Photos by the author
When I first rented an older Korean apartment with poor insulation, I fear I was destined to live like a human popsicle during the winter. Then I discovered ondol heating, which means heat radiates from the floor. And I learned that there is nothing more welcoming after walking outside than parking your butt onto a cushion and a warm floor as you enjoy your samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly) with friends.
”Membership training” (M.T.)
My Korean co-teachers and colleagues were curious about this waygukin (foreigner). The first item on our work agenda was a 1-2 day outing where work was not discussed, so much as the answers to these questions: 1) Are you married? 2) What is your blood type? 3) How old are you? 4) Do you like kimchi? 5) How much can you drink? It’s not that Koreans are nosy; they are curious about how to “address” you in daily interactions.
“M.T.” also works for Koreans when in a new environment. There’s M.T. scheduled before any classwork for freshmen new to a university. I found that it’s much easier to interact with new colleagues and friends after drinking copious amounts of soju, and telling funny stories about a shared experience.
My husband loved going to the local Korean baseball games, especially when the tickets are much more affordable than a pilgrimage to Fenway Park. Not only is going to a Korean baseball game an experience by itself, but when was the last time you were able to bring your own cooler to stash your own food and drinks? Not only are games a cultural experience with entertainment beyond the actual game (free noisemakers to cheer on the local team), but bringing your own food and drinks is allowed. Whatever you can fit, stash, or carry, no one will inspect your cooler…unless s/he wants a sample.
Yo-chul a.k.a. the “bing-bong” (call) button
Have you ever felt bad for a busy waitress — and hated to bother her? Ever felt like your server was ignoring you? Korea has found the ultimate solution: the yo-chul or “bing-bong” button, a term based on the sound you hear when you press it. Just press the button found at the end of your table. The server will come to your call and ask how s/he can help you. It’s also more polite than yelling the Korean equivalent of Yo-gi-oh! (“Come here!”) or the French version of Garcon! (“Boy!”), and it’s an efficient way to get in, eat your food, ask for the bill, and leave. We truly missed these buttons once we came back to America and had to “flag down” servers.
”Deli-style” pick a number
Similar to Sweden’s nummerlapp (numbering system), Koreans take a number for service at government offices, banking, hospitals, and even at the movies. It makes mundane local errands a lot more efficient – particularly if you’re going to the immigration office for your Alien Registration Card (ARC), which acts as your foreigner identification card.
As soon as you arrive at the office, pick a number. It may even tell how many people are in front of you. When your number shows up on the attendant’s screen, you’re up. Quick, simple, and genius. Just make sure you’re ready when your number is called, or risk getting evil stares from the locals.
“1 + 1”
Toothpaste and tampons? Milk and a toilet brush? Welcome to Korea’s wonderful way of saving at their supermarket chains and big box stores, where the strangest combination of items is packaged together in hopes that you’ll think of them the next time you go shopping. This is similar to the concept of “Buy one, get one free,” except that the two items are completely unrelated. Either way, it’s a brilliant marketing scheme — and can result in you only having to make one trip to the store.
To a Korean, “service” is not fixing your car’s transmission or getting your oil changed. This is a friendly way of saying, “It’s on the house.” for no apparent motivation than the Korean sense of goodwill – especially toward a waygukin (“foreigner”). Let’s say you’re a regular at the neighborhood Kimbap Sarang and you look a little overwhelmed from digesting cultural shock. The clerk may offer an extra kimbap for the road. Going to the pharmacy? Here’s some yogurt – just because. Speaking (survival) Korean? The locals will be so impressed at your efforts that you might get handed a little freebie in return for your “fluent” Korean.
Boxed gift sets for special occasions
You won’t ever think about Spam the same way once you’ve lived in Korea. This canned chopped pork was first invented during the Korean War, to serve as an affordable food option, and as a key ingredient in Budae-jjigae (“Army Stew”). When it’s time for Chuseok (Korea’s version of Thanksgiving), don’t forget to pick up your boxed gift sets to make a good impression on any Korean. Just don’t be surprised or offended if your boxed set is a 12-pack of toothpaste – complete with mouthwash.
If there ever was a genius way to market chocolate as its own national holiday, Korea’s Pepero Day is it. Lotte, a Korean conglomerate, cooked-up the November 11th holiday to promote their chocolate-covered pretzel sticks. Why November 11th? The pretzel sticks can be lined up to look like the number 11. For chocolate lovers, it’s a dream come true. Pepero packages are thoughtfully decorated and worthy of a Pinterest page.
This type of transaction is the simplest way of doing business in Korea. Instead of mailing monthly utility payments or trying to go online in Korean websites to shop, simply find out the bank the vendor’s going by and their wire transfer number. Yes, you may be skeptical of doing this transaction in banks and ATMs in America, but transfers are an extremely common practice in Korea. Maybe you’re a runner and want to register for a race. Once you feel comfortable (and confident enough) to conduct a transaction via a Korean ATM, you can pay your entry fee easily. And Korean banks don’t rob you on fees.
Meal deliveries by scooter
Remember Domino’s pledge of “30 minutes or less” to deliver your pizza? Well, food delivery is even more user-friendly in Korea – complete with silverware, actual plates and bowls. Once you’ve finished your Gamja-tang (“spicy pork bone soup”), leave the grill, metal soup pot, soup ingredients, serving dishes, spoons and metal chopsticks at the door with the accompanying food tray. The delivery man remembers the deliveries on the route and will come back to pick up your tray, dishes, and silverware for return to the restaurant.