04 Jan Korean Culture 101
Note: This post is part of our full Korea Adoption: Guide to Seoul.
We absolutely fell in love with the Korean culture during our adoption process, and Seoul is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That said, we certainly had a steep learning curve at times as we immersed ourselves in the culture, and we’re so thankful for all the friends and families who shared their knowledge of Korea with us before we ever stepped off the plane. We hope we can return the favor just a little bit!
Your Kiddo’s Culture
Brian and I generally aren’t city people, but we found Seoul to be beautiful, clean, safe, and exciting! Seriously, even the trash cans are clean, which made my borderline-obsessive-compulsive heart happy. Despite being directionally-challenged, we rarely got lost following our Citymapper app, and we made a point to see as much of the city by foot as possible. We walked anywhere from 10-15 miles per day. We filled just about every moment of every day, and we loved every second.
Really take the time to savor the culture in Korea, as this will forever be your babe’s first culture. Visit the palaces. Walk through the markets. Eat the food. Enjoy the art and the locally-made goods. Museums are all over the place and generally free, and you can find a museum for just about any subject or activity your heart desires – including toilets, garlic, textbooks, rice cakes, chicken art, annnnd some museums with subjects I can’t even type out on our blog! You can find our itinerary and favorite sites HERE.
This is also a fantastic time to purchase traditional gifts for your child for years to come. Gideon’s foster mama gave us his hanbok from his first birthday, so we didn’t buy another, but we did purchase some wedding ducks for his future wedding, chopsticks, a Korean flag, and an entire series of Korean folk stories for children. We plan to return to Seoul before Gid’s wedding, of course, but we wanted special items we purchased during our trip to meet him and bring him home.
Customary Greetings + Habits
It is customary to give a slight bow – or deep nod, more like – when meeting new people or saying hello. Speaking of, it’s worth learning the word for “hello,” which is “annyeonghaseyo.” Our foster mom, by the second visit and custody, shortened this to “annyeong” (which is less formal, or used by someone older to someone younger), but always use the formal “hello” as a sign of respect.
We also tended to end interactions with another deep nod and “kamsahamnida,” which means thank you, although “thank you” is often said so fast it sounds more like “kamsamnida” (without the “ha”).
Whenever you exchange money, give or accept the money with two hands, not one.
People in South Korea tend to wear dressier clothes than we do here, especially out in public. In fact, many Koreans – even during non-business hours – are dressed in what we (Brian and I at least) would consider “business casual.” I rarely saw people out in “athleisure,” and clothing choices tended to be modest and tasteful. We were in Seoul in winter, so I’m not sure what clothing looks like in summer, but we were told specifically by our agency to always cover our shoulders for visits and court.
We had been instructed not to wear jeans to agency meetings, but other than the first meeting with Gideon, court, and our Visa appointment, we wore dark jeans everywhere and did not feel out of place. In fact, our social workers – again, except for court – also wore dark jeans.
Expect Some Stares
We definitely stood out in Seoul, particularly once we had Gideon with us. We found most people were helpful when asked, but not necessarily forthcoming otherwise. We had one fellow – a sweet, excitable man from North Korea – come up and talk to us on the street, but we had to quickly get used to not making small talk (which, to be fair, is pretty typical in most areas of the US too, haha). Adoption is generally something most South Koreans aren’t proud of, so we were openly stared at once Gideon was in the picture. Only two older people – a woman and a man, on different occasions – smiled as they stared away. A few commented how cute he was and then continued to stare. I’m assuming staring is not considered rude, but it was a bit disconcerting to have people looking at us but not talking to us all the time, since it’s so different from Kentucky!
No Shoes in the House
This part of Korea makes my heart particularly happy: Koreans don’t wear shoes in their homes. Or in the hotels. Or in the adoption agency playrooms. Or even in some shops and cafes. For Brian and me, this was super natural, as we always take our shoes off before we enter our own home or anyone else’s home. What wasn’t as natural was wearing socks! If you plan to wear sandals or flats, keep socks or slippers with you, as it’s appropriate to don socks before entering the foster home, the agency playroom, or other living spaces or areas where children would be on the floor. Most hotels and cafes that require no shoes will have slippers available for you to use while you’re there.
It is customary to give gifts to the important people in your adoption process. We have an entire blog post about the gifts we brought to Korea, but I wanted to touch on a few highlights here.
Historically in South Korea, gifts were seldom opened in front of the giver, and, in following that tradition, our foster family did not open the gifts we brought until after we had left. That said, today opening (or not opening) gifts is a matter of personal preference, and it seems some foster families have grown accustomed to opening gifts in front of the adoptive families because of our cultural expectation to do so. The foster family may ask what you prefer, and this also means foster family may open any gifts you bring during your visit. If you, like us, hide a note with contact information in the gift bag, just know there is a chance your social worker could see it. We left a four-page letter, already translated into Korean by our dear friend, and wrote our contact information at the bottom. Our social worker was aware (because foster mom told her) and didn’t mind, but this isn’t always the case.
Of note, it is not customary to say “thank you” after receiving a gift, so don’t be surprised (or offended) if your foster family or social worker does not express gratitude for your gifts. It doesn’t mean they aren’t grateful; it’s just not customary to express it. And like with money, give or accept gifts with two hands, as it’s more respectful than exchanging with one hand.
AIAA (our placement agency in the United States) did not allow care packages or gifts for foster families to be sent during the process. We did send a few care packages for Gideon with other families traveling to Korea, but we were careful not to include gifts for foster family, as we were explicitly instructed not to. Because other agencies allowed families to send gifts to foster families throughout the process, and because we could not, we decided to give nice, relatively expensive gifts for foster family during our first visit. Locally-made or state-specific gifts seem to be most appreciated. I also made a framed cross-stitch family for our foster mom to remember Gideon, and she seemed to greatly appreciate the sentiment!
Additionally, we brought small gifts for our two social workers throughout the process. Some families also bring gifts for their agency driver, but we did not, as we were the only SWS family in Korea at the time and took public taxis with our social worker when needed.
Again, for more specifics, see our post about gift-giving in Korea!
Seoul is a crowded and densely populated city, so the concept of personal space is quite different from the United States. Don’t be shocked or surprised if people squeeze in next to you in subways or lines!
A FEW FINAL NOTES…Lastly, these are a few pieces of culture we already covered in SEOUL TRAVEL 101, but they are worth mentioning again here!
English in Seoul
English was not nearly as common in Korea as we expected. Brian and I tried to practice Korean on the plane, but we learned approximately 5 words – hello, goodbye, thank you, no thank you/that’s okay, and sorry – and we tried to use them as much as possible so people knew we were trying. South Korea is very, very proud of their language, so a little effort seemed to go a long way.
That said, most restaurants have their menus posted outside, so we looked for English words and did a lot of pointing! The subway was also super easy to navigate, even without knowing Korean. Believe it or not, Starbucks was the most challenging place to order if no one spoke English, as they generally did not have a menu posted on the counter for pointing. The menus on the board were in English, but not the menus on the counter, so we did a lot of pointing at the sign on the wall, then gesturing “one, two, three, four” to say we wanted the fourth option down. Most of the street vendors and all the hotel staff we encountered (at both hotels) spoke at least basic English. We rode in taxis twice without our social worker, and once we had a driver who knew English and once we did not, so I would recommend translating a few common addresses (your hotel, your agency, the airport, the subway station you plan to frequent…) into Korean before you leave.
We also ran into a fair number of “tourist volunteers.” They are easy to spot in their bright red coats, and they go around touristy areas like Insadong to help people who are clearly foreigners find where they need to go. Since we didn’t run into a lot of other white people, we were easy for the “tourist volunteers” to spot. 😉 All of the “tourist volunteers” spoke fluent English and were so sweet!
Masks and Air Pollution
People often wear masks in Seoul because of the air quality. The lights on Namsan Seoul Tower aren’t just for decoration; they actually indicate the air quality that day, and when the lights turn yellow or red, you’ll see an increased number of people wearing masks. I’m assuming people in South Korea also wear masks to prevent illness, because I coughed a lot in the subway on our way to the international clinic, and the space around me cleared out really quickly! Once I bought and used a mask at the next subway stop, people stopped moving away from me.
Western food isn’t particularly common in Korea, though we did find some well-known restaurants: McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, and Starbucks, to name a few. In fact, there is a Subway about a block away from Somerset Palace, and we frequently chose to eat there once we had custody and didn’t feel like searching for food. Paris Baguette is another great option if you aren’t an adventurous eater. It’s expensive, but there are plenty of sandwich and salad options to choose from, and there is literally one on just about every corner in Seoul. Of note, there is one just across the “big hill” up to SWS, so we grabbed coffee and grapefruit tea before each visit with Gideon!
Speaking of coffee, coffee shops are EVERYWHERE. I’m talking 3-4 per block. Sometimes we even saw two Starbucks on the same block, haha. That said, you won’t find many coffee shops open before 8 or 9 in the morning, as we were told coffee is culturally an evening treat in Korea.
I really like Korean food, and Brian likes to try new things, so we ate Korean food as much as possible up until custody (when we were so tired and anxious we rarely ate at all). That said, we didn’t often eat in restaurants, preferring instead to frequent food vendors throughout Myeongdong and Insadong.
A few common Korean foods worth trying, in no particular order (pictured left to right below each description)…
Bulgogi beef (typical of Korean barbecue places) + Japchae (glass noodles with bulgogi beef and vegetables)
Egg bread (or gyerranppang, which is a sweet, cornbread-like bread with an egg on top) + Sweet potatoes (from a street vendor, particularly if they are being cooked in a large clay pot)
Korean fried chicken (you may have to find a restaurant for this one) + Mandu (Korean dumplings and our very, very favorite Korean food!)
Wonton soup (our favorite was in Gwangjang Market) + Bulgogi Beef Soup
“Poop pancakes” from the Poop Cafe in Insadong + Grapefruit Tea from Paris Baguette
“Cheese” Ice Cream (Bukchon Hanok Village) + Korean coffee (our favorite was a latte from Super Coffee in Jong-no)
Bingsu (Korean shaved “ice,” but it’s creamy, like ice cream) + “Fish” Ice Cream (which is a fish-shaped pastry known as bungeoppang, filled with ice cream, honeycomb, and an Oreo)
Also worth noting, but not pictured: Gimbap (or Kimbap, which looks and tastes much like a California roll), Korean ramen (found at street vendors all over Seoul), Bibimbap (best from the markets!), Bungeoppang (fish-shaped pastry with Nutella in the middle), and “soup dumplings” (which are dumplings with soup inside and probably have a better name than “soup dumplings,” haha).
In Insadong, you’ll also find 2-3 street vendors selling “pulled honey” candy, also known as Dragon’s beard candy, and it’s worth a try! We weren’t a huge fan of the taste, but the texture is AWESOME, as the honey is “pulled” into 16,000 strands! It’s also just really, really fun to watch Dragon’s beard candy being made. Most street vendors sell only one or two foods they have perfected, so you can almost guarantee the food will be delicious! Except maybe fish. We found the seafood in all of Asia to be very…fishy. Not suspicious fishy. Ocean fishy. But Americans are probably weird in that we prefer fish most when it doesn’t actually taste like fish!
A couple of actual brick-and-mortar restaurants worth noting: We enjoyed an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue place in Hongdae for around $10 per person! It was called “The Meating.” Nearby was a dessert place called Sulbing, which is famous for bingsu (Korean shaved ice, except instead of frozen water, the “ice” is frozen milk). Bingsu is not the cheapest and comes in enormous portions, but it was delicious and the perfect treat to share with friends.
Eating Out in Seoul
Most restaurants in Seoul had menus posted outside, which was so nice! We were able to check prices – and whether or not the restaurant had an English menu – without even going inside. You don’t tip in Seoul, and it can be perceived as rude to do so.
Though we found wait staff would check on us – likely because we were obviously not Korean – most of the time waitresses don’t come back to your table unless you push the button on the table. I actually preferred this, as people didn’t constantly ask how you were while you were trying to eat, haha. Also, most tables have their own water pitchers, utensils, and napkins you get yourself. Don’t be afraid to open the drawers under the table!
If you plan to get food “to go,” use the term “take away” instead. Though people generally figured out what we meant, they didn’t often immediately understand the term “to go.”