Culture Shot: Putting the Toil in Toilet

Oh god, where are the toilets in this place? I crane my neck looking around for the toilet sign, the slick of sweat at the bottom of my back is quickly becoming a trickle. My brain is foggy. I need to find the bathroom, quickly. My eyes are roving the whole of the cafe, searching every possible location for the sign. Meanwhile, my bowels are growling like a dog about to bite. Oh Jesus. Ah! There it it! A quick exit stage left and around the corner. I can make it.

Jumping into the first stall and sitting down, I breathe a sigh of relief. Just in the nick of time, man that was a close one. Yet, as I sit here in the drafty cubicle of the Korean Barbeque, I can’t help but think something is missing in here. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing, but no time to think about the interior design of a toilet stall right now, I have to get back to the table…

Oh no.


No. I can’t have missed the most important step of going to the bathroom in Korea. I’ve been here too long to have forgotten.  Continue reading


Culture Shot: Pepero Day

If you thought Valentine’s Day was a farce of a commercial holiday, then Korea will once again prove your Western assumptions wrong. Ladies and Gents, I present to you Pepero Day.

Pepero Day is the celebration of a Korean snack food of the same name. These snacks are bread sticks dipped in candy and come in a variety of flavors. They do not sound altogether appetizing, but let me tell you, I managed to put away a sizable amount yesterday…


These gifts came from my friends at Muay Thai. One guy even made the ones in the cellophane!

As Valentine’s Day has it’s roots in a celebration of a saint, it’s hard to criticize Hallmark et al. for cashing in on it’s Capitalist potential. Pepero Day on the other hand, has no such origin. Instead, it comes from a 1983 news story, in which two school girls exchanged Pepero in order to become tall and thin like the Pepero sticks. These superstitious, and wildly misguided, girls exchanged these gifts on November 11th, the date that looks most like Pepero sticks. To a simple reasoning, or a homeopath, this logic is sound and the trick should work. Sadly, it doesn’t. I woke this morning at the familiar 5′ 8.5″ (that half is very important to me), and I believe I may have even gained weight in the night!

From Christal

One student even took the time to personalize the box!

I digress, however. So seeing that this could be turned into an incredibly marketable phenomenon, the parent company had the day enshrined in the commercial calendar. Now, you can buy Pepero everything, from gift-sets to plush toys. According to Wikipedia the Pepero company make 50% of their annual sales on this day! Not that the same isn’t true for florists and their ilk back home on V-Day I’m sure.

As you can see in the pictures, everyone gets some Pepero on this day, from friends, form teachers, from students. It’s all very cute, which makes it even more Korean, as almost everything here is either cute or for couples, or in this case both!

So now you know folks, the rest of the world also have holidays as outrageous as Valentine’s Day! Gooooooooo Capitalism!!!!

Culture Shot: Sidewalk Sharpshooters

“Don’t mess with me boys”

Yes, you read that right, Korea has sharpshooters on every sidewalk. It’s one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make to living here, because it’s not a problem back home…well, at least not to the same extent.

No, I’m not talking about soldiers with sniper rifles on every corner, in case you hadn’t guessed; that was hyperbole. These guys and gals, let’s not forget the gals, have a much more appalling weapon of choice: phlegm.

As you walk down the street at any time of day or night you can hear the priming of a weapon, a throaty sound, guttural and hacking, like someone speaking Slavic with a sore throat, and you know it’s coming. You feel the fear bunch your shoulders and the unease tighten your stomach, desperately listening for the puwhtuh as the projectile flies from its barrel, so you can check for any casualties.

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Culture Shot: Mind-Boggling Menus

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I am still in the process of learning to read and speak Korean, albeit a process more akin to glacial migration than serious language acquisition, but I’m a busy man. I mean those jelly beans don’t eat themselves! I digress, however, and return to today’s theme: reading menus.

Usually, when I am in a restaurant I can pick out what is tasty based on the picture which is conveniently located next to each menu item. What happens when those pictures aren’t there and the menu is not provided with convenient English subtitles? Well, let me tell you now.

What does this even MEAN???? I think it says “Go to McDonald’s”

Guesswork. Lots and lots of guesswork
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Culture Shot: The Naked Truth… About JimJilBangs

Emmet: Hey dude let’s get naked!

J: Erhm… I’m not sure about this. It seems kinda weird Emmet.

Emmet: Jamie, come on, it’ll be a laugh and so relaxing.

Finally, he relented and agreed to get naked and come to Spaland, Shinsegae. One of the best jimjilbangs (naked bath houses to the uninitiated among my readers) in Busan.

So, bright and early, at 10 AM, we got on the subway and made our way to the baths. Because, for afternoon teachers, 10AM is basically still the small hours.

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Culture Shot: (Love) Hotel…(Love) Motel… Holiday Inn

I can’t bring myself to type “(Love) Holiday Inn” in the title, mostly because the title is already pretty long but also because I haven’t the foggiest idea what a Holiday Inn actually is.

Now, back to the topic at hand: Korean love hotels/motels.

Motel crop

Love truly is the beauty of the soul…. These motels are deep as well as practical!

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Culture Shot: Being A Pedestrian

“How different could being a pedestrian be?” I thought in my innocence when I first got here, “It’s not like I’m unused to walking to where I need to be”. How wrong I was ladies and gents, how very wrong I was.

First, the footpaths are a crowed place with people headed to a wide variety of places for an even wider variety of reasons. In order to navigate through the masses, I have found it best to square my shoulders, point my elbows, and march as quickly as possible to where I’m going. The pointed elbows are a key point in this method, as without the jab of an elbow to remind folks coming too close you will be overcrowded in seconds.

Secondly, the five Ds: Dip, Dodge, Duck, Dive and…Dodge your way around old people and couples as these meanderers will hold you up for half a week and are guaranteed to step right into your way every time you attempt to overtake. And don’t for one second think that you can step off the footpath and go around wide because the streets are not the place for a pedestrian!

Mostly because a car might decide to park on your leg should it happen to land anywhere off the footpath, and hey that’s the driver’s prerogative.

Following on from the danger of stepping off the footpath for even just a second, you can forget about just strolling across the roads, no matter how small or narrow. This is due to the fact that Korean drivers have two settings: driving like a lunatic and stationary. I believe this is the reason everyone has automatic cars here, because no one could shift through the gears manually at the rate required for the short-distance bursts of speed drivers favor here. Well, aside from maybe The Flash that is.

Now I know this attitude of strolling across the road is possibly uniquely Irish, or perhaps just Galwegian, as our Medieval streets afford crossing in two strides or less throughout almost the entire city. Luckily, I’m a quick learner and have not been foolish enough to wander across the 8 lanes standing between the supermarket and my flat. 

Most of you are probably thinking “Ok Emmet, we knew you should stay on the footpath (or pavement,  if you’re from the US) you’re in a metropolitan city not a town with a cathedral”. I hate to break it to you folks the footpaths here are not all that much safer!At any given moment cars, in setting number one, can come hurtling forth from a concealed entrance to an underground car park or an apartment building, and it is your job, as a pedestrian, to see them because God knows they are not looking for you. However, as if the dangers of Crouching Toyota, Hidden Daewoo weren’t enough, another danger lurks on the sidewalks.

Zipping from place to place. Zooming around trying to make good time and be a general menace to society these creatures pose a threat to anyone brave enough to walk to work. What are they? Scooters.

Culture Shot: We (Like Alcohol in the System of an Expat) Are So Easily Assimilated

It’s Friday night. The week has been filled with work, in my case kids screaming answers to questions they’ve only half listened to with answers they’ve only half formed before they started talking, and you (and I) both want to get as far down a bottle, or many bottles, of soju as one can over the course of a night. In a respectable way of course, we’re civilized here in the Neon Republic of South Korea.
So where do we go? Well, I’m no expert but I’ll take you under my wing and show you around, it can be hard for the un-initiated to grasp the concept of drinking like a Korean here.

“Chopsticks? I prefer chop-knives-and-forks but if you insist!”

Round 1: The bell rings and we’re raring to go at it with the old one-two. So we decide on where to go, seeing as we’re probably Hank Marvin after a full day teaching English we’ll go somewhere we can get some substantial food, and drink of course. Barbecue is a great choice, we can cook our own meat and eat at the pace we set while feeling like Gods of the Griddle with out personal barbecue on the tabletop. We’ll start with wine because I’m somewhat faint of heart and soju can be a struggle to start with. Especially when drinking the traditional rice beverage neat as Koreans are prone to doing.

Culture Shot: Making Friends.

This post is hopefully going to be the first of many “Culture Shots” which I will use to detail things which have left me reeling. This week’s shot focuses on making friends.

Making friends here, as a foreigner, has been possibly one of the easiest experiences I’ve had with making friends. Mostly because my first time meeting and speaking to another foreigner here was basically the exact same as the first day in school: “Hey dude, I have no friends. Wanna be friends?”. The only differences being of course that when I was 3 and a half I didn’t actually know the word “dude” and the fact that this time I uttered the phrase in a supermarket next to some watermelons. But overall the result was the same: I made a friend. Done and dusted.

I’m only friends with you because we’re both 8″…”and cartoons”. KicksterAsh

However, my native counter-parts may not have it so easy. Here in Korea being friends is either a whole lot harder or somewhat simpler depending on how one looks at it. I have been informed by my co-workers who are all Korean natives that the word “friend” in Korean is more or less the same as the word for “peer” or someone who is the same age. I had noticed this in some of my classes when I told students to look at their friend’s work and they would repeatedly insist “But he’s not my friend, I older!!”
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