The quirks of being a Korean

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The quirks of being a Korean

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A bell is installed on the table to signal to the servers that a customer has something to request. By Michelle Kang


Korea does not lack surprise and amazement. Our country reveals hidden charms and unique cultural aspects every time we venture out, sometimes causing us to roll our eyes, do a double-take or hopefully find an “ah-ha!” moment as we take in and digest a scene.

This series highlights Korea’s vibrancy and can-do attitude, exploring the unique trends found only in this interesting country.

Mission impossible: Parking in Korea

With very few parking lots, either public or private, streets are packed with cars day and night. Even sidewalks are occupied by vehicles, giving pedestrians something else to dodge.

Does Korea have exceptionally lenient parking rules, or are Korean drivers just parking masters?

With Korea’s vehicle ownership rate nearing saturation and drivers suffering congestion and shortage of parking spaces everywhere they go, it doesn’t seem possible to avoid arguments with neighbors over a parking spot.

Parked cars often look like they’ve been abandoned in a panic, but there is a kind of gentleman’s agreement involved when it comes to parking your vehicle.

Metered parking is nonexistent and neighborhood streets are generally narrow. As a result, Koreans are big fans of double parking. Don’t worry if you find yourself boxed in - almost every driver leaves his or her cell phone number on the windshield so that the blocked driver can contact someone for a quick shift. Even if you can’t contact the owner, it’s not something to make a fuss about.

A double-parked car should have its emergency brake off with the gear in neutral. All you need to do is push the car out of the way!

Parking is a nightmare, but Koreans have created a system of unwritten rules that makes it better than it seems. The understanding is that everyone has the same problem, so let’s try to make it easier all around.

Regardless of the lack of space, restaurants and coffee shops - not just the ritzy ones - have jumped on the band wagon and offer valet parking service. With cutthroat competition in the small-business market, restaurants promise secure parking and customers willingly hand over their car keys, even though both parties are well aware that there’s no physical space to park a car.

So how do they do it? A valet drives the car around the immediate area, searching every nook and cranny to find even the tiniest spot that could fit a car, and planning to swap it out with another customer’s as soon as the customer leaves the restaurant.

Have you noticed some parking spaces are painted in pink? These pink spaces, which are drawn a bit wider than regular white ones, are for female drivers only. Some are offended by this measure, claiming sexual discrimination, but it came amid an increase in crimes targeting women in places like public parking lots or big discount stores.

The pink parking spaces are usually designated near surveillance cameras or entrances for easier access and greater security.

Parking in Korea may seem hectic and inconvenient, but most people comply with the consensus, making it easier for everyone else. However, as Korea is expected to see even more cars on the streets in the next few years, some innovative approaches to parking should be considered to address pending problems down the road.

Korea’s quick and curious wedding receptions

Although older traditions still remain in part, weddings in Korea are generally westernized with the bride in a white dress and the groom in a tuxedo. But there’s a big difference between Korean-style wedding ceremonies and those of the West, and that’s location.

While couples in the West feel free to marry in churches, parks, private homes, hotels or even vacation resorts, a couple getting married in Korea really has only one choice - a wedding hall. These buildings often have a castle-like facade and are exclusively dedicated to wedding ceremonies and receptions.

One of the most appealing merits of a wedding hall is its location. Most of them are near subway stations for the convenience of guests. A wedding hall usually consists of several separate rooms and it’s not unusual to have up to nine different weddings taking place in the same time slot.

The wedding ceremony officially begins with the bride and groom’s mothers walking down the aisle together and lighting candles on the altar. By doing so, the parents wish the new family a bright future and many blessings.

Many guests like to sit in the back of the wedding hall, casually chatting with each other over the ceremony, and some even skip the ceremony entirely to ensure they are first to enjoy the banquet hall feast - if only to avoid the potential crowd congestion right after the wedding.

Korean weddings are also extremely brief, compared to their Western counterparts.

After the official wedding ceremony, the newly married couple gets changed for another wedding, pyebaek. Pyebaek is a traditional wedding service held with the couple and their immediate family only. The couple, now dressed in hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, bows to their parents, which symbolizes the official introduction of themselves to the parents of both sides.

Then the parents offer nuts and jujubes, wishing them many babies. The couple soon joins the guests for the reception or an after party for close friends and family, and then leaves for their honeymoon.

In Korea, it is perfectly okay for a groom to see his bride in a wedding dress before the actual wedding day. Here, taking wedding photos at a studio well ahead of the big day is a must, and a photo of the couple in their attire is sometimes included with the invitation, so there’s no need to worry about bad luck or a jinx!

A wedding hall definitely guarantees you a fast, convenient wedding, but it also has the drawback of manufacturing cookie-cutter style weddings, more in the style of an assembly line than a celebration of love and commitment. Adopting a more couple-oriented format to the ceremony would make the big day even more meaningful.

Please ring for service

It doesn’t take long to figure out that tipping is not customary in Korea, no matter how great the service you received. Yet even without the anticipation of a tip, most wait staff at restaurants and bars in Korea are generally attentive and helpful to their customers. It must be very difficult to answer the needs of dozens of customers promptly in a busy restaurant.

To assist the waiters and waitresses, ensuring they don’t unintentionally overlook patrons, and possibly for foreigners who feel embarrassed to shout out the customary yeogiyo, or “over here,” the dining industry in Korea has invented a convenient system - a table bell.

Here is how the bell system works. The customer sits at a table, decides what to order, and rings a bell installed on the table to signal the wait staff when ready. When the bell rings, a table number appears on an electronic display board.

Seeing the number, a server darts to the table to take the order. The customer may ring the bell as many times as necessary. The nice aspect of this system is that you don’t have servers stopping by your table every so often just to see if you need anything. They only appear when you actually require them.

Usually, a carrot-and-stick policy is applied to motivate the staff in other countries - tips are the carrots and reduced hours are the stick. This system reminds me of Pavlov’s famous dogs, where the sound of a bell stimulated a response.

This is definitely a convenient system, but there is one drawback - crowded restaurants and bars with bells that are simply too loud.

Sometimes the ringing can seem almost nonstop, and it’s even worse if the chiming of the bells is competing in volume with background music. It’s more convenient for the customer and waiter, but sometimes it makes the atmosphere a little less pleasant.

So, the kimchi dish on your table is empty and you don’t know what to do? Look for the bell, and ring-a-ding-dong!

*The writer is a senior English editor at the Seoul Global Center.


By Michelle Kang Contributing writer [michyk@sba.seoul.kr]
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