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Archive for the 'How Koreans Do It' Category

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.