Things That Still Perplex Me About Korea

Waving to my parents in DIA just after clearing security on February 16, 2012. The Korean Adventure began.

Six months ago today, I arrived in Korea.

When I move to a new country, there is a familiar roller coaster of adjustment to the new language, culture, and surroundings. Eventually it stabilizes and I begin to feel at home, but each time is different. It takes a combination of adjustment on my part, adjustment of those around me, and even adjustment to the new biological rythyms.

In Korea, the whole process seems to be taking forever! Maybe it’s the language barrier. Maybe it’s the vast cultural divide separating me from some aspects of Korean culture, especially the influence of Confucianism. Maybe it’s that I’m living in my own apartment and not with a host family.

There are still so many things that perplex me about Korea. Six months in, I’m pretty sure that they will continue to confuse me for the remainder of my time here, especially because I keep going further down the rabbit hole and finding myself in new situations (Oh hey, 78 year old woman. We’re going to drink soju together at 8:00AM? Oh, OK.).

Here’s a list of the things that I’ve yet to figure out about Korea.

1. Green Tea Toilet Paper

Why stop at drinking green tea for health when you can wipe your butt with it, too? Surely there must be some healthy effect to introducing antioxidants to anal tissues! The quest for alternative health seems to be the idea behind some of the strangest products I’ve seen in stores here. This includes “100% Silver” (Ahem, 100% toxic if they really are) granules to take for energy, copious amounts of red ginseng, mass quantities of “well-being” products like special ketchups, and the occasional medicinal Chinese facial mask proporting to make your face absorb collagen.

Green tea is healthy. Green (dyed) toilet paper with artificial green tea scent? I’m guessing not.

2. My students’ sense of humor

“Haha, die.”

“Trashie! Bahahahahahaha!” “Uhhhhh dirty!!!”

My students laugh at the most bizarre things. Uncontrollable laughter brought on by the mention of refuse. Shouts of “KILL KILL KILL” to raucous laughter. One group of students absolutely lost it for ten minutes over the mention of blood. They often laugh in ridicule of cultural differences when they come up in the books.

I don’t want to cop out and say that this somewhat twisted sense of humor is something to do with violent video games or desensitization, but it is a bit disturbing that they laugh at death and find killing to be a great joke. Given that Korea has such a closed culture to foreign influence and a tendency toward xenophobia, the laughter in ridicule of other countries and other customs is more understandable.

I’m happy to supply random bits of humor in class, often without even realizing it.

3. Women who manage not to walk into things with their entire faces covered from the sun

The sun can’t get me in here, right?

Woah, is that an android? THE FUTURE IS NOW!

Nope, just a woman walking down the street so afraid of the sun’s aging and browning rays that she has swathed herself in UV deflecting plastic. One often cannot see any part of the faces of these women, and it is remarkable that they manage not to walk into streetlights and/or oncoming buses. More tricky is the ability to walk with a scarf completely covering the face, eyes and all. This ensemble is often paired with a sequined parasol, just to be extra safe.

Wouldn’t 50+ sunscreen be nearly as effective?

4. Whitening Deodorant

In the same vein as the complete coverage from the sun, Korea offers a plethora of confusing “brightening” products designed to lighten the tone of one’s skin to an almost paper-like pallor. I understand the desire to avoid skin cancer and wrinkles, but sometimes the desire to be pale breaches the realm of normal possibility and leads to sloppy-looking edges around one’s face from brightening masks and a certain cottage-cheese colored quality to one’s arms and legs.

Whenever I buy a beauty product here, I have to check and be sure that it doesn’t include whitening agents. All the way down to deodorant, because you never know who might see your armpit and think, “Wow, I wish that part of her/him was paler.”

5. Mis-sized shoes for walking all over Seoul

I can’t buy shoes in Korea.

It’s also very popular not to fasten one’s shoes properly. This is due to the need to remove footwear upon entering many businesses and certainly the house, but it results in women walking around stepping on the backs of their slingbacks. This is my approximation.

Along with clothing, shoes in Korea only come in a few rigid size options. Even as women grow taller and healthier due to increases in healthcare and nutrition, the shoe sizes almost always fall under size eight in the US. I often wondered when I first got here how it could be possible that all the women in Korea have such tiny feet and that the stores would be able to stay in business with such a tiny selection.

Then I noticed it. Women in Korea often wear vastly mis-sized shoes. I regularly see women in five inch heels on the subway, perilously perched on their (aching?) feet. Their shoes look like they are not only a medieval torture device with so many straps cutting into the skin, they are also almost a whole size too small. I see so many women  with toes hanging completely out of their shoes, sacrificing comfort (and maybe the health of their feet) for fashion. Then they walk several miles through Seoul to appointments and even their jobs.

Maybe it’s better that I can’t buy shoes here after all.

6. Blue Door “Protectors”

Totally doesn’t ruin your car’s doors…

This one is particularly perplexing in its apparent illogic.

“I don’t want to ding my car when I have to park so closely to others in my neighborhood. That would damage the car! I know! I’ll put huge blue foam stickers on the edges of each door! That will stop my car from looking damaged.”

I can only imagine that the goop used to attach these little things never comes off and causes significantly more damage than any tiny and unnoticeable scratch would.

7. Cosmetic Surgery

If you watch enough Korean TV, you’ll begin to notice that all the girls look the same. That’s not due to you being a racist and thinking all Koreans look the same, it’s due to the cosmetic surgery that all of them have undergone. Korea leads the world in cosmetic procedures, and girls as young as twelve are sculpted, scraped, cut and siliconed to perfection (?), often by the very same plastic surgeons. You can therefore be excused for thinking that all the famous women in Korea have the same features.

Mole-y and proud!

I know that women and men around the world face societal pressures to look and act certain ways, but I’ve never experienced anything like the pressure in Korea. I can’t even read most of the advertisements, much less communicate with women in Korean, but I couldn’t help feeling big, unfeminine, and unfashionable when I first moved here. In the months since then I’ve come to terms with my (very much non-Korean) femininity and I even like the way I look, but I can definitely understand why so many would want to tweak their look with surgery. Or at least with removal of freckles and other imperfections.

I’m very happy that I grew up in a society that didn’t laser off all my moles at the age of thirteen. I like my “imperfections,” thank you very much!

8. Modesty for Women

The final perplexing frontier: How To Dress As A Woman In Korea.

Since this is a subject best illustrated with visuals, I put together some outfits that are considered modest and immodest. For the sake of clarity, “modest” here means, “acceptable to wear to work as a teacher and not likely to draw incredulous stares on the metro.”. See if you can guess which of these outfits are acceptable and which might draw ire.

#1-Immodest! Cover your shoulders, harlot!

#2-Immodest! Your whole chest is showing! Who do you think you are?

#3-Modest! Your bosom is obscured by miles of fabric and the bagginess of the shirt prevents any silhouette from taking shape. Who cares if no one can tell you have pants on?

#4-Modest! Your butt is covered by your skirt and your shoulders are safely tucked away. Wear as high of heels as possible to show off your pale legs!


Korea is a wonderful place to live, and as my time here makes the shift between an excess of time to a slow winding down I find myself feeling both happy and sad. Six months is a long time for me. With the passage of today, Korea moves into first place as the country I’ve lived in the longest outside of the United States and Asia takes the top rank in my race to live on six continents before I’m thirty. It’s a milestone, and yet today is likely to be nothing special. Write, teach, eat, have a beer, sleep.

That’s just fine. I’m living in Korea, and having a routine is part of the stability that comes from living in a single place for a long time. I have a job, an apartment, a salary, and a boyfriend \(^_^)/ …none of which I had a year ago when I returned from South America. Yes, my six month anniversary with Korea is also my one-year anniversary of the end of my time in South America. Time is an amazing, moveable beast that takes me from one season of life to the next.

I can’t wait to see where else it leads.

14 thoughts on “Things That Still Perplex Me About Korea

  1. Ah! So you ended up in Korea? Haha. I’ve been teaching here for 2 years now and just found your blog about teaching in Chile~ thus, bringing me your new blog. I hope Korea is treating you well! I am thinking of applying to the English Opens Doors program. I’ve read your entire blog about teaching in Chile (not to sound creepy haha) so that I can have a better glimpse of what I might get into. Any advice? 🙂

    1. Be prepared to know absolutely nothing about where you will be and what level you will be teaching until you actually set foot in the school (and possibly after). EOD is great, but there are some problems with implementation the farther one goes out into the boonies.

      I miss Patagonia a lot these days, especially the stars and the quiet (compared with the loud lights and traffic in Korea). It’s a program that will challenge you and bring out the best and the worst. Even though it was one of the hardest times in my life (stretching, growing, challenging) I would do it all again.

      Good luck! Feel free to ask me other questions!

      1. I actually do have a couple of questions about the application process. Can I ask them on here or if you don’t mind, through email? Thanks so much for the help!! I\’m really thinking about applying.

      2. Ohh, awesome! First question, can you outline what exactly the application process was? I tried to find an application form online, but I didn’t really see anything. Am I supposed to just email them? Also, is the flight to Chile and back reimbursed? How was the money situation throughout your time at the program?


        That’s the website of the company that I went through, BridgeTEFL. They offered me a TEFL course and accommodation through their program fees. My flight was not reimbursed. Now, you may be wondering why one would choose to teach there if you have to pay to do so. The answer is that this is NOT a job. This is a volunteer position. The reason why they have you pay is to alleviate the burden on the local community. Korea is a developed country with the means to pay a lot for English teachers. Chile is not (yet).

        You can also use the official EOD website for volunteers They’ve just announced the dates for 2013.

        The money situation was tight. As I said, it is a volunteer position. You should not go without any savings, because it would be really hard to live on the stipend alone.

        The trade off is that you get to live in Chile, fall in love with a culture and a continent, and learn Spanish. Oh, and learn how to really teach under pressing circumstances. It’s fantastic!

      4. Yes, I saw that on their website. I was actually on the bridgetefl site earlier today, but I already have a TEFL and so I will probably apply straight through the program. I figured that the flight was not reimbursed, I just wanted to a confirmation on that. Can you answer the question about the money situation. Did you find that you needed to take a certain amount with you to Chile or was the stipend enough? Sorry for all the questions, I just like to know everything about a program before I get involved with one. Thanks for the replies though!

      1. Have you been teaching in Korea? If so, be prepared for there to be a vast difference between students here and those in Chile. There is no such thing as a “bad” kid, but the circumstances in which many of the children find themselves in rural Chile are rough. Their parents may not have finished middle school. Their grandparents probably were illiterate.

        Chile is developing education faster than almost any other country in the world, and there are systemic problems that often come out in the behavior of individual students. Yes, I had some days where I literally had to play defense with a student to force her into her chair. There were also days where my students swore at me, or threw spitballs the size of fists. My school was different from those of most others on the program, but it bears mentioning as an outlier.

        It shouldn’t discourage you from applying or from going to Chile, because the sense of accomplishment if you do is intangible and at times overpowering. I don’t know anyone that I’ve met in Korea who has seriously considered EOD, and I think that’s because the two experiences are so radically different. It was an amazing ride, and I highly recommend it.

        Feel free to ask anything else!

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