You can take the girl out of Korea...but she's still gonna bow to the ATM?

Perhaps the most famous street in Korea, Sejong-ro with Gyeongbokgyung Palace in the background. 
Wow - the only photo of my time in Korea where I'm not throwing up the V sign.

Some habits I've internalized after living in Korea:

  • I like to sit on the floor (nothing beats sitting on the floor with a blanket and 온돌/ondol floor heating in the winter in Korea ooooooh it's so good I've even fallen asleep).
  • The chopstick habit. Soup? Noodles? Meat? Birthday cake? Chopsticks.
  • I cover my face when I laugh.
  • I bow to everyone (hostesses, cashiers, extended family, ATMs...nothing is safe).
  • Conversing via Kakao emojis (who needs words?).

How long before these habits erode away in a different cultural environment? It makes me sad to think the day will come where I don't bow to the ATM.* >.< My observations about American life feel refreshed since I've been living outside this culture for so long. Here are a few things I've noticed since being back "home" in American culture:

*UPDATE: I wrote this post 6 months after moving back to America, and I never published it. I'm sad to say I haven't bowed to the ATM in months ㅠㅠ

Differences I've noticed between America and Korea:

1). Different definitions of personal space

"Excuse me, so sorry!" the lady says, navigating her shopping cart NOWHERE near me. Is she talking to me? This has already happened repeatedly at the grocery store, coffee shops, and other public places. Americans have a different definition of personal space compared to Koreans. Recently in New York, I received many hostile stares as I entered a "packed" subway car, which others waiting on the platform had deemed too full to ride.

If you take a subway in Seoul around 5:30 pm and in many parts of the city, you'll be able to count the neck and nose hairs of the people surrounding you. You may think: Well, this subway is TOTALLY PACKED so at least this can't get any worse and then at least 4 people will squeeze in at the next stop. A good test to determine a full subway car: Wow it's so crowded in here... if I lift both feet up, will I even fall down? I have had this thought on the subway in Seoul. It can be pretty miserable and unsafe.

2.) You need more willpower in America to eat healthy & sugar is in EVERYTHING.

A woman selling vegetables at a traditional market in Suwon.
Various marinated vegetable side dishes for sale at LOTTE Mart in Jamsil, Seoul.

There are so many unhealthy foods here, but the worst are the unhealthy foods sold under the guise of being healthy. I SEE U. This is not revolutionary information, I know. However since returning to America I've been overwhelmed by the magnitude of unhealthy over-processed foods we have. For example, I recently went looking for muesli, a staple breakfast food for me in Seoul. Any brand. No flavor, not sweetened. I went to the "healthy", "organic" section in the grocery store and searched for minutes. There were multiple options for granola in which SUGAR was the second listed ingredient on most packages. Eventually I found the ONE bag of muesli with no added flavor/sugars (whuddup Bob's Red Mill).

In America, our culinary history, like our country, is young. Processed foods and convenience foods occupy a prominent spot in American culture and diet. Don't get me wrong, if you want to eat McDonalds (or LOTTERIA) everyday in Korea, have at it - you can. Korea is modern and there are plenty of ways to eat unhealthy food including diverse options for snacks and processed foods. Reports even indicate that obesity has been on the rise in Korea. My point is that other countries (like Korea) have rich culinary histories dating back over 500 years, and recipes have basically stayed true to what they were in that time. In America, we are such a young and diverse country, there is no binding shared history of culinary cuisine. Hamburgers? Apple pie? Hot dogs? Turkey on Thanksgiving? What beyond this? Is it fair to say that corporations that create processed foods have a huge chunk of the market because we don't have an assortment of traditional dishes in America to occupy that void?

In the American grocery store, we have so much "choice", and many of the choices are bad. In Korea, you have the same opportunity to make bad food choices, but traditional meals still have a strong foothold in the Korean diet. These recipes have basic ingredients and remain similar to what they were hundreds of years ago: rice, meat or fish, vegetables, spices. Side dishes are likely to include more vegetable options. When I went to Vietnam I had a similar feeling about eating food there. Vietnam "hot pot" style cuisine seemed simple but so flavorful and healthy.

Don't get me wrong - diversity is the greatest strength in America and from a culinary perspective this has lead to some amazing fusion cuisines. I'm reacting more to my renewed realization of how widespread, unhealthy, and convenient processed foods are in our society - as though it dawned on me in a new way after living somewhere else for so long. In Korea I lost 12 pounds without dieting or changing my habits, yet every time I come back to America I gain weight. The Korean diet with smaller portions and tons of vegetables just did it for me. I think many expats in Korea will agree with this, and my male friends have even complained about their weight loss in Korea! Here's another blogger's description of her weight loss in Korea.

Things I'm enjoying since being back in America:

Personal space and culinary differences are just a few aspects of the "America vs. Korea" conversation. There is a never-ending commentary on societal, political, and cultural behaviors that comes when making sense of the experience of living in different countries. There's so much I'd love to get into about fashion trends, dating styles, atmosphere in educational settings, individualism...I'd like to write about all these topics and more sometime in the future. For now, let's talk about some parts of America that I'm enjoying since I moved home:       


OH MY GOD. The air in beautiful, scenic NEW JERSEY (armpit of America and my hometown) is so CLEAN. Flushing, Queens (my new home) complete with its swirling litter tornadoes along almost every street also feels like a damn dream. It's hard to describe unless you have lived in a place where air pollution has disrupted your daily activities, like living in Seoul had done for me. It feels so refreshing, pure, and surreal to breathe clean air. It's like when Snow White opens the window and forest animals help her get dressed and clean her house. Clean air for errybody! How did I take for granted that this is how it feels to walk outside on any given day in most parts of America? So lucky!

I've seen some articles circulating online addressing Korea's awful air pollution. The best part of this article, IMO, is taking some of the blame away from China and asking Korea to take responsibility for the pollution it is creating.

"Pollution-tracking website AirVisual this week found three South Korean cities and no Chinese cities among the world's 10 most polluted."

Although China is a contributor to air pollution in Korea, (flashback to springtime in Seoul, as I'm blowing my nose and yellow dust from China is coming out...yum) it's time for Korea to stop pointing fingers and take some responsibility for contributing to the air pollution in the country.

I previously posted this comparison photo showing the air quality on a "good day" vs. "bad day" when I lived in Suwon in a post about Surgical Masks & Smog:
Taken from the window in my school in Suwon on a day with clean air vs. a very bad air pollution day.
I haven't altered the photos at all, the pollution is really that bad.

2). Americans are friendly!

Living in Korean society has made me a quiet, respectful observer in most public spaces.* I kind of forgot how normal it is for people in America to greet each other, even if they don't know each other. When I have gone running, I've repeatedly encountered friendly smiles and people saying "Good morning", "Great weather today" and other niceties. Don't misunderstand: Koreans are extremely friendly and kind, but in a different way. In public spaces, the shared mindset is that you should behave with the community in mind - for example not speaking loudly on your cellphone (or at all) when on the subway. 

*In restaurants/bars/hofs this dynamic can certainly change at night particularly on Thursday (a big 회식  hweshik/company dinner night) Friday and Saturday. The commotion of laughter and lively clinking of shot glasses is in stark contrast to the overall stillness of a morning subway ride.


CHIPOTLE. CHIPOTLE. CHIPOTLE. CHIPOTLE. Oh there was an E-coli scare? Good more for me.


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