New Norm V

Sometimes living in a different country you forget that some of the very odd and different things around you are in fact…odd and different, they instead become a ‘new norm’ of sorts. So here are a few things that when I first came to Korea seemed odd but now are overlooked.

Being treated differently because we are foreigners

Now, this isn’t always a bad thing and I really can’t complain about ever being treated badly because we’re foreigners. And every once in awhile, we’ll get a special treat only available to us. Like at a local Italian restaurant, we get free drinks on certain nights with the purchase of a meal. How this is allowed and the restaurant doesn’t get in trouble for being discriminatory…I have no idea but you won’t hear me complain about it. Pass the wine please. 

There are…ahem…different snack options at the local convenience stores
I don’t know about you but when I’m hungry and we stop for food, I’ll choose the chips over the dried variety of squid any day.
Being called beautiful and handsome by random strangers while walking down the street. 
I’ve never been complimented so much by complete strangers. Not that I’m complaining, it’s actually quite nice. And I think the US could take notes on being so complimentary to people you just meet. There’s nothing wrong in complimenting someone you don’t know on the way they’re dressed, the way their hair is done or something of the sort. But it kind of shocks you when you walk down the street and a group of middle school girls walks by and tells you and your husband you’re good looking. Or you meet a students wife for the first time and the first thing she tells you is that you’re beautiful. 
Tour buses
Tours are so popular in Korea! The roads are always full of tour buses going to every place in Korea imaginable. You can often find them parked on the side of the road, in parking lots, or in this case, under a bridge with all the passengers sitting outside of it eating lunch.
Things being blurred out on television
That’s right guys. If there’s a knife…it’s blurred out. If there’s a cigarette…it’s blurred out. If there’s a gruesome wound on someone…you got it. It’s blurred out. I’m not sure what their thought process on this was, if they thought that we wouldn’t be able to figure it out or it it would be less violent to only see the blood dripping from the knife but not the knife itself. But I will say this, it adds a sometimes needed comic relief in the middle of an intense scene in a scary movie.

The New Norm Part IV

Sometimes living in a different country you forget that some of the very odd and different things around you are in fact…odd and different, they instead become a ‘new norm’ of sorts. So here are a few things that when I first came to Korea seemed odd but now are overlooked.

Delivery bikes
mcdonalds delivery]
And by the way their delivery men drive, I can’t imagine it taking more than a few minutes to get your order from across town. 
Bus seating
korean bus

We found out the hard way what happens when they overbook the bus. They have small stools in the overhead compartments that you sit on in the middle of the aisle. Thank goodness it was only an hour ride to where we were going.

Street food
korean street carts
Street food is something that I never really experienced in the states but have grown to love since living in Korea. Breakfast, lunch or dinner people crowd around these stalls on the street to eat just about any Korean dish. Below you can see gimbap, ddeokbokki (rice cake in red spicy sauce…delicious!) and odeng (fish paste on a stick…no thank you).
Oral care

I have never seen people take the dentist’s advice to brush your teeth after every meal so seriously until I moved to Korea. In every bathroom at work you can see everyone’s individual cups and toothbrushes. During lunch time you can see workers walking the halls while brushing their teeth. Dentists everywhere would be so proud. 

Temple symbols
korean temple

This one really caught me off guard when we first moved to Korea. Growing up, this symbol meant one thing and one thing only. And you certainly wouldn’t find it plastered on buildings, or people with necklaces and rings with it. Guess my history lesson was lacking because number one, the symbol is backwards from what the Germans used and two, it’s the traditional Buddhist symbol for a temple. I’ve grown used to it now but there are times where I still see it and it catches me off guard.

Shoebox Apartments

asian apartments

We live in a small apartment here in Korea. Well, let me rephrase that to say that in American standards, we live in a small apartment. We feel very blessed and fortunate to have the size apartment that we do because we have known couples whose work has provided them with a 300 square foot studio apartment for the both of them. How they’re both still alive is beyond me. But needless to say, all three of our apartments in Korea have been smaller than what we’re accustomed to back home in the States. And while some things on this list may not apply to our current spot, they all could have been said about at least one of them.

So if you’re sitting there wondering what qualifies as a small apartment or wonder if yours fits the bill, this should help. You know you live in a small apartment if:

.It takes you 15 minutes to clean the entire thing

.It takes just as long for it to look like a train wreck again

.It’s impossible to lose or misplace anything

.You can vacuum the entire place without switching wall outlets

.You have an oven the size of a toaster oven and even that you have difficulty finding a place for

I’m just impressed we could fit a turkey inside. Even though it was so close to the elements that it had lines on it.

.You can see every room from one spot

.When the trash bag is full, you can smell it from every room

.If you leave the door open when showering, all the windows in the apartment fog up

.Your kitchen table is where you do most of your cooking because you can barely fit a cutting board on your counter.

Our first kitchen. I did most of my cooking on the table since I could barely fit anything besides a plate on the counter.

.It takes about five minutes for the place to cool down or heat up

.You don’t have seasonal decorations, not because you don’t want them but because you don’t know where you’d store them

.You have a dorm sized fridge because you can’t fit much else. Thankfully we were able to upgrade to at least a half sized fridge

.You don’t have to yell or even raise your voice in order for another person to hear you across the apartment or in another room

.Your social events have a max capacity guest list

.You have to find new and unique places to store things…like under the couch

This is where we kept out out of season clothes

.You are constantly switching out the clothes in your closet because only one season fits at a time. The rest go under the bed or in our case…under our couch.

.Every time you buy something new, you have to get rid of something. Not because you think it’s the  ethical thing to do, but because you don’t have enough room.

.At least one or more people have to sit on the floor when they come over…good thing we live in Asia and this is seen as normal.

I just want to end this by saying that even though we live in a place smaller than what we’re accustomed to, we now very much prefer it and no longer want to get a large house when we move back to the states. It’s funny the things you can get used to!

The New Norm Part III

Sometimes living in a different country you forget that some of the very odd and different things around you are in fact…odd and different. Here are some more things from around Korea that I first thought were odd and different but now just blend into the background. 

Neon lights


Down every road at night it looks like a mini version of Vegas.

Mixing up the language

When I first moved here and started teaching kindi, they would always say ‘shi shi’ when they had to use the bathroom. As a naive newcomer, I assumed this was the proper way to say ‘bathroom’ (because kindi kids always speak in perfect grammar right?). I went to a restaurant and tried to practice my newly learned Korean phrase on the waitress to ask where the bathroom is. She started giggling and pointed towards the bathroom. I learned later that ‘shi shi’ is the equivalent of saying ‘pee pee’.

Call buttons


This may just be the best thing ever invented. It’s a call button, and it’s placed on every table in most restaurants around here. So instead of a waiter hounding you every few moments if you need something, they only appear if you press this little button and call them. Absolute genius.

Hiking gear

This is common hiking gear in Korea. Bright as a rainbow and covering every inch of your body.

Having an escape route out of the country

No, we don’t feel in danger. But yes, we have talked about the ‘what if’. And don’t worry mom, as much as we joke about stealing a boat and rowing to safety, we have a slightly more secure plan than that.

Good luck gestures


Outside of a new business you can find several large planters sitting out with ribbons on them. These are bought by the company or friends and partners of the owner to wish the new business good luck.

Body language

Not knowing appropriate or more importantly, inappropriate gestures. In the states it’s common to play the game ‘I’ve got your nose’ with little kids. Little did I know that the gesture that we use with our thumb in-between our two fingers is a very vulgar gesture here in Korea. I unfortunately learned this after I had done taught it to every single one of my kindi classes. Sorry parents.

Getin’ Neked

Last week I may have just had the most unAmerican experience possible. I stripped down to my birthday suit in front of a bunch of Korean women. Jjimjilbangs (찜질방), or Korean style bathhouses are extremely popular where I live. You can see them on just about every block and are a very common Korean past time, especially during the cooler months. These spas are gender segregated and include several different pools of varying temperatures, showers and also separate sit down showers with mirrors where women sit and scrub off a layer of their skin. And all for the price of $6.00!

So this all sounds fantastic right? You’re probably wondering why it took me two whole years to go. Because, my friends, all of this is done while being completely butt neked. And while I’m not exactly the most timid one out there, something about being completely naked and the only foreigner, kind of got to me.

I once asked a student of mine about the spa and she mentioned that she had seen some foreigners there. I said great, what did she look like (we live in a small town, chances are, I knew her). My student went on to say that she had short brown hair, tall, and oh teacher, she had huge boobs! As tempting as it was to try out the spa, I did not want to take the chance of not only seeing one of my students…both of us in the nude…but I definitely didn’t want to be the foreigner that she’s describing in detail to anyone that would listen.

My partners in crime, Jen & Amber. The red sign above is the symbol indicating a bath house

Recently, however, I caved into finally experiencing the glory of the bathhouse and I could not be more thrilled! A friend of mine arranged this little get together and we all braved the awkwardness of showing our goods together. So here’s the drill to going to a Korean bathhouse:

When you walk in, you will choose which option you want. You can either just use the spa, or you can pay extra to spend the night. Clothes are provided for this option and both men and women sleep in the common area which has TV’s, couches, food and a unisex sauna. This is a great option for a cheap nights stay if all the hotels are booked.

When you pay, you receive a ticket with a number on it. You go into the women’s locker room and find the correlating locker number and put your shoes in. Then, you go into the next locker room and again, find the matching number and that locker is for your clothes. We were wondering if this was where we should strip down, and just as we were asking each other, three unabashedly unclothed women walked by. Yup, we were in the right spot.

We all stood looking at our empty lockers in front of us, not being able to contain our awkward laughter as we undressed. I have gone topless at beaches (until the one American showed up and started staring down all the women. Advice to guys; if you want to go to a topless beach, wear sunglasses), I’ve stripped down to my undies in front of strangers backstage when I used to do runway shows, but walking around in absolutely nothing like it ain’t no thing? That was new for me.

The last picture we could take

Each pool had a thermometer above it showing the temperature while others had jets or added minerals to them. Then there was also the option for a whole body scrub. Now, most Koreans simply buy a scrub cloth (resembling a Brillo pad) from a fully stocked beauty vending machine in the locker room and get to work in front of the seated showers. How some of them weren’t bleeding by the end of it is beyond me. But there is also an option to pay an extra $20 and have someone do it for you.

I have had friends tell me in the past that women scrub you down in these places but the way that they described it, I just thought there were some older Korean women that hung around the spa and liked to scrub people’s backs while they relaxed. I thought it was a little weird but hey, it’s Korea. Anything can happen. I quickly realized that I had been wrong and these people scrubbing women down were in fact employees and it was in no way as weird as I thought (or at least as un-weird as a women scrubbing another completely naked woman can be). One of the friends that I went with went for this option and while it took over an hour, she said that her skin had never felt so amazing.

So what did I think? I realize that so many countries around the world practice nude bath houses, but coming from America, this was one of the most foreign experiences I’ve had yet. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to take pictures inside the bathhouse,  because it all looked so bizarre, but I don’t think that would have made the most family friendly post. To be perfectly honest though, I found this experience somewhat liberating. At first, yes, it’s extremely awkward and uncomfortable but by the end of it I felt perfectly comfortable walking around and hardly noticed that there were no bathing suits, not to mention it was one of the most relaxing experiences. So would I go again? In a heartbeat.