The Things About Korea I Can’t Get Used To

There were a lot of things that I had to get used to about Korean culture.

A lot.

After two years, most of those things don’t seem weird anymore. I can get behind the bowing as a form of greeting. I’ve found ways to avoid the terrible local beer. These days, it doesn’t even faze me when the kids beat the crap out of each other during class.

But there are a small list of things that I can’t get behind. No matter what, you cannot make me see the sense in these cultural quirks.


Now that the humid summer is creeping up on us, I’ve started wearing my hair curly again. Ever since then, I’ve been getting one question from the kids:

“Pah-ma, teacher? Pah-ma?”

No, I did not get a perm.

“Natural,” I say. “Original.”

This blows their mind. The kids that aren’t so hot at English give up, unable to figure out why I would lie about getting  a perm.

Because, despite the fact that this is 2012 and ‘Saved By the Bell’ is a (cherished) thing of the past, perms are alive and well in Korea. Every other day a new kid pops up with a mass of unnatural curls flopping over his eye.

Yeah. I said ‘his.’ Pah-mas are unisex.

Permed hair in Korea
The boy in the green jacket definitely has a pah-ma. Or a body wave, at the very least. I’d want to throw rocks at people, too.

I choose to believe that it’s their mothers who make these things happen. My co-teacher, for instance, regularly takes her 6 and 9 year old daughters along when she gets her own hair permed.

“They need perms,” she explained.

Who needs a perm at six years old?

I can’t cope.

Child with a mullet in Korea
I personally support this boy’s renegade hairstyle, which I like to think he styles himself.


Guard Dogs

There’s a disturbing trend, at least in our town, to keep your dog chained up or caged. From what I can tell, the sole purpose of having the animal is so that it barks uncontrollably every time someone walks past.

Not that it could do anything to stop an intruder, because how would it ever get out?

Caged Dog
Poor puppy.

Chains are far more popular, and they rarely extend beyond two feet. There’s one puppy in particular who I pass on one of my running trails. Over the past year, he has been attached to his chain every single time. His legs are stubby and he looks depressed. Along a different trail, there’s a house with three animals on chains: two small dogs and a cat.

Besides all of the terrible effects this has on an animal, it also makes them aggressive. I’ve been chased three times by barking dogs who managed to escape their chains. The first two times, I was terrified. On the third, I realized that the dog was just excited and wanted to play.

Ugh. It breaks my heart.

Chained dog in Korea
At least he’s got shelter from the hot sun.

I don’t mean to condemn all Koreans for their pet care, because that’s not fair. One of my students has a little lap dog named Oo-yoo, (‘Milk’ in Korean), and she treats him royally. As does my other student with her hamsters, O-baek won & Cheon won (‘500 won’ and ‘1,000 won’, named after how much they cost.)

But the people who don’t…it burns me.


How Old Are You?

Birthday in Seoul
What the f*$k do you mean, I’m 31? I just adjusted to 30.

The first time I asked a class full of first-graders how old they were, every single one of them said ‘eight.’

“Weird,” I thought.

Then I found out why they were all eight, and it got even weirder.

In Korea, when you’re born, you’re one year old.

On New Year’s Day, you gain another year. On your actual day of birth, your age does not change.

Take the case of my student Nam-ho, who was born on December 31st.

On his day of birth, he was one year old. The next day, he turned two years old.

This, despite the fact that in reality, he was barely 24 hours old.

I can’t back this system of counting, not least of all because by the time I turned 30 last September, I was already 31 in Korean age. Then I became 32 a few months later.

It’s messed up.


Sweet Bread

Here’s a tip: do not be deceived by bread products in this country. Although they may look savory, they are nearly always sweet.

Sausage wrapped in a bun? It’s probably laced with sugar.

Herb and cheese bread? You fool. It’s also got jam in it.

Innocuous loaf of wheat bread from the bakery? Tastes like cake.

I’m a big fan of sweet food, but when it comes to bread for my sandwich, I do not want it to be sugary. And when you’re not ready for your brown bread to taste like a doughnut, it can come as a revolting surprise.

Sweet Bread at Tous Les Jours, Korea
‘Healthy Homemade Recipe’? And ‘Dear My Family’ what? Thank you for giving me diabetes?



When I carry my own toilet paper through Mongolia or Southeast Asia, it’s because I’m not brave enough to use the bucket (and definitely not ready to use my hand).

In Korea, I carry my own toilet paper because that’s the done thing.

There are toilet roll holders in the stalls at school, as well as an industrial-sized one at the front of the bathroom. However, they are always empty.

Our office has a communal roll of paper sitting on top of a bookcase. When you need to use the bathroom, just estimate how many squares you need, tear them off, and you’re all set. The classrooms are the same, except instead of a shared roll, some of the teachers require their students to keep their own roll at their desk.

It gets annoying pretty damn fast, because you can’t just duck into the bathroom. You need to be prepared. And people always seem to move the roll in the office, so I am forever hunting for it. Besides that, I can never remember the Korean word for toilet paper.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that we can’t flush the paper, but have to throw it into separate buckets instead.

Bring Your Own Toilet Paper
You know, suddenly, I don’t have to go anymore.


Well. Now that I’ve complained at length about my first world problems, I feel a lot better!

Kind of judgmental, but better.

What did I miss? Please tell me I’m not the only one that gets riled up about the little things…


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  1. I also have curly hair that I wear curly all the time because I’m lazy and don’t own a brush. My students in Japan could not believe that my hair was naturally curly. At one point as I was explaining that it was, indeed, natural, and they were all protesting that it couldn’t possibly be so, one of my students blurted out, “But it’s so fashionable.” Apparently, they didn’t think I could be fashionable naturally. (They probably had a point.)
    And, yeah, guys get perms there too and I totally didn’t get it. One of my students who was this big, tough rugby player showed up to class with his hair permed one day. When I asked why he did it, he said, “So my hair could look like yours.” I think he was joking. Or at least I hope he was.

    1. See, your rugby player shoots down my theory of ‘mothers made them do it,’ because surely he’s old enough to make his own choices?
      And I tried to show my students a picture of my family to explain that, yes, ALL of us have naturally curly hair. Most of them just think we get perms together.

  2. We do the BYOTP in Chile too, and for the same reasons (except for the bugs,fortunately, I’ve never seen THAT here!) Good rule of thumb–keep a packet of tissues on hand at all times–you WILL need them.
    Once when I complained about the huge communal roll at the restroom entrance and the ever-empty normal rolls in the stalls, someone told me it was because people steal the small rolls. I don’t know who was more surprised, me (because who steals TP?) or her (because who DOESN’T steal TP?)
    Same here on the no TP in the toilet rule in many places too.

    1. At least I’ll be prepared for Chile, then! There was a time when I always had toilet paper or tissues stashed in my pockets & purse. Now that it’s summer and I lack pockets, I haven’t been on the ball.
      I’m in the ‘can’t believe people steal the rolls’ camp! Thanks for ruining it for the rest of us, TP thieves.

    2. I work for the government (in the U.S.) and people steal toilet paper constantly. As a result, horrible 1-ply is put into the dispenser by maintenance to deter thieves (it doesnt). I walk around the building with a nice soft roll from my house!

  3. These are spot on! My hair isn’t curly, but the other day I had a student asking (over and over) how I made my black hair gold. I told him my hair was never black, and it’s naturally light. He did not comprehend/believe me, he definitely thought I was trying to trick him/keep the secret of how to make black hair blonde! Sometimes they ask me if I am wearing contacts too (to make my eyes green). Anything outside of straight black hair and brown eyes doesn’t seem natural to them!

    1. Yes, especially about the eyes! My yellowish-hazel eyes terrified a first grader when I first started teaching. And I’ve had to work really hard to make the students believe that they have brown eyes, not black ones. “Black hair, black eyes, teacher.”

  4. These are perfect, I get the confused look from both teachers and students when I wear my hair natural one day and straighten it the next day. Yesterday one of my boys was proudly showing off his new perm that one of his friends did – he wants to be a hairstylist but then his friends said he can’t because he’s too short…I don’t understand that rational.

    Oh and the dogs! It also causes them to bark at all hours of the day and night – i’m about to go crazy trying to fall asleep at night.

    1. The curly/straight/curly thing really throws my kids, too! When I did it often, I’m pretty sure they thought I was going into the salon regularly to have it done on alternate days.
      The dogs…I’m really torn between hating them and pitying them. I was chased by not one, but TWO dogs this morning during my run. One bit my ankles and terrified the crap out of me. But then I thought, it’s not really their fault – they’re treated to respond aggressively and bark their heads off. Sigh.

  5. That is really odd about the ages. That would make me the big 30! No thank you! As for sweet bread, I’ve had that far too often in a number of countries. It’s ok on it’s own, but with a savoury filling or under eggs for breakfast it’s just wrong! Same goes for that sugary powdered milk they put in tea.

    1. Exactly! My co-workers were calling me 31 last year before I’d even turned 30. I did not appreciate it. And I agree about that powdered milk. Though I do drink the all-in-one coffee tubes (coffee, sweetener, powdered milk) against my better judgement.

  6. yeah… When I was younger, I saw both sides of the coin with animal care in Korea. The good and the bad. But really, that’s anywhere.

  7. I hope you understand that the way we “Americans” do things is not the only way things can be done. For us (Americans) to complain about the way people from other countries/cultures do things is a reflection of our narrow minds. I hope your teaching stint there helped you to become more understanding and appreciative of people who are different than us.

    1. Even with an open mind it can be difficult to adapt to living in a new culture, regardless of where you’re from. I think it’s important to be receptive to the way things are done in different countries around the world when you travel (as I tried to be in Korea), but that doesn’t mean it will be a smooth transition. The points I brought up in this post were small bugbears but overall living in Korea was an incredible opportunity that I’ll always be grateful for.

  8. What kind of products do you use for your hair? Can you find any of them in Korea? I’m moving there in about a month and have long, very curly hair. At this point I was planning to take a mass supply of mousse which is what I use on a daily basis for fear of living a year in a frizzy mess. thanks 🙂

    1. That is a great question and one that I wondered about before I left too…but now I can’t quite remember what I did!! I used Infusium 23 at the time and brought two huge bottles of that, then I think I topped up when we went to Hawaii during a break. But there are lots of beauty products and familiar brands (though the text is of course in Korean) on the supermarket shelves even in small towns. Definitely gel and mousse available,though you may not be able to find the specific brand you prefer.

      If you’re teaching, your students are going to be FASCINATED by your hair!!

      1. Oh I’m surprised by that!! I didn’t expect there to be anything I could use there. I usually go back and forth between Herbal Essences and Aussie, but I’m not extremely picky. Maybe I will take a bit less than I previously planned.

        1. I think you can find Herbal Essences but not Aussie. I loved Aussie in the states but haven’t found it anywhere else – including Australia!

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