I Respect Your Culture, But That’s Whack


I remember way back in the day, every once in awhile I’d go to a friend’s house to spend the night and learn that my friend’s family didn’t flush the toilet when they peed because they wanted to save on the water bill.  My reaction would be, “Really?  That’s how you roll in this place?”  I was disturbed, quite honestly, but since it wasn’t my house, I would abide by the rules.  I’d pee and just leave my urine there to chill and hang out in the bathroom while my friend and I played Atari.  Yeah, personally I didn’t understand it – not flushing was something people did because they forgot, not because they made a conscious decision not to – but I would adapt and I wouldn’t judge…at least not until I got back to the safe confines of my very pro-toliet-flushing household.

Living in another country is sort of like that.  Especially, I think, when you take a big leap in cultures as I have, going from Charlotte, South Carolina to Seoul, South Korea.  There are an amazing amount of differences in the way people behave.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve always taken a very “when in Rome” type approach to things; differences are only differences and I would by a jerk to start thinking that the people here do things wrong or inferior to how folks in the States do things.  In all honesty, I was anxious to leave the USA because I was agitated by people.  So, to start bashing the Korean way of life would be strange, sort of like an escaped convict criticizing the heck out of life on the outside.

Still, I do whine about things on occasion, as do the other ex-pats.  We love Korea, I’m sure of it, and at the same time, it’s impossible not to bitch about it every now and then.  The funny thing is, I quickly realized that I was totally fine with the big outlandish differences.  Yes, they eat dogs and living sea creatures here and the teachers carry sticks which they’re allowed to hit the students with.  I’m okay with those things.  They also sometimes have a garbage can next to the toilet, and after dropping a deuce, they wipe, fold the toilet paper up into a neat little square, and throw it away in the garbage can instead of flushing it.  Great.  I mean, I’m not going to do that myself, but if you want to do origami with your used TP, by all means, make me a little bird or something.  It’s cool, man.  Even though my legs go numb, I’ll sit on the floor during dinner, and even though I feel awkward doing it, I’ll put my hand on my arm when I pour soju for someone who’s older than I am (it’s a sign of respect).

Oddly, it’s the little things that start to wear on the nerves.  Especially if they have to do with manners.  I get annoyed at how people constantly push me and bump into me on the subway.  I also feel irritated that there’s no friendly door flip when I’m leaving a store behind somebody; the person in front generally just lets the door swing back freely at me.  I miss that courteous little door push and never realized how nice it was until it was gone.  And when people spit in public…I can’t help but find it gross.  Even cowboys, who were some crass motherfuckers, used a spittoon.  My students in the public school used to cough up mucus onto the floor in the classroom.  It was at those times that I wanted badly to have a beating stick of my own.

Complain as I might, I go along with everything.  When in Rome, shut up and eat the kimchi.  There’s so much to love about the experience here, a little lung on the floor isn’t anything to break a sweat over.  Even if I find something slightly annoying, it’s usually kind of funny and interesting at the same time.  However, the gym is stressin’ me out and, for the first time, I find myself refusing to comply with the society I’ve chosen to live in (mind you, I’ve never gone to a gym before, so this might actually be gym culture and not Asian culture, although I tend to think that it is).

I should start going to the gym in giant bear slippers. "What?! I can't do the treadmill in these?!"

I first got my gym membership in September of last year.  I had a pair of Converse on at the time I opened my membership, and even though the lady that worked at the gym didn’t speak much English, she made it clear that my shoes were not appropriate to wear in the facility.  She did this by pointing at them and saying “No.”  So, after I used the lack of shoes as an excuse to avoid the gym for a few weeks (I wrote a whole post about that), I finally caved and bought a pair of Reebok trainers.  To my surprise and horror, the lady at the gym approached me upon my return to tell me that these sneakers weren’t kosher either.  I didn’t get it.  I could understand how the Converse were bad, but what was wrong with the Reebok trainers?  They were athletic workout shoes.  I decided she was crazy and ignored her, wearing my Reeboks in every time I worked out (which wasn’t very often).

Recently, I had to join a new gym after my old one couldn’t swipe my bank card (it’s not a long story, but it’s extremely uninteresting, so let’s move on).  Again, I was told that my Reebok trainers – purchased by me specifically to work out in – were not good.  The guy at the new gym spoke a little more English, at least enough to point at them and say (in addition to ‘no’), “Outside shoes.”

Well, I asked a Korean friend about this and she gave me the low down.  I thought I’d bought the wrong kind of trainer, but she tells me that there’s nothing wrong with the sneaker itself.  The problem is that I’ve worn them outside, turning them into “outside shoes.”  I’m apparently supposed to take my “inside” gym sneakers with me in a bag or something and change into them in the locker room.

“That’s insanity,” I said, flabbergasted.  “I have to wear one pair of sneakers to the gym, and then change into a second pair of sneakers?  That is sneaker insanity.  What difference does it make?”

“Your outside shoes are dirty,” she said.

“Dirty?  I don’t even think they’ve ever touched actual dirt.  I walk around on concrete all the time.”

To any extent, she told me the right thing to do would be to go buy yet another pair of sneakers, one that I could carry into the gym with me like they’re precious jewels or something.  The thing is, I really, really don’t want to do this.  Had I of known about the outdoor/indoor shoe to begin with, I never would have allowed my Reeboks to touch the fifty feet of pavement that separated my apartment from the gym.  Even if my friend is completely wrong about everything, now I’m paranoid that I’ve been doing it wrong all along, walking around indoors in my foul outside shoes.

Anyways, I respect Korean culture big time, but this outdoor/indoor shoe thing is whack.  Please, people of Korea, I only want to bench press 30 lbs in peace.


44 thoughts on “I Respect Your Culture, But That’s Whack

  1. I LOVE this post, I live in Beijing…and much of what frustrates you in Korea is what is getting at me too these days! Its funny how at first you don’t notice it and then after a few months the lack of what you’re used to back home (for me Canada) seems to wear on you.
    I have been hit in the head by expecting the door to be held open for me…at first it is annoying (capital A) and then well I just have to laugh.

    • Hi Tricia Maria! Thanks so much for the kind words. Yeah, I’m sure it’s absolutely similar. And you’re completely right – I’ve been here a year and a half and just now things are starting to bug me. At first it’s all so exciting, everything seems awesome. Anyways, watch your head! Them doors is vicious!

  2. Some of my friends joined a gym and had the exact same problem! The whole shoe thing in Korea is mind-boggling. At our school, the kindys had a change of shoes that they were required to bring to class, but the elementary kids didn’t. I mean, if the world is so contaminated, shouldn’t they ALL be required to bring a change of shoes? Plus of course as foreigners no one ever required us to change shoes at school, but the Koreans always had their slip-ons. I don’t know, I don’t know. Now I have steam coming out of my ears.

    • I’m actually really glad to hear this! So it’s not just me being an idiot and not knowing what kind of sneakers a person wears to the gym. Whew! Or, at the very least, my gym ignorance is compounded with this confusing shoe situation here in Korea.

      Yeah, you’re right about the Korean teachers wearing slip-ons. They told me at the public school to wear slip-ons so my “Feet wouldn’t sweat.” I was basically said, “Um, I’d rather just wear shoes,” and kept wearing shoes. Maybe that’s more bullheadedness.

      Okay, giant bear slippers it is! Thanks for making me feel slightly less neurotic, Emily. : )

  3. NC Coot

    The premise of this, the first paragraph, is hysterical. And all the little slights and distinctions you go on to enumerate are fascinating.

  4. John has the right idea.
    I’d so take those bad boys and clean them nicely with some dish soap and maybe a little polish if they are white. GOOD AS NEW. Then wear your converse to the gym and your Trainers inside the gym. No one would know. Except you. Then you can get a sense of nostalgia of home by “sticking it to the man!”

  5. gaila15

    I hate to tell you this but the sneaker thing isn’t unique to Korea. As soon as you said, he said, outside shoes, I knew what he was talking about. I worked at a gym for 5+ years and they prefer a different sneaker then the ones you enter in…esp in the winter. Maybe in Korea they won’t let you in…in the USA they’ll give you dirty looks.
    The pee thing bugs me too. Maybe we’re the only family that flushes. Seriously, how much money does it actually save?
    I actually elbowed a lady in Beijing because she kept shoving me. 🙂

    • Damn! I have to pump myself up to go to the gym as is, so this added stress doesn’t help. I can see if I’m dragging in snow or they’re soaked with rain or something…but come on, snow and rain are great excuses not to go to the gym in the first place, so I’m only going when it’s nice out. Don’t these gym people get that? No sun, no white guy. Sun, white guy. Figure out the pattern, people!

      I’m proud of you for elbowing the lady in Beijing. When in Rome…right? I’m gonna start pushing and shoving like I’m in a mosh pit. : )

  6. E.

    now this indoor/outdoor shoe thing is absolutely whack! i know that Korean people have a thing for indoor and outdoor footwear but even in a gym like this is just beyond my whacky imagination. i will remember to carry in my backpack another pair of shoes which i will change before i take my first step into the concrete buildings of Incheon.

  7. I was about to leave you with the same piece of advice as the future of hope did.
    The spitting part is not restricted to Korea only. I think it is some sort of Asian thing. And trust me that is not so bad. I hope you do not see men peeing in public in a garbage can or something. *shudders* Its gross.

    • Yeah, they get drunk and pee in the streets here, but I think that’s a bit frowned upon. It’s got to be better than somewhere like Singapore, though, where you get fined for chewing gum.

  8. hey, how come you have a photo of the President of the Philippines? Hahaha !

    Topicless, it is very Asian not to wear outside shoes inside the house. In fact, over here in the US, we can tell it’s an asian household if we see shoes and slippers at the door. Before I come in, I have to take off my shoes. We wear either socks or house slippers. However, we don’t require guests to do the same. In Japan, there are shoe lockers. they are NOT allowed to wear outside shoes. So, when I have my own family, and even if my future kids will have last names like Kazinsky or Smith, I will retain this admirable Asian culture. My future kids will also use honorofics . For ex. , I call my older sister ATE { pronounce Ah teh ) and Kuya { Kuu yah ) ) for my older brother…. that’s a sign of great respect for older siblings.

    But you’re right… there is one Asian habit that I find really icky. One of which is spitting. It’s unhygenic and dirty, really a bad thing. The Philippines has more westernized culture. After all, it was an American colony for half a century.

    • Oh what a dumbass I am! I should’ve known that was the Philippines president…I mean, I read about her and saw the big shrine thing to her in Manila and everything. Haha. Last night I needed a picture so I Googled something like “American looking dumb in Asia” and that pic of Bush came up and, since I love everything Bush, I had to use it. Doesn’t he look adorable???

      Yes, they do indeedy have shoe lockers at my gym. Who knew? I mean, I knew you took the shoes off in someone’s home or at a restaurant, but not in a gym. Do I need special bar slippers as well?

      Btw, I started answering your questions today and will finish and post tonight. Little late. : D

      • Oh, no, no, not at a restaurant ! lol

        Bush looked adorable in Philippine national costume ( the material is made of fine and delicate pineapple fiber ) he he he I;m a Democrat but for some reason , I couldn’t hate the young Bush. I hate cheaters, but I couldn’t hate Bill Clinton, lol. Okay, off topic.

  9. Yeah, the outside gym shoe thing is pretty universal. But good on your for putting up with the mucous on the floor. I would be hurling and using my vomit to cover up the liquid snot.

  10. I have my indoor slippers for school that I only ever wear indoors.

    There are multiple zones in the school for which these slippers are considered yet still too filthy, and I must shuffle around in sock-feet. Whenever I go to the library or the day-care class, I would need a pair of soft, fluffy style slippers to put on.

  11. Cant you just lie, wear a different, old pair of shoes and carry your Reebox in? If they say they’re not new, tell you just bought a new pair, that look the same…

    Also. The peeing and not flushing thing? I hope nobody in that household ate asparagus…

    And spitting is filthy. Probably the only thing I can’t handle.

  12. LOL!! This made me laugh out loud for real. I mean, not your plight but the way you wrote about it =P
    I’m so interested to know what I’m gonna be bothered by when I go to Korea this summer. Not that I’m going in with a negative mindset, but like you said, you can’t help but be bothered by certain things in such a different culture.
    Anyways, good luck at the gym!!!

  13. I think someone already mentioned it and I concur; where your Converse in, carry your Reeboks in your bag. How would they know they were worn outside? Also working out barefoot shouldn’t be a problem, I used to workout in Adidas flip flops.

  14. It's not a big deal

    Just put your shoes in the wash and then, only wear them to the gym. Of course, they don’t want outdoor shoes. They bring in outdoor dirt.

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