Every time I’m traveling abroad, I like to keep a note on my phone to write all the things uncommon (for me) that I discover. It increases the awareness that I’m living extraordinary moments while traveling, and I love to interacts with locals about that, exchange about how things can be either normal or surprising according to our point of view. This is one of the main reason why I love traveling, to discover other ways of life and broaden my openness…
I’ve just come back from my third time in South Korea, and I want to share with you several facts and things that I put in my note because they surprised and fascinated me.
Before starting the list, a quick disclaimer: All the points below are subjective, and they might seem usual for you. However, I assume that for Europeans (I’m French), most of the facts will be surprising. For all the Koreans readers, excuse me if I made some misunderstanding, feel free to correct me in the comments.
There is a fridge” just” for Kimchi.
The national dish is so important in Korea that it is pretty common to see a dedicated refrigerator for Kimchi in apartments and houses. They are providing a better environment for the fermentation (colder temperature, less moving air and more humidity). For example, have a look at LG’s products here. If you don’t know what Kimchi is, this is the Wikipedia page.
The buses leave ON TIME.
Every time I’m in South Korea (and other Asian countries like Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, etc.), I am so fascinated about the public transportations and how efficient and great they are. There are so many buses for every town in the country and probably the most used transportation method with cars. On the 10 times, I’ve taken the bus during my last stay, we left the bus terminal ON TIME. Not even 1 min late. Even more surprising, the arrival time was always correct, despite the traffic jam and other problems on the road. When you are from a country where public transportation is not very reliable (cc. France), it is a significant difference.
Roads CCTVs are available on the navigation apps (Google Maps like)
and this is so useful for drivers to have a quick look at the traffic.
Smartphones camera sound is mandatory
To limit the pictures taken in secret (initially perverts pictures), all the smartphones bought in South Korea have the “shutter sound”: each time a picture is taken, and you can’t remove it. Surprisingly, my smartphone that didn’t have this sound start having it once I put a South Korean sim card so it means that the operator can change our settings just with the SIM.
It is not polite to drink by yourself, and you’re not supposed to fill your own glass.
Most of the time, while with other people, you have to cheers (Zzan or Gambe) before drinking alcohol (mostly Soju, beer or both). This fact means that you cheer many times and one someone wants to drink, everybody drink. Something surprising for a French is that you don’t have to look in the eyes while saying cheers. Also, you do not fill your own glass, someone has to do it for you, but you have to handle your glass (or at least touch it).
Telecom Operators push system messages for alerts like pollution or fires.
During my stay in Seoul, I get several system messages on my phone to inform me about high air pollution and some advice. I suppose that all the smartphones in the same area get that push notification. By “system message”, I mean a popup that takes the full screen. One day, I also get a message about an important fire in a building next to my neighborhood. I find this system very useful and should be used in Europe for terrorist attacks, for example (instead of having to download a dedicated app “just in case”).
Everything is open on Sunday
and convenient stores are open all the time, 24h, 7 days a week.
Fans rent billboards to wish happy birthday to K-pop stars.
Seen mostly in Seoul’s metro, the fans community collect money and rent huge advertising billboards to put a picture of their idol and some text, mainly for its birthday or significant event. More info on this Forbes’s article.
You can choose the last 4 digits of your phone number.
The ground floor (or zero) is Floor 1
That could be confusing when you are used to starting with 0… The sixth floor in Europe will be the seventh in Korea, for example.
The 4th floor is called F because of Tetraphobia.
Not only in Korea but all East-Asian countries, the number 4 sounds like the word “death”, and many people are avoiding this number, especially for buildings where you can see on the elevators 1, 2, 3, F, 5, 6… However, this practice is less and less common nowadays, and the news buildings are using number 4. More info on Wikipedia here.
We can drive (or take bus/taxi) for more than 30 min to eat a particular dish…
Because food is so important in South Korea, it is common to go to a specific restaurant specialized in one kind of dish even if it takes some time.
There are restaurants everywhere, dedicated to one kind of food and open (almost) all the time.
Especially in the cities, you will ALWAYS find a place to eat, and there are customers all the time.
People leave their bags above the seats in the metro or bus.
A concrete element to show how safe this country is, people are letting their belongings on the racks above the seats in the metro or at the entrance on the bus. It is prevalent to see people sleeping peacefully, with their phones in their hands.
The Metro driver often speaks in the speakers to give advice, apologize, wake up the passengers, etc.
If the brake is a bit brutal when arriving at a station, it is not surprising to hear the driver apologize in the speakers. Also, because it was very cold outside, the driver told the passengers to be careful and to cover well. Finally, in the late evenings, the driver was repeating the name of the station louder than the automatic message to be sure that the sleepings/drunk passengers will not miss their stop. They are so attentive!
Banks allow splitting the amount spent in several times, after the purchase.
I didn’t judge by myself, but some friends told me about that functionality that could be very convenient. South Koreans have many bank accounts and cards, rarely just one…
“Bar code gifts” are trendy
In Starbucks for example, many people are not paying their coffee but just scan a bar code that has been offered by friends or colleagues. Those gifts are sent via the Starbucks app, but the leading messaging app (Kakao Talk) has a vast “gift marketplace” to send bar code to your friends. Have a look at the product presentation here.
You make yourself the change in the markets
Not in every stand, but in some popular ones to save some time, they put a basket with the notes and coins and this is the customers that make the change. Another great demonstration to show how South Koreans are honest and trust each other.
In some restaurants, they provide aprons and plastic bags for the coats.
Especially in the bbq restaurants where the smoke and smell can be present, you can put your vest and other clothes in a big plastic bag or inside the seat. Also, do not get stains, they provide big aprons (sponsored by Soju/alcohol brands most of the time), and that is very useful and not ridiculous at all.
You rarely order only drinks, you have to order food with it.
Even after a big restaurant and very late, it is not common to order only drinks in South Korea. I was astonished the first times, but you get used to it, and you don’t overeat in the first restaurant to be ready for the next one (and the next one, and the next one). Most of the dishes are collective, and you don’t have your own plate, so it helps as well…
Almost all the dishes are shared and put in the middle of the table.
At most restaurants, you order one or two dishes that will be shared by everyone. Even in foreign restaurant, they will give you a small plate and put the dish in the middle of the table. I let you imagine the mix and the Italians restaurants.
Each metro wagon is monitored, and a screen tells the passenger density.
As well as the most convenient wagon for the exit or the transfer line. Moreover, each wagon has a dedicated number that can be used to call (text message too) for help or the police (even bad comments or persistent looks towards women are severely reprimanded).
The legal limit of alcohol consumption to drive is 0.03% (for blood alcohol content) but the “valet night services” are very popular and so convenient.
With this limit, you can’t drink and drive in South Korea and most of the South-Koreans seems to respect the law strictly and the alternative of the Valet Service helps for that. If you chose to drink but came with your car, you can order someone that will come to you and drive your own vehicle to bring you back home (or to another restaurant/bar). I was even more surprised that the price is pretty low, even cheaper than a regular taxi.
One of the main element while meeting with friends or family is to choose the right restaurant.
One of the first questions, when you start planning a meeting in South-Korea, will be about the kind of food all participants want to eat and the place to have it. By the way, to find the best restaurant, the reviews and articles on the Internet are very (very) popular here.
It is normal to let the “protection blue film” on the object
Probably to keep a pristine/new look, many objects in the apartments, hotels, restaurants, and so on still have their protection film (often blue). Personally, this is something that I enjoy removing, so I had to contain myself…
Doors have no keys but electronic codes or cards.
I’ve never seen a house or an apartment with a door that needs a key in South Korea, only a code panel next to the handle or a card to unlock it. Modern and very convenient. Another fun thing with those electronic locks, some of them are saying a welcome message once you open it.
They are plenty of “Shopping Channels”, and you can order directly through your TV.
Cameras are monitoring the trash bins and a screen + speaker to tell people to throw waste in the right way.
The voice is activated with a motion detector, so it was surprising for me the first times I’ve passed next to a place like that. Most of the trash is put directly on the ground in a dedicated area and not on some big bins.
I hope you enjoyed this list as much as I enjoyed collecting and writing it and I’m looking forward to hear from you in the comments.