Now that I'm approaching having lived and worked in Korea for 18 months, I feel like I have enough of a grasp on Korean culture to be able to properly fill you in on the nuances.
If you're like me and like to be an informed traveler, you have come to the right place. I'm going to explain some things to be aware of when you visit Korea.
It's true! Koreans bow to show respect to one another. Koreans will mostly greet and exit with a quick bow. There is no hierarchy for whom you should and should not give a bow to. The more you do it, the more respectful you come across.
It's nothing too complicated. As you say hello or goodbye just have your hands at your side and give a quick and slight upper body bow.
Eating Out - What's Mine Is Yours
Unlike most western cultures, when you go out to eat, meals are not ordered individually. First and foremost, traditional Korean cuisine often comes with several different sides like sauces and small eats. These are to be shared amongst everyone at the table.
You order meals with the intention to share it amongst everyone at the table. It's commonplace for the waiters and waitresses to put the food in the middle of the table and work their way out as more sides come out from the kitchen. Grabbing the dish and putting it in front of yourself will garner funny looks from other patrons and the restaurant employees.
Eating Out - Sitting On The Floor
Most restaurants a traveler to Korea will experience will have a very standard seating arrangement. However, some traditional restaurants you might walk into may require sitting on the ground. You'll have a pad you'll be able to sit on but you will have to be comfortable sitting crossed-legged for an extended period of time. It's not as bad as it sounds and the food will be totally worth it. I promise.
Eating Out - The Table Bell
Restaurants in Korea have tables equipped with an electronic bell on the end. Pressing the button will alert the wait staff on a board they can see with your table number. They'll come scurrying to your table.
In the modern versions of western cultures, we hesitate to bother wait staffs with requests. In Korea, it's totally normal to ring the bell. Don't feel like you're a bother. I'm not saying go crazy but, when you need a refill or you're ready to order your food, hit the button!
Eating Out - Loud Eaters
In western cultures we see smacking lips, slurping foods, and chewing with our mouths open as inconsiderate or rude. In Korea, it's actually a compliment! How so? Well, if the chef hears you slurping your noodles or smacking your tongue and lips, they know you're enjoying your food.
Honestly, as an American, this has been the hardest thing to get used to. 18 months later, I'm still finding myself getting annoyed when I hear people inhaling their food.
It's just something you'll have to cope with when you visit and Koreans aren't the only ones in the neighborhood who do it. They do it in Japan as well.
Tipping in Korea is not a thing. Don't even try. Tipping in cabs is seen as offensive. When eating out, if you insist on tipping the wait staff will always reaffirm if you are sure you want to leave them a tip. Sometimes to the point of running after you when exiting the establishment.
Koreans, on an ethnic standpoint, all have jet black or dark brown hair. The same goes for their eye color.
Korean men have a very standardized haircut style. Not every single Korean male sports this haircut, but, in my experience, I'd say about 90% of Korean males do.
Since Koreans naturally have the same hair color, it makes it a bit harder to stand out individually among the crowds so it makes sense that men wear a standard haircut style.
*I'm sure there is a lot more to it than just this*
The top of the head is a bowl cut while the sides and the back of the head are shaved very close to the scalp. A buzzcut style shave along the sides and the back of the head, if you will.
For Koreans, its common place to always be doing something. Working, going out to eat and drink with friends or family, hiking, and PC Cafe's just to name a few popular things to do. It's not common to hear or see Koreans living a sedentary lifestyle.
Korea is not a large country by any means. With space being so limited, a lot of Koreans live in tight quarters with their families. Staying home and binge watching Netflix is just something that Koreans don't do.
You'll notice older Koreans on city subway or busses with their walking sticks and their hiking attire. They're always out adventuring and hiking.
Because of this it's no surprise Koreans average some of the longest lifespans of anyone on earth. In fact, Korean women are expected to soon become the first female group to average a lifespan of 90 years or more.
Couples sometimes (not always!) wear matching outfits. Most often it's not a matching outfit but just the same shirt.
Call it cute. Call it weird. There is a reason for it.
Koreans do wear wedding rings after getting married, but, unlike in western cultures, the wedding ring is mostly seen and worn as an accessory. It's not uncommon to remove the wedding ring in Korea. Some don't wear one at all.
This doesn't mean they aren't happily married.
This is where the matching outfits come in handy in showing, "we're together."
Taking Off Your Shoes
In Korea, shoes are seen as dirty. More specifically it's targeted at the soles of the shoe.
When entering a home or a hotel room, there will always be a small area just inside the door where you take your shoes off and leave them. You are not supposed to wear your shoes inside a home or hotel room.
This is also applicable at traditional restaurants as well. There will be an area just inside the entrance where you are to take your shoes off. Restaurants will have a shoe rack and will probably have slippers you can put on.
This is not applicable to foreigners, but when working in Korea, it's common for Korean employees to take their shoes off and substitute them with slippers at their place of work.
Koreans wave goodbye to their friends and family with not one, but two hands!
If you pay really close attention, when you see Koreans speaking to someone, you'll notice they say, 데 "dey," a lot. All it means is Ok.
In Korean culture, when you listen to someone talk, you're supposed to acknowledge you're listening to them. So you'll hear Koreans constantly saying 데. All they're doing is acknowledging they're still listening. It's another sign of respect and being polite.
When Koreans accept possessions, like cashiers taking money or credit cards when you're purchasing something, they will do so with two hands. It's a sign of respect. If they don't accept the money or credit card with two hands they will take it with their right hand while placing their left hand lightly on their right forearm or by placing their left hand lightly on their abdomen. This applies to anything you hand to someone, not just money.
The Korean writing system is called Hangul and it was created in 1446 under the leadership and guidance of King Sejong. For this, King Sejong is a beloved figure in Korean history.
To those of us who come from languages using the Latin alphabet, Hangul may seem like an alien writing system. It might seem like it's impossible to learn and translate.
That couldn't be farther from the truth. Hangul is an extremely scientific, yet simple writing system. It makes a lot of sense after you learn the sounds attributed to the 24 letters of Hangul.
It won't take you long to learn how to read and write in Hangul if you commit to putting in the effort to learning it. There are some really helpful videos on YouTube that will help you learn just as well as an expensive language program.
Trash bags aren't a thing in Korea. If you need a bag to put your trash in, you'll have to use a plastic shopping bag from a local supermarket or store. Those bags aren't free either. You'll have to pay a, "tax" for the bag.
In Korea, you'll also notice that public trashcans are hard to find. In Korean culture, you're expected to clean up after yourself. "Leave where you were cleaner than you found it."
If you read the part about Koreans being active, you'll remember I mentioned that Korea is small and space is tight. Most Koreans live in close quarters with family or friends. If you have a significant other, it's hard to find alone time. If people are around...I think you get the idea and this needs no further explanation.
The Korean War never actually ended. It's just the Korean Armistice Agreement signed on July 27th, 1953 hasn't been broken for over 24,000 days (thankfully).
Since 1957 it has been compulsory that all Korean males must enlist for two years between the ages of 18-28. This makes it extremely common to see men walking around in military uniform.
They literally don't have a choice in the matter. Most of them hate it. Many of the Koreans I have spoken to that have done their time say it's a waste of two good years of their lives.