7 Quirky Korean Habits I’ve Picked Up

Within my first week of living in Korea, I was able to identify a number of oddities that seem to be common here. While there are certainly some peculiar ones that I refuse to identify with or support (I’m looking at you, adult Korean women throwing temper tantrums in public), there are definitely some goofy idiosyncrasies that I have grown quite fond of.

1. Making a V, or peace sign when taking photographs

One thing I observed immediately is that literally almost every expat has a tagged photographs featuring themselves holding a peace sign by their eye in nearly any scenario. While I wasn’t necessarily against it, I never thought I would be throwing deuces in nearly every photo I take.

Quirky habits of Koreans

Houston, we have a problem.

2. Saying “uh” when I’m speaking to others

Something that confused the heck out of me when I first moved here is the fact that people say, “uh” as a replacement for “yes,” “I understand” or “I agree with you.” Realistically, Koreans can answer a phone, saying “uh” a few times in a row to whoever he or she is speaking to and it can be considered a conversation. I was baffled by this when I first moved here, but I often tend to utter “uh” or “mm” when I’m speaking to others. This is definitely a habit I’m trying to break before I leave.

3. Bowing to strangers and my elders

This is definitely something that I feel I will [awkwardly] continue to do post-Korea. I notice myself doing it to just about everyone and I feel like I can’t break the habit. Although it’s just a slight nod, I can imagine how strange I will look when I return to America for a quick visit and I accept my money with both hands and do a slight bow. I appreciate this so much and I wish we had a gesture as wonderfully simple to show respect in my home country.

4. Not using a knife

Koreans just seem to have a way with efficiency. When cutting food such a meat or pancakes, Koreans often use food scissors, which is so perfect that it makes me wonder why people in the west haven’t jumped on this trend. In addition, why use a knife when the chopsticks in front of you can serve the same purpose?

Below, there’s an example of the meat cutting. The people in the video are Nomadic Samuel and Audrey of That Backpacker, both bloggers who used to live here in Korea. Check out their pages – they’re inspirational!

5. Crossing my hands to form an “X” 

Koreans tend to be a bit over-the-top with just about everything. Their gestures and unique sound effects are absolutely incredible and something that I find totally endearing. One of the funniest things I’ve adopted is using my hands to make an “X” while I’m saying “no” in just about any situation. Chances are, it’s totally strange elsewhere in the world, so I’ll just enjoy it being the norm while it lasts.

6. Being on high alert while walking on the street

I’ve zoomed my bike in and out of traffic on Chicago’s busy streets countless times as well as darted through the city’s traffic by foot, but nothing compares to merely casually walking to complete daily tasks in Seoul.

My apartment is situated down a narrow back alley in Gangnam, which makes for exhilarating experiences. Each morning on my walk to work, I encounter a combination of trucks clattering about, motorbike drives weaving their vehicles around people as well as cars and motorbikes zipping by on the sidewalk. Another adventure? Crossing the street at a crosswalk. Regardless whether the pedestrians have the right-away, it’s always best to assume that a motorbike or car may continue to go through the light.

Pro-tip: Wait for the Koreans to  begin walking if you’re crossing a busy street. They usually wait a few split seconds after the light turns green.

7. Using Konglish

Koreans have their own fabricated version of the English language which is often referred to as Konglish. While I’ve grown fond of some of the phrases, I still kick myself when I’m caught using said language.

One of the most popular expressions is “take a rest.” When I ask my co-teachers what they did over the weekend, they often respond by saying something along the lines of, “I didn’t do too much, I just take a rest.” While this obviously means, “relax” or “chill,” and it’s totally goofy and cute, I draw the line at the fact that this phrase is often taught in Korean grammar books. No, Korea!

Another common term is “hand phone.” Koreans refer to their smartphones as “hand phone” for unknown reasons. Sure, I understand that we hold the device in our hands, but it seems a bit redundant as we don’t use similar terms for any other tangible items. Can you imagine saying things like “hand pencil” or “head cap?” I can’t. At any rate, I say “take a rest” all the time at work and I hate myself for it.

There’s one thing for sure: Korea has changed me in a number of ways. I can’t be sure which habits I’ll hold onto and which ones will be left behind, but I appreciate all these quirky Korean habits and the memories that come with them!

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12 Comments

  1. November 5, 2015 / 12:30 am

    I’ve definitely caught myself doing these in Japan! Hahaha. Especially the “take a rest.”

  2. November 6, 2015 / 1:56 am

    I definitely do the bowing and the hand crossing thing. I visited the US in January and found myself bowing to everyone. It was so strange. I also do the underhand ‘come here’ beckon which is going to have to stop before I leave here.

  3. November 6, 2015 / 8:37 am

    The Singaporeans say “hand phone”as well…! I totally make peace signs now too… Well, at least I’m Asian, it would almost be rude not to! HA

  4. November 9, 2015 / 9:58 pm

    This is too funny. I left Korea earlier this year and I can’t believe I’ve already forgotten so many of these things! I was ALWAYS putting my arms into an X. My bf would be like umm I speak English, you can just say no.

    I found your blog on Easy Expat and your interview was really inspiring and heartfelt. Looking forward to following along with your adventures!

    • lauranalin88@gmail.com
      November 9, 2015 / 11:34 pm

      Thanks so much for reaching out! The X arm thing is so weirdly cute and, well, Korean. I love your blog as well =) My boyfriend and I will be heading on the road for a few months starting next spring and the “How to Travel With Your Boyfriend Without Killing Eachother” was the first post I clicked on. I’m looking forward to reading other posts. Where are you guys now?

  5. November 11, 2015 / 2:47 pm

    Great read 🙂 how do you like Seoul compared to other parts of Korea?

    • lauranalin88@gmail.com
      November 14, 2015 / 5:26 am

      Thanks! I’ve traveled quite a bit throughout the country and I have to say I enjoy the ease of Seoul. Don’t get me wrong, I love taking the buses out in the countryside and exploring those lesser frequented parts, but I like that I am so close to everything living in the city. With that said, I think the personality and energy in Seoul can be a bit daunting as it’s so hectic. I like Busan as it’s a bit more laid back while still having some of the amenities of a bigger city. What are your thoughts on Seoul?

  6. November 12, 2015 / 2:04 am

    Oh man this list is on point! I was nodding my way through it! I think I have picked up the same habits! EEEK. I wonder if I will continue to do these odd things when I return home in a few months?

  7. November 12, 2015 / 4:48 am

    I have totally experience all of these except for #2 and I totally don’t miss #6. It’s sad that sidewalks are not a safe haven for pedestrians. I’ve had someone back up their car onto the sidewalk and nearly hit my son’s stroller. Since moving to Japan, I don’t have that problem anymore. For the most part, the customs in Korea are similar to Japan. Nice list!

  8. November 12, 2015 / 11:50 am

    Hey nice post!

    I’ve definitely picked up on a few of these things! I actually like using chopsticks much more now and will probably continue to do so when I leave Korea. The X has been useful while teaching some classes but hopefully I won’t bow to everyone once I”m gone!

  9. November 17, 2015 / 12:26 am

    YES YES YES! Totally agree! i do all of these things as well! Having a Korean boyfriend doesn’t make it better haha. I use such a weird English when I’m speaking with him sometimes…. 😀

  10. January 12, 2016 / 4:21 pm

    I’ve been out of Korea for over a year and I still catch myself putting my right hand on my left forearm when I pay for things or randomly saying Korean words (kansamneda and chincha (sorry my english spelling of korean words is terrible) to people who have no clue what I am saying.

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