Heading to Korea for the Olympics? Pick up some pointers on life and culture from a guy who lived there for five years.

The country has had some experience holding large events — the Seoul Olympics in 1988 have been considered one of the country’s breakout moments in entering the world stage. Thirty years later, the country still has some… idiosyncrasies… that visitors have to know about.

If at all possible, go out to eat with other people.

People flying solo can have a more awkward experience trying to get a seat at a restaurant. If you’re by yourself, find the nearest Gimbap Cheonguk (or any brightly-colored restaurant) or any other fast food restaurant for less awkwardness.

Learn the Korean alphabet.

By Jatlas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

It was created a king centuries ago to be easy to learn, even by the farmers of the day. Sit down with a cup of coffee and take a couple of hours to memorize the basics. This guy illustrated an amazing learn-in-15-minutes sort of comic strip. and I’ve written a book called Korean Made Easy.

Accept — and expect — some giggles when they speak English (or you speak Korean).

The vast majority of younger Koreans have learned English in public school (and many in private ‘cram schools’), but many are still quite shy in speaking English. Proof, perhaps that passing a test doesn’t actually mean you can speak it well. Locals just aren’t used to hearing Korean out of a foreigner’s mouth, which means you’ll be complimented lavishly, no matter how good or bad it actually is. It also means they might begin speaking Korean to you at full speed…

Along those same lines, listen to some Korean before attempting to speak it. Why? The Romanization (e.g. translating a Korean character into an English letter) most commonly used does not give you any real help with pronunciation.

Don’t sit in the ‘special seats’ on the subway.

Whether it’s the ‘old person’ seating, the ‘pregnant woman’ seating, or the like, just keep those empty. Doesn’t matter if they’re the last seats in the entire train. But I’m over 65 / pregnant! Nope, sorry. You will still get yelled at by the older male locals. In Korea, the social hierarchy puts them at the top of the pecking order.

Pour other people’s soju for them, and let them pour for you.

You may not find yourself out to a party with lots of Koreans (for better or worse, the language barrier and the unwritten social rules make that unlikely). If you do, pour soju (the local firewater) with your right hand, and touch your right elbow with your left hand, as though you’re holding back an oversized sleeve.

The main Korean beer brands do pair pretty well with the local food.

None are particularly exceptional, but then neither are the biggest brands of American beer. Cass, Hite, and OB are the most commonly found in Korean restaurants and are best when cold from the draft (in this humble beer-drinkers opinion). Plenty of foreign and craft beer options are around in Seoul, though I can’t predict how many of them will have made their way to Pyeongchang restaurants. They’re also going to be significantly more expensive than the local options.

Sip soju, don’t shoot it.

Yes, soju is served in a shot glass. At 16-20% ABV, it’s cheap and very strong. Someone will likely pour you another the instant your glass gets empty, so sip if you don’t want to overdo it. Ask for (or bring) some water to lessen the blow.

Don’t be that guy that’s obviously wasted.

Yes, the Koreans do it all the time. Doesn’t mean you have to. Know your limits. You probably won’t find the Korean version of the drunk tank

Tipping is not expected or necessary.

It’s not offensive, but locals may actually run you down to give you your tip back. It’s just not a part of the culture

Let it all hang out at the jimjilbang.

A longer guide is over here, but in essence: pay, get a key to a locker, head to your gendered side, strip to your birthday suit, put your stuff in your locker, then take a shower. Soap and shampoo. The baths are there to enjoy, but the shower gets you clean. Jump in one bathtub to relax, or try going from hot to cold — it’s great for the circulation. Once done, dry off, change into the shorts and shirt provided, then meet your friends.

Don’t do the 90-degree bow to anyone.

As a tourist, you’re off the hook and basically outside the social pecking order. Do give a little head nod to people, mainly as a sign  If you are introduced to someone older or ‘senior’ in terms of their job position, a small bow from the waist down is fine.

Keep your voice down!

One common complaint about foreigners in Korea is that we’re always speaking WAY TOO LOUD for the situation. Some older Koreans aren’t exactly fans of hearing English in public, either.

Watch out for ‘ajumma elbows’.

Ajummas, for the uninitiated, are the purple-haired, perm-wearing grandmothers that can filet a fish in four seconds flat. The running joke is how they’re swinging their elbows or bags so as get through a crowd to the last subway seat. Get in their way at your own peril.

Careful with the number 4, the number 18, leaving chopsticks in rice, and writing anyone’s name in red.

The brief rundown:

  • The number 4 sounds like the Korean word for death (much like in Chinese).
  • The number 18, or ‘ship-pal’, is really close to a Korean expletive (‘shee-bal’).
  • Sticking your chopsticks in rice can look like when you stick joss sticks (incense sticks) in rice, which is what you do for the dead.
  • Someone’s name written in red is a deceased person… or someone the writer wishes were dead.

What did I miss? Comments are open.

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