Local traditions and culture in South Korea

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Most Viewed Local Customs in South Korea

  • DSwede's Profile Photo

    Odd foods and Hong-eh

    by DSwede Written Mar 11, 2010

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    In all my travels I have had some unique and wonderful foods that are not mainstream where I grew up. Korea itself is the reason for many of those. There are things like live octopus, curdled beef blood, etc.

    However one of the most foul foods that I have ever come across is called hong-eh (홍어 in hongul). It is pickled stingray. It can have the texture of jerky or softer, but always has a near gagging limit of ammonia smell.

    I've wondered where the smell came from, but just accepted it as a byproduct of the natural pickling process. It probably has something to do with the extra salt content in the flesh.

    The story goes that long ago down in the waters far off the southwest of Korea, a fisherman got a stingray along with his catch of fish. This in itself is not uncommon. Back in that day, the fish would have just been dried in the sun since refrigeration was not available.

    However the fisherman did not feel like throwing the stingray back into the water, so kept it in the hold of the boat. During the long journey back home, the ray naturally fermented and pickled itself in the boat's locker.

    Upon arrival the fisherman was too determined to discard the new curiosity. So with a bit of resolve, gave it a try. It has evolved into a bit of an expensive delicacy here, although few like it since it has such an acquired taste.


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    Wedding and Funerals...BIG difference

    by jburron Updated Feb 24, 2010

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    Thankfully I've never done this but it might have happened to some fool foreigner who didn't check things correctly.

    You see, in Korea when one is married you give one gift: money. Cash, actually (since checks are non-existant there). A relative is about 100,000 won (USD 87), close friend is 50,000 won and casual friend is about 30,000 won. Funerals have a cash gift too...probably the same amounts, haven't been to one yet.

    Now comes the tricky part. You can always give it in a simple white envelope, but many of the shops here sell special ones with Chinese writing on them. Of course us foreigners can't read a lick of Chinese (although Korean is relatively easy to pick up).

    This is your hint: the WEDDING envelope has THREE Chinese characters on it. The FUNERAL envelope has TWO Chinese characters...don't screw it up, whatever you do.

    Funeral = 2, Wedding = 3

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    Pepero Day

    by Arial_27 Updated Jan 2, 2010

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    Every year on November 11th, the Koreans hand out boxes and bags of peperos to one another. They give them out the same way we would Valentines in Western countries - as romantic gifts between couples, or to schoolmates, friends, and family.

    The pepero is a cookie stick dipped either halfway, or fully in chocolate. They're pretty yummy.

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    Pusan People

    by IreneMcKay Written Oct 31, 2009

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    I thought the people in Pusan were lovely. Very few people speak English, but they still go out of their way to be friendly. We had the driver and several passengers go out of their way to make sure we got off at the right stop and headed the right way when we visited Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. In Yongdusan Park I found an old lady's walking stick in the toilet and returned it to her. I was almost cuddled to death in gratitude. On one bus ride a man changed seat so my husband and I could sit together. Koreans don't hassle you, but if they can help, they will.

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    Careful with the chopsticks

    by hindu1936 Written May 7, 2009

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    There are some things one should not do, but then noone would think about doing them anyhow: do not stand your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl. do not leave a table before the oldest person there does. of course always remove your shoes when entering a home or a low table restaurant. Do not hand money to the cashier using only one hand. Use the right hand and clasp the right wrist with your left hand. Do not hand any piece of paper with only one hand. use the above advice.

    Do not touch anyone you do not know for any reason at all unless it is to jerk them backwards out of the path of a low flying jet. Even a speeding car is dealt with on an individual basis.

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    Useful Korean

    by hopang Updated Mar 14, 2009

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    Useful Korean for foreign visitors courtesy of Korean National Tourism Corporation:-

    Hello : Yoboseyo ;
    Good morning : Annyong haseyo ;
    Yes : Ye ;
    No : Anio ;
    Thank you : Kamsa hamnida ;
    How do you do! : Cho-um poep-gessoyo! ;
    My name is .... : Na-ui irumun.... imnida ;
    See you again : Tto mannayo ;
    How much is it? : Olmaeyo? ;
    Please help me : Towa-juseyo ;
    Excuse me : Shille-hamnida.

    Related to:
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  • DSwede's Profile Photo

    Gifts to give if you visit Korea

    by DSwede Written Feb 6, 2009

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    Most Koreans will highly value anything that you give them that shows the area or city that you come from. A t-shirt, wall calendar, small statue/model, touristy thing...

    Koreans in general do not like sweets or candies. If they eat chocolate, they prefer chocolate that is lower is sugar and higher in cocoa percent (95%+ cocoa). In all honesty, I think if you brought chocolates or sweets, they may have one or two and not eat the rest.

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    Understanding Kanglish

    by DSwede Updated Sep 6, 2008

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    OK, for those of you who have traveled to to both Asia and the West, you no doubt know there are differences in pronunciation. If you are traveling in Korea, it is no different.

    To understand Kanglish and further enjoy your stay, please note that both in spoken and written forms, letters are used interchangeably:
    P -> B [example: Busan or Pusan]
    T -> D [example: Taegu or Daegu]
    L -> R [example: do you want to eat rice or lice?]
    K -> G [example: Seoul's Gimpo or Kimpo airports, Gyeongju or Kyeongju]
    F -> V [F & V do not exist in Korean, therefore often are written using P or B interchangeably]
    Z [Z does not exist, so is often used as "ch", example eating pizza -> picha]

    Also, Koreans have a hard time ending words that finish in a "ch" or "sh". they will almost always add a long-E. [example: "I if you have no money, you have no cash-ee"]

    And words are commonly appended with "-uh"

    So if-uh you cant untersdand-uh what I wlite-h you may wish-ee to plactice-eh more-eh. Oderwise you may flind youlserf tluely rost in tlansration-ee.

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  • Whistling in public

    by dbredahl Written Jun 27, 2008

    Generally speaking, you won't find many Koreans whistling in public as this is construed as being rude, vulgar and of low class standing, having little to no formal education. Many Korean do know how to whistle and quite enjoy it in the privacy of their own three foot bubble when no one's really paying attention or in their homes working on a projects. Next time you happen to be in an open market, take a closer look at who's whistling and who's not. It'll usually be the scruffier looking dude working a blue collar job.

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    Suicides are Reported, Common in Korea

    by jburron Updated May 24, 2008

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    I wasn't sure where to post this, it's not really a Warning/Danger and doesn't really affect foreigners/travellers, but you may come across it.

    Basically, Koreans are in a very stratified and rigid society with rules that dictate much of their lives and little leeway for failure in some cases. What's the honorable way out? Well, for some it's suicide. Those who fail in business, school SATs/entrance exams or have a scandal attached to them can fall victim to depression and thoughts of suicide. The difference, it seems, is Koreans get up and do it. I say get up because due to the lack of handguns in Korea many choose to jump from a bridge or building rather than blow their brains out.

    The most troubling thing (at least for us Westerners who are not used to it) is the news reports suicides. We don't do this in the West because it's thought that reporting it leads to more suicides as people join the crowd. (In Korea, where being in the in-group is very important you'd think they had caught on to this and stopped reporting them!).

    More info here, here, here, here, here and here.
    Update here.

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  • jburron's Profile Photo

    Sometimes Vegetarian Means a Little Meat

    by jburron Written May 20, 2008

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    Basically, Koreans do not understand the term vegetarian(ism). I inquired about a small sign talking about bibimbap (that lovely "mixed rice" concoction that may be served four-alarm fire hot, if you like). It said "Vegetarian". I asked if it still had the requisite beef in the mixture. But of course! Huh?!

    I asked around, and it seems that vegetarian in Korea means just a little meat...or 50% meat. Given their penchant for slabs of beef (kalbi, bulggogi), pork (sam-gyup-sal) and chicken (dduk-kalbi) and even living octopus (san-nak-ji) I guess it makes sense. Even the seemingly veggie "kimchi chigae" (mostly tofu with hot sauce and brought to a rolling boil) has pork 'juice' in it (watch out if you're Muslim!).

    I had another incident where buds of mine (Hindus) were at a Korean joint to have some veggie food. I know the owner and specifically said it has to be vegetarian. What did we get? Pork with lots of onions and green peppers and some kind of sauce. One of them went a little ape at this. I can understand why. What did they do? Brought back the same thing with most of the pork taken out. Um, no, not quite right. Finally they brought out kimchi chigae (sans shellfish) which I didn't know was laced with pork juice...oh well, everyone lived, but it made for a little cultural misunderstanding (and, admittedly, was fun to watch on some level).

    So, when you go to Korea, or a Korean restaurant or household stick to lettuce unless you can dig hard enough in your cross-examination of exactly what it is you're eating.

    Kimchi chigae--now with more PORK!

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    Korean Wedding

    by Edith49 Written Feb 4, 2008

    I saw two wedding photo shoots while I was there and they were both very different. One was in very tradtional Korean wedding attire and the other was in Western wedding attire. My understanding is that there are two ceremonies, one is done Western style and one in traditional Korean style.

    Walking into the temple grounds for photo shoot Getting ready for photo shoot Traditional attire
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  • DSwede's Profile Photo

    Kimshi pots in the sun

    by DSwede Updated Jan 30, 2008

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    Kimshi is a staple of Korean life. It comes in hundreds if not thousands of styles, but most commonly is pickled cabbage, infused with red pepper.

    In all my time here, I've only met one Korean who does not care for it, and nearly all foreigners love it too. You will find it on the tables during any meal. But what you might now know is that you will find it visible on any outing into the city and more commonly in the rural areas.

    Any time you see large pottery for sale, these are kimshi pots. If you see them on the roadside, on roof tops, or on the side of buildings, they are actually in the process of making the kimshi. Koreans mix all the ingredients and then let the sun slowly transform the recipe into kimshi.

    Keep your eyes open for the pots!

    Kimshi pots near Tongdosa temple

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  • DSwede's Profile Photo

    Polite Drinking Practices

    by DSwede Updated Jan 30, 2008

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    Just a brief note on some polite drinking practices if you are going out and drinking with the locals. If you are with businessmen or clients, it will do you a great service if you understand a few unwritten rules. They will honor you with more respect if you can play by their rules:

    - you should not drink freely from your glass until a group toast has been made.

    - It is important to keep an eye on other people's drinks. You should offer to pour them before they have to ask for it themselves.

    - It is not mandatory, but it is good form to not pour your own glass. Korean custom is common to actually pass the bottle to someone and have them pour your glass.

    - If you really wish to impress your local Korean counterparts, after you have been drinking for a while (and when you have finished your glass), offer your empty glass to someone. Then pour them a drink in 'your' glass. This gesture of having a drink from another person's glass is a manner of opening your mind and in essence stepping into their shoes for a moment.

    - If a toast is raised, Korean's bring their glasses together based on seniority. The oldest or most important person's glass must be the highest. Every person younger or lower in position shall raise their glass to a respective height. Placing your glass below someone else's is a way to show them respect.

    - Also remember my other tip about showing respect with the placement of your left hand. You want to maintain that while refilling drinks or offering glasses, etc.

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  • DSwede's Profile Photo

    Use two hands

    by DSwede Updated Jan 30, 2008

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    • While meeting someone and shaking their hand, the way you show the respect for the older or more revered person is by placing your left hand across your stomach to your right side while shaking hands with your right. One step up in reverence would be to hold your right elbow with your left hand while shaking hands. Moving your left hand farther along your right arm to the point where you are almost shaking with two hands shows ever increasing homage or respect. The older person does not have to reciprocate the action (i.e. like military salutes in the army). This does not always apply to women, women are expected to show the gesture but do not always receive it in kind.

    • Similarly when giving or receiving something, you place your left hand accordingly. It could be a gift, or merely a filling of a glass.

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