Visitors to the RoK are imminent; specifically, my in-laws. Yep. In ten days’ time, Husband and I will be jaunting off to Seoul to meet and greet and bring his parents back to show-case the north-east of Korea and all its rough-around-the-edges charm.
Obviously they have us long-in-the-tooth ex-pats to guide them in the ways of Korean culture, but as we have to work, for a large part of their three-week stay (yes, you read that right – 3 weeks) they’ll be on their own. How will they survive?
The answer is: Easily, with this handy reference guide outlining 5 foolproof ways to avoid confusion, offence and potential deportation when left unsupervised in Korea.
Heading in somewhere to eat? Clocked that Billy Bookcase next to the door containing not books but pairs of shoes? Taking off your shoes in restaurants where you sit on the floor, temples, houses, our house is essential. Shoes and filth are for outside; socks and respect are for in. Accepting that those hole-y mismatched socks are no longer your little secret and instead a basis upon which you will be judged, is a crucial step to unshod emancipation. As someone who likes to remain shoe-and-sock-less as often as possible, I accept I’m biased, but if you are in doubt, there will probably be some slippers kicking about for you to borrow.
And on the subject of the floor, yes, you will have to sit there to eat, so limber up those knees. You’re in Asia now!
2. Public Toilets
Given South Korea’s super-power status with technology, economic growth and general world-stage excellence, its Draconian approach to public toilets and basic plumbing is something of a non sequitur.
Let’s begin with Korea’s love-hate affair with toilet roll. Toilet roll can be found in giant bales in supermarkets like Emart, hanging from the walls of family-run restaurants in lieu of napkins, my desk in lieu of tissues; everywhere, in fact, but in the stalls of public toilets. I know. Instead, look for a roll outside the cubicle, and take as much as you need. Be conservative at your peril.
Once in the stall, bear in mind two things:
1) A knock on your toilet door does not mean, “Get the hell out now. You’re evicted.” It means, “Is there anyone in there?” Knock back and they’ll leave you alone.
2) The giant bin in the corner that’s likely overflowing with soiled tissue is a clue to where used toilet roll goes. I’m sorry to say this, but I’m not lying. My advice is to perfect the blind wipe-and-toss. Don’t think about it, don’t make a scene, and don’t be the foreigner who threw tissue down the public toilet, blocked it and has now flooded said toilet.
Every Asian country has its own chopstick design. Who knew that something as simple as a couple of sticks for eating could be so complicated? In Japan they were square, in Hong Kong I used chopsticks that were longer than my arms and in Korea they are flat and usually metal. If you’re not a confident chopstick user or are likely to sweat under pressure you are in for some highly entertaining meal-times. Practice now. The best thing that a Korean can say to you is, “You use chopsticks well.” That’s the goal. When a colleague first said that to me, I knew I’d made it!
Aaah, the old Kimchi Cliché. Well, let me tell you that things are usually clichés for a reason. Kimchi is served as a side dish with pretty much every meal you’ll eat in Korea, and it’s no bad thing. As a self-proclaimed cabbage-hater, I now know there is nothing that can’t be made better after a fermentation session with some fish-oil, garlic and chilli.
5. Ajumma acceptance
Never underestimate the strength, power and unwavering determination of the Korean Ajumma. Their habitat tends to be anywhere crowded; places where groups of people have waited patiently for something, such as a queue, are prime hunting ground. Markings include confidently-patterned, flowery-printed polyester trousers (weirdly breathable and only 5000 Won!), ludicrously-peaked sun-hats and a stature comparable to Star Wars Ewoks. They operate alone or in packs, sometimes adopting a 90 degree angle at the waist, often carrying giant sacks of crops and always protected by the spear-like protrusions they have in place of elbows.
If you find yourself at the mercy of an ajumma, give way, let her in, she can go first. She’s worked hard to perfect her craft, and if I have my way, one day that will be me. My ownership of the requisite ajumma pants makes it a done deal.