Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mysteries about Korea I Haven't Solved Yet

I'd like to think that my understanding of Korean culture is running pretty deep these days, having a Korean family will help with that, but there are still some things that even my wife cannot explain to me (at least that I can comprehend).  Here are some of the deep dark mysteries Korea has that still befuddle me:

1. Why is there always hair in the soap at the gym?

I remember my own shampoo but I often use the soap provided in the men's shower at my local gym.  What I can't get my head around is how probably 99 percent of the time (I swear I am not overstating this) there are hairs embedded in the soap.  I have experimented myself with rubbing my hairy areas (sorry for the picture) as hard and thoroughly as I possibly can with soap in hand and I cannot get one hair to come off and stick to the soap.  Usually, though, I have to search around to find a bar of soap with just one hair that I can scrape off easily and sometimes there are several hairs on the soap (long ones, so it is not down to shaving in the shower).  Is it that Korean's hair falls out more easily than Westerners?  Do they purposely pull it out and leave it on the soap?  I know this sounds disgusting but I genuinely have absolutely no idea on this one.

2. Why do they hit themselves when they exercise?

I am up early in the morning at least 3 times a week these days to go for my morning run.  Rather strangely, I admit, I run in special minimalist running sandals.  This is a whole other story, but needless to say I resemble an extra out of Gladiator or 300 and look rather bizarre.  I always wonder just who is the bigger weirdo, however, when I run through the park at 6.30am.  I always see a man doing rhythmical squats and hitting himself in the stomach, chest, and legs.  He looks at me, I look at him and I am sure we are thinking the same thing, 'What is that freak doing?'.  My reasons for being weird are that the sandals help me run in the correct way and avoid injury, but what are his reasons for hitting himself?  I don't know.

3. Why do Korean men clear their throats so noisily?

I noticed this lovely little habit from day one in Korea but have never really worked out a satisfactory explanation for it.  I never feel the urge to do it myself and not just out of the feeling that it might sound horrible and rude, it simply is not necessary in everyday life.  The only thing I can think of is that they have allergies.  In the summer time in England I usually have bad hayfever and sometimes my throat feels like it could benefit from a good clearing.  Never in Korea, though, and I thought the reason they took their shoes off was to avoid dirt and dust.  There is certainly less asthma here, possibly for this reason, so what's going on with the throat thing?  Maybe it is a combination of too much soju and too much smoking.  Perhaps they need to eat some more kimchi to counteract this evil, I am sure that will clear it up.

4. Why do they dye their pet dogs ears, feet, and tails?

I have also seen the poor little things (and they mostly are very little) dressed up in jackets and shoes.  I don't think I have ever met a dog that appreciates being dressed up and certainly not one who enjoys an extra hour or so at the doggy hairdressers for some highlights.  Small white dogs seem to be popular in Korea and the ears and tails are regularly dyed in vibrant pink, green, and purple colours.  I understand that many people think it makes them cuter, but dogs are the cutest of animals anyway, so I don't accept it as an explanation, sorry.

5. How do they eat so much?

If I spend a whole day with my Korean parents in-law it is astounding how much food they put away in a day.  It starts with the biggest and most difficult to digest breakfast imaginable and is followed by fruit and rice cake for a mid-morning snack.  Lunch is almost always loads of meat and/or seafood with lots of vegetables.  Very little in the way of carbs leaves me quite sleepy for the rest of the afternoon.  Just when I feel a little more awake and my stomach semi-recovered, it is dinner time.  Dinner usually consists of another few kilos of meat wrapped in some leaves and kimchi with a few raw cloves of garlic.  At the point of stomach bursting point I am always astounded by my very tiny mother in-law leading the charge for more food to finish off the meal, usually some cold noodles or extra rice and soup.  Perhaps I just eat more quickly than them so I actually eat more than I think while they are pacing themselves, who knows?

6. What do the police do?

There probably is less crime generally in Korea than back home, but that's not really what I mean.  There appear to be laws and rules in Korea that no one follows.  Companies don't follow the working hours laws, dog meat is actually illegal but still eaten (even advertised on shop menus), and there must be at least a few traffic rules (surely!) but people certainly are not following them.  Police are rarely called for issues of domestic violence and when they do they look like they have a quick chat and do nothing (I know because my wife and I made a call to the police once about her friend in an apartment opposite, but that's another story).  I am often in the car when taxi drivers flout all road traffic signs and cut up traffic and have on occasion seen a police car looking right at them, but nothing happens.  I live in a small city, Suncheon, but in almost three years I cannot recall ever seeing a police car rushing around with sirens flashing.  I have seen them as a presence at the scene of car accidents and although there are a lot of these accidents here, there can't be enough to take up a whole day.  I am genuinely curious about how they fill their day.  Solitaire?

7. What's going on with their cakes?

They look great but on closer inspection, when you make the first cut, they consist of 95% cream and 5% a weird sweet bread-like filling.  They can make muffins and doughnuts, which have a cake-like consistency to them so why don't they put this into action with their cakes.  As a passionate cricket-lover and Englishman, there is nothing I like better than a slice or two of homemade Victoria sponge cake at tea-time; now that's a proper cake.  I wonder if I could get one sent to me by FedEx just to show the Koreans what they are missing.  Their cheesecake too is disappointing as I have yet to have one with a crumbly biscuit bottom. They all have soft weird bottoms, give me a firm and tasty bottom and I'm much happier.

The are probably a few more enigmas out there I haven't solved yet, but I am on the case, searching for the answers.  Stay tuned for the real answers to the pubic hair on soap problem, the cake fiasco, the who is a bigger freak dilemma, and more in the weeks to come.


  1. I actually wonder how you, the English, can find anything good about your cakes ;D Too sweet, with one aroma prevailing, and too soft - everything, from muffins to teacakes. I would rather go for German Kasekuche (cheese cake) or any other continental speciality. At least they have genuine ingredients, like cheese or fruits, not only marmalade or cream...

    1. Please try some homemade Lemon Drizzle Cake, Victoria Sponge Cake, Banana Cake, and Carrot Cake. After this then, maybe you will take back this blasphemy and I will have a smug little smile that says, 'I told you so'.