The 6 Strangest Things Nobody Tells You About Life in Korea

As an American teaching English in South Korea, I expected to run into at least a few cultural differences. I did my homework. I knew people over there actually took the "Gangnam Style" guy seriously, and ... I guess that was about it. Wait, no -- StarCraft! Boom. Nailed the whole culture. Needless to say, I was ill prepared for what I found when I actually got there.

#6. Same-Sex Touching Is the Most Normal Thing in the World Here

Bathhouse Ballads

South Korean boys and men practice a thing called skinship, where they pretty much touch each other nonstop. Platonically bonding through skin with your best pal is an accepted practice here, and no more sexual than a handshake. I teach at a mostly boys' high school, and they're constantly holding hands, sitting on each other's laps, and feeling each other up. Even when it veers a little too far into what non-Koreans would consider creepy territory (like an over-the-pants hand job that a fellow teacher of mine once witnessed), none of the boys involved see it as anything but basic friendliness.

crossstudio/iStock/Getty Images
This relates to the inscrutable Korean cultural concept of no homo.

The touchy-feely can even extend to teachers and students, provided it remains same-gender oriented. To put it delicately, the Korean teacher-student relationship can be rather informal. The teachers will ruffle students' hair, play with them, and give them friendly motivational shoulder rubs -- even in high school. I've seen the students return the shoulder rub favor as well. Nobody gets an undeserved A over it, either.

We have teacher dinners where everyone is obligated to drink to impress the principal, and the guys will stroke one another's thighs -- both outer and inner, because skin is skin no matter how close to the naughty bits it might be. They make sure that the foreign male teachers don't feel left out on this sweet skinship action either. Whether it be at a dinner, on a bus, or in a bathhouse, they'll be sure to make you feel included.

via Lily La
You're not a real bro until you scrub another bro's glistening bare back.

But before you start holding South Korean males up on a social pedestal because they're so much more accepting than us uptight prudish Westerners, just know they're still totally capable of homophobia. I've had a young man, while sitting on another young man's lap and stroking his inner thigh, disparagingly utter the words, "Teacher, that's gay."

#5. They Don't Care About North Korea. At All.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Imagine if your dumbass upstairs neighbor constantly threatened to kick your ass in a variety of creatively violent ways, but never did because they knew that they'd get beaten senseless the first time they tried. Wouldn't you get numb to their empty threats after a while?

That's how South Korea looks at North Korea, especially the older generation. They're pretty inured to the whole "we could die in a nuclear holocaust at any point and time" thing by now, since they've been hearing about it ever since the country split in two 70+ years ago.

Charles Levy
Kim Il Sung personally bombed Japan to free Korea, say DPRK sources.

Last year, when the American media suddenly decided that North Korean nukes deserved a massive amount of attention, I panicked. My friends and family back home constantly called and messaged me, making sure I wasn't dead and wondering when the U.N. would be helicoptering me back home. I went to school expecting utter chaos on the level of the aliens-just-exploded-everything scene from Independence Day.

What I got instead was an office full of the same bored, sleepy-eyed co-workers I see every damn day. I asked several of them why they weren't running around shitting their pants and converting to every religion they've ever heard of, just in case. The universal response: a shrug and "Eh, they do this all the time."

AAP/Yonhap News Agency
He's just grandstanding to win his imaginary elections.

And they do. Since the '60s, North Korea has constantly threatened its southern neighbor with harm and acted on these threats precisely zero times. They tend to turn up the rhetoric whenever they need aid, which either we or the Americans give them in order to shut them up for a while. Then, once they start whining again, we give them a bit more aid and they go away. In that sense, North Korea is much less a legion of supervillains and more a child throwing a tantrum at Toys "R" Us until their exasperated mother buys them that Buzz Lightyear they absolutely must have or else.

So while I and my fellow greenhorn teachers were bracing for the inevitable North Korean apocalypse (like the zombie apocalypse, only somehow more dead inside), the teachers who had been around the block simply bitched about how the South Korean won might shrink in value for a bit. They're so unfazed, it's almost comical. Although not quite as comical as the time North Korea sent a threatening fax to South Korea. In 2013.

#4. It's the Noisiest Place on Earth (and the Law Doesn't Care)

Damien Dempsey

If somebody gets too noisy in America, or just about anywhere else, aggravated neighbors call the cops and get that shit taken care of. If the noise persists, parties can be broken up and people can go to jail.

Rama/Wikimedia
The First Amendment doesn't protect 2 killowatts of dubstep.

But here? If you call the fuzz over somebody blaring Girls' Generation's greatest hits for hours on end, they'll just laugh at you and tell you to deal with it. Over here, a constant unending cacophony is the norm. The first time I saw a truck with a loudspeaker on top blaring frantic-sounding announcements that could be heard blocks away, I thought, "Oh shit, did North Korea finally get the balls to invade after literally decades of psyching themselves up in the mirror?" Nope: Turns out the truck driver was just trying to sell pears, and as we all know, fruit tastes best when spiced with 250 decibels of pure ear pain.

Meanwhile, every single weekend of the year, the electronics store across the street from me sets up these massive speakers, along with a stage for two girls in skimpy little outfits. They have these choreographed dances and look like they've stepped right out of a K-pop video. Come for the head-bursting volume, stay for the perverse ogling. And somewhere in there, presumably they sell some thumb drives?

MJ Stacey
"If we dance hard enough, perhaps someday we can afford the rest of our pants."

Technically, there are laws on the books about noise. Hell, we even have an Office of Noise Control, not that they do anything. Maybe they'd act if the president complained, but other than that, nobody seems to care if you think your neighbor needs to shut up. You're expected to either live with it or deal with the problem yourself. Although it's not recommended that you murder the offending party, like one man recently did. Or at least if you do, be sure to do it quietly -- the people can't hear the pear truck.

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