One of the first things I read when researching Korean

cultural norms, was that you never blow your nose at the table. Not too weird, right? Blowing your nose at during a meal in the States would also be considered rude, though I doubt it’s on a list of things you can/can’t do there. I wondered why I read this rule so often, as it seemed to be common sense – excuse yourself for a moment, and then come back.

(photo from

Now I know why I was warned. When you are a) sick with a cold, b) cold (for example the unheated cafeteria), c) eating spicy soups and sauces, and d) sitting cross-legged on a floor squeezed between new acquaintances on a social occasion, it is very hard not to fantasize about pulling out some Kleenex and taking care of things. In the social eating situations I’ve been, it’s been impractical to actually leave the eating area to blow my nose – how can I walk across the entire cafeteria to get outside every few minutes, or weasel my way out from between my seatmates and leave the eating room?  Instead I had to sit there and turn around and dab with a tissue every ten minutes. I’ll be glad when I’m healthy again.

Speaking of health, Koreans appear to have combined two polarized approaches: Determinedly going into work no matter how awful you feel, and at the same time, using hospitals for the smallest of ailments. So, stoic hypochondriacs?


Tonight I got to see everyone at my school get drunk. Well, not really.  Only a few of them overdid it. I don’t know why anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to mix co-workers and alcohol (see: Christmas office parties in the States). It’s like dating a co-worker – you really don’t want all the weird details when you’re supposed to relate to someone professionally. Different masks for different places. That’s why you don’t wear PJs to work.

Soju (photo from wikipedia)

I had my first taste of soju, Korea’s version of vodka (Sweden’s version was Absolut:P), and a glass of beer. The soju was decent if you like that type of thing (which I generally don’t), and the beer tasted like beer. (My senses aren’t too refined.)

I found out yesterday that we would be having a school staff work party tonight. Apparently it is paid for by a special fund that teachers contribute to (except me: foreigner bonus:))

The night went something like this:

1) At the last minute Young Rak discovered he needed to pick up his son from preschool and wouldn’t be able to join until later. This was daunting because he’s the only person I’ve properly talked to at the school, and I have no idea about the English abilities of everyone else (except that the principal speaks none.)

2) I receive a ride from “Sofia,” the English name of one of the third grade teachers. She is middle aged, loud, and friendly, with decent English. I try to get everyone’s name in Korean, but the reality is that I remember their English names much better. (Which is the point I suppose.) Sofia tells me about her stay in Riverside, tells me I looked sad when she first saw me (I’ve been sick and jet lagged, but I also tend to make bad first impressions when I’m out of my comfort zone) asks how old my mom is, and informs me that people have told her she isn’t married because she is too “jdkghjkfd.” (English word). She repeats “jdkghjkfd” over and over until she realizes I have no idea, and then she says “Stricteh.” Strict. Koreans like to add an “eh” to the end of their words, and they carry this over into their English.

3) Upon arrival, I remove my shoes at the doorway of one of the back rooms in the restaurant that our school has reserved. I’m thankful to be wearing the black converses that are half a size small for me so that my mammoth foreign feet don’t stand out. (Actually I don’t care that much, but I’m painting a picture for you. See?). The room has four low, long, flat tables covered in side dishes which surround a large circular opening which will be filled with coals on which the barbeque will cook.

4) I am separated from Sofia and led to a seat at theonlytablewithoutanysortofenglishspeaker. I don’t discover this until later when I meet all the teachers in the school who can speak English.

5) The evening progresses. When Young Rak finally arrives, they call him over to sit by me, and I say “No, it’s OK, it’s OK” because I feel bad that the guy next to me has to move all his dishes/drinks. Foolish girl that I am. I just said it to be polite – I definitely wanted Young Rak next to me, as he is a real trooper about translating for me and helping me in general.

6) Suddenly a bunch of people are moving around. Young Rak pops over next to me. “It’s a rule,” he explains. Or role, I’m not sure. “We all move to another table to see new people.” Basically the dinner turns into a mingling event, except the food isn’t finished, so you take your chopsticks with you and eat from the bowls/grill of the other tables. Very cool. (Unless you end up in my old place and are eating after someone who isn’t too adept at chopsticks). Also, apparently it’s awkward to just go next to someone and start talking, so you have to go next to them and offer to pour them a drink. Even if they’re in the middle of a conversation, you just butt in with your drink offer. Much less awkward. (!)

7) I meet several other teachers who have good English and are extremely friendly. We have some good conversations, and I’m really enjoying the whole mingling thing. Also, all of the food is delectable. Just fabulous. I encounter many of the cliches I’ve read about – people being excited that I use chopsticks and eat kimchi, a teacher telling me that the kids like pretty teachers with long hair, etc.

8) At one point, the head fourth grade teacher, who I will be working with once a week, gets someone to pour himself another shot of soju (you don’t pour drinks for yourself in Korea if you value your ability to spawn). He has already made several drink-induced, impromptu, loud speeches to the whole room, and something about his mannerisms/appearance reminds me of Dwight from The Office. (Not in a horrible way, just quite amusing.) Anyways, he chugged a shot down, and I said, “Opa!” which is what the Greeks say for “cheers.” I got quite a few surprised laughs over this, and I wondered if they had also seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Nope. As it turns out, “Opa” sounds like the word for “Honey/Sweetie” in Korean. Young Rak explained this to me later. “That’s why he liked it. Just don’t say it to me!” (Young Rak is married, but this was mostly a joke.)

And that’s about it for day 9. On the bus ride home, my card was out of credit (which is weird because it’s been pretty full) and I had no change and the driver was getting agitated. In steps a lovely Korean girl with dyed red hair (the red suits Koreans, I think), and she explains everything that’s happening to me. When she discovers I don’t have change, she pays the fare for me on her card. I am deeply appreciative of these bits of kindness which I have been receiving here.


3 thoughts on “One of the first things I read when researching Korean

Add yours

  1. I have to say I will never blow my nose in public if it’s avoidable and if someone blows their nose at the table I feel physically ill but I was not really taught that as a ‘rule of society’…good to know I just seem to have picked up some Asian influence somewhere :p


    1. Oh I totally agree it’s gross! But it’s really hard to sit on the ground, shoulder to should with people, and have a runny nose that you can’t do much about. ew. thanks for stopping by:)


  2. I love that you wrote “have good English”…I dunno, it just sounded like, um, you live in Korea now. Kind of cute, as always!


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