Being a tour guide in Korea, it’s funny to hear some of the same comments and questions over and over again from tourists. In doing so I’ve compiled some the top 8 as well as responses to debunk a lot of what is said or misconceived about Korea. Whether you are visiting Korea or are an expat entertaining guests who visit here, it’s good to equip yourself with some knowledge on how to address some of these observations.
1. “Since Korea is home to Samsung, Galaxy phones must be cheaper. Where do I get one?” – Wrong. Samsung phones, as well as a lot of other products of Korea are actually more expensive here than anywhere else in the world. Even with the taxes and tariffs, you are better off buying them where you are from. Samsung claims that they are being fair with the prices due to the difference in “distribution systems”. What does this mean? Probably something to do with the vast competition other markets have vs Korea’s limited competition (which in turn creates a cartel). Whatever the reason is, bottom line: Samsung products are NOTICEABLY more expensive in Korea when in fact they are originated from here. In fact, a great gift for your hosts in Korea would be to bring them a new Samsung phone.
* On a side note: Because of this oligopoly, it tempts other foreign companies to come in and take advantage of us as well. Take for instance H&M and more recently IKEA. These companies are globally known as cheaper brands, but when they first came to Korea, they tried to charge higher than their normal prices here. They soon lowered their prices after informed netizens called them out on this. Too bad Korean netizens don’t have power over our home grown companies. I really need a Hyundai right now.
2. “Ooh, they have cider at this Korean restaurant. Let’s order that!” – Wrong. Cider in Korea is not the alcoholic drink that you are thinking of. It’s actually a word to describe a non-alchoholic carbonated drink similar to that of Sprite or 7-Up. So if you order cider at a restaurant, often times you will get that or a Korean local take on the beverage with Kin or Chilsung Cider which tastes lighter. Cider one of those English loan words that have been beaten up pretty bad after being loaned over two times through the Japanese Occupation (1910 – 1945). If you can just imagine a Japanese person back then trying to show a Korean how sophisticated they were with English you would come up with words like nan-ning-gu (난닝구) and bban-seu (빤스). Sound familiar? Somewhat? Kinda? It’s a derivative of the words “running-shirt” and “pants”, but you have say it a couple times in your head before you can actually make the connection. You then have to take it to the second-derivative to fully understand that it actually means…hold it…wait for it… “tank top” and “underwear”, in the Korean language. You can’t call this Konglish because it’s not our fault. But older-generation Koreans will use the words back at foreigners fully expecting that they will understand it thinking it’s English.
3. “Where is the toilet?” – When you are exploring Korea, often times you will end up wandering around to places unknown. Restrooms may not be clearly marked or seem welcoming at all. Wrong. In other countries, it may be the case where bathrooms are only for the patrons, but in Korea, what comes around goes around. Unless you are asking to go into a private residence, most public buildings in Korea will allow you to use their toilets. Just ask the information desk where the restroom is, or just simply say “toilet” and they will point you in the right direction. Koreans know people need to use the bathrooms for whatever reason, just as much as they might need to use the bathroom themselves in the future or in times of desperation.
If you are shy to ask, then you can always bet on going into the staircases of smaller buildings to find a bathroom. Usually found in buildings between store and restaurant fronts, you will find an entrance with a staircase leading up to another floor or down to the basement. You can always find a bathroom in between these floors. Sometimes they will be open, sometimes they will be locked. In those cases you may just have to muster up the courage to ask the next door store owner for the key.
4. “Why are there no garbage cans in Korea?” – Right. There are barely any rubbish bins in Korea, but yet it’s super clean here. Why? The reasons are many but it starts culturally. In our mindsets, we know we are to be personally responsible for our own trash. At home, we have to pay a 35 cent tax on garbage bags. There we stuff it as much as we can and recycle the rest as it’s free. That causes us to be stingy with our consumption and therefore with our garbage. If we have public garbage cans everywhere then what you’d find is that Korean citizens will stuff them to the brim with their own personal garbage. And if we go into a cafe, in the past, we would consume our coffee there and throw away our garbage there. Usually we would not take our coffee and drink it on the go. Look on the streets or subway and rarely will you find anyone consuming on while walking. Even smoking cigarettes and walking was looked down upon in the past. Culturally that was the norm back then. Now with a lot more foreign influence, it all seems to be changing to add more and more trash cans to accommodate. But it’s still not at a level to where tourists won’t comment about it. Another reason is that there is a paranoia that its a hiding spot for bombs and so fort (Which is why many of the newer ones are clear). For every garbage can that is out there, there is a CCTV camera watching it 24-7. My rule of thumb is that if you are ever in a desperate situation to throw something away, just find the nearest bathroom. You can always throw away stuff there.
5. “Why do Koreans use metal chopsticks?” – Right. Koreans do use metal chopsticks and can use any other kind of chopsticks with a fair amount of ease. Silver or bronze ware, historically they were thought of as superior to others. First they can be used over and over again and secondly they were thought to tarnish if they were ever exposed to poison. Yes, poison! There have been many occasions in Korean history where people died a slow death eating with wooden chopsticks dipped in poison. Another reason why we use metal chopsticks is often you’ll find them to be flat too. This is because we use them to cut our food as well. Maybe not as sharp as a knife, but not blunt like wooden ones, often times we will use them to tear through our kimchi or rip apart our galbi.
6. Why are there so many coffee shops in Korea? – Right. If you could read Korean, you’d find that there are many of a lot of other things as well. But for more detail, read about the post on Korean coffee shops.
7. “What do I do if I get lost in Korea?” – Right. A lot of times, tourists come to Korea without getting international roaming on their phones. Pay phones are obsolete but not to worry. If you ever get lost in Korea, you should feel free to go up to any young Korean and ask them to use their phone. Trust me. What you will find is that they will be more than delighted to help you and may even take it up a step and make sure you are back to where you need to be. Koreans may seem unapproachable at first, but in reality this is not the case. Our Confucian values teach us not to show outward emotions in public places. But inside, or when tapped on the shoulder, we can prove to be some of the most friendliest people. Once you get on the phone, you can either call your irresponsible tour guide, your hotel or the tourist information hotline. The tourist information hotline is (02) 1330 and a press #2 when the English prompt comes on the line. They are pretty good about answering general questions about tours in Korea, but your tour guide will always know the best details. Other numbers to keep in mind: Questions on life in Korea – (02) 120 Emergency – 119. Not to be confused with 911.
8. “It kinda looks like what I saw in China” – Errr. So the place that most people go to in Korea is Gyeongbok Palace. It is the main palace and on the itinerary of most tours in Korea. One of the most common observations of the worldly traveler is what was just written in the header. I cringe at the subtext implied in that, but it’s got to be followed up with the matters of the time.
That being a yes – during the historical periods of Korea, China was a center of influence in culture and architecture due to its close proximity. You turn around 180 degrees and look at modern Seoul and you will see lots of concrete buildings. You can say then that America and the western world was the center of influence having been the center of design in those structures in the last generation or so.
But in today’s society, the center of influence is whatever pops up in our Facebook feeds! I think you’ll find some very unique aspects about Korea, but you won’t find them through any cultural heritage sites or even a travel blog. When you come to Korea, you’ll find what’s most unique about Korea is its people. Where we’ve been, what we’ve accomplished and what we are going to do next. We are always on the forefront pushing ourselves to the next limit. Come to Korea and see just how uncommon we really are here.