Archive for December 4th, 2007

Fingernails and Cultural Difference

Fingernail cultureSince I have been in Korea I have grown out my fingernails.  This was not an intentional action.  I have always chewed my fingernails when I read or grade and I have done far less of both of those here than at home.  So my nails grew.  And I have discovered an important fact - fingernails are incredibly difficult to manage if you do not have a lot of experience with them.  I cracked one off trying to open a pistachio nut.  I caught another putting on my socks.  I actually got one stuck between the keys of my laptop keyboard.  Completely unconsciously I had developed a “short fingernail” culture.  I am finding it very hard to adapt to “long fingernail” culture. 

Some cultural differences between America and Korea are similarly small and seemingly unimportant, but they take some getting used to.  I continue to be surprised by how many of our ordinary actions are actually set by our culture.  Here is a list of some small things I have noticed now that I have learned to manage the larger differences.

Action 1:  Buying eggs.  Eggs in Korea come in multiples of 5 rather than 6.  Eggs can be found near the vegetables in an unrefrigerated section, not near the dairy in a refrigerated case.

Action 2:  Tallying up votes.  In America, when we tally up anything on paper, we tend to write vertical slash, vertical slash, vertical slash, vertical slash, diagonal slash through all four.  We count this as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  At the end, we count groups of 5 to get the total.  In Korea, they write vertical slash, horizontal line to make a T, little horizontal line to make an F, vertical line to the left of the first one and a little lower, horizontal line to make an upside down T.  They count this as 1, 2, 3 4, 5 and at the end, count groups of 5.  Why such an exotic looking set of 5 lines?  It is the Chinese character for rightness or justice.  A fine 5-lined character to use when counting votes!

U.V. Sterilizing CabinetAction 3:  Getting water in a restaurant.  In many restaurants here, water is “self-serve.”  You get little stainless steel cups out of Ultraviolet Sterilizing Cabinets and hot or cold water from the water “cooler”.  The futuristic-looking UV cabinets are everywhere, and seem to be used after washing the cups.  Most Korean students will finish their meal and then go get a cup of water; many believe drinking water with a meal makes it harder to digest your food properly.

Action 4:  Walking in crowds.  Both Koreans and Americans drive on the right-hand side of the road.  Americans and Koreans also stand on the right-side and walk on the left-side of escalators in subway stations.  So it is pretty strange that given the option, Koreans will walk on the left-hand side of any crowded area.  Imagine a large number of people walking toward you.  If you move to the right, you are American.  If you move left, you are Korean.  If it depends on where there are more people, you are in a hurry - that works in both cultures!

Action 5:  Counting on your fingers.  Put up your hand and count on your fingers - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  If you started with your fist closed and counted by putting your forefinger up, then middle, ring, pinky and thumb, you are American.  If you started with your hand open and put your pinky down first and then your ring, middle, forefinger and thumb, you are Korean. 

Action 6:  Eating Take-Out Food:  In American cities and towns, you can call up the local restaurant and have food delivered to your house.  This is also true in Korea. Deliveries arrive via scooters that defy all traffic laws and some of the laws of gravity. However in Korea the delivery person comes twice - once to deliver your meal and once to pick up the dishes!  Thus the University and apartment hallways are lined with dirty dishes covered by a newspaper, waiting for pickup.  Few restaurants provide “take out” containers.

Action 7:   Dealing with Leftovers:  Koreans assume that only the very poor would need to save food from a restaurant meal.  No matter how good your main course was, if you cannot finish it, you throw it out.  There are no “doggy bags”.  Korea thus has the highest level of food waste in the world.  On the other hand, at some restaurants uneaten side dishes are saved by the staff and put out for other diners.  As usual, food is the most cultural item of all.

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