no longer the minority, and not described as the 'short asian girl' or the 'asian whatever' feels nice, and we all feel that those that have never felt like a minority, could certainly benefit from undergoing what it feels like to be constantly stared at and even asked ridiculous questions, which will be brought up in a future post. Until then, rets just have a rearry good time!