Photo: Olesya Kuznetsova/Shutterstock

12 Things You'll Only Experience in Korea

South Korea
by Sarah Katin Aug 6, 2015

1. Cracked-out soju pigeons

Korea’s known for its vibrant drinking culture. They claim they can drink all night because they do so while eating and playing games. There seems to be a hole in this philosophy: namely, the unconscious people and piles of upchuck — or pigeon breakfast — I step over on my way to work in the morning. Party-going pigeons love to feast on these soju-soaked puddles of vomit until they’re wasted, twitchy, and slamming into walls.

2. Ajummas

An ajumma is technically a married woman, but the word is really reserved for a specific type of the 50+ crowd. Anyone who’s visited Korea can spot these beloved national icons by their short purple perms, unusually large sun visors, floral pants, rubber shoes, sturdy stature, aggressive nature, and near super-human strength. They’re often spotted carrying large sacks of produce. I imagine in the city they hoist refrigerators over their shoulders.

2b. The ajumma scrub-down

Two types of ajummas man the sauna. The ajummas in beige granny undies and thick-strapped bras keep the shower area tidy, while the sexy ajummas in black scour you on a plastic table with a cheese grater and a garden hose as your skin falls off and piles on the ground.

As you lie there naked, next to a bunch of other naked people also being peeled*, you might wonder why this seemed like a pleasant way to spend your Saturday, or you might be totally into it. No judgment. If you already have the smooth alabaster skin of a Victorian virgin, you should be alright. If you have freckles like me, you’re screwed. Or like my African American friend who said they tried to scrub the “black” off.

* Man readers, you too can experience this at the ridiculously strong hands of an ajusshi (male ajumma) in a beige nappie.

3. Pretty men

Grown men sporting fuzzy kitten sweaters, non-ironically, and clutching pencil cases that say things like: “Butterflies play among the flowers.” “I love cookie.” If you like your men more “meow” than “grrrrrrowl,” this is the country for you.

4. Dong chim

I’ve been poked up the butt by small children and the occasional adult more times than I’d like to count. This may seem like inappropriate behavior to some, but in Korea it’s a fun game. How it works: The child clasps his fingers together with index and middle fingers pointing out. He then tries to insert them briskly into your anal region while you’re not looking.

“Dong chim!” Translation: poop needle. Sometimes they’ll come at you from the front. I find the vaginal poke even more inappropriate. But maybe that’s just me.

5. The best food you’ve never heard of

  • Gamjatang
  • Daktoritang
  • Manduguk
  • Samgyeopsal
  • Dak galbi
  • Galbijjim
  • Kimchi jeon
  • Ddeokbokki

Heard of these? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Most people can’t locate Korea on a map*, let alone name a single Korean food. A part of me wants to keep this delicious little multiple foodgasmic secret to myself, but I’m getting a little tired of constantly being asked, “So did you eat Fido?” As if that’s the only thing on the menu.

* Before you get your knickers in a knot, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about those other geographically challenged numskulls, the ones who still think I’m talking about North Korea.

6. Beach season

Beach season is for a month sometime between mid-July to mid-August. If the weather is gorgeous in June, and you think it might be nice to take a refreshing dip, think again. Three cop cars, a fire truck, and a rescue boat full of recovery divers will turn up to ‘rescue’ you from the beautiful June weather and calm blue seas. It’s not beach season, moron.

7. Hiking

Koreans love hiking. What they love even more than hiking is dressing to go hiking. They’ve got all the goods: North Face jackets, argyle knee socks, spring-loaded walking sticks, heat-activated gloves, spiky shoe boots, more North Face stuff, you get the idea. Don’t worry if you don’t look the part, they understand you’re a foreigner and find your ignorance amusing.

Enjoy the hike. It’s more like walking slowly in a large herd along a gently sloping and well-trodden path, but whatever. If that’s not enough of a workout for you, stop at one of the many outdoor gymnasiums and swivel your hips on a metal disc like the super-serious elderly man on the disc next to yours. Afterwards, he’ll share his seaweed rice rolls (aka kimbap) and soju with you. It’s like the trail mix and water of Korean hiking.

8. Fan death

I’m not talking about the kind of fans who get stompled* at a Justin Bieber concert. I’m talking about those potentially deadly wind-blowing devices used to cool oneself on a hot summer’s night.

I learned about their deadliness my first year in Korea. My boss had called me into his office to warn me that my fan was plotting to kill me in my sleep. After many discussions on the subject, this is what I’ve come to understand: In a closed space, over the course of a night, the fan will create a wind tunnel that will suck the oxygen from the air so you suffocate and die. My modern Korean friends laugh at the notion…but their fans all have timers.

* Yes, it’s a word.

9. Toasty floors

Koreans heat their homes through their floors; it’s called ondol. Basically, your entire apartment floor turns into one giant heating pad. Returning home on a blustery cold winter’s night, I pretty much belly flop on the floor and stay down till spring. Bonus: Korea doesn’t do dryers, so in the winter you can lay your wet laundry on the floor to dry. If you’re one of those people who always throws your clothes on the floor anyway, well, it’s a win win.

Warning: My friend was babysitting a couple guinea pigs and she accidentally left the cage on the floor and the heater running while she went to Seoul for the weekend. She returned to roasted guinea pig. She’s still traumatized, and I probably shouldn’t have told you, but I feel it’s my duty to warn you that with the gift of ondol comes much responsibility. I’m like that old dude preaching about my mogwai.

10. The molessage

For my friend’s birthday I got us both molested. I treated her to a Korean massage. Korean massage techniques may differ from what you’re accustomed to. Some of the highlights include: breast jiggling to a chorus of giggles from your ‘masseuse’ and her friends who’ve come to watch and drink coffee, nipple tweaking, kissing the sun tattoo on your ass cheek because it’s so darn cute, and finger probing dangerously close to your nether region.

I felt really bad about the whole thing, but my friend assured me it was the most action she’d had in months. So much like a Shakespearean comedy/tragedy. All’s well that end’s well.

11. Table doorbells

In Korean restaurants, every table comes with a magic button. If you push it a server will instantly appear at your table. If you don’t push it you won’t be bothered. You can push it or not push it as much as you’d like. Why this hasn’t caught on in the US is beyond me.

12. Extreme couple culture

Date night in Korea! Dress in matching clothes down to your matching undies. You’d think the intimate wear would slant toward more of a masculine style; after all, girls look cute in boy shorts. But nope. The men get to look cute in pink bikini bottoms instead.

Head to the local Pizza Hut (this means he really likes you) and order the “couple set.” It involves a heart-shaped pizza, and they’ll even box it up for you with a pretty red ribbon. Nothing says romance like heart-shaped carbs. Next, chew on dried squid while cuddling in the cozy “couple seat” at the cinema. No pesky armrest to impede your blossoming love. Finish the night at Starbucks (he really, really likes you) with perfectly etched foam-heart couple lattes and a slice of cheesecake to split. Revel in your steamy, creamy coupley bliss.

Note: Viewing of the spring cherry blossoms and ice skating are deemed couple activities. In other words, stay home you sad, lonely person. This article was originally published on May 22, 2014. Featured photo by Kwanhyen Park.

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