Op/Ed

Korean social etiquette equates to mine, mine, mine!

Two drunk men sleep it off on the train while others stand. Photo by Marie, flikr/knittymarie Licensed under the Creative Commons
Two drunk men sleep it off on the train while others stand. Photo by Marie, flikr/knittymarie Licensed under the Creative Commons
laura
Written by laura

Laura is not a Russian prostitute despite the perception of those who see her in public with her Korean husband. “I often get mistaken for a Russian prostitute,” she wrote. Laura ranted online about lack of social etiquette in Korea. We invited Laura to explain herself in more detail. She offered the following for publication:

Today I was transferring lines at Cheongju station, line 5. As the train approached my station, I made my way to the doors, ready to disembark. When the doors slid open I was confronted by a slew of ajummas and halmonis blocking my way. Instead of allowing me to exit first, they pushed their way onto the train, eager to sit in an empty seat. The same scenario replayed itself in an office building later in the day whilst attempting to exit the elevator.

Often when observing Koreans in their natural environment I am reminded of a scene from Disney’s “Nemo” where a flock of seagulls attempting to devour the beached fish descends on them screeching “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Alas, Koreans in general appear to lack, in many ways, the basic tenets of social etiquette. In this dog-eat-dog city, it seems that most residents are only interested in their own comfort and convenience, while ignoring the most basic principles of social etiquette.

It’s a balmy Friday evening and as I make my way home I am greeted with groups of young Koreans enjoying a leisurely stroll through the streets of Gyeongridan in Itaewon. In front of me are four university girls, dressed up to the nines in high heels and the ubiquitous mini skirt, chatting excitedly and pointing to the array of ritzy new restaurants that now dominate the strip. Together they form a line, blocking the entire sidewalk. I attempt to pass them several times. Finally, one woman turns around and signals to her friend, who temporarily moves aside, allowing me to pass.

Other pedestrians coming from the opposite direction face the same dilemma. One can either turn one’s body sideways to avoid contact or risk death by taxi by stepping into the street. Such is the norm on a Korean sidewalk.

In recent times Itaewon, once referred to as “the ghetto of Seoul,” has revamped its status from a dangerous, scary place full of foreigners to one of Seoul’s newest must-see hot spots. Curious Koreans from the numerous suburbs have amassed en force, bringing with them their cars which they subsequently illegally park in clearly marked No-Parking zones or in front of disgruntled residents’ houses. In the past month I have had to call the local district office three times to have a car towed from the parking space in front of my house.

Itaewon, much like the Gangnam area, suffers from a dearth of parking spaces, but despite the parking maids’ prodigious attempts to ticket cars, Koreans still do not seem deterred in parking illegally wherever it suits them. This is a problem endemic throughout Seoul. If a space exists, regardless of the law or thought to the resident, the “mine, mine, mine” mentality kicks into full gear.

It’s Saturday night, and my husband and I decided to patronize one of our favorite gogi-jib/barbeque joints. As soon as we step inside we notice a small group of soju-ed up ajeossi boisterously finishing off what appears to be the 6th bottle with shouts of “One shot!” They are extremely loud, but understanding the extreme stress of grueling Korean corporate life, I take no offense in allowing them to blow off some steam.

We order some galbi and sit down to enjoy our delicious meal. However, after several minutes we sense a marked shift in the mood of these older men. First the swearing commences with notable curses “Gae-ssaeki and ship-saekki.” Then an empty bottle of soju flies across the room. Two men stand up and proceed to begin strangling one another with a firm grip on the opposing man’s tie.

As the oxygen is cut off, one man’s face starts to turn red. Next a table is overturned, with banchan side dishes splattering their fermented delights all over the floor. And what does the owner of the restaurant do? Absolutely nothing.

Eventually the two other members of their crew convince them to take the fight outside where a screaming match continues for another ten minutes outside the doors. After all is settled, one member of their group enters the restaurant, bows to the owner and kitchen staff and offers his sincere apology. You might be tempted to think this altercation occurred in some obscure outskirt of Seoul, but in fact it was in a fairly prestigious restaurant in the elitist plastic surgery capital of Seoul, Apgujeong.

This is not the first time I have experienced social demonstrations of aggression and violence in a Korean restaurant. It has happened so many times that a friend once remarked to me, “Never visit a chicken hof after 8pm if 40% of the customers or more are ajeossi.” While some may enjoy a little WWF action with their evening meal, I see no reason why a paying customer should have to endure such displays.

When discussing the lack of social etiquette in this country, many Koreans are quick to offer up excuses. A typical response begins with “Please do not misunderstand our country.” Koreans cling to the idea that because this nation industrialized quickly in a relatively short period of time, Koreans have yet to catch up with the norms of using simple technology such as subway trains and elevators.

Others opine that it is because of the Japanese occupation that Koreans have become confused and do not know to walk on the right side of the sidewalk, facilitating an easier flow of pedestrian traffic. Subway stations in the last 3 years have begun to cordon off areas and mark the floor with arrows and signs that indicate that users should walk on the right side.

In a country where people drive on the right, it makes sense that people should also walk on the right. However, try walking up or down stairs during peak hours while Koreans traveling in one direction occupy the entire stairwell, despite the signs, and you will see what I mean.

Some claim that other cities like Tokyo and New York have the same issues and that Seoul is not unique in its problems. Certainly, in New York City there is a lot of pushing and shoving in crowded areas, but on a recent visit to Tokyo I discovered that the Japanese, despite having a similar population density, manage to ambulate in a much more organized manner. In fact, in my three-day visit, not once did I find my way blocked. While the Japanese walk on the left, and Americans walk on the right, both methods allow pedestrians to reach their destinations in a time-efficient manner. Why do Koreans not yet grasp this concept? Anyone who has played the daily game of sidewalk zig-zag knows well that much time and energy is wasted trying to navigate the typical Korean street.

Since the election of the conservative Saenuri party head Park Geun-hye, smoking has been banned in many public areas such as restaurants, bathrooms, PC rooms, and even on the streets of Gangnam. I can only suppose that this was due to complaints of non-smokers who do not wish to breathe in sickly second-hand smoke on a daily basis. I applaud this effort, but it is sad that the government had to enact a law in order for Koreans to gain some degree of social consciousness.

As a smoker myself, I do not smoke and walk, taking into consideration that the people behind me may not enjoy the smell of my burning cigarette. In Japan, it is actually illegal to smoke and walk at the same time. In Korea, I still encounter smoke filled stairwells from time to time.

Koreans have only just recently become aware of basic hygiene through the events of the MERS crisis. Noting a lack of social consciousness concerning such behaviors as coughing and sneezing, the government embarked on a nation-wide campaign of mask wearing and hand sanitizing. Yet I am yet to read an article in any Korean newspaper that emphasizes covering one’s mouth or nose when expectorating, in consideration of other’s health and well-being.

Many Korean bathrooms are not equipped with soap, which further facilitates the spread of germs and disease. A deeper issue is that even when soap is provided, many children consider washing their hands to mean merely dousing them in cold water. Despite campaigns, Koreans continue to sneeze and cough in public areas. Just last week, while riding the bus, a woman behind me blessed me with her snot droplets all over the back of my neck. If any thought was given to others in this country, the average citizen would think to contain their illness and not spread it to others.

Yet even as the news reported, several Korean citizens under quarantine decided that it was more important to go golfing, visit the sauna, or attend a real estate meeting, resulting in hundreds of more people having to be quarantined to prevent the spread of infection. While many Korean citizens were rightly outraged at the self-centered, irresponsible actions of a few, they did not seem to learn a valuable lesson about their own personal hygiene habits.

I do not give much credit to any of the arguments I have heard from Koreans concerning the lack of general consideration for others. My personal theory is that Koreans do not care much about people with whom they have not been formally introduced. In essence, in Korean society, without a formal introduction, you do not exist as a person who needs to be respected or whose needs should be considered. You are simply an “other” and one need only observe Korean driving culture to observe this fact.

Koreans who travel abroad are often mourned by the local population as being rude. I once saw a Korean man in an American restaurant order a waitress by loudly shouting “Come here now.” From my personal observations, some Koreans take advantage of their supposed “customer status” to belittle and degrade wait staff, convenience clerks, and other workers deemed as subordinate.

In recent news one Korean lady threw a piece of toast at a train station café worker. These are people who are often working at a minimum wage of less than $5 an hour. Do they really deserve to be treated this way, or should customers thank them for their service and show some degree of appreciation for their work?

At the heart of many rude behaviors is a tool deeply embedded in the Korean language itself. Koreans seem to hold the view that King Sejong’s masterpiece, the Korean language (Hangul), promotes civilized behavior. They often point out that the Korean language contains three forms, (low, polite, and honorific speech) which can be used to show respect for elders and for those who occupy positions of esteem. However, I would argue that this is a double-edged sword, because surely if a polite form exists, so too does a form exist that can be used to offend and degrade.

Throughout my time in this country, I have witnessed numerous staff members using ban-mal (low speech) with me, wrongly assuming that because I am a foreigner, I would not know the difference. In companies like Samsung, issues arise between young staff members who occupy higher positions than older workers resulting in a company memo that chondaemal (polite speech) should be used by all company workers. The older workers felt that they should not have to use honorific speech with their superior officers and team leaders, due to a Confuscianist idea prevalent throughout Korea that dictates a one-way system of respect between younger and elder.

Personally, I would like to see Korea do away with all forms of lower and honorific speech and just stick with polite speech. I find it superficial to use either form as a token of respect when respect in essence is something that is earned between individuals and society, not guaranteed. One need only read the articles criticizing the current president and government leaders to see that actions, not words, are the real indicators of venerability.

As an expat who has lived in Korea for almost 10 years, I can tell you that I used to hope that Koreans would progress as a society in terms of social consciousness and general manners. That change, unfortunately, has yet to fully materialize.

Having pointed out several areas in which I believe Korea falls short, it would be wrong of me not to offer several solutions to this problem. In short, I am of the opinion that manners begin at home. Korean parents need to discipline their children from a very young age, for that is when our habits and codes of conduct are formed. The freedom given to young children in this country, in my opinion, is abhorrent.

While I understand wanting your children to have the best in life, it is irresponsible for a parent to fail to guide their children as to what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior. I have seen elementary children scream and whine at their parents, throw temper tantrums, or beg them until the parents give in to their demands. At restaurants and other venues across this country, many children are allowed to run wild, so much so that “Kid-Free Cafes” are now starting to pop up here and there.

The second point of contact in terms of education in decorum lies with the school teachers. As an after-school English teacher, I dread each day when the lunch time commences. All of the students pour out into the hallways, yelling and running about in what I often refer to as the “Elephant Parade.” The homeroom teachers pay no attention to this, although many accidents occur because of it. I have also born witness to a variety of bullying that some teachers choose to remain oblivious to. This behavior, however, is not shared by all students.

Among my students, there exists a large percentage whose fathers currently serve in the Korean military and the difference in manners is striking. To prove my point, I once told a class that I could predict if their father was a soldier or not. The difference between a polite child and unruly child is so clear that I was able to guess with 90% accuracy. During my formative years, first at a private school, and then at a public school, I learned from teachers to obey instructions and observe school rules.

Unfortunately, Korean teachers have few tools at their disposal to punish students and parents are not always in alliance with the teachers. Errant students typically write “ban-seong-mun” or a “reflection letter” where they must explain in detail what they did wrong and what actions they will take to correct the behavior. These are only handed out for the most serious offenses, and not often enough.

It is well known that public school teachers are guaranteed a position until retirement and have little impetus to strongly enforce class manners. One teacher at my school regularly does online shopping at her desk instead of monitoring the students’ behavior. On the other hand, there is another teacher who brings out some of her more impudent students into the halls and disciplines them on a regular basis.

When I first taught in Korea (prior to the criminalization of corporal punishment in schools) I was given a 2 foot wooden stick and told to hit students who misbehaved. Now that these instruments of discipline have been taken from teachers, we must ask ourselves, what remains? These days, children are often told that a behavior is wrong because it gives a bad feeling (gibuni nappeuda) to others or others will receive a wound (Sangcheo batda). This attempt to explain inappropriate behavior is an over-simplification of a wider Korean problem. You cannot blame a child who is merely emulating the behavior of adults or an individual has not been taught to directly respect a parent’s authority and obey without questioning that parent’s decision. As the old adage goes, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

Although I did not always agree with my parent’s rules or directions, I respected them as the heads of my household. Too much emphasis is placed on education and not enough on learning basic manners. Many Korean children are spoiled. Korean children, who inevitably become Korean adults, are not incorrigible, but without proper education at both home and school I doubt there will be much social change in this country.

Common sense dictates that it is much more difficult to change the behavior of adults, whose basic manners are already solidified in childhood. If Koreans truly care about their international reputation among the international community, this concept of “Me first ” and “Only I matter” has to be abolished. Unless something is done to educate and discipline the youth of this country, future generations of Koreans will likely continue to think of the sidewalk and other public spaces as merely mine, mine, mine.

Submitted by Laura who did not offer a last name or contact details

About the author

laura

laura

  • Bobby Ryans Dangle

    Wha Wha Wha! Whining at its finest. I can’t believe this article is this long with so much disdain. Especially coming from a Russian prostitute

    • Russian

      not to many smart thoughts from I believe a …… Canadian one?

      • Bobby Ryans Dangle

        Awww Sadimir Poutin, hurt feelings bro ?

    • http://www.rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

      No it ain’t. Whining, when it’s at its finest, is at least entertaining to read.

      • Bobby Ryans Dangle

        i dont agree that is entertaining… this is on par with shaming or better yet, hating on a society for not being like one persons home culture… i guess Russia is perfect, perhaps?

        • Edna

          The “not a Russian prostitute” line is a reference to how Korean men often assume that foreign women are prostitutes from Russia. I would guess that nearly every foreign woman who has spent a significant amount of time in Korea has been asked by a Korean man if she’s Russian. Seeing that the writer’s husband is Korean, she probably gets this a lot.

      • KimChi Smell

        Even if the article is badly written, it doesn’t make the points made any less valid.

    • Bwapiwo

      I don’t think this is just whining. There is a lot of truth in here. A lot. Anyone who’s lived in Korea, unless they’re blind or a hypocrite will agree with her. Now, as usual, many people will jump at her throat instead of really taking time to look around and observe and propose solutions to these problems.

      • Bobby Ryans Dangle

        its whining, the article starts off with the headline ”
        Korean social etiquette equates to mine, mine, mine!”
        but then quickly deteriorates to complaining about things nothing to do with MINEMINEMINE.

        • Bwapiwo

          I am not talking about the form here; this is something else. I am not an expert in journalism, and I will not judge that aspect of the article. I am just looking at the information provided, and it’s accurate. That’s it.

          • Bobby Ryans Dangle

            the information provided gives the wrong impression of korea as a whole and just subjects her narrow minded view. she then wants to “integrate” her own thoughts of how to colonize the korean people to fall in line to her nazi stance on how a country should act… absurd

          • Bwapiwo

            So far, you have no argument to disprove her. You are not able to rebuke anything that she said. I’d like to see you prove that what she said here is false. That’s all I’d like you to do.

      • T. Morrissey

        Nope! I’ve lived in Korea and I think this is pretty inaccurate whining.

        • Bwapiwo

          Ha ha…You’re not the only one. I know many who’ve lived in Korea for years but know nothing about the country because they either have a very poor sense of observation or because they spend more time drinking than doing anything else. Note that the person who wrote this article is married to Korean national. Common sense would tell you that she’s seen deeper into their iceberg than many of us, but you have to be thinking a little bit to get this.

    • jjava

      Russian condemning korean etiquette… have you been in russia? it’s worse than korea, it’s like somalia or some mad max stuff

      • Edna

        The writer isn’t from Russia. The “not a Russian prostitute” line is a reference to how Korean men
        often assume that foreign women are prostitutes from Russia. I would
        guess that nearly every foreign woman who has spent a significant amount
        of time in Korea has been asked by a Korean man if she’s Russian.
        Seeing that the writer’s husband is Korean, she probably gets this a
        lot.

        • Bobby Ryans Dangle

          how do you know the writer isn’t russain… all she says is that she isn’t a “russian prostitute”
          and btw… jjava is referring to the comment from the “russian” poster

    • Ruby

      Where and by whom were you raised?

  • Russian

    If she thinks she is smart enough to teach people around, than why would not she just start teaching herself at first? For example, how to respect people who is not similar nationality as you are? If you don’t like something it is you f…g problem! Go home and teach your parents how they should of taught you long time ago that people are different! Nobody must to meet your her expectations.
    I bet she looks like a whore but why she assumed that she is Russian one?
    PS to publisher: please respect people and their rights not to be humiliating by mentioning their nationality in vain. I bet there is a lot of working street girls all around the globe despite of their national origin have a better heart than this self concerned bitch!

    • capcap

      The “russian” prostitute came from korean slang where a “russian woman” means a hooker

      • whatigot

        Yes it is sometimes rough living here day to day yr to yr. I just try to avoid crowds as much as possible. I think most people live here for work. It would be great to have good job someplace nice like Singapore or San Francisco(except for for earthquakes). I think most of us want to live in nice polite place with some fun. Maybe Northern Europe. Since you’re here maybe finding some less crowded place to walk. The problem here is finding people to do stuff with…like finding a empty place to play badminton without the wind blowing. That’s the best advice I have so far.

    • The Teacher

      Actually by means of no disrespect many Korean men try to lay foriegner girls even modest ones. Doing everyday normal things like grocery shopping or just walking down the street men have ask my friends how much and ask if the girls are Russian. Its really common and done in the open because they think all foriegners are easy to pick up and a lot of Korean men have caucasion fetish much like vice versa with Asian fever.

      There are many nice people in this country as well. But the bad ones really get to you. I been living in Korea for a long time as well. She means no disrespect to Russians its really a lot of bad Korean men think of Russian prostitutes when they see white people.

    • DarthBabaganoosh

      Why “she assumed that she is Russian one”? She didn’t, the Korean men did. Every blonde friend I have in Korea has been propositioned at least once by Korean men asking if they are Russian and “How much?”

      So, if you’re worried about being disrespected and humiliated because someone mentioned your nationality in this way, don’t lay the blame on the author. Point the finger solely at the Korean men doing the propositioning.

    • brightredkat

      “I bet she looks like a whore but why she assumed that she is Russian one?”
      Oh, so calling out other nationalities is not okay but sexism, prejudice and discrimination against half of the world’s population is totally okay. Get a grip.

  • The Big Picture

    What she says is mostly true, and the point about teaching kids manners at the expense of cramming constantly for studying is well taken (one reason Korean children fail to learn manners has to be the lack of time spent with Children).

  • Andrew

    Her discussion of the problem and solution don’t match, because the adults causing the problems, grew up with corporal punishment -and it didn’t work for them.

    • Bwapiwo

      I don’t agree with her take on corporal punishment either. I strongly disagree with the idea that it would be the solution to the discipline problem. However, what she says about the lack of discipline is true. Many western countries have gone through the same process of banishing corporal punishment (which was great) but without having an alternative. I think we all know what the result is. Many school teachers in western countries are complaining about not being able to do anything when students misbehave in class. I think Korea is headed that same way, too. What we have done is switched from terrible disciplinary actions to zero disciplinary actions. That’s not helping the children because this is not how society works. In real life, when you mess up, you don’t get away with it; you go to jail, pay fines or, in some extreme cases, get sentenced to death. We can’t have our children roam around and do whatever they want without any consequences. They need to learn that their actions with have an impact on others and will entail consequences.

  • Archangel.357

    I have lived in Korea, in Germany, in Italy, and the US. Maybe it’s because I pretty much exclusively dealt with a certain class of people, but I have found Koreans to be the most polite BY FAR. Yeah, drunk people get rowdy. Did she get a research grant to figure that out? When Russians or Americans or Germans get drunk, they behave like guests at an embassy reception? If the author is shocked at the displays of aggressive male drunkenness in Seoul’s Hofs, I pray she’s nowhere near Glasgow or Cardiff public transport around closing time.
    Now, I don’t know if the author is in fact Russian, but if she is, I wonder if she has ever witnessed the behaviour of her countrymen on vacation in Capri, St Tropez or London, because what I see are a bunch of tattooed troglodytes and plastic barbies throwing money around, being loud and obnoxious, and treating everybody else like shit. I know I’ve seen how my fellow Germans behave, and for crying out loud, “abhorrent” doesn’t even begin to describe it. And don’t get me started on Americans. Vandalism and crime are pretty good indicators of a society’s “manners”, and I invite you to take a look at the state of a subway stop in Seoul and one in Berlin.

    • Edna

      The “not a Russian prostitute” line is a reference to how Korean men
      often assume that foreign women are prostitutes from Russia. I would
      guess that nearly every foreign woman who has spent a significant amount
      of time in Korea has been asked by a Korean man if she’s Russian.
      Seeing that the writer’s husband is Korean, she probably gets this a
      lot.

      • Mia Vos

        Absolutely true.

  • yuna

    sorry to say this but korean people probably thought she was a prostitute cuz she was dressed like one. I had many Caucasian friends back in korea but no one was disrespectful to them. the only occasions I remember is when my friends were dressed skimpy on Halloween day night out.
    sorry if you felt disrespected but im 100% sure you are what you wear in korea.

    • Blue Drieds

      Nope, I’ve had had Koreans ask me if I was Russian and I was wearing blue jeans and a baggy shirt.

    • DarthBabaganoosh

      Nope. All you need to be is blonde, blue-eyed, and pretty. All my blonde female friends have been approached at least once and propositioned. Clothing irrelevant.

      • http://anjufordinner.tumblr.com Anju

        not even. I get propositioned most when I look like crap (no makeup going to a friend’s house to make dinner, or heading to/from the gym). I think when I look really nice, it broadcasts at least some kind of power they understand– she’s rich, or perhaps even more powerfully to a chauvinist, has a rich male benefactor.

    • Bwapiwo

      False! This is just an excuse. Many Koreans would assume things about people just because of their own twisted mindset. I have several friends who marry Korean women, and they often find themselves in situations where their wives are called a prostitute by a total stranger while walking down the street just because she’s walking with a foreign man who happens to be her husband. My female friends who are blonds constantly get negative attention from Korean males (usually older ones) who think that they are Russian prostitutes. It has nothing to do with the way they dress; it’s all about the way Koreans categorize people based on their ignorance. If you’re a female and you’re blonde, you must be a Russian prostitute. If you’re black, you must be from Africa and you must be poor. If you’re from South East Asia, you must be a factory worker. If you’re white and you’re from North America, you must be rich. If a man and a woman are walking side by side on the streets, they must be a couple. I know all this sound absolutely ridiculous to anyone who is educated, but this is how many Koreans tend to see people.

    • brightredkat

      I am a redhead and I was asked this question in Incheon airport by a Korean guy who had clearly had too many in-flight drinks. I was not wearing anything even vaguely revealing as I’d just been on a six hour flight. I had luggage and I was stood next to my male friend. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question, just the most bizarre because it was in broad daylight in a very public place, rather than outside a bar or at night.

      Many of my friends with a variety of hair colours and dressing styles have also had this experience. Appearance doesn’t seem to matter.

    • Lift Your Shield

      Get a freakin grip. So because a female wears something sexy or revealing, she’s automatically a prostitute or should be treated as such? Uhh have you ever heard of a little country called BRAZIL? Using your progressive thought process, the majority of women there should be disrespected then huh?

      This is the same backasswards thinking that Korean males have…it’s not about YOU, its about your appearance. Well guess what, in my dealings, a majority of Korean males are chauvinist little dick pricks who bully and harass women. Nearly EVERY one of my Korean female friends AND many foreign friends have been assaulted or harassed in Korea, but only when they are alone or with a Korean guy. Korean guys won’t pull that bullshit around foreign guys because they know we won’t stand for it.

      Ending on a positive note though, I will say the the University level generation now are noticibally different and more respectful…

    • KimChi Smell

      If you go to Gangnam you will see the vast majority of Korean women dressed like prostitutes.

    • Mia Vos

      You are wrong. I am over 60 and dress very conservatively – yet I get the same reaction from the mostly thirtysomething group of Korean men, and I can only think it is because I’m blonde. And may I add, this happened in every city where I taught during the 8 years I’ve been teaching here.

  • Eric Kruse

    I lived in Korea from 2000-2014. While many of the things the author talks about are regular occurrences in Korean society, most are really minor annoyances. Granted, I eventually left Korea because it got to the point where I was letting all these annoyances get under my skin and was becoming, like the author, terminally angry.

    The most accurate point here is the one she makes about relationships. If you have any kind of relationship – you do not need to be formally introduced, it can be as simple as you and the local grocery store owner – Koreans are as polite and helpful as can be. However, the author is correct in that, if you don’t know a Korean in some capacity, you really don’t exist (well. maybe in insect form).

    The only other real problem I had was with personal space. Koreans are, as a whole, much more physically affectionate with friends and colleagues than westerners and have really no understanding of the cultural differences in regards to personal space. I’m a big man, and I’ve had complete strangers come up and pat or poke my belly and call me fat – all with a friendly smile. It’s one thing when it was my elementary school students, but we’re talking adults. People would rub the hair on my arms and pull on my beard like I was a store mannequin. It gets a bit weird.

    All that said, I stayed in Korea as long as I did because, with the exception of the last year and a half, my Korean experience was overwhelmingly positive. I left because I recognized that I was having a problem and needed to change MY life.

  • SeoultoSeoul

    After 21 years in the US Military, stationed all over Europe and Asia, the last 13 being in Korea (Pyongtaek, Daegu, and Seoul), I found the article to be pretty much 100% correct. As expected, the comments disagreeing with this are so vehement and derogatory they reek of “the truth hurts” from start to finish. There are plenty of people with bad manners, especially after any drinking is done, but normally, when the discussion comes up in my circles about which people are the most rude, almost everyone involved in the discussion (Usually American, Canadian, Austrailian, English, Mexican, and Philippino are the nationalities represented) agrees that Koreans are the clear winner. Even the great majority of Korean-Americans (I work daily with about 20 of them and know dozens more) quietly admit that Koreans are very rude to the point of being embarassing while saying at the same time they would never admit that in a discussion with resident Koreans for fear of being labelled a “twinkie” (yellow/Korean on the outside, but white/Caucasian on the inside) or much worse slang terms disparaging to them and their entire family. Just talk to someone who works in the airline industry or is a taxi driver in a country other than Korea and ask them which nationality of people are in general the most rude. I’m quite sure what the answer will be.

  • Ying&Yang

    Eric sort of nailed it. Korea is a land full of minor annoyances (I agree wrong side walkers & bikers boil my blood), but is simply not the place for people that have OCD, are Social Justice Warriors, self proclaimed Progressives, or basically anyone that isn’t about compromise.

    It’s easy to brood over social encounters, but in retrospect, Korea can teach a lot of valuable self lessons of letting go, relaxing, and just going with the flow. This is why getting out into the rural areas, hiking, camping and escaping the city is super vital to a healthy existence in Korea (or Asia for that matter). Many foreigners (*cough* UK people *cough*) spend all their time in the urban jungle working, drinking, rinse, repeat. There is no peace, and all the little angers build until an explosion occurs. Getting out of the country on vacations AND more importantly within the country, gives you time to think about the positives.

    We all know the negatives…so let me give a few positives on the topics the author covered & not:

    –Alcohol. Buy and consume anywhere, anytime, it’s not a big deal…because, well, it’s not.
    –Being a foreigner. You can pull the ‘Foreigner’ card anywhere, anytime. You can’t pull that bullshit in the west, especially if you don’t speak the language.
    –Police. Do you have to worry about beatings, bullying or harassment in public for being different? Most waygooks can’t even speak Korean and the Police still smile and encourage you to have fun via body language, all whilst you have a beer in your hand in public. #notgettingTazedisFun.
    –Public transportation. Clean, fast, efficient, cheap. Best in the world. Go home and compare, and you’ll weep a bit for Korea. You can link up and get anywhere, anytime. You know how many foreigners I know that have been here 5+ years and don’t even know or how to use Naver or Daum Maps? It’s ridiculous. I’m willing to bet this author can’t even look up bus schedules, car/motorcycle/bus routes between two points on Naver Maps App.
    –Public Transport II. You complain about ajjuma pushing you, but do you reaaaaalllly want me to link up videos about daily fights between hood rats on buses in the US…or knife fights on the London subway…or the cost of using it back home…or how its dangerous past 7pm to use?
    –Restaurants. Dining out at home ~ Waiting for a seat. Waiting for the server. Waiting for the water. Waiting for food. Waiting for the check. Waiting more. Gasping at the total. Taxes. Tips for shitty service. It’s Beyond ridiculous. Did I mention Korea has a bell for service? Trust me, loud old men are the least of my concerns.
    –Motorcycling in Korea is probably the best in the world. No laws. Twisty well paved roads everywhere. It’s like a video game of unfettered freedom.
    –Mountains, ocean and islands are everywhere. Climb, explore, swim, repeat.

    • Professor

      Drinking booze freakin anywhere is a POSITIVE? Only in the fantasies of a filthy classless punk.

      • http://www.yeobomg.com/ Cassie (Yeobomg)

        It is positive, even for people who aren’t ‘filthy classless punks’

        I happen to enjoy going on picnics to locals parks with my husband, and a bottle of wine adds to the atmosphere. In America, I could get fined for that; here, no worries. It’s all about responsibility. Some people have it, some don’t.

    • http://www.yeobomg.com/ Cassie (Yeobomg)

      don’t forget medical care! I love Korea’s healthcare system. Barring invasive surgeries, I can be in to the doctor’s office with no idea what is wrong with me in the morning, and less than 2 hours later (often within 30 minutes), I’m out the door with diagnosis, treatment, any minor surgeries(think stitches or tooth extractions), and all of my prescriptions–which I can get filled at the pharmacy that is more than likely right around the corner in 5 minutes, all for 1/3 of the price of what it would cost in the states and that’s WITHOUT insurance. With insurance, it’s pennies to the dollar.

      For invasive surgeries, after diagnosis, you can be in the operating room next-day. It’s great.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    “As the oxygen is cut off, one man’s face starts to turn red. Next a table is overturned, with banchan dishes splattering their fermented delights all over the floor. And what does the owner of the restaurant do? Absolutely nothing.”

    Now don’t get me wrong: I despise this douchey behavior when foreigners do it, but this is not an uncommon occurrence among drinking ajeoshis.

  • JohnBull

    Lived in Seoul for five years and I loved it. Didn’t mind the crowds, the overcrowded Myeong dong and Dongdaemun malls, the traffic, the parking, the occasional fights outside the Buy the Way after one too many sojus, the sneezing, the smoking, or the yelling. Because in Seoul you can walk down any street, day or night, without worrying about anything. There isn’t a single US city with a fraction of Seoul’s population where this is possible.

  • Agamma

    What a horrible horrible article. I am from Europe, have lived in different continental European countries, in Seoul for about 2 years, live in the UK now and have spent some time in the US and Australia – and I just can’t believe that the author who must be from an English-speaking country if she is teaching English in Seoul, is not aware of the fact that the main “me, me, me”- countries are the US and the UK (maybe including some more..). And I am not basing this on personal observations (although all my life experience screams YES, very loudly), there is a lot of research now about cultural differences, in adults, in kids, in how kids are being raised etc. etc. In a nutshell, even if one shouldn’t generalize too much, Americans (for example) make decisions based more on their personal choices, preferences, etc., self-fulfillment and individual freedom are HIGHLY valued, while Koreans (for example) always HAVE to take the whole situation and everybody involved into consideration, because nobody exists out of context, just by themselves. Oversimplification yes, but the pattern is very clear, and after talking to Koreans in Korea for 10 years the author should have understood that mindset, no? So all the things that are annoying her are simply NOT due to a culture of “ME” (apart maybe, yes, from some very annoying 아줌마 and 아저씨 behaviour, but even that looks a bit different when seen in context – which she should know).

    Of course there are things about Korean culture than can be very annoying to a foreigner (and even to Koreans, if you talk to them, young people are very open about that), BUT, first, there are always things about a different culture that are annoying just because they are DIFFERENT from what we know – again, after 10 years she should be able to differentiate between the two. And, second, compared to any place in the world that the author might come from, for every of those “negative” situations she lists (those happen, but it’s not like this is what she has to endure every single day) one could list a couple of amazing things about Seoul life that for many foreigners compensate many annoyances and compensate for having to get out of their comfort zone and embracing a culture as foreign as Korean culture can be from a “Westerner’s” perspective.

    Just to name the most obvious amazing thing about living in Seoul: Safety and the ridiculously low numbers of “direct person-to-person” crime – a city the size of Sao Paulo where one can loose things and people run after you / keep it until you come back to collect it / find out whom it belongs to and bring it to you (I have personally tried all of these with mobile phones, a laptop, a wallet and other things, in bars, taxis, shops..). A city the size of Sao Paulo where girls can go home alone at night and very probably nothing will happen to them (just as a side comment though – Koreans don’t usually let each other go home alone, they will make sure everyone is being taken care of). A metropolis where I could let my parents with no knowledge of the language and culture leave alone to explore and they would always be taken care of by strangers and sent on their way back. A city (a country in fact) where a tourist can walk into a restaurant, point to something he sees on another table, and 99% of the time he will get the right amount and pay exactly what the locals pay, even if he has no clue and could be tricked very easily.

    I have a very hard time understanding what the author wants to compare Seoul to – in fact I personally can only dream of any of this here in the UK. Drunk people in my way? Pub fights? Please… But the main question is – what is the reason behind all this, according to the author, if not CONSIDERATION FOR OTHERS? It’s not like Seoulites live in a dictatorship constantly in fear of being put into jail for not being nice enough to each other. And yes, compared to anywhere else I have lived, I am still amazed by the everyday niceness, honesty and general “connectedness” I feel when in Korea. Not everything translates well into our different thinking and languages, that’s why I agree for example that Koreans abroad speaking English in their “Korean way” can sound quite rude sometimes – but she is living in and complaining about living in Korea, where everything makes somehow “sense”, even if not for a foreigner..so, after 10 years in the country, well.. – maybe the author needs to go somewhere else for a bit to get a reality check…?

  • Ren

    I still think Korean etiquette is better than most countries. I learn language with native speakers at Preply and I really idolize my Korean teacher.

  • cmxc

    As usual the apologist-brigade is out in full force at even the slightest hint that anyone has anything less than stellar to say about Korea. I lived in Korea for 12 years, and heard every single excuse there is for the horrific and abominable lack of manners demonstrated by Koreans. Always the same shite: Please excuse us, we industrialized so fast, we didn’t have time to develop manners or common sense.

    I have now moved to Singapore, and this country was just as impoverished/undeveloped as Korea at the beginning of the 1960s. Now Singapore is among the most desirable cities for professional expats in the world. You could not make things more night and day different between Singapore and Seoul in terms of cleanliness, politeness, organization, efficiency, etc. Singapore is like the anti-Seoul and the best example I can give to apologist to tell them to STFU at their constant excuses why Korea is still backward and psychologically inbred. Singapore is a multi-racial multi-cultural paradise compared to Seoul. Singapore has the HQ of virtually every multinational corporation in Asia. Singaporeans speak English fluently, the universal language of business. Singaporeans politely wait for people to get out of the trains before boarding the trains. Nobody shoves, nobody pushes, nobody body-checks you without so much as a cursory apology. There are no piles of vomit and you cannot find trash every where you look. Singaporeans honestly love their country and show it. Koreans pretend to like their country, while treating it as a public toilet.

    My only regret is that I did not move to Singapore so much sooner. I look at the time I wasted in Seoul, surrounded by culturally backward simpletons who cannot fathom that non-Korean people can eat ‘spicy’ food and who have a collective species of autism that will forever mark them as addicted to cronyism, corruption, nepotism, and chaebols.

    • KKiwi

      I agree with you to a certain extent, South Korea is such a backward country in terms of social equality, racism and LGBT rights.

  • Jack

    Laura, If you don’t like where you at, then moved.

  • jack

    Laura, You need to get out quicky. Korea does no needs you and nobody is holding back.

  • Aaron Frost

    Agree wth SeoultoSeoul and just about everything she wrote. Some of the comments about Laura and her positions are shameful and simply display ignorance, racism and immaturity. For all of the disparaging, not a single comment disproved anything she wrote.

    Of course there are great things about Korea. Think about about it before you get all defensive or pick apart every word. The only reason to bring these issues up is BECAUSE we actually love the county! We want to see it evolve and become more civilized. We want to see these 50+ million people live happier lives and treat each other better, with more respect and politeness.

    Just look around, it is a country of unhappy, self-centered people. Yes, other countries have many social problems. Yes, health care is pretty good here. Yes, it is a technologically advanced place. But, these things do not sufficiently make up for the short-comings.

    Please remember, writing about this place and the problems here does not mean we or she think other places are perfect.

    • Luke

      I wish that’s something more Koreans (and nationalist Americans, and nationalists of really any place) understood. We criticize because we sincerely care about the country and all of its people.

    • Agamma

      That’s a fair point, and I am usually the first to defend criticism because it shows that the person cares. And yes, that is actually positive and also very important.

      But PLEASE, if you really care about the country you are living in, whether it’s “your own” or one you just moved to, being CONDESCENDING and looking down on it from some imagined perfect lala-land that none of our countries is either is inappropriate and doesn’t help anyone or anything.

      Who are you / are we to judge (and to say that in these words) that a country “has to evolve” (..in which direction? The one you think is right..? You are aware of cultures being different and different parts of the world having their own way..?), that a country has to become “more civilized” (in which way, adopting “Western” etiquette..? Why exactly..? Because that would feel “normal” to you, and you would always understand why people do what they do..?). You might really have only good intentions, but this way of talking (and a rant like Laura’s) do NOTHING to help change ANYTHING. It just leads to not very constructive discussions, like this one..

    • Agamma

      And just one more point, because I think it only becomes really clear when one looks at it from “the other “side: I live in the UK now, and it’s not my own country or culture. I speak the language fluently (which is something most foreigners in Korea don’t even do), and nevertheless, there are many things happening between individuals every day that I personally and/or from my own cultural perspective, find impolite, unfair, uncomfortable, dysfunctional, just plain wrong. There are lots of things on the political and society level that I find anti-social, crazy, ridiculous or, again, just plain wrong. And I also think compared to most other countries I have lived in, people here in the UK are far unhappier, there is more violence, more inequality, living conditions are mediocre etc. etc.

      What do I do now? Do I walk around saying “this country has to DEVELOP”? “I care about this country so I have to tell people how things should be done instead”? Wouldn’t we call such behavior inappropriate or probably just insane? Wouldn’t people tell me to f*** off to wherever I came from?

      Exactly. I think I am aloud to discuss and point to things I find crazy – criticism is good and necessary, because no change can happen without awareness first. But criticism doesn’t mean walking around with something like a “colonialist” attitude and tell those not-so-developed Koreans (in this case) how to change their country and culture. At least this will very probably NOT lead to change…

    • Ardyn Baia

      So true. I hate the culture in Korea of – “if you don’t like it, leave!” . And most of us do in fact get the f**k out of there! But it’s a stupid and backward way of thinking. When we critique our own nations it DOES NOT simultaneously mean we hate our homelands. It’s terribly immature and pathetic , this sentiment of ‘hate one Korean thing – hate all of Korea’. It’s from the kimchi to the politics… you can’t say anything negative without someone getting their panties in a twist. I don’t get it. I’ve lived in 8 countries now and Korea is the ONLY nation that has this freakish, stunted attitude of a toddler whenever they’re criticized. Other nations and locals are quick to agree, offer solutions -not excuses and insults – rather than have tantrums. And for some strange reason the foreign community in Korea absorbs this kind of behavior as well! You see it all over social media… so glad I did go “back to my homeland” – more like, returning to sanity!

  • stickerbrick

    I’ve been in Korea for about six years and all of these things get on my nerves from time to time, and I’ve had the same thoughts about parental responsibility and how the new style of laissez faire parenting, where parents seem uncomfortable with correcting a child’s natural childlike (i.e. rude/barbaric) behavior.

    It’s important to remember that this is an article about a topic, the topic being what a certain person finds rude about Korean etiquette. Reading all the points one after the other and forgetting that this is an essay with a specific topic might give you the impression that the author hates Korea, and lives an unhappy, bitter life. I doubt that is truly the case. So the author didn’t soften the message by throwing in a bunch of counterpoints about why Korea is great. That’s fine. That would make this article much longer, and it’s not the topic.

    If you read any of the stats about people’s levels of happiness in Korea, it’s not blasphemy to not completely love it here. There are imperfections. Many people are too sensitive, too afraid of seeming like a hateful prejudiced foreigner, to reasonably discuss this kind of thing.

    • stickerbrick

      Granted i would never write an article like this, because I’ve seen how ridiculous people get when foreigners criticize Korea. Also, i am personally never certain that’s it’s actually Korea and not the fact that I’m just growing into a crotchety old fart and would be experiencing the same ‘people are so rude and kids are not raised properly these days’ even if i were in my home country

  • harp0inseouI

    I’ve been living here for 18 years and think that this is a fairly well written article. The author knows what she’s talking about and offers much anecdotal evidence from her own life that is impossible to refute.

    I only have one real criticism with what is said, and that is concerning discipline. The verse in the Bible that states that to- spare the rod is to spoil the child- is often taken out of context. The rod is shepherd’s crook and it is a rod of guidance and instruction. The shepherd taps the sheep in a certain direction. I have never seen a shepherd grab sheep and beat the h*ll out of it. It’s not the message that the passage trying to convey. In the end, it just does not add up.

    If somebody wants to beat their kids, they can find some other way of justifying it. I personally think that in our day and age, children should not be receiving corporal punishment. But I also believe that if you want to (within reason) spank your own kids, that is your prerogative.

    I look forward to reading more from her!

  • KKiwi

    Im Korean born but moved to New Zealand at an early age (consider myself a NZer but i am also proud of my Korean heritage). I travel back to Korea every 3 years to see family and can understand where Laura is coming from, personally i find they are little annoyances but i understand if they continue to happen to you every other day for years and years i would be over it as well.

    Fyi, for all you cunts saying she probably dresses like a russian hooker, get your head out of your ass.

  • waygookyoja

    OP here. Sorry I came late to the party. Well, where shall I start? Let me make one thing clear. K-defenders and kimcheerleeders are not worth more than 140 characters of my time. Simply put, grow up and stop acting like Korea is some kind of heaven on Earth. It’s not. If you want to go read some fluff about how how great Korea is I suggest you tune into Arirang TV or some other pro-Korean propaganda sponsored by the Ministry of Korea-Is-Best. People like me who have lived here for almost a decade have long since moved past the observation/whining stage and into the constructive criticism/analysis that most long-term expats can appreciate. If you are a foreign woman in this country who has lived here for more than year, chances are, you have been propositioned for sex by a Korean man (typically late 3o’s to 5o’s). From a Korean man’s perspective, you are a relatively easy target. When they see a foreign woman on the street, regardless of how she is dressed, they tend to assume that said female cannot speak Korean well, meaning she cannot report sexual harassment to the police. Unfortunately for them, I speak Korean extremely well. I am not an easy target. I could write a whole separate article on this topic, if there is enough interest in it. My article; however, was focused on another issue entirely; that of the lack of common courtesy/awareness/social etiquette that is encountered on the streets of Seoul. I wanted to shed light on an issue that affects the way Koreans are perceived by foreigners and some Koreans in this country. Is it ok to push your way onto the subway without letting people get off first? Should you perhaps think about not blocking the elevator doors or the sidewalk when others need to move around? Where is the healthy balance between forcing your kids to study for 10 hours a day and teaching them some basic manners? What are the underlying factors behind these behaviors? Thanks for thinking. Thanks for contributing to a much-needed discussion. Thanks for taking off those rose-colored glasses for one minute and getting real. If we really hated Korea, we would have left a long time ago. Needless to say, I don’t. I married a Korean. That doesn’t mean I need to agree with or tolerate rude behavior or in the worst case, outright sexual harassment. I don’t have to, because I speak Korean and I can defend myself now, but this was not always the case, and for many foreign women living in Korea this is a daily reality. This country still doesn’t have a single law that can be used to prosecute acts of racism. That means when I hear drunk ajossi tell each other “I want to ride that white horse/ 백마 타고 싶다.” I and my husband just have to suck it up. Hope this gives you a little perspective.

  • Ruby

    Family members who’ve been stationed in Japan bases have anecdotes about their encounters with Koreans when they visit the country… it is so laughable how they have similar experiences about Korean rudeness. Customer service seemed also a foreign matter to them.

  • vivyenne west

    Korean women especially the older ones are the height of rudeness and consistently demonstrate the most classless, mean behaviour of any asian culture I’ve interacted with.

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