5½ Tweaks to Daily Life in Korea I Highly Recommend

Here’s a little light-hearted (but true!) ranting for the weekend.  Over the past year and a half I’ve learned to navigate some of the…nuances of everyday life in a major South Korean city.  The quirks about the culture can take you by storm and catch you off guard just when you’re seemingly having a great day.  Everything is fine, then it happens.  One of those quirks.  What’s the best thing to do?

Here’s my take on the biggies in my own life and how I’ve adjusted my actions when encountering them.

1)  When walking through crowds, don’t move out of the way (till the last moment)
When I first got to Korea it seemed like whenever I was at a mall or on a crowded street, everyone appeared to be walking at or about to walk into me.  So I’d quickly move out of the way and politely let them walk through my space.  After about a month of this everywhere I went (mall, subway, or street), I got tired of doing the Harlem Shake just to get out of everyone’s way.  So during one of my ornery days I simply stopped moving.  At that moment an amazing thing happened – the crowds started to part like the Red Sea.  I realized that if I didn’t move at all (which is rude) Koreans will walk right up to you as if they’re going to shoulder check you, and then morph around you at the very final millisecond without even touching you.  A light bulb went off in my head so I tested it out.  I started barrelling through the mall without moving the slightest smidge and every single person moved at that very last moment.
You see, when I lived in New York City, you just can’t do that.  It’s a little bold.  If you make someone think you’re going to walk into them like that, you could end up laid out.  You can’t psych New Yorkers out.  As crowded as it is, you move ahead of time! 
Nowadays, I rarely move.  Unless of course I just ate a great meal and am on my way home to fall into a coma for a couple hours which always puts me in a good mood.  Then I’ll pre-emptively move…”après vous”!  Otherwise, I’m coming through like Thomas and Friends.
2)  Rush to get off the bus
In Korea, there’s none of this wait-for-the-bus-to-stop-before-you-get-up stuff like back home.  When somebody rings the bell, that’s when you get up and rush to the door in a mad frenzy.  Even if the bell is rung at the previous stop.  Just get to that door.
A few times early on I said to myself, “Look, this guy’s driving like a maniac, so I’m just staying seated until the bus stops.  He’ll wait.”  Driver shut the door right on me as I was getting off.  That’ll learn ya!  Now I rush for the door. 
3) When getting OFF subways, just railroad through people
Speaking of Thomas and Friends (introduced to me by my students because we share the same name), I can’t overlook the subways. 

Again, even in a rough and gritty town like NYC, people let you off the subway before clambering into the car themselves. Not in Korea. When that door opens it’s literally a free-for-all.

Here I am trying to get off the subway car and I’ve got little old ladies and high school kids hip checking me out of the way to get a seat. For a while I was confused and getting more frustrated with each ride. That was until the day I decided to just get off the car with no remorse. Men, women and children were ricocheting off me like a pinball machine.  Have you ever plowed snow?!  Something like that.

It doesn’t have to be like this though =========>>>

Here’s the ironic thing that happened that very day – nobody even blinked an eye. I know on some occasions my shoulder “brushed” against some faces, but when I looked back there they stood, staring intently at the seats. I actually think they enjoy the challenge of the doorway blitz.And now, so do I.

Here’s the thing, when it’s your stop just get through the door. At times you may feel like an NFL running back meeting a defensive line near the end zone.So just GO!   Like Thomas and Friends!
3.5)   When getting ON subways, just railroad through people
See #1 and #3 (this is the half count of this list).  It goes both ways – when in ROME! 
4.5)  Bowing – just go LOW!
Bowing is a very important gesture in Korea.  It’s the equivalent of shaking hands in the west.  When you see a co-worker – bow.  When you go to the gym or dojo (dojang!!) – you bow.  Bow when accepting a nice gift.  When you see people you know on the street.  It’s a good thing to get used to.
Just like shaking hands, you can do it wrong.  You don’t want to give someone a mushy, dead fish handshake and you also don’t want to crush their hand.  Just firm and respectful. 
The same goes with bowing.  The further you bow down, the more respect you show.  You don’t have to go super-low all the time, but you never want to make the mistake of not going low enough.  When first learning to bow, it’s hard to know what’s adequate or not.  Here’s my advice. 

If you come up from a bow and there’s a twinge of disdain lingering on the other person’s face, you didn’t go low enough.

Trust me, my judo instructor single-handedly taught me how to bow correctly!  LOL. 
Just go LOW!
5.5)  Say “Pangapsumnida” (반갑습니다 ) everywhere
Pangapsumnida (반갑습니다 ) is a fail safe greeting for almost any occassion.  So get used to using it.  It essentially means, “Hello, it’s good to see you!”  It is the one phrase that I’ve learned can be used with everyone, in nearly any situation.  Here are a few:
  • If you see a co-teacher,
  • If you see the principal,
  • Enter your health club and see the owner,
  • Enter your martial arts school,
  • If you see Korean friends,
  • When you encounter elders,
  • Walk into your empty apartment, say it.  Practice makes perfect.
You can use it anywhere and it’s formal and respectful enough to get you by.
The more authentic you can pronounce it the better.  I’ve learned that if I pronounce it like this, “Pa’gapsi-daaaw” with a semi-muffled delivery, Koreans like it.  If you can learn to shape your mouth like you’ve just eaten something too hot while saying it, you’ll be good.
So say it as often as you can with heart!  It’ll make up for railroading people in the subway and not bowing low enough.


  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Lol..Pretty funny stuff man. I will have to remember this if I ever make it over there. How do you stay in touch with loved ones in an affordable manner?

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    You gave me quite a moment of laughter with this one! I have some good news for you: if you ever visit Israel, you will be 100% okay! These things are common on the Egged buses and walking in the streets.
    But different vibe on the Arab buses. More polite and kind. However, if it is after 4 pm, when the guys are using the bus to come home from work, hard to get off the bus. One day I had to push about 15 guys off because they would not move. I felt like Goliath and that is a pretty embarrassing thing for a lady to say! But it worked! They were laughing in the end anyway! Gotta love it! 🙂

  3. Thanks. I usually use email and the occasional Skype call. Skype is so inexpensive now, it makes keeping in touch easier.

  4. Good stuff! Sometimes you've just got to "make it happen" when getting off the subway.

  5. Avatar Therese says:

    Thank you for sharing this blog post. Hilarious. I laughed several times without knowing what Thomas and Friends is. Will be reading more.

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