I maintained a blog (nexenheroes.blogspot.com) on and off during my year in South Korea. This post, from April 2011, details my early impressions of the country.
YAY: No tipping.
Takes some getting used to. This meal costs...what it costs? That can't be right.
NAY: Tiny trash cans.
This is, apparently, as large as trash cans get in this country. When the can fills up, you empty it into a shopping bag from a convenience store (you have loaded up on these), and take the bag outside to be collected. Since I produce the same amount of trash as I did in America, I do this every eight minutes.
UPDATE (1/7/14): You weren't really supposed to put trash into just any plastic bag. There were special green ones you could buy at the store designed for that purpose. I discovered this with about three weeks left on my contract.
YAY: Bars do not close.
Sweet, but kind of a careful-what-you-wish-for thing. If you can stay at a bar all night there's never an obvious time when you should leave, and it's easy to find yourself ordering a pitcher at 5:30 in the morning, and not even knowing why. Drunk You at 4am will rarely choose NOT to continue drinking. Sometimes it's good to be saved from yourself.
Still, the bars don't close, which is awesome.
You'll see this sign in a lot of public restrooms, with "trash" in this context referring to soiled wipes. Putting your wipe in a trash can never stops feeling very, very wrong, but maintenance staffs must keep two eyes on the situation, because there's a never any kind of poop mountain in there, and actually most of the time the can is empty.
YAY: Cheap cab rides.
The initial price of a ride is 2400 W, and this moves up 400 W every three minutes or so (1000 W = a little under 1 dollar). A ten minute ride typically runs around 5000 W (and again, no tipping). Basically, if you're traveling with a companion, the two of you could go just about anywhere and not worry too much.
Soju is an alcoholic beverage that tastes like vodka mixed with sugar water. "The national drink," it is cheaper than water and more or less omnipresent. It is also fucking revolting. Don't let anyone tell you different. Known to give rough hangovers, too, though that's probably because it goes down easy and people tend to overdo it.
NAY: Yellow dust.
From Wikipedia: "[Yellow dust] is a seasonal meteorological phenomenon which affects much of East Asia sporadically during the springtime months. The dust originates in the deserts of Mongolia, northern China and Kazakhstan where high-speed surface winds and intense dust storms kick up dense clouds of fine, dry soil particles. These clouds are then carried eastward by prevailing winds and pass over China, North and South Korea, and Japan, as well as parts of the Russian Far East."
Yellow dust "is known to cause a variety of health problems." But, you're cool as long as you don't like, breathe or anything.
YAY: Phones work in the subway.
Your move, New York.
I was hoping to return to America with a new shirt or two, shirts that would announce to others "my adventure-filled life is far sexier than yours." It hasn't worked out the way I wanted.
The clothes here have... a lot going on. Drawings, stripes, crazy designs. And you will not find any shirts with Korean characters on them. Everything -- I repeat, everything -- is in English.
In general, the shirts come in three varieties.
Group 1: Kind of douchey
Group 2: Borderline nonsense
Group 3: Kind of douchey borderline nonsense
"The earth is awesome. The world is just awesome." Alright I kind of love that one.
YAY: Taking your shoes off.
You have to remove your shoes immediately upon entering someone's home and certain restaurants. So much to be said for this custom. It makes you feel comfortable and at home. It commits you to your location. It lends an intimate and unguarded vibe to your gatherings. Sliding on wood paneling is fun. Also, when someone has guests over, a big pile of shoes will collect in their entryway, and it looks pretty cool.
NAY: The fact that "nay" means "yes."
YAY: Doug Funnie-looking motherfuckers turning up in our schoolbooks.
YAY: Utopian society.
When I first arrived my recruiter took me straight to a McDonald's (exotic!). I still had all of my bags with me, and when we walked inside she said, "Just leave that here and we'll go order." I looked at her.
"You mean leave all my stuff right here?"
She nodded. I laughed. "Are you serious?"
She nodded again. "Oh yeah, no one will steal it."
I didn't listen to her, but this claim has since been echoed by pretty much everyone I've met: You don't really worry about crime here. You can leave your computer in a coffee shop and go run errands, and when you come back it'll still be there. Most of my co-workers are girls, and if it's late at night and they have to walk home alone, they do so without second thought. You'll hear sometimes about people getting into drunken fights, but apparently that's as bad as it gets. So, that's nice.
UPDATE (1/7/14): This was a exaggeration on my part, of course. There are rapes and murders in the ROK, and there is at least one documented case of a Korean citizen killing an American English teacher (http://tinyurl.com/72n9tf9). In general though, my co-workers and I felt 100% safe everywhere we went, and by the time I came back to America any kind of street smarts I had before I left had utterly evaporated.
NAY: Dinner drinking customs.
When you order beer at a restaurant, you order it not for yourself but the entire table. The waiter brings out a large(ish) bottle, and this is poured into tiny glasses and divided amongst your party. The whole thing is gone instantly and you never really feel like you get anything. So you finish your ration in four seconds and try to order another bottle and then everyone titters. It's SUCH bullshit. How much one chooses to drink with their meal is one's own business; it should neither affect nor be affected by anyone else at the table.
And we get off easy. South Koreans are subject to all sorts of onerous rules when it comes to the consumption of alcohol (usually Soju) at group meals. You're not allowed to fill your own drink, you're supposed to hold your glass with both hands while it's being filled, you have to turn away from an elder when you're drinking, etc. Christ. Hold this with two hands, South Korea [points at dick].