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.
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!