Ansung Folk Village

KMK: 10 Korean Cultural Customs

Living in a new country means wrapping your head around a different way of thinking and living. Hopefully this list of a few Korean customs will help you understand the country and avoid a few pitfalls.

As always if you have any more suggestions to  add to the list please leave them in the comments!

1. You Want The Truth? You Can’t Handle the Truth!

Koreans can sometimes make the phrase brutally honest seem all too true. There’s no compunction about stating one’s opinion without the least bit of tact. So don’t feel too offended if someone says your fat, have a big nose, a big head, or need to dress better. They only want to make sure you know so you can fix the problem.

2. Man’s Best Friend, Mmm Delicious

Known as a delicacy and sure fire remedy to improve health and improve stamina dog is a meal entrenched in Korean culture. Sometimes the conditions the animals are kept in are unfit and cruel. That should be stopped much like the cages upon cages of chickens back home.

3. All the Single Ladies Stay at Home in Your Room

If you’re a lady with no ring then you’ll be expected to stay at home with mom and dad until you can get one on that finger. It doesn’t matter if you’re twenty, thirty, forty, or pushing fifty. Not only do you need to be at home, but you also need to be home by a certain time. To be fair this also applies to the guys, but they have a little more leeway to buck this custom.

4. Love, Marriage, and the Middleman

Korea is all about marriage and children. Love while nice, may have to take a backseat especially when some families still use matchmakers to find that special someone for their son or daughter. A marriage should benefit the whole family not just a single individual. Some couples may ignore any matchmaking efforts, but whoever they do bring home will have to survive the scrutiny of mom and dad and if their intended doesn’t pass the test then its back to the dating game for them.

If the nuptials do happen then, as a guest, be prepared to bring a crisp white envelop filled with money for the bride and groom. Make sure the notes add up to an odd number not even to ward off bad luck.

5. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Aretha said it’s sweeter than honey and in Korea she’d be right on the money. It’s all about respect in the land of the morning calm especially toward the elderly who sit atop the mountain dispensing orders, advice, and judgement like Moses with a couple of tablets. This can manifest in many ways such as turning one’s head when pouring a drink for an elder, offering your seat to an elder on public transportation, receiving items with two hands, bowing ninety degrees, and waiting until the elders eat first at a table.

6. A family that Bathes Together, Stays Together

In Korea it’s not uncommon for the whole family or a group of friends to get together and head off to the sauna for the day. There, segregated by gender, folks strip bare and indulge in a relaxed atmosphere of relaxation. There’s usually various hot and cold baths, some with ginseng, green tea, as well as different oils and minerals all designed to health and vitality to the body. All ages and body types roam about and its not unusual to see family members scrubbing each other clean. You can also pay extra for a massage at some locations.

Sometimes there’s also a dry sauna area that will be mixed. Here folks lay about in their pajamas, eat, or sleep.  Remember, its not just for Koreans so be sure to experience it for yourself though you might feel more comfortable leaving mom and dad at home.

7. You’re a Year Old, Time to Pick a Career!

In Korea the dol or doljanchi – 돌 or 돌잔치 is the first birthday party of a baby. During the celebration the baby wears a tol-bok, a brightly colored garment, and is surrounded by family. The past intent of the celebration was to pray for the health and longevity of the child. Rice cake is the food du jour along with fruit. The highlight of the occasion is when the child is presented with a table full of items such as thread, money, a microphone, a computer mouse, a brush, pencil, book, calligraphy set, and various other items.

The item that the child is drawn to and picks up will determine the child’s future.

8. Shoes off, Slippers on

Wearing your outside shoes indoors is a big no no in Korea. Instead, once you’ve entered someone’s home or the office simply slip into your comfortable pair of slippers. If not then you’ll have to go in your socks or bare feet! Hopefully those toe nails have been tamed!

9. The Dating Game

Dating in Korea can be full of pitfalls for the unwary foreigner. If you’re lucky your Korean date might cut you some slack since you’ll probably be unfamiliar with the customs. If not then be ready for a few surprises.

First up, if you’re a guy be sure to bring plenty of cash. You’l be paying. Though it is becoming more common to go “dutch”. Also guys carry the girl’s purse albeit usually only after they are a couple. On a first date you may be joined by friends. It helps ease the tension. After 100 days it’s time to celebrate your union with a fine meal, and tokens of your affection in the form of couple rings though it’s not a necessity!

Of course it goes without saying that you’ll be wearing matching outfits and that is a necessity.

10. It’s All About the Legs!

Korea is definitely a leg country. Here you’ll find short shorts, ultra mini skirts, and skimpy scraps of clothing all for the ladies to show of those gams even in the dead of winter. Also  a stylish shoe artfully completes the look.

Legs are definitely in. On the other hand the shoulder and chest area remain concealed with the up most modesty. No low cut blouses or tank tops or v necks in sight! Women are so covered up from the waist up that you’d think they’d all just entered the nunnery.

That’s because in Korea Koreans keep the girls under wrap and frown on those who do not.  Why this happens this way is a whole other kettle of fish! Readers illuminate me if you have an answer!

That wraps things up about the customs, but I thought it would be neat to throw in a few superstitions into the mix! If you know of any others give us the scoop!

SUPERSTITIONS

  • If you give a boyfriend or girlfriend a pair of shoes, they will leave you.
  • Washing your hair on the day of a big test washes out the memories.
  • If you sleep in a room with a fan on, you might die.
  • Dreaming of pigs is good luck, dreaming of dogs is bad luck.
  • Don’t blow a whistle at night or snakes will come.
  • Shake your leg and you shake out the luck.
  • If you are born with big ears, you will be rich!
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About

I’m a blogger, writer, and teacher. I’ve been working in South Korea’s ESL field for the last three years. My one year contract has unexpectedly turned into a journey that I’m still on and loving.


'KMK: 10 Korean Cultural Customs' have 7 comments

  1. July 23, 2013 @ 8:54 pm r

    how can anyone fix a big nose or big head???

    Reply

    • July 25, 2013 @ 10:57 am Brian Dye

      I’m sure the surgeons in Apgujeong will be all over this question! I’m sure between the slice, dice, nip, tuck, prod, poke they’ll have any nose or head looking whatever way you want it to which will probably be Head number 4 and nose number 3 that everyone seems to have who’ve had plastic surgery here.

      Reply

  2. November 25, 2010 @ 5:48 am tommynomad

    Good post, but I wonder how current many of these are. My wife comes from a country family, but numbers 1, 5, and 8 are the only ones that apply to her very traditional (but admittedly laid-back) family. My MIL in particular likes saying "You're getting fat." and "You look old."

    When I visited Seoul for the nightlife, there were a few brave cleavage-bearing lasses in the Hongdae area. Now that tattoos have caught on, I've seen lots of exposed shoulder blades (what is it with K-girls and tattoos on that body part?). Though it was stunning to see the Korean expats here in New Zealand: like the local women, many of them have decided that exposing as much breast flesh as possible is de rigeur. The University of Auckland campus is rife with braless Koreans flaunting their gifts, and to my delight, none of the K-guys I know mind one bit. One friend told me: "my girlfriend's hot, and she loves to show off her body. I don't like other guy's looking, but it's her body. I'd have to be a dick to tell her what to do with it." That's a pretty refreshing attitude.

    Back to the customs: 3, 4, 7, and 9 seem particularly outdated. My wife and *all* of her female friends lived on their own as single women before getting married (except the two who are still single, but neither of them live at home). All the married ones are in love marriages.

    #9 made me laugh because after 4 months of us mocking couples dressed alike, *I* had matching tshirts made for us as a gag gift. We do not wear them at the same time, though. My wife and I both had jobs when we were dating, so we basically took turns paying for dates.

    The 'career choice' at the dol is taken seriously by none of the families I know. It's a lark, that's all.

    I like your blog: entertaining!

    Reply

    • November 25, 2010 @ 10:49 am kissmykimchi

      Thanks for dropping by! I'm wondering it the expat lifestyle leads folks to be a bit more open and free since they are away from the motherland. Hopefully once they return they can bring that new found outlook back home.

      I'm still hearing about friends who have to live at home, but to be fair I do know an equal amount who do live on their own or with roommates.

      With time hopefully more of these will disappear!

      Reply

  3. November 23, 2010 @ 3:28 pm Amanda

    "offering your seat to an elder on public transportation"

    Koreans SELDOM do this. It is far more common at home and I often find myself the only person who ever seems to do it, which also results in some embarrassing over-thanking from the elder in question.

    Reply

    • November 23, 2010 @ 3:53 pm kissmykimchi

      I've actually had elderly people try to give up their seat for me. I'm not sure what that is all about! Maybe they think i'm going to bump my head on the roof if I stand up?

      Reply

    • November 24, 2010 @ 7:35 am kissmykimchi

      I'm also wondering if the younger people stare daggers at you when you do this since it makes them look so bad?

      Reply


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