Language tells us so much about a culture. Just for fun, here are five sentences that can provide little snapshots of Korea.
1. I’m in the mood for a nice bit of Chimek
Sometimes I play a game with my students, where one student thinks of a word and the others have to try to guess what it is. This was the shortest ever game:
Student 1: Is it a food?
Student 2: Yes.
Student 1: Is it chicken?
Student 2: Yes.
If you’ve never been to Korea, it might surprise you to hear that Koreans are absolutely nuts about fried chicken. It doesn’t really seem like a very Korean thing to eat, but it’s incredibly popular.
Chimek (치맥) is a combination of the English word ‘Chicken’ and the Korean word ‘Mekju’, meaning beer. So chimek refers to the glorious combination of chicken and big jugs of beer. Restaurants serving this combination are everywhere in Korea.
Just like pretty much all food in Korea, chicken is adjusted for Korean palates. Often it is served with ddeok, a Korean rice cake, as well as any number of weird and wonderful flavourings and sauces.
I regularly come home to find a promotional fried chicken magnets on my apartment door.
2. Can I have your Kakao ID?
When you move to Korea, there are a few essential things you must do. These include getting your Alien Registration Card, signing up for a phone contract, getting a bank account and downloading KakaoTalk.
KakaoTalk is pretty much the Viber of Korea except that it’s even more popular, has more functions and is really wacky. A huge 93% of Koreans use KakaoTalk on their smartphones.
Among the foreign community it’s pretty much just a communication tool, with the added bonus of being able to send a character with an ass for a head to your friends and call them with an hilarious cat voice. But there are lots of other features that I can’t be bothered with, like playing games against friends and getting special offers from various brands.
My favourite thing about KakaoTalk is the emoticons because they are absolutely nuts and there seems to be one for every situation. They are so culturally prevalent that they feature on merchandise – for example, several of my students adorn their school bags with keyrings of the aforementioned ass head.
I also find it amusing that when people flirt in Korea, instead of asking ‘Can I have your number?’ they say ‘Can I have your Kakao ID?’
4. Lets gawi-bawi-bo for it
Gawi-bawi-bo (가위 바위 보), meaning scissors-rock-cloth, is the Korean version of rock-paper-scissors.
Rock-paper-scissors is popular in many countries but in Korea it seems to be the standard way to make every type of decision.
Who should go first in a game? Gawi-bawi-bo. Who should get the last bit of Gimbap? Gawai-bawi-bow. Actually, it really wouldn’t surprise me if I heard an important political decision was made in the Korean parliament using gawi-bawi-bo.
Gawi-bawi-bo has even become absorbed into the foreigner community. When in Korea, make decisions as the Koreans do!
4. The chips were service
Ah, glorious service. A wonderful Korean phenomenon where someone hands you something for free and says “Service!”
Service comes in many forms. In restaurants, it’s not uncommon to be given soft drinks or side dishes for service. In beauty shops they will often throw free samples into your bag, which are really handy for travelling or using at the gym. There’s never any need to buy tissues, wet wipes or hand fans in Korea, because promotional versions of these things will be handed to you on the street on a regular basis.
In supermarkets, random items will often be sellotaped to other items. Why buy one brand of milk when the other brand has a free yogurt drink sellotaped to it?
But perhaps the weirdest form of service is the huge packs of toilet paper that can be seen outside many phone shops. Sign up for this two year phone contract, it comes with 32 rolls of toilet paper!
5: My co-teacher dropped a ‘maybe’
Like many Asian countries, Korea is a high-context culture. This means that communication is indirect and words cannot always be taken at face value. To understand communication, you need to look towards the culture as a whole.
When a Korean colleague says “maybe” something will happen, this tends to mean it will definitely happen. And if they say you “should” do something, this means you have to. So if a Korean colleague says “Maybe there will be a staff dinner tomorrow and you should come”, this means “There is a staff dinner tomorrow and you have to come”.
Living in a high context culture with very little knowledge of that context can be very difficult. It doesn’t take much to upset a Korean person because you were supposed to infer something even though they didn’t directly say it, or because they inferred something from your words or actions, that you didn’t mean at all.
I managed to deeply offend a Korean friend when she asked what kind of restaurant I wanted to go to and I said I didn’t mind. When she suggested a pasta restaurant and I said it looked a bit expensive, my friend was silently fuming. It turned out that when I said “I don’t mind”, she inferred that I was giving her the full responsibility to choose the restaurant, and then went back on my word by moaning about money. And because Koreans are not big on talking about things openly, it was a long time before I learned what a boo-boo I’d made.
Another Korean friend assured me that a lot of the time even Korean people have trouble figuring out one another’s meaning and get their wires crossed easily. So it’s not just us dumb ass foreigners.