1. Use a squat toilet the wrong way.
Living in South Korea, I learned quickly that is there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and that Koreans will go out of their way to help you correct all of your errors. I failed to take this into account when using a squat toilet in one of the doorless stalls in my school. Had I used the toilet correctly — facing out — it’s likely no child would have noticed me. However, using it backwards — facing the wall for a little privacy — rocketed me to a near Rockstar level of infamy for being The Teacher Who Doesn’t Know How to Pee Right, and caused me to have to face my Korean coworker’s well-meant inquiry, “Do you need help to go to the toilet?”
2. Make “special friends” in “coffee shops.”
Korean grammar uses honorifics to change word forms according to the amount of politeness and respect due a person. As such, my American boyfriend and I got used to revealing information about our social standings upon initial encounters.
One afternoon, I found Michael at a coffee shop in the midst of an exchange with the grandma-like proprietor, which had started with, “You like special friend?” Of course, “Yes!” he wanted to be her special friend! She was old and sweet! The usual questions ensued. To “Old or young?” he had replied “Youngish,” easily enough. When I slid into the booth with him, he was struggling with, “A lot of money or a little?” “Middle money,” he settled on with my nod approval. Sizing the two of us up, Grandma asked, “Together?” Eager to make friends, too, I exclaimed, “Yes, we are together!” Volleying her eyes across our faces, she unwound, “Special giiiiirlfriend or special boooooyfriend?” Michael’s jaw dropped but nothing came out. We quickly slipped a few Wons for his instant coffee under the doily and fumbled a barrage of mianhamnidas and kamsahamnidas (sorrys and thank yous) as we stumbled for the door.
South Korea has some of the coolest coffee shops in the world, but let an obvious absence of coffee-making machines be a bright red flag that the house specialty isn’t a salted caramel latte.
3. Take a sauna near where you work and live.
When my coworker at the grade school where I was teaching English invited me to the spa, I was excited enough to “embrace the cultural experience” and make a local girlfriend to shelve my uneasiness at getting naked in front of a work friend for an afternoon. When she asked if I preferred to go out of the neighborhood, I failed to imagine the possibilities and said no. My imagination could never have painted the pink, fleshy picture of my first parent-teacher conferences being held in the nude, not only with my students and their mothers, but with their grandmothers, aunts, and best friends as well.
I could not have conjured the bonus detail of the bathing room gestapo marching me back to a shower to scrub better before entering the hot pool where, my fourth grader relayed, everyone was waiting for me. And never could I have pictured the moment her grandmother would seize my shoulder to hold me steady so she could scrub at least two layers of skin off my back with coarse sea salt while my fourth grader worked ever so hard to introduce me to everyone she knew.
4. Mess up at the gym, repeatedly.
Korean gyms are amazing. There are automated machines to bounce, massage, invert, and shake you. You can work up a sweat without ever moving a muscle of your own accord. A dozen 50-something-year-old Korean women in Incheon can testify to how I myself took flight and crashed-landed onto the mats where they ritualistically watch the soaps during their post-workout coffee hour.
In the days after I upset so many Dixie cups of sugared instant coffee, the ladies insistently swept their fingers toward me whenever I got close. Completely embarrassed, I was easily shooed. One morning, a woman approached me and demanded, “Why you not come when we call?” I stared at her, “Ummm…” running stupidly across my face, until she pulled me over and down onto the mats. Apparently, the gesture for go away in the US is the gesture for come here in Korea! After that, l hit the mats every day at the gym to work out my jaw with all manner of confections from Paris Baguette and hearty fits of laughter with my new friends.
5. Dive too quickly into a pool of hungry fish.
Some unique cultural experiences take a little more easing into than others. For example, munching on waffles while dozens of tiny toothless fish munch on the dead and dying skin on your feet. It’s easy to be fooled by the cool local set, chatting casually over lattes with their feet/fish food dangling in pools built into the floor in the Dr. Fish Cafés in Seoul.
My first time, I cruised to a little footbath with a coffee and waffle set on my tray and plunged my slightly calloused feet right in, ready to be eaten smooth. Nothing in life has ever tickled so much! I lost my composure, my waffle, my coffee, and my face all in a single instant as I alerted scores of people with an escaped peel of laughter to whip around and see me shoot my feet out of the pool and splatter coffee, caramel, and whipped cream all over myself.
6. Blow your nose in public.
This I learned never to do thanks to an incident in Tokyo during a Kabuki performance. Somehow, my little puff of air rose above all that noise and drew the repugnance of everyone within five rows of me who simultaneously turned to express their disfavor.
Back in Korea, I recounted the story for my friend Sue, and instead of sympathy and giggles, she gave me a crinkled up face like she just smelled garbage. “Well, that was a dirty thing to do, but at least you did it in Japan,” she finally relented with a laugh. (Sue, like many Koreans, holds no love for her neighbor across the “East Sea,” aka The Sea of Japan to the rest of the world.) Then she turned all serious and admonished, “Never do that here in front of any people. Promise, my friend.” She didn’t have to tell me twice. I never once blew my nose openly in South Korea, and thus successfully avoided at least one form of public humiliation in my 18 months there!
7. Wager money with friends.
One afternoon, I was feeling particularly brazen and bragged to my Kumdo-sparring nemesis, and everyone within earshot, that I could beat him in a soccer shootout, even if I could never outdo him with a sword. He swaggered about in a little circle, tapping his puffed out chest, chuckling, “Korean Man, hahaha.” I pounced around him, proclaiming “American Woman, HAHAHA!”
Within seconds the bets started flying. Ice cream on her! Soju on him! Cookies! Chips! Then, my American boyfriend… 20,000 won (20 USD) on Lauren! Everything came to a grinding halt with the effect of a needle being ripped across a record album. Michael stood accused by 18 flashing Samurai fighter eyes. Turns out, it’s inappropriate to bet with money among friends.
Epilogue: After that, we all made up and much was made of the impending shootout, though it was never played. To this day, I swear that’s because my “Korean Man” friend knew deep down I was going to own him on the soccer field.
8. Fail to know American Pop songs of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and today.
Groups of friends love to rent rooms at a Norebang to sing karaoke. In these private little party rooms, Soju flows, disco balls spin, tambourines jangle, hips wiggle, and there is no stopping the Korean who can bust out song after American song. Heckling fingers also fly and mocking laugher slices at the sorry, slack American who knows fewer English songs than his or her Korean friends. With the silly hats and props with which most Norebangs are equipped, it’s easy to be turned into the court jester as Korean friends adorn you for each fail until you look like a total clown. Luckily, it is customary to drink any time a friend pours for you, so armed with a little extra soju, you can eradicate all memory of your shame from the group before the night’s end, and walk out with your dignity intact.
9. Turning on a fan in a closed room at night.
Unless you want to look like a suicidal/homicidal maniac, do NOT turn on a fan in a closed room before going to bed when traveling with a Korean friend. An Australian expat told me that on his first trip with his Korean girlfriend of four years, he made this mistake, and she went ballistic, crying that her parents warned her that he would try to hurt her. After he turned off the fan as she demanded and she calmed down, he found out she was afraid of fan death, or of dying in her sleep due to a fan running in a closed room.
I thought he was making it up, so I asked my friend Sue if she knew anything about it, and she exclaimed, “Oh yes! Do you not know? Be very careful!” She said I was lucky that my fan at home had 90-minute timer that could not be disabled. Here, I thought that was just an energy saving feature. “No,” she told me, “It probably has been saving your life.” In every little humiliation, there always was a great big lesson!