Jul 10

5 Things That Are STILL Strange About Korea

When I first arrived in Korea last year I wrote about the 12 Little Ways Life is Different in Korea. It’s funny how much can change in a year and the extent to which we accustom ourselves to our environment. These days, I don’t bat an eye at corn on pizza, face masks are the norm, and my boy students constantly groping each other no longer concerns me. I’ve even started telling people to “take a rest”. Uh-oh.


Couple outfits have almost started seeming like a good idea.

Strange things in Korea

I mean, this is cute and totally normal, right?

Oh hey, drunk guy passed out on the sidewalk. I see you had another good night. *shrug*

Strange things in Korea

Photo Courtesy of http://blackoutkorea.blogspot.kr/

All dogs are white with colorful dyed ears and tails, right?

Strange Korea

Photo courtesy of http://dogswithdyedfur.tumblr.com/

Watch out pushy ajummas in the subway, I’ve perfected my elbow moves to compete with the best of ‘em, and I WILL get that seat. 

Strange Korea

Photo courtesy of http://wrangsdoesasia.wordpress.com/2009/04/


But there are still some things that, after 18 months in this country, catch me off guard. Something someone will say, or do, or wear, will make me laugh out loud or drop my jaw in utter disbelief. Some things I still don’t understand, and others will never cease to be annoying. In no particular order, here are a few of those things that I still find strange after living in Korea for a year and a half:


1)  The Garbage System: To this day, I have no idea what the real rules are for taking out the trash. After hearing more than a few horror stories, I am so afraid of being fined –or worse, being yelled at by an ajumma– for using the incorrect bag or sorting it wrong that I only take my trash out at night. I walk out with a hoodie and a guilty expression like I just robbed a bank, try to discreetly drop my bag on the designated trash corner, and scurry away like I’m disposing of incriminating evidence. And why doesn’t Korea believe in public trash cans? It’s all a great mystery.


2) Fan Death: No, it’s not the fear that your body will be forced through the blades of a large, razor sharp fan– that might be a legitimate concern. Fan Death is an urban myth that nearly every Korean I’ve met actually believes. Fan Death is the belief that if you sleep in a room with the fan on overnight, you will die. While the details of how the fan actually causes your death are a little fuzzy, some Koreans will say the fan “sucks all the air out of the room” (into some kind of black hole, apparently) while others will say the “cooling air will cause your body to go into hypothermia and kill you”.



3) Fear of Dust: While the toxic gunk that rains down upon Korea each year from China during ‘yellow dust season’ is a very valid concern, Koreans are always hyper sensitive to dust. When cleaning, the windows must always be open, even if it is snowing and -20 degrees outside. Why? “The dust!” In spring time this year I tried to turn on my ceiling fans for the first time and several students and teachers ran at me in horror, screaming, “NOOOOoooooo!” The fans had not been dusted yet and if I turned them on we would all surely perish.

Strange Korea

My students dusting the fans in my classroom so we don’t all die of some strange, horrible FAN DUST DEATH


4) The Poop Obsession: Koreans are obsessed with poop. But not in the way of, “Oh, pooping feels really good, I quite enjoy it.” No, Koreans find poop cute. In any store, you can find stickers, notebooks, lunchboxes, and t-shirts with little dung piles decorated with smiley faces. You can eat poop shaped candy and ice cream and bread. My students love incorporating poop drawings into their projects and whenever they see the little happy poop face, they squeal like they’ve seen a kitten and gush, “awwww so cutey!” There is even a POOP CAFE in Seoul. I just… can’t even.

Strange Korea

“Dong Bang”, which literally means, “Poop Bread”

5) Engrish T-Shirts: In a way, I’m very used to the casual butchering of the English language that is evident on nearly every sign in this country. But for some reason, when I see a person walking down the street in a shirt that says “FUCK” and then some unrelated gibberish, and I know the person has no idea what it says, I can’t help but giggle. They seem to grab random phrases off the internet and print them on shirts, which leads to some pretty hilarious material.

Strange Korea

These shirts were all being sold on the same street. I believe the one on the right is supposed to say “ACME”… Close enough, right? The Mean Girls quote is by far my favorite, though. They have no idea.


I don’t know if these things will ever feel normal, and I don’t know if they should. What are some things in Korea (or another country) that seem strange to you?

  • spot. on.

    it amazes me that people are so completely unaware of the engrish on their tshirts. like the ajumma i saw with a shirt that said “trust no dick.” -_-
    zannah recently posted..Monthly Photo Recap: May 2014, aka Emma’s VisitMy Profile

    • HAHAHA omg that is priceless… She may have a point though! lol

  • I’ve read #4 four times now and I’m still laughing. Cute poop, feels good, smily faces…. I’d love to read the article of your visit to the poop cafe, just sayin…

    maybe that point should have been #2! instead of 4…
    Shaun recently posted..Istanbul’s Not So Grand BazaarMy Profile

    • Haha ok I’ll pay a visit to the poop cafe and report back!

  • That dust thing!
    I was proctoring a listening test, and they had a question about it. I heard about it just after I read this. Do you know how hard it is not to laugh when you’re meant to be all serious and silent?
    Heather recently posted..Korea Will Change You – Clothing and AppearanceMy Profile

    • Haha yeah it’s pretty hilarious! Except when it’s -14 degrees out and they still insist on opening my classroom window when I can’t use my heating just so they can sweep. Oh Korea!

  • I have seen so many couple outfits during my SE Asia travels. And those tshirts from #5 are everywhere!! My favorite so far was an older woman wearing a shirt that read “Makeout with me!”

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Haha I know, they’re hilarious! I wonder if that woman had any takers… lol

  • Christine Troyano

    After teaching in hagwons for 3+ years I took a break and am now teaching in Indonesia. Barely a month here! But I can relate to all that you are writing about! I soooo did the same thing with my trash. Most times taken out after dark and as quickly as possible! Can soooo relate. Great write-up! :-))

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Thanks! How is teaching in Indonesia, compared to Korea? It must be a complete 180, culturally! What island are you on?

      • Christine Troyano

        What a late reply from me. So sorry! But Indonesia has kind taken me by storm. The job is OK, as I will be renewing my contract in July (already!). An ESL teacher can live well over here, but in US $ the salary is actually below poverty level! But I wouldn’t trade the teaching here for Korea, for sure. I have experienced the Indonesian students to be more polite (in general). Of course each country has its well behaved and no so well behaved students, right? I am actually working for an academy who just celebrated 50 yrs of being in business. So we are paid on time :-)), get vacation :-)), and the usual round trip airfare & housing paid for. Health care is a little sketchy here (at least for me). And I do miss the well-oiled Korean public transportation system (subway, express & local busses, etc). Here..no subways. Busses…I have yet to take one…In Korea I may have taken a taxi 2 or 3 times. Here…I take one regularly to get to the larger neighboring city of Surabaya for many things I need to get done. I try to go as little as possible though. I do live within a 15 min walk to a couple decent shopping malls. Nothing fancy. Indonesia of course loves its rice (and like Korea, will give you a puzzled look if you anything without the main course of rice), but they equally love their deep fried food. Something to be aware of for sure. I live in shared housing. Take it or leave it. Honestly, I prefer to live alone, but so far it hasn’t been any real problem. At least we each have our own room. All of the locals here believe that all foreigners are rich. We do get paid much better than the Indonesian teachers and maintenance staff at work…and the locals know it. It can be uncomfortable at times when if you have made friends with a local, they kind of expect you to pay for everything if you are out together. And I have had strange men that I walk by at the mall ask me if I am rich as I am walking home. BUT Indonesians are also very friendly and helpful. They are also a very laid-back culture. Coming from Korea where they have an unscrupulous work ethic, Indonesians come late to work, to class, work at a much slower pace (productivity), and just kind take a real laid back approach to everything. The students study hard and have long hours like Koreans. But why don’t go to 20 hagwons after school each day. (OK~exageration..but ya know). But they do begin school at like 6 am and finish around 2 or later then have a couple of courses they may take in the evening (either at an academy or home tutor). They have national exams that they seem to stress about…but no shutting down the county on their various national exam days like in Korea. I teach 3 or four classes a day that are 1 hr 20 mins each in length. So classes run from 3-9 pm Monday through Friday. We also have classes on Sat, but I don’t teach on Saturdays. Our workday starts at 1:30 and finishes at 9. But depending on each teacher’s schedule, times coming and going can fluctuate. I enjoy the staff and teachers I work with. There are 6 foreigner teachers and I think 12 local (Indonesian) teachers.

        A side note: they say that 90% of Indonesia is Muslim. The city I am in is a very conservative Muslim city. This has been challenging for me. Yes, I am renewing my contract, but being here, as I mentioned earlier has shifted my priorities of teaching ESL around the world. Instead, I have been drawn to the helping the working poor as well has doing what I can to prevent the human rights abuses that are so prevalent in this country, specifically focused on improving women’s rights in Indonesia. It has been a real eye opener living here.

        So anyway, sorry it took way too long to respond. Would love to reconnect with you and hear what you have been up to and how shifting to a blogging focus has worked out for you both.


        • KaleenasKaleidoscope

          wow, thanks for sharing! sounds like quite the experience! I just finished a month of teaching in Thailand and really loved it. It was worlds away from my experience in Korea. Life would be boring if it were all the same, I guess! 😉

  • I love Konglish t-shirts. I basically ignore a lot of the garbage system. Haha. I’m lucky that my apartment complex has an area where there are massive bags outside you can just separate your materials into. Most of them end up in trash bags though … because of laziness. 😛

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Yeah some of my friends have that kind of system, but I always see the ajummas going through the trash for recyclables so I at least know my stuff is being recycled… ;p

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  • Matty C.

    I’m hoping to visit Korea on a vacation sometime soon, and I just hope that I don’t come across t-shirts like that, since I have no filter and I’m a 100% sure am going to burst out laughing like the crazy person that I am!!! :)))