11 pieces of advice for first time travelers to Korea.
Growing up as a Korean American in Minnesota, you would be safe to presume that I’m not all that Korean. So when my mom asked me if I wanted to apply to attend a summer camp in Korea at the end of my senior year in high school, I was less than thrilled. The thought of having to spend two weeks of my precious senior summer in Korea and away from my friends was just, well, not cool.
But one thing I learned with having a Korean mom is to never disrespect anything Korean, otherwise you are in for a long, thirty-minute lecture about how Korea went from being a war-torn country to one of the greatest countries in the world due to the resilience of the Korean people and their hard working mentality. So naturally to avoid hearing the lecture for the 100th time, I applied, secretly praying that I wouldn’t get in.
Fast forward two months later, I received an acceptance letter and off I went, along with thousands of other dutiful Korean American college students as a rite of passage into adulthood. After weeks of ignoring my mom’s pleas to do some research about the Korean culture and the places I would be visiting, I found myself on a flight to Korea knowing next to nothing about where I came from. Safe to say, it was an eye-opening experience, with a lot of missteps and painfully awkward moments, but in the end, one I will treasure forever.
To avoid the level of culture shock that I experienced, here are eleven pieces of advice/observations if you are traveling to Korea for the first time:
1. Get ready to stick out like a sore thumb
Even though everybody looks like you on the outside, you will stick out nonetheless. Native Koreans have a sixth sense when it comes to spotting Korean foreigners, especially the vendors who will try relentlessly to pull you off the street and into their restaurant, store or kiosk to buy their products. Do yourself a favor and just be firm in saying no if you’re not interested. If you try to be polite and feign interest but don’t buy, you’ll be sorry because now, you’ve just wasted their time.
2. The subway system is truly excellent
The subway system is one of the best things about Korea. It’s so clean, you can literally eat off the floor. However, there is a strict, unwritten policy enforced by ajushis and ajummas (Korean seniors) that you cannot talk louder than a whisper on the trains. I learned this the hard way when I mistakenly laughed a bit too loud and got yelled at by an ajushi for 5 minutes in front of an entire train full of riders. I didn’t understand what he was saying exactly, but I got the gist. My Korean speaking friend confirmed, it was not very nice.
3. Koreans have a weird obsession with the digestive system
One’s digestive system and bathroom practices are of great interest in Korea. On my second day of camp, the counselors took us to a poop museum that showcased everything related to, well, ddong (or poop) It was one of the most bizarre experiences in my entire life. Strange, but true.
4. Direct sunlight is to Koreans what Kryptonite is to Superman
Koreans, especially women, hate direct sunlight. They avoid it like the plague. If you want to look attractive to a native Korean, whatever you do, don’t get tanned before your trip. Again, I learned this the hard way.
5. It’s all about the food
Street food, restaurant food, food in the subway, food in a tent. You name it, it’s everywhere and ridiculously good. Do yourself a favor and don’t be a food snob-just try it all. One of the hardest things I had to adjust to when I got back to the states was not the time zone, but the food. Sadly, pizza, burgers and Chick-Fil-A just don’t have the same appeal to me anymore.
6. Incheon International Airport is so much cooler than American airports
Robots that greet you, flight attendants that smile at you, the aroma from the food court that beckons your belly. What’s there not to love? The best part? There never seems to be a line that you have to stand in that’s more than three people long. Efficiency, technology, shopping and customer service are what makes this airport one of the best in the world and tricks you into thinking that waiting 3 hours to board your flight is not enough time to explore all that the airport offers.
7. Not your mother’s perm
Remember all the disastrous perm stories your mom (and dad, yes, him too) told you about when they were growing up? Well now, Korea has become one of the most popular beauty meccas of the world so take advantage of it. I always thought that people who got perms or dyed their hair were weird. However, I had to try out the amazing services in Korea and I recommend you do too.
8. Be ready for lots of free, unsolicited advice
No matter where you go, everyone acts like your mother/father, aunt/uncle, or grandparents by dishing out unsolicited advice freely and commenting on your appearance from head to toe without any filter. The trick is to not get defensive or look insulted when they do or else your mom will get insulted also, being told she didn’t raise you right. Instead, just nod your head and endure.
9. Go to a Korean karaoke bar, even if you don’t like to sing
For me, I have always been a pretty bad singer and frankly, hated karaoke (noh-rae-bang) because I was traumatized early in life from my mom singing it all the time. However, at the karaoke bars, something magically happens. You become oblivious to your tone deafness and want to sing your heart out until you lose your voice. Hands down, it was one of the most fun things I did while I was in Korea.
10. No tips
Whether it is ordering takeout or riding a taxi, you do not need to tip. While for foreigners it may be polite, it is not customary to tip in Korea. In fact, sometimes it can be considered rude to some Koreans.
11. Finally, go with a nearly empty suitcase
I was never a shopper before but that all changed while visiting the shopping districts in Korea. If you’re like me, you will experience a come-to-Jesus moment where you will want to throw out everything you own and replace it with everything you bought in Korea.
This year, it was me who begged my mom to let me travel to Korea again, only to be shut down by the dreaded Covid pandemic. Disappointed? Yes, but not deterred. I vow I will visit Korea again sometime in the near future, and this time I will ride the subway with confidence and without the constant fear of being yelled at by the seniors!