First Impressions in South Korea

It’s been AGES since I last wrote…  but I think that just goes to show how busy I’ve been here in South Korea.  I barely have had any time to sort through my photos & postings I wanted to do from Tokyo and here I am now, smiling about how fun Korea has been.  For starters, I’ve been lucky enough to make a few local Korean friends and that’s made a big difference in how I’ve come to really enjoy living here.

But I have to say that after Japan coming to Korea gave me a bit of a culture shock.  My overall first impression was that Koreans are louder- maybe it’s the Korean language itself, just like how I’ve always felt (admittedly out of my own ignorance) that when people speak Cantonese they seem to be angry or shouting.  Well, from my observations so far I can say that Koreans are a loud bunch and they talk a lot.  Especially the middle aged ladies.  But in general, no one hesitates to talk on their mobiles in public, whether they’re on the bus, subways, or even in elevators.  Japanese people would never even dream of doing such a thing.  If they do get a call, they lower their heads, cover the mouth piece with their hands and get off the phone as quickly as possible.  In Korea they do just the opposite.  First, they ALWAYS answer their mobile (I have learned that NOT answering your phone is considered rude and the other party gets offended if you don’t pick up), they carry on with their normal conversations as if they’re at home even though they’re in public; they laugh, they scold their children, and I’ve even heard people conduct business (loudly) in the confines of a subway car.  I guess that’s why practically everyone has their headsets on (most of them are watching something) and/or are reading to distract themselves from all the noise.  By the way, Korea really is the most connected country in the world- there is wifi/internet connection everywhere including buses, trains, convenient stores, random streets, etc.  And they all function well whether you’re 4 levels underground or zipping through a tunnel…

At first Koreans also seemed to me “rougher” in their demeanor and in regards to one’s privacy or space.  I’ve had more than a few people nudge, tap, or even push me outright when crossing a street, getting on a bus, or just walking into a doorway.  Of course no one has yet to say “excuse me” or “sorry.”  I think the fact that I’d just come from Japan made this a bit more shocking, but if I remember back to my experiences in China or India I guess this isn’t such a big deal.  Having said that, what I find fascinating is how these perfect strangers just casually engage in conversations with other strangers.  Most of the times it’s older Korean ladies who start talking to me when I’m waiting for the light to change, sitting next to them on the bus, or shopping for groceries.  It’s never anything serious, mostly about the weather, how short the students’ uniform skirts are, oh that baby is really cute, etc.  But they’re also never shy about asking personal questions either (at least what Westerners consider personal).  I’ve been asked about my age (but not my name- that’s a whole other post), whether I’m married (usually they assume at my age I’m married and have kids), and told various things about my appearance (ranging from “you’re not thin (it seems like the entire country is on a diet),” “your skin needs some upkeep (Korean women have the most amazing skin),” to “your figure is nice for your height (again, this obsession for looking good”).

I thought it quite strange at first and I didn’t really know how to respond either.  A lot of the times I had no idea whether they were talking to me at all since I just assumed that a stranger would not be talking to me.  That, and I didn’t understand what they were saying since my brain wasn’t yet accustomed Korean and didn’t process the language fast enough.  I would just smile and nod, or just mumble something.  But last week, I actually found myself talking to a perfect stranger and it was I who initiated the conversation.

Since being here I have developed a liking for Korean sweet potatoes and while I was looking to buy some at a market, I glanced over to a little Korean grandma standing next to me.  Without thinking I said to her “what do you think?  Bigger ones are not always better, right?”  Did I just say that out loud?  I was a bit surprised at what I’d done but then, without missing a beat the little old lady smiled at me and pointed to a bunch.  She said “look at these.  They seem like good ones.”  I took her advice and picked them up.  She was right; they were good sweet potatoes.  But more than anything else I walked away feeling as if I was in on the joke, maybe becoming a bit more of “team Korea.”  I’m re-thinking what I considered Koreans being “rough” or “invasive” to maybe a kind of closeness or directness you might have for your family.  Oh, the pushing and the loud talking is still annoying but I’m beginning to see what makes Koreans special…

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3 Responses to First Impressions in South Korea

  1. Interesting stuff – we can’t wait to hear more about your experiences in Korea. Its an unusual place, for sure!

  2. Great fun reading your “first” impresssions ! Glad to read that you are doing fine and still enjoying your world tour !

  3. tvhs14965 says:

    That’s really strange! !!! Koreans do NOT talk to strangers! Unless asking for directions. . .its completely weird for them to make conversation with a stranger. Maybe its cause you’re a foreigner and they assume it was more okay.

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