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Travel Survival Tips for Korea:  Navigating Korean Culture
Korean lifestyle and culture can feel very different for Western travelers.  Asian travelers may feel the difference, as well.  How different is it? I’ll let you be the judge.
My last video post was about Travel Essentials for Seoul, so this week I wanted to share five travel essentials for Korea for navigating Korean culture!

Korean Etiquette & 10 Travel Essentials for Korea

1. Is Korea Safe?

 The question “Is Korea Safe?” happens to be a very popular question for travelers.
Korea happens to be one of the safest countries I’ve been to yet! The honor system in Korea is pretty good (watch the video for explanation). But that doesn’t mean that crime doesn’t and can’t exist. One way Korea ensures safety is CCTV, a big brother surveillance system which runs throughout the country. If there ever were a crime, you can easily check out the CCTV footage . They have CCTV cameras installed everywhere: neighborhoods, parks, schools, convenience marts, even on streets and highways , etc…

 When I thought I lost my passport and went to the front desk because I knew it was the last place I took it out, the manager went to the security room and then after 15 minutes, returned and told me that from the CCTV footage, he noticed I had taken my passport up to the room!   Lo and behold, when I scoured my room, I discovered my passport had somehow fallen behind a dresser bureau.


CCTV in Korea, Korean CCTV

CCTV in Korea

2. No Nose Blowing

It’s an unspoken thing in Korea– it is considered rude to blow your nose. Thus, to navigate spicy Korean food and your nose running, you’ll have to dab your nose with a tissue. Some Koreans will just suck the mucus back up.

3. Learn simple Korean travel survival phrases

My first year of living and teaching in Korea, the language barriers didn’t make living in Korea easier.  If you’re in Seoul, English is a little more common, especially around the younger generation. Outside Seoul, like Daegu or smaller cities, the English language gets a little spare.  But not to worry, Koreans try their best to help and if you’re lost, they might even lead you by the hand to your location.
Other travel survival tools for unblocking language barriers are:  taking a Korean phrase book, learn survival phrases, take a map to point at things, miming and gesturing.
Koreans know travelers probably don’t understand their language or rules, it’s often nice to have some phrases, just in case.
Annyeong-haseyo                 Hello (Koreans almost always greet people upon entrance)
Kamsahamnida                       Thank you.
Gomapsumida                         Thank you.
Hwah-jahngshil odi-ehyo?    Where is the toilet?
___________ odi-ehyo?             Where is  ________?    [ Tip: It helps if you have a map that you can point to]
Olmay-ehyo                             How much?  (or you can gesture this)

4. Navigating Language Barriers? Try a Korean accent.

I am not trying to be offensive here and this technique is a hit or miss…  Korean language uses some English words (aka Konglish, a Korean style English). Thus,  you can attempt using English in order to be understood, but it might not be understood unless it is spoken in a Korean accent. Weird, I know. (  Read Do I have to learn the language for moving abroad ?)  In my entire year of living/working in Korea, taking a taxi to Costco was always a challenge in Korean pronunciation. My drivers would never know what I was talking about if I pronounced Costco as Cost-coh. I had to break it in Korean/Japanese syllables to pronounce it- coh-su-tu-coh.  Coffee (koh-pi), drive (durai-bu), booking (boo-king), dessert (dee-sah-tu), sexy (sehk-shi),… Here’s a list here.

Here’s a quick primer in Korean pronunciation. The Korean language does not have hard sounding consonants. Instead, certain hard sounding consonants will be merged together to make the same alphabet. Thus, you’ll often see Koreans spell the same word differently.

Let’s take cities  Daegu/Taegu or Busan/Pusan:
“d” and “t”s are the practically considered the same alphabet in Hangul (the Korean alphabet). However, they’re not pronounced like how you’d hear them in the U.S.  In Korea, it’s pronounced a bit like a nasal “d” or “t”… a soft tongue tap, rather than a clenched teeth type of strike.  Similar with “b” and “p”s or “g” and “k”s.
Also, there are no “f”s in the Korean pronunciation, so any “f” is pronounced more like a “p”. (i.e.  “coffee”= “Kopi”)

5.  Korean culture respects formality and tradition.

Greetings and formalities are always appreciated. You’ll be saying Hello and Thank you a lot. Anyeong-haseyo and Kam-sa-hamneda!

6. Koreans make offerings with both hands

 In Korea, little forms of etiquette are important. In some countries, passing things with your left hand is a No-no. Not Korea. When offering or accepting anything– money,  gifts or food — use both hands. For example,  if you’re paying or receiving change from the cashier at a convenience store, do so with both hands. There are variations to this, so please watch the above video for examples. Needless to say, whenever you’re doing something which requires both hands, you’ll want to make sure they’re both available and not holding things.

7. Koreans are not being nosy or invasive but age matters in Korean culture.

Westerners find it rude when people ask their age. People ask my age a lot in Korea (and Asia) as it occasionally determines respect for your seniors. In  Korea, daily interactions, age (and whomever is senior) determines how you ideally would address the person you’re talking to. This matters bigtime in Korea. There’s a hierarchy in interactions and it’s a trickle down effect, even amongst the younger generations. There’s even language cues you would use to speak to elder (meaning: anyone older than you) or children.
my korean students

My Korean elementary students with EPIK

8. Where are the toilets in Korea?

Public restrooms are easier to find and more omnipresent than trash cans (that’s no joke). You’ll find them in subways, train stations, shopping malls, parks, coffee houses, a lot of places.  However, always take your tissues with you, as they might not have toilet paper.  Another thing is you’ll notice if they don’t have a soap dispenser, they do this funky thing by putting a bar of soap on a metal holder extending over the faucet. You wet your hands and rub them over the bar. Westerners find the notion of a shared bar of soap a little icky, but hey, at least its soap!


washing korean

Community bar of soap

9. There are three types of toilets in Korea

In Korea you’ll find three types of toilets: a squat toilet, a standard western toilet, a Toto toilet. Of the three, you will love the Toto Toilet, which is a luxury version of the standard western toilet but with side controls which offer bidet and drying features. Some even come with seat warming which is ideal during winter.

Read How to use a Squat toilet & how to use a feminine urinary device

Squat toilets are typically the old style Korean toilet and you’ll find them in older establishments, such as older restaurants, schools, parks, etc..  Often you’ll find a few obligatory squat toilets but many are being replaced by western toilets in large cities. Seoul, Busan and nice shopping malls, you may find more Toto toilets.

10.  Where to find trash bins in Korea

Toilets are more ubiquitous than trash cans.  You’ll find toilets in many places but where are the trash cans? You may find some in metro stations by the the drink vending machines or in fast food eating establishments and restaurants. But generally Koreans hold them in their bags until they find an actual trash can.

Read more Korean quirks which will surprise you.

What are your top travel essentials for Korea and navigating Korean culture? 

Additional Posts on Trip Planning for Korea

Cool things to buy in Korea (Part1 & Part 2)

Travel Guide of things to Do and See on Jeju Island

9 Neighborhoods to Make you Fall in Love with Seoul

5 Secret Places in Korea

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