Germs in Korea

I am not a germaphobe.  I obey the five-second rule when it comes to fallen food, and i don’t mind picking a bug out of my beer and still drinking it.  However, living in Korea made me feel like a freaked-out-germ-freak.  It turns out that germ awareness is one of the many differences between western and eastern culture.

Two weeks into my teaching contract I had my 25th birthday.  It was anticlimactic.  I had few friends and I’d caught a cold.  I was sick all week, croaking English to my students and spitting discretely into tissues.

My boss told me on a daily basis to see a doctor.  “It’s just a cold.  It’ll pass within a week,” I told her.

After more refusals, she finally said to me, “I think American women are very strong.”

Midweek was my birthday, and the peak of my illness.  My coworkers bought me a cake and sang to me.  “Blow out the candles,” Molly said.

“Oh, I’m sick.  Can someone else blow for me?  I don’t want you all to catch my cold.”  Molly blew out the candles and everyone clapped.  Then they handed me a knife to cut the cake.  “Um… I’m sick.  I don’t think I should handle food,” I said.  They kind of looked at each other as if I was offending them.  Reluctantly, one of my coworkers cut the cake.  I felt like an asshole for preventing the spread of my germs.


I told Frank about the birthday cake incident.  He told me about his experience at a hospital.  “I was getting some blood work done.  So you know, the nurse pricked my finger, took a sample, and then blew on my finger before putting a Band-Aid on.  I was like, ‘you’re blowing on my open wound.’”


I had decided that I’d be a cool teacher and always high-five my students at the end of class.  It was an energetic way to connect with the kids.  It wasn’t long before I noticed there was an extreme lack of hand-washing that happened in the bathrooms.

I remember traveling with a friend and his girlfriend and being surprised that the girlfriend wouldn’t even wash her hands when we were in public bathrooms together.  Even if she didn’t like to wash, you’d think she’d be shamed into it in front of another person.  That kind of thing would no longer surprise me after Korea.

Students often emerged from the one big stall together and walked past the sink and out of the bathroom.  I wondered if no one noticed that the girls around them didn’t wash their hands.  Then I realized that it was a non-issue for them.

Koreans often use a wet washcloth to wipe down their hands before eating, but for the rest of the time, regardless of snack munching, eye rubbing or nail biting, dirty hands seemed to be alright.

What had been cute little kid hands started looking like hand-shaped urine germs.  I stopped high fiving my students within a month.   And soon after, I also started saying “Wash your hands!” to students who tried to leave the bathroom with dirty hands.


My friend taught at her school for over a year.  There were always two bars of soap on the shelf above the sinks.  One was green, and the other was pink.  She preferred the color green to pink, and so she opted for that bar of soap countless times.  One day her coworker saw her liberally coating her hands with the green bar of soap.  Then she informed Lisa that the green soap is only used for cleaning toilets.  So maybe there are things that are worse than not using soap at all.


During one of my classes, we were listing the pros and cons of eating in a restaurant or eating at home.  Almost every child preferred home-cooked food, which I found endearing.  I asked them why homemade food was better.  “You can taste the mother’s sincerity,” one student said.

“It is clean and not recycled,” another student said.  I asked her to explain what she meant, thinking perhaps she didn’t like leftovers.  “Korean restaurants take food that is not finished and give it to the next family,” she explained.  “Food at home is always new.”

I was slightly disgusted.  Digging into a central dish of food with your chopsticks meant sharing germs with the people around you, but at least you go into those situations knowing who you’re sharing with.  But the remains from the meals of strangers?  Well, at least it was environmentally friendly.

My friends Amber and Chris taught for a year in Busan before moving to Pohang.  They told me of a restaurant that they ate at every day.  “All the food there was reused,” Amber told me.  “You could see them dumping unfinished soup back into the pot.  And sometimes we’d find hair and things in our food.”

“And you still ate there?”

“Oh yeah, we went there every day for lunch.  It was so cheap and it tasted great.”  When in Korea, eat reused food, I suppose.


Korean street food is one of the least appealing things to me, partially because most of it is a meaty nightmare for vegetarians, and partially because of the germ factor.  Typically the food comes on a stick and is resting in some sort of bin with other food on sticks.  Some are guaranteed to be meat, others look like a foamy and bread-like.  There is usually a few choices of dipping sauces, most of which smell spicy.  These sauces aren’t put into individual containers, but rather they are shared with everyone who decides to eat this food.  It is a double dipping feast between all the strangers of a city.


One of my absolute favorite things in Korea was the lack of laws about open alcohol.  It didn’t take long for me to teach all of my friends the delights of road soadies.  Whenever we had a longer cab ride in front of us, we’d take a beer along.  Even Claire, who didn’t like beer, had to admit that when you’re in the back of a taxi, beer tastes pretty damn good.

One weekend I was meeting up with the girls in a neighboring city and had a long, lone taxi ride ahead of me.  They were finishing dinner, and I had not eaten.  I stopped into a corner store to get a road soadie for the ride.  I grabbed a package of crackers and some individually wrapped string cheese as well.

The cheese, if eaten back to back with Wisconsin cheese, would probably taste like plastic.  However, in Korea cheese was a rarity, and foreigners treated it like gold.

I hailed a taxi and got inside.  I gave the driver instructions for the beach I wanted to get to, and then I opened up my beer and the snacks.  The cab driver spoke a bit of Korean to me, the end of it which I recognized as “please give me.”  What does he want? I wondered.

“I’m sorry, I’m American, I don’t speak Korean,” I told him in Korean.

“Biscuit!”  He said.

I laughed a little and handed him a few crackers.  “In English, ‘crackers,’” I said.  He munched away, happily.  He turned to look at me as I loaded a cracker with a chunk of cheese.  “Cheeje-uh,” I explained, using the Konglish version of ‘cheese’.

He nodded in understanding then twisted in his seat again to look at my food.  I ripped off a piece of cheese, topped a cracker with it, and passed it forward.  He gobbled it up and called it delicious.

I had to smile.  Never in my life would I want a stranger to use their hands to rip apart cheese that I was about to eat.  And never in my life had a cab driver asked for some of the food I was eating.


One weekend I went to a nearby city with my friends.  Busan was more foreigner- filled than Pohang, and the

refore held more foreign foods!  It also had a glorious beach.  We sat out for hours, occasionally wading into the icy ocean water, then running back to our towels to lay out some more.

I was wearing a one-piece swimsuit and the beach bathroom had a wet, sandy floor and two stalls with squatting toilets.  When I had to pee, I chose to walk to the fast food restaurants across the street so as to use a clean restroom.

I was in line for the Burger King bathrooms.  Three pre teenage girls were standing in the ladies room eating their hamburgers.  They didn’t seem to be in line, so I assumed they were waiting for a friend or sister.  I watched them and wondered why they wouldn’t wait outside where they could eat at a table instead of near a sink inside a public bathroom.  The last stall door opened and their friend came out.  She turned, reached back into her stall and picked up her half-eaten hamburger which had been resting on top of the toilet paper dispenser.  She resumed eating and the girls all walked out together.

I was horrified.

I really didn’t think there could be anything worse than eating in a public bathroom until later that weekend.  We were on our way back to Pohang, slightly sunburned and slightly hungover.  We rode through Busan’s subway to the main bus station.  We all decided to use the bathrooms before boarding our bus.

I was waiting in line and scanning the stalls.  Respect for age is another major difference between Asian culture and western culture.  Because of this, old ladies regularly cut off people younger than them in lines.  It struck me as rude.  If I saw an ajuma (old lady) lurking in a bathroom, I made a point to not be skipped.  Since I was the foreigner in their country, I was probably the one with the rude manners in doing this, but after months of jaw-dropping shock, I had found holding my ground to be a way to keep from becoming an angry person.

A stall near me opened up and I prepared to dart in.  The woman walking out was brushing her teeth!  I mean, she had foam built up around her lips, toothbrush in hand as she worked on her molars in the middle of a bus station bathroom.  I stood still, staring at the tooth brushing lady, so appalled that I almost lost my stall to an ajuma.

(written in 2010)


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Filed under Asia, South Korea

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