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.
Same-Sex Touching Is the Most Normal Thing in the World Here
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.
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.
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."
They Don't Care About North Korea. At All.
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.
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."
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.
It's the Noisiest Place on Earth (and the Law Doesn't Care)
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.
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?
"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.
Your Personal Health Is Everybody's Business
Americans as a whole greatly value their privacy. Over here? Not so much. Maybe we're not exchanging credit card information, but just about everything else about our business is everybody's business. It's not unheard of, for example, to hear somebody call someone else fat. This isn't meant as an insult; just that they're concerned about that person's health. In a South Korean's mind, if they buttoned their yap about such things because it was "private," the other person's health might suffer. They're not being nosy or insulting; they're saving your life! You probably just didn't realize you were being attacked by a rogue pair of love handles. Thanks for the body update, stranger!
"You're lucky those fat fingers can even fit in your mouth. Just sayin'."
I went to the hospital for an ear infection once (no doubt brought on by that goddamned pear truck), and later on the nurse wanted to make sure I was OK. But instead of calling me, she simply asked the nearest foreigner how I was doing. As if we all knew each other!
I mean, we did actually know each other. So chalk one up for well-meaning xenophobes, I guess?
But still, she thought it was totally OK to pass my medical records around like a jug of house wine. Luckily, this time it was just an earache, but what if I had something I didn't wish to share with the whole town? Based on what I've experienced, not a whole lot would change. One time I went for an allergy test with a friend. When I picked up my results, the doctor gave me my friend's results as well. Even though it was her personal information, the doctor believed it merely convenient that I bring it to her.
I absolutely didn't exploit this information and hide peanuts in her pancake as a hilarious prank.
More worryingly, if you're on South Korea's national insurance plan (and there's a really, really good chance you are), your employer knows your entire medical history. If you have depression and seek psychiatric help through the plan, your bosses will know. That might cause problems, as depression is still deeply stigmatized in most of South Korea, and your bosses knowing how sad you are could very well cost you your job, which would make you even sadder. I'm pretty sure that's the circle of life Elton John was talking about.
Prostitution Is Technically Illegal, but Realistically Totally Cool
Prostitution is everywhere in South Korea. Problem is, it's also totally illegal here. The government can't legalize it, because then they'd look like a bunch of sleazy pimps, but they can't stop it either, because that's like trying to stop the wind from blowing. So they silently tolerate it, while everybody around you denies its existence, then turns and wades through a sea of prostitutes just to get to their car. I live just across the way from one of South Korea's dabangs (good name! Can you guess what might go on there?), or "coffee shops." Notice the dark windows. Not pictured is the car that's constantly dropping off and picking up young women at all hours of the day for "home delivery coffee."
"I like my coffee like I like my women: sexually."
Don't like coffee? What thinly veiled excuse would you like to use for meeting with a prostitute? You can get a haircut from one, a foot wash -- you can even hike beautiful mountain trails with the hooker of your choosing.
I also live by an alley full of noraebangs, which literally translates to "singing rooms." You ostensibly pay for the privilege of butchering "Islands in the Stream" with a pretty young lady, but at the end of the night, you two usually go off to make more beautiful music elsewhere. My male co-workers have told me it's pretty normal for them to go there after a business dinner together. Girls come in, they sing and dance, pour you drinks, feed you ... and then provide more "services," depending on how much you pay.
Some places are less subtle than others about what goes on there.
It's not officially prostitution, but remember that nothing here is, because prostitution is totally, for-realsies, cross-your-heart illegal.
They're Obsessed With Personal Image
If you visit South Korea, there's a really good chance the first thing somebody says to you will be a comment on your appearance. Sometimes it's just to call you handsome or beautiful (how sweet!); other times they'll remark to you, a complete stranger, about how tired you look, or how your hair looks like shit, or how you could probably stand to do a few thousand extra situps each morning. Slightly less sweet.
And they're not just targeting you because you're American. Probably not, anyway.
They don't mean to be rude -- it's just that, to South Koreans, a perfect appearance is everything, so if you don't look perfect, something might be wrong with you. This goes a long way toward explaining why everybody's so damn vain over here. My high school boys are constantly fixing their hair in handheld mirrors. Even my male colleagues will randomly stand up in class and go to the mirror to fix their hair. The hallway outside of the teachers' office has a mirror on every pillar so you never have to go a moment without scrutinizing your appearance, which many don't. I don't have co-workers or students -- I have Zoolanders.
The women, as usual, have it worse. Check out all of this girl's different hairstyles:
Really, she looks much better without all that makeup.
Now, slowly realize that's actually a collection of 18 different women. Hold up, it's not just the normal casual racism at play here: All of those women are working very hard to look identical. South Korea is the place to go for plastic surgery, but there's pretty much only the one "look."
My friend teaches at a girls' middle school. She'll ask them, "Hey, what did you guys do over vacation?" and they'll proudly respond, "Mommy bought me eyelid surgery." They don't want some trite platitude like "But sweetie, you've always been pretty." They want confirmation that their procedure brought them one step closer to the ultimate South Korean beauty ideal. A big part of that is the vaunted "double eyelid" look.
Fun side effect: This removes your ability to cry.
This and other plastic surgery procedures make up Seoul's #1 graduation gift year in and year out.
So what exactly do these girls hate about themselves (besides everything)? Well, they think their faces are too big and round, so they undergo jaw reduction surgery and cheekbone shaving to achieve the V-shaped face that brings all the boys to the yard. They believe that their eyes are too small, so they double lid it, get a blepharoplasty (further work on the eyelid to make it squeaky-clean), and widen their eyes by cutting the inner corners with an epicanthoplasty. And of course, they want the ideal "S-line" figure, so they undergo rib removal. In short, the worst parts of an Eli Roth torture-porn are just business as usual for young South Korean women.
Why do both before and after pics look like desperate cries for help?
Beyond pure culturally imposed vanity, there's another reason so many Koreans spend top dollar to recreate the Clone Wars. There is enormous pressure to compete here in every way. You need to submit personal photos along with every single resume (even for jobs where that shouldn't matter), and those precious, scarce jobs often go to the "prettier" party. To many, plastic surgery isn't done just to look like the Hollywood ideal -- it's considered a sound career move.
Read MJ Stacey's short stories and general musings at http://mjkorea0989.blogspot.kr/. Jason Iannone is a Cracked columnist, freelance editor, and dick joke journalist. He also likes coffee, and whether he meant it in that way or not is left to your sick, perverted imaginations. Let him know what yours dreams up via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and eponymous website.
Now see what South Koreans think about us in 24 Things Other Countries Suspect About Life in America.
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