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Woah woah woah - Personal bubble space and Korea

Bubble space. 개인공간.

To fully appreciate the invasion of personal bubble space, allow me to narrate my first bromance experience. You never forget your first:

Wow what a great party. Good friends, good food, good drinks. Oh hey, there’s one of my new buddies now. Oh he’s coming over here. Cool. Maybe he has something to tell me. Nope. Just standing. Smiling. Oh, standing and smiling a little closer than usual. No problem. Woah. Uh…I hate to pop his bubble but he’s standing too close to me. Seriously. What? You want to hold hands with me? Wait…why are we walking together with our arms around each other. Am I drunk? Am I gay?

Heterosexually unintoxicated, my Korean friend was just being friendly. But who deserves to feel weirded out? Was I the one homophobically over-analyzing the situation or was he just way over the “friend” line? Where exactly do we draw the line at invading personal space? Are Koreans just natural bubble poppers?

Many foreigners find it a little disturbing and even a few Koreans are aware that some foreigners are a little weirded out by it. Most foreigners require a specific amount of space in which to comfortably function. Some of us may wonder if this space has a measurement. What would be an acceptable distance for personal space? Well wouldn’t you know it? Someone figured it out a while back.

Personal bubble space Korea friendship

I would imagine that a standard Korean bubble would be a whole lot more orange and red and less blue and green. As we saw before, Korean friendships can be pretty hardcore. They start early and they start heavy. If a friend is a friend, it starts at kindergarten and lasts a lifetime. So consider that personal space invaded daily. Touchy-feely much?
Korea friendship boys holding hands personal space bubble

I don’t have much to say on the subject of maintaining my own bubble. Like some other foreigners, I have a ’switch’. When around Koreans, my space shrinks and I’m more comfortable with same-sex friends hanging around my neck. Around other Westerners, I give the ‘back that train up’ look if anyone gets in my bubble. Like other situations, when appropriate I make the switch to whatever is considered normal.

But like AAK pointed out, why isn’t my ’switch’ always on? Am I that insecure that I can only display affection towards Koreans but not friends from other countries? I mean, even writing that sentence makes me sound a little gay. This is coming from someone who has no personal problem with homosexuality in any way whatsoever but yet I feel bound by my cultural standard that demands that I appear as straight as possible at all times. No need to confuse the masses, it seems.

What about straight Korean men? Aren’t they afraid of looking…you know. Sure it may look a little strange from the Western perspective but then again, we’re talking about a very small aspect of Korean culture. It looks big and scary from a Western perspective but what is transpiring is very natural. What you see is two people of the same sex expressing their affection for each other in a platonic way that can only be described as ‘friendship’. Looking deep into the meaning of why two guys are all over each other would be placing a non-standard cultural judgment on something that already has a judgment. In Korea, it’s fine. So if you find yourself staring and waiting for two Korean guys to kiss, wait a bit longer because it likely won’t happen.
true love KC101 friendship guys

However, the question begs - who determines the normalness if there are members of different cultures present? If one American and one Korean are in a room, whose rules do you follow? Does it matter if you’re in Korea versus America? Is there a spoken arrangement beforehand? Does it matter if you’re speaking English or Korean? What about Korean versus Korean-American?


MT - Korea’s answer to the good old fashioned outing (엠티)

Membership Training. 엠티.

What exactly are you training for? Not sure, but bring an iron stomach because things could get a little drunk crazy.

Essentially, what we have is the time-honored Korean tradition of building strength and unity within a particular group. Typically, a company or university major will go on MTs to become closer and improve relationships within the group.

Keep in mind that Korea, like other parts of Asia, operates by thinking that the group is paramount. Generally speaking, the individual is of lower importance. This isn’t to say that one person is not important; rather one person when viewed outside of a group is of little concern. Suffice it to say that the group is more valued than the member.

Any group looking to have some fun, play some games, escape the city and get completely plastered make some great memories will go on an MT. One or more members within the group plan the event including booking a place to stay, organizing games, purchasing unGodly amounts of alcohol and snacks, and booking travel arrangements. Then, depending on the group’s budget (if there even is one) each member will pay equal amounts of the total bill. Many organizations already have this ‘equal pay’ system long before the MT is planned. The fund is used for any such group outing including MTs.

Typically an MT takes place away from the company or university in place like the mountains or a rural area. The idea is to get away and have some fun. It’s a time to be unplugged from one’s computer, unburdened by the daily minutia of work or study, and just to kick back and relax with coworkers and colleagues. Team building exercises help to further make the group one solid entity. All that from doing a whole lot of nothing in the mountains.

KC101 MT 엠티 relax

Ultimately when it’s all said and done, the group returns to the work place or university with a new common experience in which to feel a warm, fuzzy attachment. The group now has more in common with each other than other departments and majors. This solidarity is not unlike soldiers serving together in the same unit - no matter where they go, they will share the experience and still consider themselves part of that group once upon a time.

Keep in mind that business loyalty is much more pronounced in Korea than in America. To work at one single company throughout one’s career is a sign of devotion and respect in Korea. While it is certainly admirable in the States, it’s not frowned upon if one person has worked for several different companies throughout his or her life. In fact, it’s kind of expected.

Anyways, the whole experience is enjoyable and harkens back to time when companies would spend their own money to develop loyalty within the company. Like a team-building exercise, these outings were not vital to the day-to-day operations but ironed out some wrinkles within the company. It’s kind of hard to complain to HR that you got docked for 3 minutes if they put you up in the mountains for a weekend for fun and food.

Now, if you’re a long-time reader of the KC101 Blog, you already know that our very own Emily (holdfast) has already posted a first-hand account of an MT in America and her post deserves a read. Also, In regards to alcohol consumption, check out why Koreans get crazy drunk on the regular and why you feel left out if you’re sober.


You sure it doesn’t mess up your stomach? (Korean drinking water p.2)

Korean Drinking Water Habits. Part Two.

It is highly recommended to read part one. Even if you already read it, I added a photo and it makes me giggle when I look at it. Just FYI.

It’s been over a year since I wrote about drinking water with a meal in Korea. Since then, I have tried my best to school my friends in the healthy ways of water; “Water is your friend” and such. However, I may be wrong in thinking that water has my best interests in mind. Perhaps water is no friend of mine…

The most recent convincing argument comes from this article. Take a moment, read and come back. What do you think? Still convinced that water should be drunk at the table? I’m not so sure. After all, most of the arguments I hear either sound like infomercials or old wives’ tales instead of science. Articles like this (or this) don’t exactly help the validity of the argument.

But, in their defense…

I have no science to back up my American way of thinking that water is healthy to drink with a meal. Obviously, everyone agrees that water is good for us. Some even suggest drinking water before eating to reduce portion intake. But that’s not the argument. The argument is whether water is advisable to drink during the meal.

Like fan death in Korea, I never really questioned it - I just did it. I just drank water. But what about Koreans? Most would agree that the majority of Koreans drink only a small amount, if any, during a meal. Unsurprisingly, my Korean friends simply don’t drink water at all during meals.

So who has bragging rights? Who has science on their side? Where’s the middle ground? Who’s right?

Here’s the thing. No water at all is just plain silly. Too much water is obviously not a good idea. But, what I believe people misunderstand is what is meant by ‘too much water’. Are we talking about more than 8 ounces of water? More than 20 ounces? Does it matter?

As it seems, drinking water with a meal is not that great of an idea. But don’t freak out - it’s not going to kill you, either.

But what about the people who insist on drinking with their meals? The ones who know the Western way of water? Well, in my school’s cafeteria, one can’t even obtain a cup of water until after the empty tray of food is deposited in the bin. Meaning? Kids are drinking nothing with their meal. Of course, foreigners like myself skip the line altogether and grab a cup anyways. Take that, line.

But I do it not out of rebellion but out of compulsion.

It certainly isn’t just me noticing this aqua-addiction. Ever heard of “Water water everywhere/ so let’s all take a drink”? Not on your life. You’re reading the words of man who now suffers from hydrophobia. Water’s back in town and he’s not playing around. Sure I sneak in some water at lunch, but I’m careful around water now. He’s taking names. He wants blood.
Water drinking Korea during meal health affects

Sidestepping for a bit, this wouldn’t be the first time that water would be the source of misinformation. Still drinking bottled water? Shame on you. You didn’t know? Read up my friend, and do nothing afterwards just drink the tap water. For that matter, here’s a great article I scanned from a few years back on which types of bottles are recommended to use.

Sidestepping further, what about clean water for Korea? Surely it’s readily available? Maybe not as much as you would expect. Water management may not be number one on everyone’s “Interesting Things to Read” list, but it affects everyone. But back on the subject (kind of), here’s a look at the healthy benefits of Korean beverages might be of interest to you, kind reader. Thanks for sticking with my bird walking.

So back on track.

I feel that Americans don’t question drinking water at any point in time - we just believe that if one is thirsty, we should just drink water - eating or not. Like fan death in Korea, it’s something that is believed in for no other reason than just “why not?”. Why question something that seems to make sense?

So where do I stand now? Well, I certainly don’t avoid water altogether. That’s nuts. If I’m thirsty, I’m going to go drink some water. But instead of just the typical Korean one thimble glass after the meal, I’ll drink two - one during and one after. Yeah, I may not be up to my old American standard of hooking up a fire hydrant to my stomach, but I’ve accustomed myself to drinking only a small amount. If for no other reason, the questionable adverse health affects are enough to avoid.

But it makes me wonder: If drinking water with a meal really is a no-no, why haven’t I heard about it more in America? In America’s “Tune into the 6 o’clock news or your son will die” fear-driven media, why isn’t this topic covered more? Why care about the deathly affects of plastic bottles but not something as essential as water?


수능 - the “Korean SAT” that actually matters


A really ridiculous important test is coming up. Mark your calendars kids because the third Thursday of every November is when your life either begins or ends.

Right off the bat, I have to mention that the amount of stress the test must cause…well…it’s insane. This Hub of Sparkle post paints quite a sad picture of the reality the stress this test puts on students. Some kids are smart enough to see past it all although they too are still held accountable to the test.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What we need is perspective. What do we have in America that compares to 수능?

The most common answer is the SAT. Essentially, this monster of a test helps determine the academic ability of hopeful incoming university freshmen. In reality, it is one of several different criteria for some schools’ admissions programs. Other considerations are after school activities, volunteer work, leadership opportunities, written essay and personal interview. But even then, some schools don’t require SAT score submission.

As I mentioned to some LanguageCast friends, I personally didn’t take the SAT or any other standardized test. No TASP. No THEA. No ACT. No nothing. I was admitted into junior college based on a high school test score from eleventh grade. When I graduated junior college with an AA, that allowed me to transfer to a public university without any admissions test. Problem solved. And to think, that’s not the only (or that big of a) loophole. Moreso, I wasn’t trying to avoid the SAT. I would have taken it if I needed to, but in my particular case I simply never needed to take it. To think, plenty of other quality universities base their admissions on something other than a number from a test, too.

Such is not the case in Korea. While 수능 doesn’t determine absolutely everything about one’s future academic and professional career, it does determine a whole lot more than the SAT. A high score on the 수능 is the primary admissions requirements to get into one of the SKY universities (Korea’s answer to an Ivy league school or the Big Three). Wanting to attend SKY is a dream shared many young Korean kids; much more than American kids dreaming of the Big Three. Don’t get me wrong, getting into Harvard would be nice but it doesn’t mean that other universities don’t produce successful people, too. In my case, going to UNT was an awesome experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Even though our education systems are quite different, namely in the level of difficulty in Korean high schools versus American high schools, I’ve heard that the 수능 is quite difficult. I’ve even thought that someone like me could never score high on it. The truth is I don’t care. Not in the dismissive “who cares?” way but in the way that I place very little value in the outcome of such tests. But then again, I’m coming from my perspective that tests aren’t everything.

So what is Korea to do? Improve the test to make it more reflective of real world knowledge? Include other criteria for admissions? Dump the test altogether?

Not sure. I’m certainly not qualified to comment on it seeing as how I’ve never taken it and my career has never been based off of it. Of course it’s easy for me to knock it. It doesn’t affect me. But it does make me wonder: would I want my kids taking the test? Would I grill them about how important it is to get into a good university?

Definitely something to think about.

수능 Korean SAT KC101 korea test standardized

Want to brush up on your 수능 knowledge? Recommended reading material include this short photo essay about 수능 from a Korean high school student. For that matter, SeoulGlow posted a video a few years back that’s pretty interesting to watch (alt link). Of course, KC101’s advanced audio blog has more on the subject. Also, 현우 produced a regular audio blog that covers the same topic from a slightly different angle, too.


Fear and bathrooms in Korea

Korean bathrooms.

This is clearly one of the first things I should have written about. Korean bathrooms can be summed up in one word: surprising. It’s always a experience with every new bathroom I visit.

Let’s get right into the messy goodness that is Korean restrooms. Allow me to break this post into a few helpful points of interest:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- Slippers -
Walking into all private and a few public bathrooms, one will undoubtedly notice the pair of clear plastic slippers greeting you upon entry. The curious foreigner might imagine that these were carelessly left by a forgetful family member or perhaps used when the bathroom floods. No, kind sir, these shoes are for you…and everyone else. That’s right. In a country full of germophobes, you’ll be basking in the sweet sweet foot juice of all that came before you. You too, will leave your own unique brand of foot sweat for the next guy to absorb as he thinks about bleaching his feet.

- One Big Shower -
Not so much public bathrooms but almost all private bathrooms are essentially one big shower room. Everything liquid makes its way to the drain in the middle. Take the shower nozzle and go to town if you want. This excessive wetness also helps to explain you’re wearing some stranger’s slippers.

- Smoking in the bathroom -
How old are we? Why do I even smell cigarette smoke? What decade is this? When did smoking in the bathroom become cool again? The goofy part about walking into a bathroom that smells like the Marlboro Man is that not only is it a nasty habit with smelly consequences, but it’s done in an already consequentially smelly place. Quite possibly the smelliest place we all know and use. There’s now two grossly different but equally gross stenches competing for your nasal attention. So, why not just go outside to smoke? If a grown man is either too embarrassed or too lazy to smoke outside, then he shouldn’t be smoking the the first place. But then again, no one should be smoking in the first place.

- Ashtrays -
Which brings me to this lovely contradiction. If I’m at a urinal and I look to my left only to see an ashtray, what does that lead me to think (other than I should have just been looking straight ahead like a real man)? It makes me think that smoking in the bathroom is okay despite the “No Smoking” sign posted directly above it. Why Korea. Why.

- Soap -
This is either completely missing or comes in a very strange form. What ever happened to good old fashioned liquid hand soap purchased in bulk and dispensed by a cube-shaped dispenser attached to the mirror? I like my soap liquid. I like not having to share a communal bar of soap with the rest of Seoul. I like washing my hands without wondering if I need to get an STD test afterwards. An orgy of germs await my fragile fingers every time I slide my hands across the permanently-fixed egg-shaped communal soap on-a-stick. Mister Blue-Soap-Stuck-On-The-Mirror, you’re gross. You’re almost as gross as the Bar-Magnet-Soap that sticks to another magnet.

Korea bathroom soap stick gross

- Paper Towels -
Why in all that is holy does Korea not stock bathrooms with paper towels? Why even tease me with the dispenser only to leave it empty? Paper towels dry my hands. That’s what they are there for. If I don’t see paper towels, I wonder how else is everyone drying their hands? Then I realize that they aren’t. Ah, but perhaps I’m being too hasty in my hygienical judgments. Yes, we must be getting more green. Less paper, less waste, more happy earth. I’m all for that. So, I turn my attention to the machine on the wall, place my hands underneath, wait for the warm goodness to flow across my drizzled hands…

 - Hand Dryers -
…only to find that it blows. Not literally. More like it sucks. Also not literally. These weak-ass hand dryers do the equivalent of a creepy old man’s constant stream of mouth breath. It’s just unpleasant and not needed. What’s the point in washing my hands only to discover a gentle summer’s breeze attempting to remove all moisture? Like drying clothes outside on a summer’s day, the breeze takes a good three hours to work it’s magic. You bring that noise up in my house? All talk and no walk. You call yourself a hand dryer? Please.

Korea bathroom hand dryer blower

- Toilet Paper -
Why. Why. Why is toilet paper located outside of the stall? Just… why? Moving on.

- Squat Toilets -
These just seem outdated. Why does Korea still use some squat toilets? I mean, America had outhouses for the longest time and other than Schrute Farms, we got over it. We moved on and embraced the modern toilet for being a fanny-centered innovation. Korea’s affair with squatters is like a drug. Korea is addicted to installing new squat toilets next to standard toilets. It’s a problem. I just feel Korea needs a nice, long intervention. “Korea, I know you think you need these worthless squat toilets, but you don’t. Just sit on the throne like a man. You can do it. I’ll help you” Do your part and just say ‘no’ to squat toilets. If you or someone you know is using a squat toilet, please call this number.

- Bidet -
Then there’s the total opposite. In a country with questionable plumbing choices and mountain man-like restroom accommodations, we find public and private bidet. In what seems like overkill, these public bidet are a fresh option to choose when available. But why not just even the playing field by getting rid of all squats and installing good ol fashion crappers instead? Bidet? We don’t need no stinkin bidet. My heiney was feeling just fine until you came along and made it think it needs something better. A bigger better slice, indeed, Mr. bidet. I’ll admit it. Your freshening tactics are no match for my tried and true Crapper. But don’t get cocky. When you’re not around, I don’t miss you. However, given the chance to experience your cleansing power, I’d let you do your dirty work on my posterior any day of the week. Twice on Sunday. You’ve convinced me. I’m a believer. I’m a bidet-er.

Korean class 101 bidet toilet bathroom

- Visibility -
In a world full of creepy stalking guys and misplaced trust in strangers, we have the partially visible bathroom. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for your viewing pleasure we have bathrooms that have no visibility blocking wall, no door, and/or easy viewing access. Go about your daily deed in full view of any passerby. I assume this public bathroom design stems from a trusting perspective and I suppose for the most part in America too, no one goes into the opposite gender bathroom. Especially a girl’s bathroom. That’s where cooties come from. However, in public places in Korea, there’s no shortage of people able to see you standing up doing your business. May I suggest any people walking by who catch a glance to take it like the sun - don’t look directly at it. It will only burn your eyes.

- Female Janitors -
So there I am. I’m doing my thing. I then go to wash my hands. One day I look up out of boredom and to see this nice little place card on one of those weak-sauce hand dryers. It states the name of the sanitation worker assigned to that particular bathroom. It even includes a friendly photo. How nice. Not so nice when I’m shaking the dew off the lily to find her two feet away from me. What is this world coming to when an insecure man can’t take care of number one without a woman standing next to him? At that moment it occurred to me…I really wanna wash my hands and forget this ever happened.

- Opposite Gender Use -
Then there’s the icing on the already malformed cake. At some restaurants, only one toilet exists and it is used by men and women. I did what I had to do three feet from a women doing the same thing. This wasn’t a cool hangout unisex bathroom like in Ally McBeal. It. Was. Freaking. Weird.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
And to think I didn’t even mention the whole wastebasket next to the toilet thing. You know, the one that no one seems to know exactly why it’s there or why we even still need it?

toilet paper sewage korea sign

So in conclusion, I am always surprised by Korean bathrooms. Proof:

Two toilets korea bathroom restroom

I recognize that it’s all a matter of perspective. I also realize that I’m a big boy and that none of it really bothers me. I’ve even had some nice sanitational encounters here. I once used a hand dryer that not only dried my hands by its jet-engine-like ferocity, it also used UV light to gently kill some unwanted germs on my hands. Not like that dirty little blue soap-on-a-stick.


The Korean Squat - the only way to relieve those tired legs

The Korean Squat.

Don’t lie. You do it sometimes when no one’s around.

For the uninitiated, you are in for a treat. The Korean Squat (also referred to as the Kimchi Squat) is a great way to relieve tired legs whilst waiting for public transportation, using a large brown bowl, or just chatting with friends when chairs are MIA.

It’s not terribly hard to see this on a daily basis. For that matter, there’s no shortage of people posting photos of the peculiar act, either. Case in point: Here, here, here, and here. Even celebrities do it. Proof:
KC101 blog korean squat kimchi

What I like is that the Korean Squat is not only applicable to Koreans - apparently many different people of Asian decent can do it with ease. White people everywhere are jealous. I can do it but like other foreigners, I can only do it for a fraction of the time that Koreans do it. The pressure on the lower half of my body is excruciating after a few minutes. However, after I’ve been standing for a long time I find myself squatting for only a brief time to regain some strength in my feet when chairs and benches are absent. You’re welcome legs.

But, it’s not that I look down upon it with condescension or marvel at it with wonder, it’s simply that the squat is one the little things about Korea that make it special to me. I would venture to guess that most Koreans do not think of the squat as special or even uniquely Korean.

If someone in America squatted at an intersection waiting for the light to change, people would either ask if the person is alright or pass him or her off as a crazy person. Either way it would deserve some attention.

Furthermore, I would guess that without a foreigner gawking with a camera, they wouldn’t think twice about doing it in the first place. Let alone, a foreigner such as myself writing a blog post about something that most would likely consider just a normal part of their lives; no more interesting than the zipper neckties or instant freeze dried coffee so readily available.

So now it’s just up to the masses to decide to do it or not - social awkwardness be damned. Now that you have been exposed, I pose the question: Are you a squatter?


Beards and why they make you look dirty (Korean men and facial hair)

Facial hair in Korea.

First, let’s take a look at some background source material. A selection from the American literary classic: A Brief History of My Face by Matthew.

I’m a hairy guy. I’ve resisted this natural protein growth by shaving, plucking, waxing and zapping my way to relative hairlessness in order to attract the opposite sex. I’ve endured scalding hot burns, embarrassing ingrown hair blemishes, and unspeakable pain as I have journeyed to a discover the perfect balance between ‘naked-mole-rat’ and ‘rocky-mountain-man’. I’ve spent an innumerable amount of precious funds on razors, trimmers, creams, gels, lotions, and toners all in a vain effort to control my undying masculine mane.

KC101 blog korean facial hair beard

But now, I shave my entire face slowly and shamefully. I die a little inside with each calculated drag of Gillette’s finest across my face. Lather. Repeat.

Where did I go astray? Why not just let it all hang grow out? When did I become such a sellout?

Believe it or not, in my death metal early 20s heyday I was a member of a hardcore rock band. We produced several albums; two of which I was the singer. Facial hair was a part of the tough, post-emo ‘yeah he’s dirty but at least he’s clean enough to take a shower’ look. I was old man winter. Like a carpenter, I was proud of my work. I cared for it, shampooed it, brushed it and cradled it to sleep. I loved it and it loved me.

But then I had to go and move to Korea.

Suddenly, my fierce furry follicles were no longer miniature objects of sexual desire. No, they were now tell-tale signs of homelessness. If it wasn’t already painfully clear, I now had “외국인” all over my well-carpeted face. I sported the Korean equivalent of a facial mullet. I was a dirty, swine-flu carrying foreigner. I was doing something bad. I was expected to purge myself of these epidermic sins.

So now I cleanse myself of all facial sins three times a week. Sometimes more if I’ve been really evil.

But don’t think for a moment that I’ve lost my edge. Dude, I’m still sooo hardcore. I mean sometimes on the weekends, I even let my facial hair grow out until Sunday night. But you should see it when I shave it. It’s like mad burly. Until bedtime at 8pm after I drink a tall glass of soymilk, I’m rocking out a full millimeter of facial hair. Take that, society.

KC101 blog korean facial hair beard Matthew fresh faced

Yeah. I’m a rebel. I still got it. Just don’t tell my girlfriend.

Classic reading material, isn’t it?

But not everyone buys into it. It’s not that facial hair is completely devoid in Korea it’s just that it’s mostly devoid in Korea.

Some believe it’s due to the simple fact that Koreans are less hairy than Westerners. Others believe that due to social constraints, Koreans are pressured to shave in order to fit into the norm. Others just believe that facial hair is dirty looking.

While there’s certainly no data to back this up, I would guess that some American women like facial hair while others prefer a clean-shaven guy. Perhaps 50/50. Others may even tolerate a full forest of gruff and call it “nice”. Others might puke in their mouth. The difference is that instead of only some American women puking in their own mouths at the sight of questionable chin growth, most Korean women have already puked and are looking for a towel.

The real point here is that Koreans tend to look at facial hair slightly differently than Americans. Where some facial hair might be acceptable in a professional setting, it’s seen as unrefined here. Where a thick man-forest of cheek hair might be a symbol of pure studliness in the states, you just look decrepit in Korea. This shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for most businesspeople. Some American company dress codes require a professional demeanor at all times; to include a fuzz-free face. Also, you should look like you don’t sleep underneath a bridge at night.

So, my fellow hairily confident foreigners, I ask you: what are we to do? Fall in line and recreate a facial version of a baby’s bottom? Or are we doomed to rock out with our hair out? Won’t we look like fuzzy freaks, though?

Well, to those of you thinking that facial hair has a place in Korea, I offer you these fine gentlemen. Surely this is how we must look.
lebowski facial hair korean blog KC101

So, the next time you ask your significant other “면도 해야할거 같아?”, you’ll understand if she hands you the razor with glee. It’s not because she’s madly in love with you. It’s because you looked like a bum.

To get into the more hairy parts of this topic, I suggest this fantastically funny 2005 paper, a interesting post from the walrus blog, and of course everyone’s favorite 교포 has covered this and plenty more at AAK.


In your family, are you the Youngest? Oldest? Middle? (Korean birth order)

출생. Birth Order.

I would venture that most Westerners don’t immediately think of birth order as a common source of personality distinction but that doesn’t mean we don’t think about it. Sure enough, once we get to know someone, we are not surprised once we find out that they are indeed needy for attention because they’re the middle kid. To discover that a bossy ‘A’ type personality is the oldest in her family doesn’t exactly shock us.

As someone who studied early childhood development as an undergraduate, I’m particularly interested in how birth order affects children and their personalities as they develop. Take a look at this chart for a typical Western perspective.

Korean birth order personality KC101

The main difference I find is that Koreans seem to 1) simply ask the question to determine birth order sooner than Westerners and 2) they place slightly more importance on the implications than we do. Other than that, needless stereotypes and broad generalizations seem to exist in both cultures. So, if you’re the youngest and get offended by the following guide, don’t. It’s just a generalization.
So, let’s get some of the language down:

첫째 (맏이) : first born
장남 (맏아들) (長男) : first born son
장녀 (맏딸) (長女) : first born daughter
They can be reliable, have leadership qualities and try to take care of their younger siblings. Traditionally, only sons would inherit all of the family’s power and properties so it would have been natural to be adaptive towards him. The first born daughter has the same responsibilities of taking care of the siblings but has virtually none of the same rights. However, this is changing a little bit.

둘째: the second born
차남(次男) : second born son
차녀(次女) : second born daughter
Always a troublemaker. No responsibilities, no rights, starving for attention. If you will, an alien amongst the siblings. A large number of 둘째 are also 막내 at the same time - especially people born after the 1970s. This trend is due to 박정희’s birth-control policy with its famous catchphrase, “아들 딸 구별 말고 둘만 낳아 잘 기르자.”

셋째 : the third born
삼남 (三男) : third born son
삼녀 (三女) : third born daughter
No special image for third sons but the third daughter is thought to be the most beautiful. This kind of thinking was evident in a traditional song “최진사댁 셋 째딸”. If you’re the third daughter, consider yourself hot.

막내 : the last born / youngest
막내 딸 : youngest daughter
막내 아들 : youngest son
Lovely, playful, outgoing. Sometimes they are considered to be selfish. It’s also common to think that they don’t have any real family responsibilities. 막내 are always a child to his/her siblings. This is especially true for only male 막내 who has only 누나s.

외동 : the only child
외동아들 (독자) (獨子) : only son
외동딸 (독녀) (獨女) : only daughter
Sorry but you guys are considered to be rude, selfish, and self-centered. They always do whatever they want in their home. All other family members support the 외동 as much as they can. Koreans love sons, so if you’re 외아들, you got it made in the shade.

additional notes: If a man has two 누나s, the first one is his 첫째 누나 and the second oldest one would be his 둘째 누나. Also, since we call anybody 오빠/누나/언니/형/동생 if you want to emphasize it’s your real, blood-related 오빠/언니/누나/형/동생 we sometimes put 친 in front of the title. For example, 친형 and 친누나. For more insight on the confusing kinship terms, you know where to look.

So, where were we? Ah yes, over-generalizations.

Take me for example: I’m the cutest one in my family and I know it. I have the least amount of responsibility. I expect everyone to do something for me. It’s awesome. I’m a typical 막내.

Hate me yet? Don’t forget to swallow my blog posts with a heaping spoonful of sarcasm. It tastes better that way.

On the sunny side of things, birth order is enough for some to try to make a living off of guiding people to ‘true love’ using their birth order as a determining factor in their romantic endeavors. No, really. They do. On the fatalistic side of things, some even go as far to claim that birth order helps determine sexual preferences. Another look can be found here, too. I wonder how this plays out in Korea. My guess is that it isn’t even considered…

However, if Korea continues to follow its current trend of low birth numbers, this personality scape-goating may be soon not apply but to only children. Take a look at the fertility rate in Korea, though to see what I’m talking about. Times certainly have changed and they don’t seem to be showing signs of stopping. One has to wonder who will step in and fill in the fertility gap

For more on the subject, this TIME article is nice short read. Here’s a 2004 paper written on the subject for those interested. Three bucks too much to pay? In that case, got an 오백원? Buy this paper about the myths surrounding birth order. And then send me a copy. UPDATE: or just read this hastily copy and paste version, instead. Lastly, this short article is available in both Korean and English.

Korean translation help courtesy of 김선재 and 안효진.


Using two hands to do what you do (nonverbal Korean politeness)

Using two hands.

In Korea, to use one hand to do something is considered to be rude. So stop doing it.

Seriously. But don’t go all out and use two hands to accept liquid hand sanitizer or anything like that but the primary receiving and giving of anything from cash to paper handouts should be done with both hands*. Think of it as a redundancy - if one hand freaks out and shucks you, you still got the other one. You never know when you’ll need the strength of two hands…
Big Strong Hands Two Korean Class 101
Seriously though it’s just one of those cultural nuances that is important and sometimes overlooked. The most common mistake comes from the use of the left hand only. That’s just nasty.

I kid. Come on now, who really thinks about which hand we use? In a Western setting, I never care about it other than in a handshake. If I want to hand something over or receive something, I just do it with whatever hand is most convenient. If I reach for some cash out of my wallet, I’ll hand it over to the clerk without thinking about if I’m using the dirty left or the royal right. I think back to a classroom setting when a teacher hands out papers to the front row and the students are to pass back the handouts to the student behind them. I usually just took one and naturally passed the papers backwards with my left hand while I read the new handout with my right hand.

But, I can appreciate the Korean emphasis on hands. In America, if someone tried to shake my hand with their left hand instead of their right, I might not be overtly offended, but I would be a little perplexed.

But two hands? All the time?

*Sort of. If you’re going to use one hand to pass something, and you’re of sufficient social status, use the right hand only. Otherwise, use both hands to be the most polite. More commonly, use your left hand to support your body - almost as if you point to your elbow with your fingers whilst your palm rests on your upper stomach. Support your elbow but don’t make it into a Klingon rite of passage - make the effort and your politeness is conveyed.

Korean bow two hands polite humble blog KC101

One can easily tell who’s the top dog and who’s the 신입사원 at the drinking table simply by taking a look at the pouring style. Always pouring with the right hand, look at the left hand of the person pouring. The closer the left hand is to the wrist, the more respectable the person is being. No left hand support equals friendship in the sense that two hands are not required.

So what have we learned? Like any culture, there are certain normative expectations associated with politeness. What surprises me is how a firm handshake is not required. I feel like I’m crushing the hands of Korean people I meet simply because I was taught that a nice firm handshake was a way to convey security, trust and friendliness. Likewise, two hands (or one hand supporting the other) conveys humbleness, submission and respect.

Want to get your hands on more Korean hand gesture goodness? Then listen to everyone’s favorite married couple and go eat your kimchi.


Hey little mamma, what’s your type? (Blood type in Korea)

Blood type.

Stop. Ask yourself “What blood type am I?”. Chances are you’re a foreigner in respect to Korea (seeing as how this is an English language blog written for the benefit of foreigners) and that you probably answered with “I don’t know”. More importantly, you might have thought “why should I care?” The short answer? You shouldn’t. But don’t be surprised if other people do.

Well I’m here to lay it on the line. It does matter. Kind of.

See, this whole idea behind looking at someone’s blood type originates from a Japanese belief that blood type determines temperament, compatibility, and pretty much everything else that defines someone. Apparently your blood has been yakking it up. What does it say about you?
Korean Blood Type Personality

This sounds like fun! Let’s compartmentalize the entire planet, shall we? Fall in line and take a look at one of four possible blood personalities that exist:

(for visuals, a chart can be found here)
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Type O - Enter the strong willed, athletic, self-confident power-mongering natural born leaders of society. These goal-orientated risk-takers are ambitious and full of desire. Not surprisingly, they can also come off as ruthless, insensitive, arrogant and bossy. Oh they sound like fun at parties /end sarcasm.

Type A - These conservative, patient, considerate people are a little hesitant to trust people but eventually follow social order and customs as they seem apparent. Being a natural introvert, these perfectionists punctually get the job done whilst not making waves or hurting anyone’s feelings. Their reserved nature sometimes is misinterpreted as uptight, stubborn and obsessive. Cross these types of people only with a solid exit plan.

Type B - These peace loving, tree hugging, passionate, individualistic free spirits are not inhibited by normal social cues. These liberals don’t like to be told what to do and thus prefer to optimistically think outside of the box. Unfortunately, their self-centered nature can make them seem a bit forgetful and irresponsible. In a social-ordered society like Korea, these people probably seem out in left field, if you know what I mean.

Type AB - These calm, cool, rational thinkers make excellent critics and analysts. They are adept at being in control of their emotions and functioning in harmony with other people. Their indecisiveness can give off an unforgiving, critical and disconnected vibe from time to time. They probably can empathize with you, but they also probably don’t care.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -
After reviewing, take a look at this commercial compilation staring everyone’s favorite Korean hip hop group. Can you spot the character traits?

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

This pseudoscience is alive and well in Korea and has taken a new form: Phenotype discrimination. Oh yes. You have B? Seat’s taken. Can’t sit here.

Gump Seat's Taken Kindness Fail

Also, as you can imagine, Korea draws from a very different genetic pool than America. In America, it’s almost equally common to have either O or A blood type. However, in Korea, like the rest of Asia, draws far more from the B blood type pool than any other. Strange considering the stigma attached to such a blood type. Especially B type men. So, we’ve either got a lot of rebel B types running around in secret in Korea or blood type doesn’t matter. Ah… nature versus nurture… my old friend.

Hell, I don’t even know my own blood type…hold up screw let me check. UPDATE: I’m type A. go figure.

Further reading? I like this paper because it’s translated from Korean to English and it features some modern native beliefs about blood type. Also, this post deals more with the Korean advertising giants that use blood type to sell just about anything - even fruit. This article is based more on Japanese culture, but is still worth a good read on type compatibility in relationships (semi-NSFW). And to round things out, here’s a super cute cartoon strip about blood types and how they affect kindergartners. Precious.

In conclusion, many of young Koreans laugh at the idea of using ABO blood type to determine a possible life partner. That being said, it sure might make a couple happy to know that they aren’t in one of the”B” type relationships. *shudder* Take it as you would any other predictor - it’s followed by some, ignored by some, and followed religiously by some. Where do you stand?