Visiting a foreign country is an exciting and worthwhile experience. I can not explain how life changing going abroad can be. Seeing a different culture first hand, trying new foods, meeting new people. There’s much to be said for getting out of your comfort zone. Going into it with an open mind and a sense of adventure is key to having a great time.
That being said, there are a few things to know before you visit South Korea. Knowing this ahead of time will help your trip go just a little smoother.
First thing’s first.
I know what you’re thinking.
If you’ve grown up in the States and have never been to Asia, the bathroom situation can be a bit intimidating. Squat toilets, hand washing, “no flush” rules. What is all of this?
So, what is a squat toilet, you ask? A squat toilet is a toilet that you squat over to do your business. Ha.Ha. No. Really.
It looks similar to a urinal, but instead of being mounted to the wall, it’s laid out on the floor. I have never personally used a squat toilet, however, it’s my understanding that if you “hover” as you would over a “western” toilet, it’s going to end unpleasantly. But, if you squat straight down, you’ll be fine.
If you are nervous or uncomfortable using a squat toilet, no worries. Most public bathrooms have both squat toilets and western toilets. Oftentimes, there is a sign on the door to each stall that depicts one or the other to let you know what you’re walking into.
Speaking of stalls! Do you ever go into a public restroom and accidentally make awkward eye contact through the cracks around the stall doors? Well, not in South Korea! Want to know why?
BECAUSE THE STALLS ARE FULLY ENCLOSED!
I kid you not. You go in and close the door and bam! Actual privacy! My mind has been blown! I did not know you could have an fully enclosed bathroom stall. But apparently, this is a thing! And I miss it every time I use a public bathroom in America!
Now, here’s a couple of things I do not miss.
- In South Korea, in public bathrooms, you can not flush the toilet paper. The pipes and sewage systems are too old. Ladies, this means no flushing tampons either! There is a trashcan next to every toilet for you to throw away your used toilet paper. In your first few days, this will be hard to remember and get used to. After a couple of days though, it’ll be second nature to you and you won’t even think about it.
- Hand-washing. In America, we’re taught to wash our hands after using the bathroom. We’re all about using hand sanitizer and not touching doorknobs or toilet handles if at all possible. So, it comes as quite a shock to see people not washing their hands after using a public bathroom. Now, it becomes immediately apparent why they aren’t washing their hands in most cases. There is usually only an air dryer, no paper towels. At first thought, this doesn’t seem to be an issue. However, once you wash your hands and go to dry them, you’re lucky if the hand dryer actually works. When this is the case, you’re left with no choice than to come out flinging water everywhere after washing your hands. (Pro-tip: Buy a handkerchief or bandanna! They work great for drying your hands as well as wiping sweat if you visit during the summer!)
Now that we’re done with the bathroom discussion, let’s move on!
Recycling! Seoul is huge on recycling! This is awesome! There is one draw back that we found while in Seoul to so much recycling. It’s almost impossible to find a trashcan on the streets of Seoul. You will occasionally find recycling bins, but each one is only for specific items. Cans and bottles? Covered! Paper? Got it! Food or random trash items that can’t be recycled? Good luck! You’ll probably be carrying that item until you get back to your hotel or place of residence.
This will change how you go about your day. Stop in to the neighborhood convenience store to get a drink? Grab the bottle, not the can. The bottle can be closed and thrown into a purse or bag if you don’t finish it all at once. If you stop in to a coffee shop or fast food restaurant, take your time and eat your food and drink your drink before you leave. Not only will this allow you to throw away any leftovers without searching for a trashcan or recycling bin, it will also give you time to just relax. Take a break for a few minutes. Enjoy watching the people pass on the streets! There’s so much to see, if you just take a minute to look around. Enjoy the time this gives you. And remember, recycling is good for everyone! Do your part to help out!
So, what’s next?
Mopeds! Food deliver services are widely used in Korea. This means there are mopeds everywhere. And they are in a hurry. They do not limit themselves to just using the streets to get where they are going. They will frequently pop up onto the sidewalk and barrel through throngs of people to get to their destination.
In my first few days in Seoul, I felt as though I was constantly dodging mopeds. After a couple of days, you get used to it, and suddenly, it’s just normal and not a big deal. Don’t stress too much. It seems that delivery drivers are extremely used to weaving between groups of people in a hurry. As with anything, be aware of your surroundings and you’ll be fine!
Speaking of narrow pathways, one of my biggest issues with Korea was the lack of personal space. In America, we are used to everyone having their own personal “bubble.” This means, don’t get too close to me. You stay in your bubble, I’ll stay in mine.
This does not exist in Korea. I can not tell you how many times I was at the cash register paying for something and someone came up behind me, oftentimes close enough to be touching me. I was never uncomfortable because I thought they were going to rob me or anything like that. I felt completely safe the entire time I was in Korea. No, this was more that, as an American, I’m 100% not used to strangers casually inviting themselves into my personal space. But here I was. Paying for 30 face masks while a random person leaned over my shoulder to look at lipstick.
In relation to this, you need to be aware of escalator etiquette. In America, we stagger ourselves on the escalator. Meaning, if I get on the escalator with a friend, they take the first stair, and I take the next stair, but on the opposite side. This is partially so that we can look at each other and talk. But also because this allows us to give one another a bit of personal space.
This is not the case in Korea. For whatever reason, people will get on the escalator and walk it like regular stairs. I kid you not. Even though there is almost always a set of stairs right next to the escalator. So, when getting on the escalator, the proper procedure is to stand directly behind the person in front of you. If you forget to do this, you are almost guaranteed to have someone walk up behind you and then either release an annoyed sigh or start tapping their foot to let you know they want passed you.
Do not question this. Just roll with it. Yes, it can be incredibly annoying and frustrating. But remember, you are a guest in this country. Things will not be done exactly the way you are used to. This is all part of the experience!
Speaking of being a guest in South Korea: If you are not of Asian decent, everyone will stare at you. Don’t be alarmed or offended. South Korea is still a homogeneous society. This means that if you are of non-Asian ethnicity, you will stand out like a sore thumb. For the most part, everywhere you go, you will be the only Westerner. In my time in South Korea, the only time I saw more than two other Westerners in the same place as us, was when we were on a group tour.
Since foreigners are hard to come by, people will stare at you as you pass. Once again, don’t be offended and don’t freak out. You probably don’t have anything on your face. You just look different than what Koreans are used to. And if you’re like me, you were already staring at them because they have awesome style and you’re trying to figure out if you could get a shirt like that back home or if you’d have to buy it in Korea.
If it makes you uncomfortable, my advice is to “catch them” staring at you. Make eye contact and they will almost always look away, embarrassed at being caught staring. But mostly, remember that your personal style of clothing or hair or tattoos or piercings isn’t what they are used to. Maybe they’re trying to figure out if they could pull of the same hair cut as you or where they can buy a similar dress.
Now, one of my absolute favorite things about Korea is special seats on the subway. Now, we don’t have a subway system in Kansas City. So, this may be normal in cities that have subways. But I’ve never seen anything like it. In South Korea, there are specific seats in every subway car for the elderly, people with disabilities, pregnant women and people with small children.
Unless you fall into one or more of these categories, these seats are not for you. Do not sit down. You can get away with sitting in the seat for pregnant women, but you are expected to get up if a pregnant woman gets on the train. However, if the entire train is full and the only seats left are in the section for elderly and disabled people, you are not allowed to sit there unless you fall into those categories. And even if you do fall into those categories, it’s all relative. If you see someone get on the train that needs that seat more than you, it is expected that you get up so that person can sit down.
So, how do you know what seats are special seats? Easy! They have a sign. The seat for pregnant women has a picture of a cartoon pregnant woman behind it and a pink square on the floor in front of it. Sometimes, the seat may even be pink.
The other section will be the back section of the train car. There will be a line of seats on each side, and they will have a sign behind or next to them depicting someone with a cane, a pregnant woman, someone with a crutch and someone carrying a small child.
Now, understand this. The subway will almost always been full. There will be times when you have been walking for hours and your exhausted and your feet hurt and all you want to do is sit down. And when you get on the train, every seat will be taken and there will be hoards of people standing. And as you pan the train car, hoping for a seat, you’ll see a couple of seats in the back that are empty. The temptation is there. But remember, this seat isn’t for you. It’s just not. That’s why everyone else is standing. Don’t be that rude foreigner that takes the seat that’s meant for someone else. Just don’t.
So, that’s my list of things to know be aware of before going to South Korea. Is there anything I forgot? Is there anything that you wish you had known before going to a foreign country?