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{August 3, 2015}   Take the Toilet Paper into the Stall with You… And other tips for outings in South Korea

War Memorial of Korea

Hubby and I have done a few outings in South Korea and they have all been an experience. Not a bad experience mind you, but just a cultural experience. It’s funny the things you never think of until you are confronted by them. So here are some tips, about everyday mundane activities, just in case you thought the rules and etiquette of a simple outing were universal. I apologize in advance for the bathroom references.

1. Take the toilet paper into the stall with you – When out in South Korea it is not uncommon for a public restroom to have one very large dispenser of toilet paper for all of the stalls to use. So make sure to check before using the restroom or else you (ladies especially) will find yourself in a compromising position.

2. On the subject of bathrooms… Do NOT (I repeat DO NOT) look inside the waste basket next to the toilet. Avert your eyes! Why? Because in Korea we don’t flush large amounts of toilet paper. So if you are using the restroom and need a significant amount of toilet paper (i.e. going number two) then you would throw it away in the waste basket next to the toilet. If you flush it you are likely to clog the toilet.

3. Scented toilet paper is not a novelty, its a necessity… Refer to number two (haha!), point two. Do you get why they would use scented toilet paper?

4. The water fountains are great, so drink freely (unless you don’t want to use the bathroom). It’s hot in Korea, so staying hydrated is a must. Rather than buying gobs of bottled water just use a water fountain. At public facilities water fountains are often accompanied by a sign that states that the water has been treated and purified… so go ahead and drink up. Plus, in this arena, Koreans are not gross like Americans, you won’t find spit or loogies or trash in the water fountains and they are very conscious about not sharing germs so its rare you will see someone drink directly from a water fountain, rather they will fill a cup or water bottle, that never actually touches the spout.

5. There is hand sanitizer everywhere – Koreans are big on keeping their germs to themselve, so it is common, even expected, that in most public gathering spaces hand sanitizer will be readily available. Yay for not being gross! Now about the food workers who eat while cooking with gloved hands…

6. “Free of charge” still requires a deposit. It’s pretty common to see a sign by a locker or some other convenience that states “free of charge.” What is not in the English portion of the sign is that a deposit is still required. For instance, at museums one can put there backpacks in a locker. So convenient after sightseeing all day! However, if you are having trouble getting the key to release, its probably because you need to put a 100W coin into the slot first. Upon your return when you insert the key to unlock the locker the money will be returned to you. The same goes for subway cards and strollers.

7. English speaking doesn’t always mean English understanding – When out and about at tourist attractions you will often see an information desk labeled “English.” At first you’ll breathe a sigh of relief that someone can answer your questions. Until you ask anything beyond the basics: bathroom, map, ticket, etc. You see “English Speaking” is a very fluid term, meaning the worker may very well have been taught specific phrases in English to accomplish their job. Any conversation beyond that, they do not understand. Don’t be offended, just thank them and move on. Sometimes you can find someone who will play charades with you.

8. Tipping is not apart of the Korean culture… But neither are you – What does that mean? Well traditionally tipping isn’t part of the South Korean culture, but you are an American and they know and understand that tipping is part of your culture. Now I give this advice with a caveat. The area you are in determines the validity of this statement. For example, in Songtan where there are several military bases within a 50-mile radius it is not only accepted, but there have been stories of service workers nearly demanding a tip.  Interacting with Americans is so common that people in the area have come to expect tips. Not everyone is forceful, sometimes, they simply take a tip by not giving you your change.They do not fully understand, or they ignore, the fact that tipping is optional and reserved for good service. Some have come to expect it with every task (like the cell phone guy around the way) and will ask outright.  Others are more subtle. Some just have a tip jar (like the local real estate man; right on his desk).

In other places like Seoul, people  will actually refuse a tip, as tipping is not a part of the traditional Korean culture. Or the wait staff will let you come to them and offer a tip, they never suggest it. Even though Seoul does have an army base right there, the city is so large that there are many places that don’t interact with Americans regularly or  just choose  to stick to tradition. Either way, the further you get from towns and neighborhoods that interact with westerners on a daily basis the more likely you are to experience traditional Korean customer service; which is very ingratiating and polite (traditionally customers are revered by Koreans because you feed the merchants’ families) without the pressure to tip. This of course makes you want to tip for such great service. 🙂

9. Be aware of the currency exchange – Now let me just say, this isn’t everyone, but I’ve run into it personally on more than one occasion and twice in one day. I put the onus on the shopper because to do otherwise would receive backlash. So don’t be a dumb consumer know the currency exchange. When you are out and about don’t be surprised if a sales exchange to goes like this:

Merchant: Twenty

Customer: Twenty American or Korean?

Merchant: Either, doesn’t matter

Oh but it does! Why does this matter? Because the Korean won is pennies on the American dollar so you need to know what you are paying. The above interaction happened to me at a shop. Except 20,000 won is worth about $17, so if I pay in won I actually am paying less for the same service than if I pay in American dollars.

Sometimes if you pay in American dollars the merchant will make change in Korean won, as in I give the merchant $20, the merchant gives me 4,000 won in change for a 16,000 won bill. Do you see the problem? [Get ready for math — 16,000 won is about $14 meaning I should have received $6 in change or approximately 7,000 won. That means I just paid 3,000 won or $2.50 more for the same product]

Other times they will “convert” the money in their head. Except its a very rough estimate and they err on the side of them receiving extra money.

Still other merchants offer both an American price and a price in won, giving you an option of how you want to pay. Don’t be that dumb American who can’t do math. I actually had a woman tell me that a particular nail shop gave discounts if you paid in U.S. dollars. I went and the woman told me, “33,000 won or $30 your choice.” I chose the won. Why? 33,000 won is about $27, which means I paid$3 less than the Americans taking the “discount.”

Now of course not all merchants are nefarious villains trying to take your hard earned money. Most just don’t want to do the math either. But as a person who likes to save money, I don’t want to be “taxed” a surcharge because I’m American. So just be aware. When you see them doing the math in their head, double check their math, or argue for more change (almost everything is negotiable with merchants). It’s your money, you have a right to the correct change. It’s not rude, it’s just right.

10. Embrace being the the foreigner –  On so many websites and blogs writers give the advice to blend in with the culture and not stand out. I call BS. I’m not saying be the rude, obnoxious American, but lets face it South Korea for all intents and purposes is a very homogeneous society. If you are not South Korean you stick out like a sore thumb. Embrace that! Most South Koreans, especially older ones love Americans, particularly in Seoul. Why? Because the threat is real and its constant. Because threat levels and understanding them are taught in school. Because they are right by the border of a very real and present danger (many instances that are never reported in American news). Because they get it, they know that while America isn’t the sole reason they are safe (did you see what I did there 😉 ), America is a significant part of their safety. So accept the smiles and head nods. Accept the free appetizer if you want (unless you are a service member because they have rules about that beyond a certain dollar amount). Take the picture with the family at the memorials and have them stand for your picture too. I mean really, do you think they want your picture because of how well you can say, “annyeonghaseyo?” No! They want your picture because you are American, not because you blend in so well. Embrace it. Its fun. And unlike in America, they won’t tell you to go back to your country. 🙂


		
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