Having been named the world’s top design capital in 2010 and playing well-paying host to thousands of ESL teachers every year, tourism to South Korea has been steadily on the rise. While the country boasts the benefits of every other major cosmopolitan hub in Asia – amazing food, advanced technology, efficient public transit and incredible shopping – it’s also got its fair share of downright bizarre cultural norms. Foreigners traveling to the country will be in awe of all that it has to offer, while simultaneously completely perplexed by the ten strange facets of life in South Korea that we’ve outlined below.
10. Poop/Toilet Humor Popularity
Everybody in South Korea is obsessed with poop. Whether it’s a turd-shaped cookie, a feces-themed phone charm or the entire museum in Seoul dedicated to excrement, South Koreans can’t get enough of it. If children are left to doodle, they’ll often draw exaggerated poop shapes and compare it to their classmates’ excitedly. The logic behind the obsession is that the perfect shape of a turd is “cute” and “adorable.” There is no stigma towards toilet humor being inappropriate or gross in South Korea. The population loves going to the bathroom so much that toilets across the country, whether in homes or in public, feature pleasant flushing sounds, background music and colored water.
9. Same Sex Touching
In Western society, two men holding hands on the street would automatically make any passerby watching assume that they were a gay couple. Not in South Korea. While the opposite sex touching in public is extremely frowned upon and considered disrespectful to those around you, sitting in your friends’ laps or playing with their hair is completely acceptable. Grown women and men can usually be seen sharing drinks, walking with their arms around each other and cuddling. And it’s the most normal thing in the world.
8. Plastic Surgery Obsession
South Korea has quickly become known as the plastic surgery capital of the world. Many tourists from across the globe travel to the country to visit its surgeons for nose jobs, facelifts, cosmetic injections and more. South Koreans have become obsessed with the concept of achieving perfect physical appearance from a very young age and most boys and girls from affluent families are awarded double eyelid surgery, a procedure that makes Asian eyes appear more Western, for their sixteenth birthdays. In almost all subway stations, ads featuring before and after results of plastic surgery can be seen plastered over the walls. The country’s obsession with cosmetic perfection has resulted in a significant amount of divorce, after husbands or wives found out what their spouses looked like before they had surgery and married them.
7. Love Motels
Due to public displays of affection being considered inappropriate and the fact that most youth live with their parents until they are married, love motels are incredibly popular in South Korea. Often featuring elaborate themes and outrageous decoration, these tiny motel rooms serve as an overnight spot for couples to get some privacy from their parents. You can find love motels in any part of the city, and they’re not nearly as seedy as you’d imagine. In fact, most are so trendy and clean that tourists on a budget and businesspeople looking for a crash pad often check in for a night. They’re also available by the hour, in case you were wondering.
K-Pop (short for Korean Pop) is a musical phenomenon unlike anything you’ve ever seen on the planet. While there are numerous popular genres of music to listen to within Western society, K-Pop reigns king in South Korea. The groups are usually composed of several men or women aged 16-24 and South Koreans go wild for them. Hundreds of thousands of people turn out for their concerts, fans faint from the pure joy of seeing their idols in person and their faces are pasted across every billboard in town. K-Pop music videos are incredibly high budget, the outfits cost a fortune and it’s considered the only cool genre to listen to.
“Ajummas” (Korean for “elderly ladies”) tyrannize the streets and completely get away with it. In South Korean society, the elderly are to be respected at all costs, no matter what they do. Ajummas are fully aware of this cultural norm and take advantage of it. They’ll loudly “shush” you on the subway, push you out of their way, spit at you and yell at you if they don’t like what you’re doing. While their actions might not always seem fair, as a foreigner especially you’ll have to put up and shut up. And you’d better get out of their seat aboard public transit if you know what’s right for you.
4. Alcohol Consumption
Us Westerners know how to drink, but our drinking is nothing compared to South Koreans’. Year after year, South Korea comes out as the country boasting the top alcohol consumption level on the planet. If somebody puts a drink in front of you in South Korea, it’s considered rude to decline it. It’s also customary to fill up everybody else’s glasses before drinking from your own, so you can only imagine how easily one becomes drunk. South Koreans work extremely hard, but they also love their liquor – especially soju, a locally distilled beverage made from rice or barley. The drinking problem in the country has become so bad that many men go straight from the bar to their office jobs, several times a week.
3. Couples Dressing Alike
Matching onesies? Coordinated underwear? Identical jeans, sweaters and sneakers? It’s a thing and couples in South Korea love it. It is not at all uncommon to see young teens sauntering down the street together decked out in the same outfit from head to toe. The logic behind matching couple outfits is that the image you project together will show everybody around you just how in love you are with one another. Businesses from large chains to small boutiques plan their marketing around this hugely popular trend, displaying identical outfits for him and her in their store windows across the country.
2. No Verbal Filter
Foreigners may be shocked at how many people tell them they “look fat,” “seem tired” and “dress poorly” in South Korea. While those sentences are rude to say to each other in Western society, the logic behind it is that South Koreans are concerned for your well-being and want to make sure you’re ok. If they tell you you’re looking a little plump, it’s only because they want to ensure you’re eating properly so that you can look your absolute best. If they think you look tired, they’re wondering if something is bothering you and causing you to lose sleep. Nonetheless, hearing a complete stranger judge you will always seem harsh for the first hundred times and then you’ll start getting used to it. You might breathe a little easier knowing that South Koreans speak this way even to each other.
1. No Cleavage Allowed
Upon landing in South Korea, you’re guaranteed to notice how short every young woman’s skirt is. The “no pants” look is hugely popular in the country and skirts are so short that women often hold a newspaper or bag to their behinds when walking up stairs to prevent anyone from getting inappropriate views. While skirt lengths are of no object in the country, cleavage is considered grossly inappropriate. You’ll get yelled at by strangers in the street and receive disapproving stares from passersby if even the slightest bit of your chest is exposed. Cover up!