Living in a foreign country for months, you notice a lot of differences from your home country big and small. At first, the smallest things are exciting and worthy of comment. (I even wrote an article Korean convenience stores!) Just walking down the street or going to a market is an adventure. Later, you become accustomed, and it takes a lot more to interest you.
There are also so many small things I had been wanting to write about, but which couldn’t fill a whole article, so I will combine some:
Walk down the street in a leisure district anytime of year and pay attention to the windows of bars, arcades, and other joyous places, and you will find snowflake decals, jingle bells, Christmas trees, and maybe even an image of Santa or two. Korean businesses love Christmas imagery, even though a minority of Koreans are Christian.
This decorative style isn’t limited to Korea, however. Christmas decorations are also prevalent in China, a country whose government is antagonistic towards religion. Playing pool one evening in August in the southernmost resort town of Sanya, I asked my Chinese compatriot, “Why is Santa on the wall?” She said it was probably because the big, jolly, smiling man gave customers a happy feeling.
My first morning after eating breakfast in a guesthouse, I was taken aback by all the labeled trash bags and the process by which we were supposed to separate food. You can’t (or, rather, aren’t supposed to) throw food waste away in the ordinary trash in Korea. Instead, people should put food in special bags they have to pay for, and food waste is used for composting and biomass.
Many Koreans and residents of Korea find this annoying. A measure of the dissatisfaction is the piles of trash bags and boxes on street corners. Lots of people drop their trash off and then pile trash upon trash. The Korea Times also points to a lack of trash cans as a reason for waste on the street.
Walking down the halls of a subway station to make a transfer, a sweet smell wafts in the air. Waffles. Waffles and coffee are often sold together in in Korea, and waffle-coffee shops are frequently located within subway stations.
A common image at night is seeing drunk Korean men circled around a punching machine comparing the power of their fists. These games have a bag attached to a lever to be punched, or a soccer ball to be kicked, and they’re often located outside of arcades or batting cages.
Speaking of batting cages, mini-bating cage games are also easy to find. Called “home run rooms” in Korea (홈런방), the machine shoots 10-15 pitches from 20 or so meters out for 2000 won (US$1.80) or so, and a sensor measures how hard the batter hit it and gives points for “singles”, “doubles”, “triples”, and “home runs.”
One night I sang karaoke with a Korean guy, and we snuck a bottle of soju into the room, which we were periodically drinking from the bottle. About halfway into our hour-long KTV session, the door opened, and a hand came in and swiped our soju before we knew what was happening. The hand of a karaoke hall “waitress.” Did they have a camera in the room filming us drinking? Why did it take them so long to catch us? They didn’t demand we buy anything or pay a fee. Of course karaoke halls want to keep outside drinks out, but that’s the first time anywhere I had been caught drinking after I successfully smuggled drink in.
There are three elite universities in Korea, and if a doctor or lawyer graduated from one, they really want you to know it. Professionals place the emblem of their prestigious alma matters on their windows and doors with pride in order to attract business. The logos that a traveler to Seoul will notice most often are those of Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Together the top three universities are referred to as SKY.
Americans might call it “elitist,” but just like the Korean Constitutional Court, the U.S. Supreme Court is made up almost entirely of law graduates from its elite universities—the Ivy League. Americans just don’t wear their school logos on their chest. “Ivy Leaguer” is used as a term of derision in political discourse. Considering the state of American politics, the attacks on successful people and the crisis of anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” maybe there is something to be said for the Korean way.
Enter any subway station, and you will notice young Korean heartthrobs plastered on the wall ads. Often the ads wish a happy birthday or congratulations. Kstars are so loved by their Korean and foreign fans that they will actually pool money together to buy ads. At the bottom of an ad, sometimes you can see the names of Chinese fan clubs who paid for it.
One Chinese fan even paid close to $10,000 to place an ad in the Choson Ilbo congratulating a member of a group on winning an award. Fan groups say they like putting ads on the subways in high-traffic, high end stations like Gangnam, because they think their idols might actually see them there.
After the ads go up, often fans will place handwritten notes.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.