Korean customs faux pas.

Last week’s #ttot (travel talk on twitter) revolved around different customs around the world.  I was amazed at some of the traditions and figures of speech that are so unique and different from our own.  My favorite figure of speech snafu was from Leah from Leah’s Travels

It’s an adjustment for everyone involved. [I] had an Indian kid tell me they busted crackers to celebrate independence from Great Britain.  I thought he meant they beat up white people! BAHAHAHAHHA! I laughed when I figured out he was talking about fireworks.

It got me thinking about all of the custom faux pas that we made while we were in Korea.  Thankfully, we had very patient Korean friends who were more than happy to teach us about their culture.  To prevent others from making the same mistakes we did, we decided to list a few of the major customs and superstitions that might end up getting you in trouble.

Writing names in red pen

source.

Oh how I wish someone would have told me about this superstition before I entered my classroom on my first day of teaching.  I wanted to learn all of my student’s names early on.  Being a visual learner, I decided to write all of their names on the board at the beginning of class.  I grabbed my trusty red board marker and had almost all of their names up before they entered the room.  Well done me.

What ensued was absolute chaos.  As soon as all the students sat down and looked at the board, they immediately began screaming and pointing in Korean.  I couldn’t quite understand them, but I’m pretty sure one of them shouted, “ugly devil teacher” at me!   There was one little girl that squished herself in the corner of the room, tears streaming down her face.  Something was obviously not right.

My co-teacher must have heard all the commotion because she rushed in, took one look at the students, then at the white board and gasped.  She began frantically erasing all the names that I had carefully written.  “You must never, ever write names in red pen”, she warned me.  “It is a bad sign and will bring bad luck and death.”

Oh.  Just bad luck and death, you say?

No wonder my students flipped their shit.  They thought I had death wishes on them.  Twas a great way to start my teaching experience.  Not.  Another heads up- the number 4 also has the same connotations as our number 13.  Careful how you use it.

Take your shoes off. 

Yeah yeah yeah.  I’m sure this is common knowledge to most of you, but did you know that you also have to take off your shoes when you go to most Korean gyms?  It’s true.  While it doesn’t mean that you exercise bare foot, you are expected to  bring shoes that are only for gym purposes.

Homes, restaurants, gyms, and even schools will require you to remove your kicks.  Make sure that you always have a spare pair of socks with you.  They’ll keep your feet clean and prevent small Korean children from making fun of your toes.

Giving and receiving things with two hands.

In Korea, it is considered extremely rude to hand things to someone or accept anything with only one hand.  Be it money, a magazine, or even while pouring a drink- you must always use two hands.  You can use one, but make sure it’s supported by your other hand in some way.

Don’t have two hands?  I think they’ll understand.   Do have two hands?  Use them.

This is a custom that is very subtle and something we didn’t even realize after our first two months in Korea.  It wasn’t until our good friend, a taekwondo master, carefully and kindly explained it to us.  Now, even back in the States, I get secretly offended when someone only uses one hand, or worse, tosses something to me.  No hands?  How dare they…

Important Korean customs when drinking (copious amounts) of alcohol.  

Never pour a drink for yourself. 

You heard me.  When out eating and drinking in a group of people, or even one other person, never pour your own drink.  Simply wait for someone to pour it for you.  Koreans are very good about noticing when your glass is empty and will often refill it before you even have the chance to realize it.

Foreigners, not so much.  Sometimes you’ll have to subtly tap your glass, or cough while looking at your empty cup.  If that doesn’t work, grab your throat and pretend that you’re parched and dying of thirst.  Our Hapkido master used to look at us, hold up his cup, and ask, “Are you busy?”  That’s when we knew that we failed our refilling duties.

That brings us to our next point…

Don’t let anyone’s glass be empty. 

Empty bottles means full cups... I hope.

Now that you know that one cannot pour their own drink, be careful that you’re aware enough to do it for them.  If you see an empty glass on the table, fill it- using both hands.  Simple as that.  If you do notice and don’t do anything about it, you’re kind of a douche.

Drink with your superiors.

These men would school you in a drinking competition.

Um, what?  Yes, I’m telling you to drink with your superiors.  Or at least drink when they drink.  Actually, also drink when they tell you to drink.  It’s Korean tradition to never deny a drink from anyone who’s your superior.  By “superior” I mean boss, martial arts master, or anyone who’s older than you.  BAM.  A lot of people, right?  When people ask me how we went through 17 bottles of soju in one night with our hapkido master, I refer to this rule.

In conclusion, follow these simple steps and you should blend right in the next time you’re in Korea.  We don’t have time to talk about fan death, corporal punishment, or the fun game children play where they shove their index fingers up your anus this time.  You’ll have to stay tuned for those.

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3 Comments

  1. Sam @ Sam's Playground
    November 8, 2011 at 11:32 am - Reply

    Nice piece. I can only imagine your horror when you learnt about the red pen dogma. European culture could use a little more dedication to the drinking rules too.

    • Captain & Clark
      November 8, 2011 at 1:27 pm - Reply

      No kidding, right? My liver is either going to become a super organ or drop out one morning.

  2. Chrystal McKay
    October 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    Seeing as I am not the best kid friendly person, if my entire classroom started to scream at me I’d probably start to scream too wondering is the apocalypse was coming! But I like these customs – thanks for sharing – I would get everything wrong if I went to Korea without you.

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