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Five Things You Should Not Do in Korea

September 22, 2011


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And we’re back with another edition of TL;DR Thursdays. This week we’re asked “What are some things that you SHOULD NOT do in Korea?”

Well, the easy answer at first is anything bad. Don’t do bad things. Don’t know what qualifies as a bad thing? You can try using the Ten Commandments as a springboard, or maybe read the news for a bit and pay attention to the things that get people arrested. Don’t do those things.

And now that we’re done being smartasses, let’s really try answering the question!

Now, we could have taken the approach of “Korean cultural lessons to learn” but we wanted to something that isn’t always talked about in travel books. Stuff that you kind of have to do before you figure out it’s wrong. So here we go!

1) Walk into a place with your shoes on:

No Shoes indoors in Korea

Take off your shoes, OR FACE THE WRATH!

I think the best way we heard this described is that Western culture is very table and chair oriented, while Asian culture is more floor and mat oriented. People sleep on the floor on thin mats, and eat on the floor on really low tables. Sure, not all of Korea sleeps and eats on the floor, but it happens here A LOT more than it happens back in Canada. And so, since a lot is done on the floor, keeping the floor clean is quite important.

And so, no shoes are worn inside the house. At the front foyer you take off your shoes, and then have slippers for around the house, but you don’t bring outside dirt inside. Nope. Big, big no no. We mentioned in the video how we were scolded for wearing shoes in our own apartment, right after we got off our plane and were totally exhausted. That doesn’t matter. JUST TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES!

2) Talk loudly on the bus or subway:

Quiet on the bus in Korea

Stop talking so loud! You'll piss everyone off!

This is something we got used to very quickly in Korea. Within our first few months of living in Korea we learned to not be so noisy on some buses. Not that we throw a party or anything. We just talk and laugh normally. Supposedly, though, when you’re on a bus or subway that doesn’t have a lot of people taking, it’s meant to be quiet time. This is news to me. If I want to talk on the subway or 1 hour bus ride with my husband, wife, or friends, I feel like I should be able to, but in Korea many old people will start scolding. I feel like a child being scolded by my grandma for stealing a cookie. Also, if you take any of the red intra-city buses, there will even be a message before you get on the highway telling you to turn off your cellphone ringers.

We didn’t know this upon first coming to Korea, and were shushed a few times. At first we got butthurt and defensive about it, and thought that it was because we were foreigners that we got shushed, but then, when different people told us to shush, and we didn’t see anyone else on the buses really talking loudly, that’s when we put it together. Oops! That is, unless you’re an older man or woman (ajussi or ajumma). They can talk loudly and get away with it. They’re old people, and won’t be told what to do.

3) Sit in the elderly/pregnant/sick seats on the subway:
Those are reserved for the elderly. Supposedly they’re also reserved for pregnant and sick people, but we haven’t really seen anyone but the elderly sit there. We’ve been told by some Korean friends that, when they were really sick once and they sat there, they were scolded profusely. We’ve even read of pregnant people being shooed away from the seats so that the elderly can sit there.

Bottom line, don’t sit there unless you’re really old. Or you’re passed out drunk and unable to accept the scolding. Damn. Old people in Korea can be scary sometimes.

4) Stick your chopsticks into rice and leave them there:

So this is a big faux pas that not many people know about. Now, not all Korean families do this, but when they visit the graves of their loved ones, they might leave an offering of rice with chopsticks stuck in them, or sometimes they burn incense (which looks similar to chopsticks). If you stick your chopsticks in your rice at the table, you’re acting like you’re at a graveyard, so you’re either telling the other person, “hey, you’re dead, here is your rice” or “I don’t like you, DIE!!!!!!”. Now I personally have never done this nor have I seen this happen at a dining table, but it’s probably best to avoid doing it.

5) Call people over with your hands incorrectly:

Hamster Hands

Martina thinks you should look like a Hamster. Simon begs to differ.

We did a video a loooong time ago on Korean Hand Gestures. Man, that’s a really old video. Don’t watch it…OooOoOH! Look at Martina’s long hair! Anyhow, that video will show you a bit more of what we’re talking about. When you call someone over, be it a waiter or a taxi or a student, do so with your palm facing downwards. Seems odd at first, but it’s the non-rude way to do so. Some Korean students have been insulted by their foreign teacher as the teacher didn’t realize calling them over like that was rude. Martina thinks that you should look like a hamster, but that’s probably because she loves hamsters. She had two dwarf hamsters back in Canada when we first started dating (Bear and Moka, R.I.P), has stuffed hamster toys here, and said in our WTF Contest that she would smuggle in hamsters. Is anyone noticing a pattern here?

Smokey the Bear Likes Foreigners

If the bear says it, you must obey

I think our finally conclusion here today is this: Treat Korean old people as if they were in the mafia, and Martina is addicted to hamsters.

If there are anymore “wrong” things you guys have experienced, share the love! In the wise words of Smokey the Bear: Only you can prevent foreigners from getting scolded. Well, he might not have ever said that, but we’re sure that he’d agree. If he could agree, that is. Bears don’t really hold many opinions about foreigners, and probably not many about fires as well. Their only opinions are to murder and eat you. Bears aren’t friendly and don’t wear hats. Remember that.



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Five Things You Should Not Do in Korea


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  1. Yeah my dad sets up a whole mini-altar kind of deal outside of our house on those special days with incenses and candles, bowls of rice, vegetarian food, and snacks and my neighbors are always like “wtf?” ._. This is what I get for living in the projects.

    8 years ago
  2. I actually think this is regional.  There was a clash in my own family when my cousins were of the “No shoes in the house!” variety, while the rest of the family were of the “My shoes come off when I’m sleeping or dead”  variety.  There was much private buzzing and grumbling when the cousins insisted that everyone take their shoes off.  However, in that particular part of the state, no shoes in the house was the expected and cultural norm.  Once you left that area though, it was FAR more common for people to wear their shoes in the house than not.  

    9 years ago