Travel guides on South Korea prepared me for a new language, currency, and weather. But no one prepared me for washing my hands. After having conquered my first public restroom experience in Seoul, I walked up to the sink.
“No soap?” I thought. I saw only a blue air-freshener on a metal rod.
A woman exited a stall and stood next to me. She wet her hands, phallically caressed the blue oval until it was sudsy, and rubbed her hands together.
It was soap.
I was intrigued and horrified. Can germs collect on soap? How many people per day touch that bar? Why is it on a metal rod? From then on, I kept a pocket-sized hand sanitizer in my purse. There are worse things in life than a community soap bar. But I was taken back — how had I not read about this in any of the travel books, articles, or blogs leading up to my trip?
Soap on a stick was my first surprise, but in the year and a half I’ve been living in Seoul, there’s been plenty more. If you’re going to South Korea and you aren’t a fan of surprises, check out my list of things I wish someone would’ve told me, first.
1. Bring your own toilet paper into the bathroom.
Korean bathrooms are full of surprises. Along with soap-on-a-stick, you might encounter “squatter toilets” and toilets with more buttons than a rocket-ship control panel.
But what’s perhaps most important is what you won’t encounter — toilet paper in the stall. Now, this isn’t always the case. But when it is that case, you’ll want to be prepared. Some restrooms have toilet paper available outside of the stalls, where you’ll have to guesstimate how much you’ll need before you use the restroom. (Pointer: more is always better.)
Other bathrooms have no toilet paper at all. To ensure you never get yourself into a tricky situation, you should carry some tissues with you at all times. You can buy these little packs of tissues for cheap at convenience stores and even from many vending machines in the subway stations.
2. Dog meat isn’t common, but it also isn’t a myth.
Most of the Koreans I’ve asked in their 40s and under in Seoul say they would absolutely never eat dog meat, and that they think it’s wrong. Some younger Koreans I’ve spoken to here deny it still even happens.
But dog farms exist. I’ve seen one.
I was at a temple stay outside of Seoul, and our group was given free time that we used to explore nearby areas. A 10-minute walk away from the temple, we passed lines of Korean Jindo dogs, barking aggressively in small cages under a large tarp.
Later, I found out that “Mandune,” the sweet Korean Jindo that lived on the temple grounds, had escaped from that farm. I cried.
While I adamantly disagree with this practice, I also adamantly disagree with eating any animals at all because I’m vegan. And, I can’t say that I think eating dogs is any worse than eating factory-farmed pigs.
The good news is that veganism amongst the younger generation in Korea is booming, and there are now more vegan restaurants in Seoul, like PLANT, than in my Floridian hometown.
3. That basement noraebang isn’t what you think it is.
If you love to sing, you’ll love noraebang! If you don’t love to sing, you’ll love noraebang after a few shots of soju.
Noraebangs, or Korean singing rooms, are all over Korea. Usually, a noraebang is set up with comfy seating, a microphone, a song list, and sometimes tambourines and other musical instruments. Sometimes they serve food or alcohol. Sometimes they serve something else.
Some noraebangs offer girls, or doumi, that will sing or dance with you in the room. Often this leads to sex services performed nearby. While you can, and many people do, use noraebangs for wholesome singing and fun, I’ve also heard of friends being told they couldn’t buy noraebang unless they also bought girls from the company.
The safest bet? Choose a noraebang with big, open windows, or visit “coin noraebang” where you pay per song.
4. The water’s safe to drink, but (most) locals don’t drink it.
“According to a survey conducted by the Environment Ministry on 12,000 individuals in 2013, only about 10 percent responded that they drank water directly from the tap, whether it is boiled or not,” said an article in The Korea Herald. “About 55 percent said they drank tap water only after boiling to ensure safety.”
While tap water in Korea is 100 percent safe to drink, most Koreans don’t drink it unless they boil or filter it, first. When visiting or living in South Korea, you don’t have to doctor the water before drinking it. But if you fill up a glass straight from the tap in front of a Korean, be ready for some side-eye.
5. You might be asked some “forward” questions.
From, “How much do you weigh?” To, “Is that a pimple on your face?” Don’t be surprised if a Korean friend, coworker, student, or even stranger asks you a question you consider to be rude.
I’ve also been asked, “Are you Russian?” by older Korean men, which only later did I learn is often code for, “Are you a prostitute?”
To the last question, I usually respond with, “No, are you?”
But most of the time, personal questions are well-intentioned, and they show that a person has taken interest in your life. Respond politely, or if it makes you uncomfortable, simply say, “I’m not comfortable answering that question.”
6. “One size fits all” means “One size fits skinny.”
Many underground subway stations in Seoul, especially, are labyrinths that lead to malls, restaurants, and more. Along the way, many local brands that sell women’s clothing line the walkways. Most of the clothing these places sell are “one size fits all.” But, this is misleading because the clothing isn’t all fit with extra-stretchy bands and adjustable belts. If it were worded properly, it might read, “One size fits skinny.” The same goes for shoes, which are sometimes available in only a few sizes.
If you happen to be petite, you’ll love the wide variety of cheap clothing available. If you aren’t, you’ll have to visit popular clothing chains such as Zara, Forever 21, or H&M. ASOS also ships to Korea cheaply and quickly and has a variety of sizes and styles.
7. You’re going to fall in love with the country.
Despite the many surprises I’ve encountered in South Korea, the thing that surprised me most was how much this country stole my heart. In fact, I told my friends and family in the U.S. that I’d be leaving immediately after my 1-year contract was over, and I here I am, writing from Seoul 1.5 years later. From its familial culture and affordable healthcare to its bizarre flavor combinations and adorable desk supplies, it’s impossible not to fall in love with South Korea.
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