Only In Korea: 7 Things You Won’t See In North America

1. Beating sticks

 *the bottom of a teacher’s stick*

Corporal punishment is common in Korean schools.  Bosses participate in it and some parents even call in and encourage it.

I’d heard that this was the case in Korea, but at my academy the worst I saw was teachers making students stand with their arms up for a long time, or hold a stack of books.  I got into it a little, occasionally flicking the foreheads of students who didn’t do their homework.  I have a weak flick, and it’s a common penalty for losing in rock-scissors-paper, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.

However, public schools seemed to be a little more hardcore.

“My first day of work I saw a teacher punch a student in his dick,” one friend told me.

“We have various beating sticks,” another said.  “They’re different lengths and widths depending on the punishment.  And some are bedazzled.”

Then I heard a ridiculous story.  “Today my coworker broke a student’s nose.  The kid was resting his head on his desk and the teacher swung his fist upward and smashed the kid’s face.  The only punishment for the teacher is he has to buy a new uniform for the student because the blood ruined the uniform he was wearing.”

It’s hard for foreign teachers to adjust to this, as most of this is straight up criminal in the west.  However, Koreans grow up with this and are used to it.  My Korean friend told me that when he was in school, students who were late had to go to the front of the room, drop down into push up position, and then get hit with a stick.  They were hit once along their back for every minute that they were late.

My American friend taught at a high school in Korea.  “My coworkers can’t understand how people punish students without beating them,” she said.  “They ask me about it and they’re genuinely curious.”

2. Fascination with white skin

This was completely disarming when I was new to Korea.  When a group of Asian strangers approached me with a camera, my instinct was to take a picture of them.  In reality, what they typically want in this situation is to say “hello!” or “you are beautiful” and have a photo taken of them and the white person they met that day.In time, this would be expected.  But at first, the attention I received just for being white was unsettling.

Two paychecks into my job in Korea, I went to Seoul for a weekend away.  On the ride back, I was the only non-Korean on the bus, as usual.  I was in rough shape from the bar-hopping I’d done the night before.  I spent most of the ride sound asleep.  At a rest stop, the man beside me bought two cans of coffee and gave one to me.  I thanked him and shared some of my chips, charmed by the random kindness.  The man was happy that I’d woken up and tried to use all of his English and make a conversation.

“Hello.  I’m businessman,” he said.

“Nice to meet you. I’m a teacher.”

He pulled out his phone and began clicking through his pictures.  “My work, my work,” he said, as each new picture revealed mountains and tools.  The final picture was of me sleeping.  “You!”  He smiled.

I stared at the picture, feeling uncomfortable.  Yep, it was definitely me, mouth slightly opened, eyes closed with yesterday’s makeup still showing.  Disgusting.

I looked at the man who was proudly smiling and nodding at me.  “You!” he said again.  I forced a smile back at him and stayed awake for the rest of the journey.

Only in Korea, I thought to myself as he continued staring into his phone.

3. Frequently Passed-Out Businessmen

Having been a bartender in Milwaukee, I’d seen my share of wasted people.  Yet nothing quite compares to the belligerency that I witness regularly in Korea.

Koreans often live similarly to 1950’s Americans; men go to work, women stay home with the kids and do housework.  On the weekends and some week nights men go out drinking with their male friends.  I live across the street from a small restaurant and every night I see men, still in business suits staggering to taxis.  Usually they hold each other up for support and ease one another into the back seat of the taxi.

This drunkenness isn’t too startling.  Soju is a Korean liquor distilled from rice and it’s dirt cheap.  I too, have felt the creeper effect of soju catching up with my brain, much like these middle-aged men.

What does shock me is seeing the men passed out on the streets.  Typically they’ll be passed out along the sidewalk, suit jacket open, shirt wrinkled, tie loosened at the neck.  Sometimes the men are accompanied by a puddle of puke, but other than that, they are alone.

Mostly it just makes me sad.  I look at the men wondering what their wives think when they stumble home the next day, smelling of old soju and vomit.

4. Couple’s Clothing

Koreans have a serious gender divide.  Men hang out with men, and women with women.  Foreign men and women hang out together in big groups, and probably look so strange to Koreans.   The only time Korean men and women seem to hang out together is if they are out with their significant other.  Couples are easy to spot in Korea, as they tend to dress alike.

I’m not really sure how this began.  My foreign friends like to joke that dressing alike seems like a way you’d punish your boyfriend.  But in Korea, it’s just a cute way to show your status.

Sometimes the couple will just wear a matching shirt.  Maybe this is if they’ve just become exclusive but aren’t really serious yet.

Serious couples will match their shirts, pants, shoes, and even handbags.

I guess it’s one way to publically display your love.

5. Lack of Car Seats

My coworker wanted to drive me to see a temple at a nearby city.  I suggested that he bring his wife and baby if he was going to spend the day with me.  He pulled up to my house on a Saturday morning and I ran out of the house and into the passenger seat of his van.As soon as I’d sat down and closed the door, his wife passed their baby forward.  I hadn’t even buckled myself in yet, and here I was holding an infant.

“She’s so cute!”  I said.  I peeked back, and saw that the car had a baby bag and a stroller, but no car seat in it.  My coworker started slowly driving, and I struggled to hold his child, buckle myself in, and hide how appalled I was.

I pulled her against me and tried to wrap my arms around her like a human car-seat.  All I could think about was the airbag in front of me.  After about 20 minutes, I passed the baby back to her mother.

I wasn’t sure if I had an irresponsible coworker or if this was custom.  But as time went on, I saw it more frequently in passing cars.  Babies in car seats are not the norm in South Korea.

6. Squatter Toilets

In Korea, many restaurants and subway stations will have squatter toilets rather than seats in their restrooms.  I learned that this is biologically a more proper position for pooping, and marveled at my years of shitting incorrectly.

As a female who has mastered the skill of nature-peeing, I found squatters to be easy to use.  However, I quickly learned that men tend to have some trouble with these kinds of toilets.

First, my friend Andrew complained about them.  “I can’t tell which way to face,” he said.  “Plus, my balls hit the porcelain part.”

All the girls demonstrated how to squat, but he still found it baffling.  When we went camping, he asked me about the public bathroom down the road.  “Are there toilets there?”

“Nope.  Squatters.”

“Damn.”  He sighed and shook his head.  “I’m gonna go make my own toilet in the woods.”  He grabbed some bamboo and walked off to the woods, returning later with a smile on his face.  Success.

Another friend of mine decided to try out a squatter for the first time while we were on vacation.  While he was in there, our other friend William leaned over the top of the door and took a picture.

It was quite a picture.

In it, Nick was standing with his back to the camera, but had twisted around to look back.  One hand was up, attempting to block the camera from capturing him, and his other hand was holding a tissue and wiping between his cheeks.  He was gently smiling.  His pants were on the floor beside him, and in the toilet below him was a cluster of turds.

This caused both laughter and discussion among our friends.

“Why did you take off your pants?”  Asked Lisa.

“I didn’t want to get anything on them,” said Nick.

“I take off my pants too,” Trevor admitted.

“Maybe it’s a boy thing,” I said.

“And why do you shit like a rabbit?”

Nick shook his head.  “That’s the most embarrassing part of that picture,” he said.

7. Open Sewers

Korea stinks.  Sometimes the smells come from the restaurants, as seafood and fermented cabbage (kimchi) both have distinctly rancid scents.  However, often the smells come up from the sewers.

I never put too much thought into why areas of the city reek of ass.  Then one day our friend had a shitty experience that was pretty unforgettable.

Brad and Christie were new to Pohang.  We went out with them in typical fashion for teachers on the weekend.  First, we sat at the beach playing Catch Phrase and drinking as the sun set.  Then we went out for dinner and had a few shots of soju.  Then someone suggested karaoke.

As we walked to the karaoke place, Brad slipped up an alley to pee.  I was around the corner when I heard William yelling “Hey there, Spilly Mc Gee!  Way to fall down!”

I peeked back and saw Brad on his knees.

“Yeah he’s clumsy,” Christie said laughing.

“I lost my sandal,” Brad from the middle of the alley.  He lay on his stomach and reached into the ground.  Claire and I walked over to help and were caught in the drifting smell of shit.  As we neared him, we realized what had happened.  He had stepped into an open sewer.  His sandal had slipped off as he pulled his leg free of the shit, and he’d reached back in and felt around to try to find it.  Now he had one crap-soaked arm, leg, and sandal-less foot.  He pointed to the sewer and said, “It’s a Birkenstock.”

Christie walked over to him and zipped up his fly.  Claire and I shone our cell phones into the sewer, holding our breath.  “I think it’s a lost cause,” I said.  We walked back to the street escaping the stench.

After a few more minutes of peering into the dark hole, Brad gave up and started walking in our direction.  He passed us, feces dripping down his arm and leg, and William started gagging.  “Oh God, that smell,” he said.

Brad marched on, chin high, right to the ocean where he rinsed off.

We stayed where we were, waiting for him and feeling bad for him.  “Man, he’s been here like two weeks!” I said.  “In America this would be cause for a lawsuit against the city, but here… what can you do?”

“Yeah exactly.  Welcome to Korea, right?”  Claire said.


*Written in 2011

**Thank you Royce and Jenn for the pictures!


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Filed under Asia, South Korea

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