Every country has its own cultural quirks.
In Canada, we do strange things with our dairy. We serve milk from bags, are completely obsessed with Kraft Dinner macaroni and cheese, and douse gravy-covered french fries with a mountain of cheese curds.
I’ve embraced a lot of the quirkiness of Korean culture. I have rediscovered the full mobility of my spine now that I bow several dozen times a day. I also now speak a new language – Konglish, Koreanized English. I catch myself communicating with others by saying things like “same same” and “changey” and emphasizing the d’s and t’s at the end of words by saying deu and teu. Does your store accept debit cardeuuu? Where is the closest shopping marteuuu?
But, even though I’ve grown accustomed to a lot in Korea, there are just some things I’ll never get used to.
It’s 5 degrees. Why are the windows open? It’s 2 degrees. Why are the windows open? It’s 0 degrees. Why are the windows open?! I would ask myself these questions every day at work for the last four months.
Canadian winters are cold. Yes. But, I think I may have just endured an even more chilling winter.
Every day I come to work, I enter through the main entrance. I was shocked on the first cold day of winter that the door at this entrance was propped open. Maybe it was a mistake?
No. I was wrong.
Every single day of the cold Korean winter, the door of this entrance would already be propped open. I would proceed to my classroom down the hallway. Every window along that hallway would also be propped open. I would then try to seek refuge from the crisp winter chill in my classroom. But, we weren’t allowed to turn on the heating. Ugh! Korea and its noble energy-saving initiatives!
Still today, my students, my coworkers and myself come to school with our arctic-quality, hooded, down coats zipped all the way up and entertain ourselves by watching clouds of our own breath during classroom discussions. Fortunately, spring is just around the corner. Now, I’ll only have to wear a puffy down jacket at work.
Questionable English Translations
I may never get used to English translations in Korea, but, why would I want to?
Korean to English translations, which are plastered on everything from storefront signs, t-shirts and sweatshirts, to hand soap dispensers and toilet seat covers, are delightfully lost in translation. I often chuckle to myself when exploring a new neighbourhood while studying storefront signs, or, when I’m browsing shelves or clothing racks while shopping. These translation mishaps can be just one word out of place that changes the entire meaning of the intended message, or, something that is just absolutely absurd altogether.
I am completely guilty of purchasing clothing with these questionable English translations. And I don’t plan on stopping.
I never knew what sweet was until I moved to Korea. Koreans love their sugar, which seems to creep its way into a bunch of dishes where it doesn’t typically belong.
During my third week in Korea, I went to a fried chicken restaurant with a group of friends. While browsing the endless list of fried chicken variations on the menu, my eyes were drawn to the short salad section. No! Not because I was about to order a salad! I didn’t come to a fried chicken restaurant to eat salad! I saw a perplexing picture in the salad section. A pile of leafy greens, covered in a mountain of shredded cabbage, surrounded by a ring of cherry tomatoes, topped with a massive scoop of vanilla ice cream. Huh? I stuck to fried chicken that evening.
Ever since my discovery of ice cream salad, I began to notice other savoury Western foods that were transformed into desserts. Corn dogs smothered with a thick coating of sugar; potato chips, covered in honey or caramel (butter caramel Pringles, anyone?); ooey gooey sweet cheese pizza – all pizza in Korea (even savoury types, like pepperoni or chicken) seems to be made with a strangely sweet cheese (if you’re feeling like adding an extra dimension of oh-so-delicious and sweet carbs, add the sweet potato paste!); and, simple toast – toast at cafes and restaurants is served with a towering dollop of whip cream, then drenched with a small pool of honey sauce and butter.
I definitely need to go to my dentist the moment I land in Toronto.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning. I was slowly waking up, half-dreaming of the chocolate chip banana pancakes I was about to whip up for myself, when all of a sudden I heard the deep sound of a man’s voice inside of my apartment. OH MY GOD. My heart stopped.
I jumped out of bed and immediately started looking around my bedroom for any sort of item that I could use to attack my brunch-sabotaging intruder. Nothing. It seemed that my bedroom, full of sweaters with bad English translations and the pizza box with the remainder of last night’s dessert, proved to be a disadvantageous location to be in when faced with a home invasion situation.
I had to face the home invader with my bare hands.
I slowly opened the door to the battlefield. His voice became louder. I peeped through the opening, but I couldn’t see enough of the area. I knew I had to be the one to surprise my surprise house guest. I threw the door open and jumped out. The man’s voice boomed even louder. I did a quick 360 on the spot. Not a soul in sight. Was this a dream? What the heck?! Was I delusional?
The voice persisted. It was coming from above. Korean God, is that you?! I walked towards the voice. Huh?! I had a PA system built into my ceiling? I’ve been living here for 8 months and never noticed this?! No, this was not Korean God. This was a Korean man making a building-wide announcement directly into our apartments, of which I didn’t understand a single word of it. It’s times like these I wish I understood more conversational Korean than “nice to meet you” and “did you find that pork belly delicious”? For the record, barbecue pork belly is always delicious. Since this incident, I have been graced with the voice of my building’s superintendent on two other occasions.
This was one of those moments in life when we do something really embarrassing with no one around to see it, but for some reason still feel so embarrassed we feel like packing up our lives and moving to another country. I mean, I hear Canada is really nice…
My laundry machine is on my balcony. An unfamiliar concept for a Westerner like myself. Back in Canada, I do my washing inside my house.
When I had first moved to Korea in the summertime, I didn’t mind having to go outside to do the washing of my very stinky socks (Korean summers are ultra sweaty). In fact, I would find myself sometimes lingering outside on my balcony while listening to the humming of the washing machine… until I realized I had cockroaches. I now listen to the humming of my washing machine from inside my apartment.
But, I still have to venture outside to use my washing machine. I now have mastered how to do this quick enough to avoid an exchange with cockroaches. But, I can’t seem to perform this chore quick enough to avoid an exchange with Old Man Winter. By the time I finish removing my clothes from the machine, my hands are covered with third degree frostbite and icicles are hanging from my tear-coated eyelashes. It’s a tryingly emotional experience each time I do laundry. So much so, that sometimes I opt to turn my stinky socks inside out and give them another wear.
Korea continues to excite me every day that I live here.
I’m constantly faced with cultural oddities that I am able to quickly embrace or that are so strange that I will never understand them. I’m eager to see what I’m faced with during the rest of my time in Korea and to tell you all about it!
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