Going in Seoul: Public Toilets in South Korea

Going in Seoul: Public Toilets in South Korea
toilet restaurant Taiwan SMK
At Modern Toilet restaurant in Taipei.

As a child, I had (like many children) a fascination with toilets. My interest, however, seems to have been higher than average: My mom tells me she could hardly take me to a restaurant or other such place without me begging to see the restrooms. In fact, I have a vivid memory of one restroom at a Mexican restaurant we went to in Austin when I was probably three; the tilework was spectacularly colorful!

So maybe it’s this innate interest that’s led to this post about public washrooms in South Korea. But I mean, this is an important part of life, and since bathroom culture can differ quite a lot from country to country, a lot of people get quite anxious about using the bathroom in new places. I had one friend who, for her first six months in Korea, would hold it for hours because the place we drank had squatters and she was afraid to use one!

So here’s a little tour of South Korean public restrooms, made up mostly of photos I took with this post in mind during our recent visit to Seoul – because no, my fascination does not extend to recording every bathroom trip!

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Work life in Korea vs the States

Work life in Korea vs the States

Recently, I’ve mostly been writing at HanmadiKorean.com (when I’m not impersonating Isabella Bird, doing editing work, or working on other projects). Here’s a cross-post from the Hanmadi project how working in Korea is different from working in the United States.

chwijik shareable.jpg

6 ways Korean and US workplaces are different

A few weeks ago I started my first full-time job in the United States. (I was working part time before.) This has gotten me thinking about a few ways Korean workplaces are different from American ones.

1. Work drinking
One of the most blatant differences is in the drinking culture. Here in the US, a few professions are famous for (and even proud of) their prolific drinking, but in most, a drink or two at the occasional happy hour or holiday party is the most you’ll encounter.In Korea, on the other hand, coworkers in almost every field drink (and get drunk) together regularly. In fact, applications for sales jobs often ask about applicants’ drinking ability (chuyang or juryang, 주량). And almost everyone has a drink at hoesik (회식, or work dinner), which occur, depending on the industry and employer, anywhere from once a month to several times a week.

Doing a “love shot” with one of our school’s senior teachers at a hoesik (회식) back in 2011~

Even as a second grade teacher at a private Christian elementary school, I encountered this phenomenon: end-of-year parties with on-stage chugging competitions and endless bottles of wine, parents passing us six packs at the 9 a.m. start of the on-campus parent-teacher volleyball tournament, and, most infamously, the Grade Six team’s victory celebration, in which we shared grilled pork belly while taking turns chugging 600 mL of Cass beer at once from the cup-shaped trophy, round after round after round.

If you’re thinking all this drinking might have led to a few hangovers, you’re not wrong. In the US, of course, I think being hung over at work is generally considered to be irresponsible. In Korea, though, being hung over at work because of hoesik is almost a point of pride, because it shows you’re truly invested in the group.

Read more about Korean drinking culture here.

2. Coffee

Image from life of lew who

Alcohol isn’t the only thing you drink at work in Korea, where instant coffee rules the break room. In the US, the coffee situation ranges from apparently bottomless urns of shared brew to bring-your-own-Keurig-cup, but there’s not a pack of instant to be seen.

3. Planning
When I moved to Seoul from Mississippi in 2007, I had, needless to say, many cultural adjustments to make. The biggest hurdle was my frustration at what I perceived as an inability to plan ahead appropriately. Plans would be made and changed at the last minute, or the principal would wait until the last minute to inform the teachers of plans she had known about for weeks, which was exceedingly disruptive to lesson planning.

This happened on a more or less weekly basis, but my most vivid memory was when I was told one Friday morning–when I had dressed particularly frumpily and planned rather less thoroughly than usual–that a film crew would be visiting my classroom that day for a reality-type show about the family life of one of my students, whose father was famous for a role in the television industry.

After nearly a decade as a part of the Korean sociocultural sphere, I rarely get frustrated at this way of doing things and just go with the flow most of the time, but I still don’t understand it.

4. Dress 
In Korean office settings, pretty much everyone is dressed to the nines. Women wear full make-up and high heels; men wear suits and ties–and even if the suits are cheap polyester and the heels were bought for 10,000 won ($10) in a subway station, a lot of time and discomfort has been put into living up to the image of “office worker” and in the case of the women, “fashionable office worker.”

In the US, on the other hand, there’s a lot more variety, and it sometimes feels as though anything goes as long as jeans and sneakers are restricted to Fridays and men’s shirts have a collar.

5. Meetings 
In my American workplaces, meetings have been almost democratic affairs. There was certainly someone leading them, but others were expected to voice opinions and generally free to interject. Discussions of personal lives were permitted or encouraged, and some level of banter was a given. Supervisors have sat along one side of long conference tables.


This is very different from Korea, where hierarchy and order rule the day. On the other hand, someone almost always brings cake or fruit to Korean meetings, so at least you have something to munch on while you sit quietly and wait to be called on from the conference table head.

6. Togetherness
In Korean workplaces, the norm is for people to do almost everything together. People rarely eat lunch at their desks (or alone anywhere), something that all my American coworkers seem to do at least sometimes. At larger companies, there are also clubs for various hobbies, which people seem expected to participate in, as well as sporting events (like the volleyball tournament), hiking trips and other events.

rooftop teambuilding
Teambuilding through rooftop putt putt, 2009~

Do workers like this? I have to admit that I at least did like it sometimes, especially when I worked for the Korean army. But in general, I think, no, as the rise in workers eating lunch alone demonstrates. Sometimes it’s a great feeling being so ensconced in a group, but other times, it’s a huge pain.

Actually, I think people (both in the West and in East Asia) way way overuse the collectivist vs. individualist thing as explanations for things that are different in Asian countries vs. Western ones. The Korean tendency toward collectivism might mean workers participate in these things, but it doesn’t mean they always like it.

Further reading: If you want to read more about Korean workplaces (especially from an outsider’s perspective), check out this series that was published in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago.


In this case, mostly personal experience and received wisdom.


Hanmadi: Multiplayer 멀티플레이어

Hanmadi: Multiplayer 멀티플레이어

Hanmadi, “one word,” is a series on Korean language and society, dedicated to exploring Korea one word at a time.


You might think you know what multiplayer means in Korean because it looks like an English word. Don’t be fooled, though: Konglish can be tricky! This sense of multiplayer has nothing to do with games.

To quote Daum’s Korean dictionary:
multiplayer daum.jpg

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Hanmadi: Hunting

Hanmadi: Hunting

Hanmadi, “one word,” is a series on Korean language and society, dedicated to exploring Korea one word at a time.



If you look up this word in one of the popular online Korean-English dictionaries—Daum Dictionary or Naver Dictionary—you don’t find much, probably because it’s a slang term. Even the regular Korean dictionaries on these sites don’t give you the whole picture.

Naver’s Korean dictionary is sourced from the Standard Korean Dictionary from the National Institute of the Korean Language, a government organization, and, as such and unsurprisingly, has only a crowd-sourced and very indirect definition for the word:

hunting naver 2
Roughly, “making a move on a person you meet on the street.”

Daum’s Korean dictionary, sourced from the Korea University Korean Dictionary, also only has a crowd-sourced definition.

The top four example sentences on Naver’s Korean-English dictionary, however, pull back the curtain completely.

hunting naver.png

So, hunting is what we in English we would call “picking up” (or anyway, trying to pick up), although overall, I think, without the slimy pick-up artist connotations.

Namu.wiki—Korean Wikipedia with a sarcastic streak—says this about it:

hunting namu 2.png

A rough translation:

When a person approaches another, mutually unknown, for the purpose of meeting the opposite sex. When, like sogaeting [a future post], it’s a situation where you’re meeting someone you don’t know who a friend introduced, or when, like sseom [another future post], there are already romantic feelings between you and the other person, it’s not called hunting.

Occasionally this can happen on the street, public transportation, or other completely open places, but more often it happens at shared tables in drinking establishments, at clubs, at nightclubs, and other places that, tacitly, have this kind of atmosphere.

Generally men approach women, but every once in a while, men encounter a rare woman on the prowl.


If you know English well enough to read this blog, you probably realize that hunting comes from the English word “hunting,” as Namu.wiki points out:

hunting pickup namu wiki.png
“While this is called ‘hunting’ in English, too, these days the expression ‘pick-up’ is seen instead.”

Hunting is the gerund of the verb to “hunt,” meaning, to quote the venerable OED, “[t]o go in pursuit of wild animals or game; to engage in the chase.” That’s the first definition, anyway—other definitions, such as 3a, “To search, seek (after or for anything), esp. with eagerness and exertion,” or 4a, “To pursue with force, violence, or hostility; to chase and drive before one; to put to flight; to chase or drive away or out,” take on new weight when viewed in light of the Korean slang meaning.

The OED also tells us that hunt in English comes from Old Teutonic through Old English, with the first written references in English from around 1000 AD. Unfortunately, I’m not sure when it entered Korean–as far as I can tell, there’s no Korean equivalent of the OED (I would love to be wrong, so someone please tell me if you know of one! Naver and Daum are the closest—but as I said, there’s no official definition there!)


Okay, now to the juicy stuff.

The first time I heard the word hunting in the Korean context was on one of my last days teaching young adults at an international trade organization there. Tongue loosened, I suppose, from the impending end of our teacher-student relationship, one kid, Edward, a buggy-eyed 20-year-old with a mop of black hair and huge grin, asked me a question.

“Teacher,” he said, “How can I meet foreign women?”

I had not expected this question, especially not from Edward, whose usual demeanor was mostly Spongebob with a little Barney Fife (and I mean that in the nicest way).

At a loss, I suggested that he go to a bar in Itaewon, Seoul’s “foreigner district,” talk to a girl there, and get her number if they hit it off.

“Like a hunting club?” he asked.

“A what?” For the second time in five minutes, Edward had taken away my words.

So, he and his classmates explained to me about hunting clubs: bars where you go, browse the inventory and, if you see someone you like, exchange numbers. You’d then connect over Kakao, the instant messaging system without which Korean society couldn’t function, and maybe meet up again later.

Korean club
I took this photo in a Korean club back in the day: 2009.

If you’re a Westerner and not familiar with Korean dating culture, this probably just sounds like a pretty normal bar or club to you. In Korea though, probably influenced by both the tradition of being partnered by friends, family or marriage brokers and the tendency for businesses to seriously specialize, there’s a special bar for this kind of thing–although it does happen sometimes at non-specialized bars and clubs, too.

If you want to read more in English, Caraisun, an American living in Seoul, blogged about her experience, and this site also has a little overview.


“hunt, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 18 March 2016.

“헌팅.” Daum Korean Dictionary, Daum, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

“헌팅” NamuWiki. 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

“헌팅.” Naver English Dictionary, Naver, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

“헌팅.” Naver Korean Dictionary, Naver, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.


Tips and tribulations: how to pass the TOPIK

Tips and tribulations: how to pass the TOPIK

Two months ago, when wedding prep had fully commandeered most of my time and brainspace, I got this (slightly adapted) Facebook message from an Irishman I knew back in the day in Seoul and later in London:

Hey Sara, happy new year! How’s life back in the States? I’m thinking of doing the TOPIK test in April and was looking for some advice. First of all, what would you suggest in terms of the difficulty of TOPIK II without having done TOPIK I (aiming for level 3). Second, what books would you recommend for study? My wife’s sister is coming over in a few weeks time so she could bring some over from Korea. Any advice you have would be really great!

I was super busy but…I’m kind of passionate about this topic, so I responded immediately. I thought, though, that I might adapt my thoughts into a blog post for anyone else looking for advice on how to pass the TOPIK.

TOPIK marker, handed out before the start of the test.

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More than a name? Name change in intercultural marriage

More than a name? Name change in intercultural marriage

From whatever point in my life I connected marriage and name change–probably later than average because I just didn’t notice things like that–I said I’d never change my name. I liked my name, and what if my husband had a terrible name like Schlong or Weinermeister*, or a boring one like Smith or Williams**, and besides, my mom never changed hers. There was no way I’d ever change my name, I told people when the issue came up, and I wouldn’t hyphenate either; my name already had four syllables!

Photo by Christina Foto

Of course, now I’m married, and I am hyphenating my name. I’ve already done it socially and professionally; I’ve even gotten mail in my new name; and I’ll do it legally after primary voting and some other paperwork is done with.

There’s a lot to consider when contemplating a name change, of course: personal branding if you’re a businessperson, publications if you’re an academic, your spouse’s feelings on the matter, your own thoughts. But there are extra things to mull over if your marriage is an intercultural one. With that in mind, here’s what I thought about when making my decision.

1. Tradition

My mother never changed her name, but her own mother believed so firmly in the tradition that she’s even put what she considers my mother’s married name (my mom’s first name + my dad’s last name) on official documents–35+ years later. So, tradition can be pretty strong, and if you’ve been a woman getting married in the United States, you’ve probably had someone say to you, or at least think at you, “Just change it, it’s traditional!”

seollal meal
Good tradition: Ddeok-guk for Lunar New Year. Bad tradition: Changing your name when you don’t want to.

Well, actually, no it’s not. It might be traditional in white-bread America, but it could be totally weird in your partner’s country or culture! In Japan, women are actually required by law to change their names upon marriage, unless they marry a foreigner. In Korea, on the other hand, nobody changes their family name, as far as I know, except that I think sometimes children of divorced parents get their mom’s name added as a second surname these days. Spanish women don’t change theirs, nor do Chinese women or the women of many other countries. And of course, men changing their surnames is unusual almost everywhere. In any case, while I love both Korean and American traditional food and traditional holidays and many other traditions, I don’t really think tradition in itself is a good reason for any major choice.

2. Identity

Just because Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” doesn’t mean the answer is “nothing.” My own name is Scotch-Irish, and while I’m not particularly attached to that cultural heritage–no kilts or coats of arms–I have been using it for more than 30 years, and I love it! It’s unusual and when you search for my first+last name, the only results are me and a woman whose ex-husband tried to hire someone to kill her lawyer, yikes. A lot of people do seem to feel like their original family names are an important marker of their cultural background, though, and that’s a great reason not to change.

I was actually in the opposite situation, in a way: After spending most of a decade in Korea, basically finishing my growing-up years there and considering making it my permanent home, I felt like Korea was such a big part of me that I was happy to add Mr. Kim’s name to my own to make McSomething-Kim. I feel like my new, hyphenated name actually expresses my cultural identity and way of life better than my old one did.

3. Confusion

donna chang.jpg

Another consideration for hyphenating instead of wholesale changing a name in an intercultural marriage is to avoid confusion. I’m a really obviously white person. Kim is a really obviously Korean name. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you probably remember the episode where Jerry goes on a date with a woman named Donna Chang who doesn’t look like anyone expected, resulting later in George’s parents deciding to go through with their divorce. I don’t want to see that “ohhhhh…” look on people’s faces for the rest of my life, in America or in Korea.

Actually, I don’t think this is a good reason in itself to avoid changing a name. (And partly, I’m just jumping at the excuse to reference Seinfeld.) I wouldn’t have let this stop me from changing my name completely if I’d been inclined to in the first place, but since I love both names, avoiding confusion is a nice perk to hyphenating.

4. Appropriation

This is another consideration that I don’t think is strong enough to base the name-change decision on, but it’s something I couldn’t help thinking about after hearing the story last year of the white man whose poem, rejected 40 times under his real name, was accepted much more quickly after he submitted it under a Chinese pseudonym. If I go about life with the name of Kim, I wondered, will I be trying to benefit by falsely taking on a cultural identity that’s not my own?

Well, I don’t know; I guess some people could view it that way, even with the hyphenation. In the end, though, I’ve decided not to worry about it. For one thing, I’m not falsely doing anything; I am actually a member of the Kim family, one who speaks (mediocre but aspiring) Korean and eats Korean food for dinner several times a week and cooks a traditional spread on both Christmas and Lunar New Year.

So anyway, in the end, the only thing that really counts when thinking about intercultural name change is who you are, and who you want to be. There’s no wrong choice, as long as it’s yours.


*I don’t know why I had such a dread of German-sounding names as child; my mom’s family is actually German-American, and so is her name.

**Also names of actual ancestors, so again, why was I such a hater?

How (and where) to buy a hanbok

How (and where) to buy a hanbok

Lunar New Year–not Chinese New Year! It’s not only Chinese!–is coming up Monday, so this seems like a perfect time to post about hanbok (한복), which I wore for the first time at my wedding last month:

hanbok photo from facebook
Photo by Christina Foto

Hanbok literally means “Korean clothing,” although, of course, most Korean people only wear it on special occasions. (Before our wedding, I think the last time Mr. Kim’s mom wore hers was his college graduation almost eight years ago!)

Like many types of clothing, fashions have changed over the years, and people of different social classes have worn different styles made from different materials. The lower-class women’s hanbok of the late Joseon period (late 19th century-early 20th century) were actually quite scandalous by today’s Korean (or Western!) standards, as you can see in this NSFW photo. Fortunately, the fashions have changed my hanbok was much modest!

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