While I’m sure I continue to commit cultural faux pas on the regular here, there are a few particularly embarrassing ones that I thought I’d share to perhaps help other noobish expats out. Or just for your amusement.
Most of them occurred very early on in my time here, so don’t judge me too hard.
I shall omit the Getting Lost Incident, which has been previously documented.
1. The taxi incident.
I was taking a taxi to an open class observation at another school which was pretty far away from my own. After managing to get the driver to understand my feeble “[school name] ga juseyo“, I was feeling quite empowered by my clearly amazing Korean abilities. So when he asked me something in Korean to the effect of “do you mean THIS school or THAT school,” I confidently replied “몰라요/mollayo,” which means “I don’t know.”
The driver chuckled in a surprised way and repeated, “몰라요?” “네,” I said, feeling oh-so-proud of myself.
(Luckily for me, the driver knew where the correct school was anyway and dropped me off there with another little chuckle as I handed him the money.)
What I found out MONTHS later is that there are two ways to say “I don’t know” in Korean. 모르겠어요 (mollegesoyo) means “I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out/I’m sorry that I don’t know.” 몰라요, which I used, has a connotation of “don’t know don’t care.” LOL. Sorry, Taxi Driver Ajeosshi. Didn’t mean to be rude. At least he found it funny.
2. The bus incident.
I still cringe when I think about this one.
In my first couple days in the city, I decided to attempt to take a bus that I had been told would stop near my school. I wanted to prepare myself for how I would get there come Monday, my first day of teaching. I knew the general area but didn’t know exactly how to get there from my house.
Can I just say that Korean buses. are. terrifying. I can take them now, but I prefer not to for fear of being thrown into the windshield before I have a chance to grab onto something after boarding.
So I got on this bus, and after a couple of stops I realized I was now the only person on the bus. And it seemed like we were going the wrong way (not that I really had any way of knowing).
Worried that I would end up in like another city, maybe, I cautiously approached the bus driver in this empty bus and said in Korean, “Chogiyo, ajeosshi (excuse me, sir),” and then said what I now realize is the Korean equivalent of “Bus go [school name]?”
The gruff bus driver responded with a few grunts and then energetically waved me off at the next stop. He probably thought that I thought that he was some sort of taxi driver who would take me exactly where I wanted to go. Obviously I was just trying to figure out if we were going to get close to my school, but I must’ve seemed like an extremely clueless and/or entitled weirdo with the language skills of a two-year-old.
Anyway then I took a taxi and found my school and was able to work my way backwards to figure out a walking route and it was all fine.
Come to think of it, taxis saved my life more than a few times in the first couple months.
3. The Olive Young incident.
Olive Young is a makeup/beauty products chain and my go-to for buying BB creams and facial masks.
Whenever you check out they’re required to ask a series of rapid questions including “Do you need a bag with handles?”, (if yes) “It costs xyz extra, is that okay?”, “Do you have an Olive Young rewards card?”, and “If you want to return anything, you have to do so by this date.”
Nothing out of the ordinary, but the first time I experienced it, I only understood the “do you need a bag” part. When she said the part about the price, I had no clue what she was saying and just stared at her helplessly, which led to a series of even more confusing attempts at communication as I didn’t know whether to say “yes” or “no” and she didn’t know how to explain it any differently, apparently, so eventually she just charged me for it. Of course, it just so happened that half the population of Daegu was behind me in line, witnessing the whole thing.
Not that this is the most embarrassing thing to ever happen or that it’s the only awkward communication issue I’ve had, but it just illustrates how frequently you can feel completely stupid when you first arrive and don’t know much of the language yet.
Incidentally, I recently had one of the Olive Young cashiers do her spiel entirely in English for me, which impressed me greatly since the location I go to probably doesn’t get many foreigners. I know Koreans have no obligation to speak English to foreigners in Korea, so I always feel warm and fuzzy when they do. Especially in grouchy Daegu.*
*I love Daegu but it’s a little bit of a crusty old man sometimes.
4. The co-teachers incident.
I guess it sounds worse than it is, but it’s still a bit of a faux pas. When I first met my co-teachers I tentatively addressed all of them as, for example, “Kim Seonsaengnim” or “Park Seonsaengnim” (“Teacher Kim”/”Teacher Park”).
Yeah… don’t do that.
I was trying to be respectful, but it just sounds really clumsy and awkward and will probably make your co-teachers feel weird.
Honestly, you should just ask them “What should I call you?”, since some like to go by an English first name, others like to be “(Korean Name) Teacher,” and some (rarely in my experience) like to be “Mister/Miss (Name).”
Personally, when I’m referring to them to the students, I use “(First Name) Teacher” in English, or just the Korean way of referring to other teachers, which is “(Full Name)쌤/Saem.” However ‘saem‘ is technically slang and is a casual, borderline too casual way to say ‘teacher’, so don’t use it right away / unless you hear other teachers using this method. English is the safest bet.
5. The paying incident.
This one is an ongoing cultural muddle for me. In Korean culture, when you go out to eat, traditionally the oldest person pays for everyone in the group (part of the Confucian hierarchy, and I suppose the only beneficial part for younger people, is that older people are supposed to take care of and look out for them). If there’s a round of coffee or dessert after the meal, the younger person can then pay for this smaller bit as a way to say thank you.
There is a “Dutch pay” concept (a.k.a. splitting the bill; somehow “going Dutch” got Konglishified into “Dutch pay”), but it depends on the circumstances and who you’re with.
However, deeply ingrained Western norms about splitting the bill when out with friends or coworkers plus confusion about what is expected from me, as an often-younger yet also foreign person in Korea, make this such an uncomfortable situation for me.
I’ve had many an awkward half-conversation, half-skirting-around-the-topic with my Korean co-teachers, something like “Oh, I can -” “Oh, next time -” “Can I -” “I invited you -” “Half? -” “Don’t worry -” *awkward silence*.
I honestly still have no idea whether I’m supposed to keep completely quiet and just thank them, offer once and then shut up, or continue protesting. I suppose I should try to figure that out.
Okay, there are my Top 5 Embarrassing Moments in Korea. (I’m sure there are others that I’m forgetting at the moment.) Thankfully these days I’m a bit better at remembering to avoid most of the faux pas.
Also, though I’m grateful to all the taxis that saved me in the early days, I now avoid taking any form of transportation that is not my own two legs whenever possible. Walking is the one method of getting around that is guaranteed not to stress me out.