Photo: Olesya Kuznetsova/Shutterstock

11 Side Effects I Had as a Traveler in South Korea

South Korea
by Katie McGrain Jun 20, 2016

1. I now box out elderly women in line.

The motto of senior citizens across the Korean peninsula seems to be, “Do whatever the hell you like!” Examples of this include but are not limited to: Cutting to the front of lines, elbowing people out of the way, and pushing onto a bus/train/elevator before anyone has gotten off. I’ve been on the receiving end of an old lady’s unfriendly shove more times than I can count. At some point, I snapped.

I no longer let these aggressive ajummas (Korean for ‘older woman’) push me around. If I’m standing in a line and I see someone coming my way, I channel everything I learned in middle school basketball. I stick my arms out to my sides to make it more difficult to get around. I shuffle my feet as she tries to cut me. And yes, I use my legs and butt to push her away if needed.

2. I match outfits with my boyfriend.

I now get a secret thrill whenever I find an article of clothing that comes in sizes for both me AND my boyfriend. It’s part of the ‘couple culture’ in Korea, where couples express their love for each other by strutting around town in head-to-toe matching gear. My boyfriend and I wear matching clothes only when we are doing super couple-y things — like riding tandem bikes along the river at sundown.

3. I’m now one of those people who yells across the restaurant to get a waiter’s attention.

When I’ve gulped the last sip of my honey-flavored beer, I know it will only be a matter of seconds before the waiter is at my tableside. Not because the wait staff at restaurants is particularly attentive, but because as soon as my beer glass or plate is empty, I lower my voice and yell “YO-GEE-OH”. This alerts the waitstaff that I need something, and someone comes scurrying over. It’s fantastic to never have to worry about flagging your waiter down for a water refill.

4. My English has really gone downhill.

I teach English for a living, yet I have forgotten how to correctly speak it. I add and drop articles when I shouldn’t, and mispronounce common words (orange-ee instead of orange, WTF?). I often find myself saying things like, “I am many happy today” or “Let’s go have the walk”.

Let’s get this straight, I am a native English speaker. I even double-majored in English. Yet on a regular basis, I find myself saying some of the most absurd combinations of words. It’s one thing to slow down and emphasize words while molding the precious minds of kids, it’s another to speak that way outside the classroom. Recently, I was on the elevator with a Korean woman and her dog. I turned to her and said, “Dog. Me. Pet?” I was too flabbergasted with myself to wait for her response.

5. I’ve become hyper-aware of how much time I spend on my phone.

I often wonder what it was like in Korea before the invention of smartphones. How did people function? What did they do on the subway if they couldn’t stream K-Dramas? How did they show the world what they ate for lunch? To be fair, I know the reliance on technology is rampant everywhere. But for some reason, Korea seems to top all places I’ve been to.

Seeing people walk in front of traffic. Or ignore their friends. Or bump into kids on the sidewalk — it makes me think twice about my cell phone usage. Though I love having my phone accessible, I’ve learned to pay close attention to how, and when, I use it.

6. I’ve stopped guarding all of my belongings.

As a traveler, I’ve been trained to constantly be aware of my surroundings and my things. The honesty of people in Korea has worn off on me though, and I’ve let my guard down a bit. I’ll leave my computer open in the coffee shop while I go to the bathroom. Leave my expensive sunglasses on a community table at the gym. Even plug my phone into an outlet at a bus station and sit nowhere near it. It’s nice that things are so safe here, but it’s a habit that will probably get thrown out the window as soon as I leave the country.

7. I now go to work no matter how sick (or hungover) I am.

A pounding head and aching body count for nothing when it comes to calling out of work. In the US, I would call in sick at the first sign of a sniffle. (Don’t want to get those kids sick!) In Korea, suffering through sickness at work is just the way it is. It’s a never-ending cycle of germs at the school I work at, as all the kids and teachers come to school no matter how contagious they are.

8. I’ve aged a year and a half.

I left the USA as a fresh 27-year-old, only to arrive in Korea to learn I was actually a soon-to-be 29-year-old. Imagine my surprise when I lost nearly two years of my twenties over the course of a 14-hour flight.

9. I get naked in public now.

And I enjoy it. My favorite way to unwind after a long day is by stripping off my clothes and soaking in a hot tub, with 50 other women. The jimjilbang is a Korean Bathhouse and an important part of the culture. It’s where women, men, and families gather (in segregated areas) to cleanse themselves, relax, and shoot the shit. It took some time to adjust to this part of the culture, but I’ve grown to enjoy the atmosphere a lot.

10. I’ve learned that traffic rules often mean nothing.

Parking on sidewalks, driving the wrong way down a one-way street, running red lights. This is all acceptable in Korea. I know to dodge motorcycles on the sidewalk and that it’s okay to double park in a garage. And I know that as long as I have my phone number on my dashboard, I can pretty much park wherever I want. I’ve never seen someone get pulled over or chastised for breaking the rules. Which is obviously why everyone does it.

11. I expect to have wifi everywhere.

After living in Korea, I’ve become accustomed to being able to connect to the internet anywhere. I expect every place I visit to have wifi, and if it doesn’t, at least a dozen other open wifi connections. I recently returned to the US for a quick visit. I got in an Uber and realized I couldn’t connect to wifi. And the driver didn’t even have a hotspot he was willing to share with me. What?

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