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5 Quirky Things Koreans Do That Foreigners Don't Understand

Moving to South Korea from the United States over eight years ago has made me realize some cultural differences that I am still adjusting to. Maybe these differences are just what one grows up with and I will probably never get used to them. Here are five quirky things/situations Koreans do that foreigners, like myself, will don't understand!

A monster sculpture from the movie "The Host" at Han River Park (Robert Neff)
A monster sculpture from the movie "The Host" at Han River Park (Robert Neff)

1. COVID fist bump/handshake.

Ever since COVID-19 hit South Korea, many social interactions have changed. Koreans already never touch each other, unless they are close friends or lovers. I thought that it was normal to not really touch a stranger and just bow, but like everything else in South Korea, Koreans tend to change pretty quickly.

Many older Koreans tend to shake hands, especially if you're a foreigner. Attending my weekly Sunday church service, I've always bumped into the same ahjussi (middle-aged gentleman) but let me tell you, we've always had differences in how to greet each other. Sometimes, it seems like he wants to give me a fist bump, sometimes I think he wants to shake hands, and maybe sometimes, he wants to give me an elbow bump. Needless to say, I get so confused since COVID hit. Koreans tend not to touch each other, especially shaking hands, so I just assumed bowing was the way to go! So the awkwardness continues to this day!

How do you greet each other after COVID?

2. Last food on the table and everyone just leaves it.

In many East Asian cultures, when eating in a group, sharing food is very common. Therefore whenever there is just one little morsel still left on the plate or numerous plates, people often get a little antsy. You see, being the last person to eat the last morsel often depicts that person as selfish or not caring about the group. So, many people just leave the last food item on the plate when they leave or feel guilty when they ask the whole table if they can have the last piece.

You can just feel the eyes burning into you as you pick up the last food haha! Just joking! Depends on who you're really eating with, but most Koreans usually leave the last item on the plate and leave. What do you think about this culture? Would you be the person to eat the last piece?

3. Using toilet paper for wiping your mouth at the restaurant!

Now, this takes a little getting used to! Toilet paper on the roll in a restaurant? No way! I'd rather just bring my own pocket tissues! But in Korea, if you're at a cheaper restaurant such as a tteokbokki or gimbap restaurant, you'll see rolls of toilet paper attached to the side of the walls!

Instead of napkins, like in the west, you're expected to wipe your mouth with these rolls. Granted that these rolls of toilet paper are clean, the thought of it just being toilet paper irked me quiet a bit when I first arrived. I've grown accustomed to this now, but what about you? Would it freak you out a little?

Roll of toilet paper at a Korean restaurant (UofH)
Roll of toilet paper at a Korean restaurant (UofH)

4. Weird Konglish words.

Konglish is a combination of Korean and English/foreign words. Koreans love their Konglish and it is widely accepted in Korea these days. Here are some Konglish words you might know from either K-dramas or K-pop songs:

fighting - to cheer up

service - on the house; something for free

hunting - picking up the opposite sex at a club or bar

Now that you have a better understanding of what Konglish is, let me tell you a little story of how I just wanted to go to a chicken restaurant and order some chicken to go. I told the cashier, "포장해 주세요." which means "I would like this to go." The cashier, in turn, asks me, "Take out?", in English...It's the same meaning! So why would she ask me that?? Granted that many young Koreans often mix English and Korean words together so they themselves might be confused, but I noticed that I wasn't the only person she said this to, she asked the same question to the other people behind me as well!

5. CCTVs are everywhere!

There's a reason why South Korea is one of the safest countries in the world. CCTV cameras are literally everywhere! Koreans are so afraid of them that it forces them to be very wary of everyone in public. Not saying that everyone is suspicious of anyone they come across, but let's just say, there are a lot of trust issues involved. But this doesn't deter from the fact that you can leave your wallet and cell phone on the table, in plain sight, and they will still be there when you come back 2 hours later!

An official sets up a surveillance camera in a village in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)
An official sets up a surveillance camera in a village in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

What do you think about these quirky habits/situations? Have you encountered any of these while you were in Korea? If you've never been to Korea, how would you react? Let us know!


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