No personal days. Forty plus hours a week, five days a week. Three sick days. Absent more than three days in a year? It gets taken out of our paycheck. Oh, and if we’re sick, we must bring in a doctor’s note to prove it.
My coworker last year had strep throat and tonsillitis at the same time. Pain, high fever, highly contagious, very low energy. She missed work for two days. The doctor said she shouldn’t come in all week. Our supervisors sent her threatening text messages to come in, telling her that it was not okay that she was gone. They asked for the doctor’s phone number because they didn’t believe she was sick (Believe me, she was.). Invasion of privacy much?
My coworker this year had pneumonia. She was pressured to come in, made to feel lazy. She had pneumonia. One of our supervisors asked her why she wasn’t in the hospital if she was so sick. She had gone to an American doctor, who gave her antibiotics and told her to rest and stay home. In Korea, when people are really sick, they go to hospital for a quick fix. Get an IV for a few hours, stock up on meds, and off to work they go, even if they feel horrible. Showing up sick in South Korea is a sign of true dedication and loyalty.
Want a personal day? Feeling exhausted? Need a mental break? Suck it up, drink some caffeine, and put on a happy face. No fooling around here. This is South Korea, where the word “hustle” is brought to a whole new level.
I get it easy. I’m a foreigner. By law, it’s illegal to overwork me. I also get five days off in winter, and five days off in summer. Most Koreans don’t get that kind of vacation. Most Koreans work way more hours than I do. It’s common for businessmen to work 12-hour days from Monday – Saturday. And then they sleep all day on Sunday. Wash, rinse, repeat.
How’s that for a cultural difference?
This post is long overdue. Back in summer, I got another nasty cold. I couldn’t seem to keep healthy. My boss, a doctor and my yoga instructor all asked me if I slept with my air conditioner on. Of course I did. I would have been sweltering in sweat if I had left it off. It was the middle of summer, and humidity was at an all-time high.
They seemed to think that sleeping with my air conditioner on caused me to become sick. Many Koreans believe this; it’s a common urban legend. Some also believe in fan death, a belief that fans kill you if they are left on in an enclosed room. Many of my students have come to class with bug bites all over their bodies because they sleep with the window open instead of turning on the fan or air conditioner. I’m inclined to believe what I read about fan death on Wikipedia because it’s also been cited elsewhere. Very interesting, and in my opinion, not accurate. I’m healthy, and I still sleep with the air conditioner on!
The Korea Consumer Protection Board (KCPB), a South Korean government-funded public agency, issued a consumer safety alert in 2006 warning that “asphyxiation from electric fans and air conditioners” was among South Korea’s five most common seasonal summer accidents or injuries, according to data they collected. Also included among the five hazards were air conditioner explosions and sanitation issues, including food poisoning and opportunistic pathogens harbored in air conditioners. The KCPB published the following:
If bodies are exposed to electric fans or air conditioners for too long, it causes [the] bodies to lose water and [causes] hypothermia. If directly in contact with [air current from] a fan, this could lead to death from [an] increase of carbon dioxide saturation concentration [sic] and decrease of oxygen concentration. The risks are higher for the elderly and patients with respiratory problems. From 2003 [to] 2005, a total of 20 cases were reported through the CISS involving asphyxiations caused by leaving electric fans and air conditioners on while sleeping. To prevent asphyxiation, timers should be set, wind direction should be rotated and doors should be left open.
Here are a few observations of Korean culture I’ve made over the past months. Some of them are quite different from the United States.
1) It’s considered rude to be loud on public transportation. My friends and I have been scolded by Koreans for talking too loudly on a couple different occasions.
2) It’s common for Korean couples to wait a long time (at least a month) before their first kiss. Some couples become “official” even before they kiss. A Korean friend of mine didn’t kiss her boyfriend until after three months.
3) There are tons of promotional in-your-face events to advertise a company or a product. It’s not unusual to see people with loud speakers in front of a store passing out free samples of something. Usually, the people promoting the products are good-looking women who are dressed skimpily. Most recently, I saw some women stirring bubble bath water in a bathtub outside of a skin and body products store. I also recently saw people walking around with huge puppets on stilts to promote a beer called “Max.” I can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness of this type of marketing/advertising. I presume it’s fairly effective since promotions like these happen so frequently.
Max Beer Promotion
Max Beer Promotion
4) I think it might be rude to refuse an offering of food. Sometimes, the Korean teachers will offer me some of their food. If I say I’m not hungry and “No thanks,” they seem a bit disappointed and slightly offended. I’m not sure if that’s how they actually feel though. I’ll have to get more clarification on this matter.
5) Many people have portable TVs. They often watch on the metro and the bus. During the Korea-Argentina World Cup game, I decided to change venues right before half time. When I was waiting for the metro to go to my next venue, tons of people started cheering. They were watching the game on their portable TVs, and Korea had scored right before half time. I got to watch a replay of the goal on someone’s handy-dandy miniature television.
Watching Korea's Goal
6) Many same-sex friends hold hands. It’s common to see women my age walking hand-in-hand or with their arms linked.
There will be more observations to come. These are just a few off the top of my head.
Express Bus Terminal. The name makes it sound like nothing special – a place where people rush through the crowds to get from one place to another. But no. Express Bus Terminal is not only a metro transfer stop; it’s an underground shopping mall too. I’m not talking about any old shopping mall. This place stretches for what seems like half a mile and has stall after stall of plant vendors, shoe vendors, clothes vendors, interior decor vendors, candle vendors, housewares and bedding vendors, you name it. It’s a girl’s paradise.
Even better, it’s walking distance from my apartment. And, you can bargain! I bought some nice decorations for my apartment there, along with trendy Korean clothes that I can wear both at work and outside of work. A couple of my shirts were only 5,000 won (less than $5). To top it off, there is a phenomenal food court that has so many different cuisines – American, Chinese, Korean, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Italian – to name a few.
By the way, I love Korean fashion. People are so trendy here, and shopping is so much fun. I snapped a few pics of Express Bus last time I was there, but these pics don’t do this place justice. I’ll have to take more next time I’m there.
One of the Flower Stalls
Some of the Stalls
There are quite a few stray cats in my neighborhood. I saw a kitten meowing the other day while I went for a walk. If I had my wallet with me, I would have bought it some cat food.
Appearance is HUGE here (at least in my neighborhood). I have yet to see someone walking down the street in sweatpants or a sweatshirt. Most people dress very trendy and nice. Usually, women wear heels or flats and men wear dress shoes. It puzzles me how appearance is such a big deal.
I’m lucky I haven’t been hit by a motorcycle. The drivers zig-zag through traffic, go through red lights and go on the side walks. Many of them are delivery people, so they feel the need to get from one destination to the next as fast as they can.
Making a Delivery?
Take a Picture with a Foreigner
A couple weekends ago, some of my friends were approached by Koreans who wanted their autographs. Perhaps the Koreans thought my friends were well-known? Last night, a waiter at a restaurant wanted to take a picture with me. I’m not really sure why, but I was happy to take a picture with him. Then, he gave me two 700ml free beers for our table to share.
With the Waiter
* The guy in the background is another waiter who was wearing a funny outfit and a bald wig.