Chris and I recently returned from a 10-day holiday in beautiful Korea. It was especially interesting to visit straight from India, as the two countries provide such contrasts to each other. Chris and I were struck by several cultural practices that differed from India, and I’ll use this brief post to note them here…
On every counter, a bottle of hand sanitizer beckoned. We weren’t sure if cleanliness precautions were heightened because of MERS (the deadly virus floating around during our visit) or if it was just the culture. Whatever the case, cleaning options were ubiquitous, a big switch from India, where we always travel with a small bottle of sanitizer.
Other signs of an obsession with cleanliness: handing out antibacterial wet naps with food, modern self-spraying hand sanitizers, and high-tech mats for cleaning feet well before entering a building.
We took special note of ways Koreans like to keep their hands clean while eating. In India, eating with one’s hands is standard, expected cultural practice – whether with flat bread (roti/chappatti) or with fingers. Not so in Korea. There, I noticed people eating friend chicken drumsticks with chopsticks, or – at a baseball game – with disposable plastic gloves. As we sat across from people eating burgers in the airport, I saw how carefully they protected their hands by eating the burger in the wrapping paper. We probably offended many people as we ate our chicken bare-handed on the beach, licking our fingers after finishing each piece. Oh well! – the chicken was good enough to warrant the behavior…
So, so quiet
In almost all of the public spaces we visited on our trip, we basked in a sea of quiet. Museums were virtually silent, even the over-packed Rothko exhibit we saw in Seoul. Restaurants were noisier, but still subdued compared with what we’re used to.
The trains, both local and intercity, were the quietest spot of all. Whenever we had a hushed conversation on a subway, we felt like we were screaming – especially Chris, with his sonorous voice. When people talked on their cell phones, they often covered their mouths with their hands. The trains themselves were quiet, too, lacking in that mechanical thrum we knew so well. At one point, Chris didn’t even realize the train had left the station. After the cacophony of Indian streets and trains, we weren’t sure what to make of the quiet.
One particular experience showed us just how exuberant and loud Koreans could be, however, when encouraged…
Sanctioned loud: Korean baseball
Our ears were plagued with constant singing and shouting at the baseball game we attended – the Lotte Giants versus the Samsung Lions. (Yes, Korean teams are all named after companies…) The crowd was small, thanks to MERS, and the game was a blowout, with Samsung scoring six runs in the first inning against our poor Giants.
Still, the home crowd cheered with gusto. It helped that whenever the Giants were up to bat, a lively dude – profession title unclear – riled up the crowd by teaching us player-specific songs and dances. Our favorite went along with a white player (maybe from the States?): “Lot-te, Lot-te, Lot-te, Ad-du-chi, Ad-du-chi!” Picture window washing motions paired with a slick KPOP-style arm motion. Okay, never mind – that makes no sense…
Here’s a video that’ll give you an idea of the feel, even though it’s much louder in person. Skip to the one-minute mark to get to the action:
Anyhow, the volume and exuberance were addictive, and so different from our other Korea experiences. We enjoyed screaming along with the seasoned fans. (Thanks again to Sanghyun and Donghyun for taking us to the game!)
Overall, clean, quiet, and hypermodern Korea offered a lovely break from life as usual. There’s so much more to write about – the culture of respect, the focus on service, the incredible food – but this post is growing overly long. Kamsahamnida, Korea!