20 things we noticed our first week in Gwangju

photo cred: asiaexplorers.com

After 2 years of planning and 6 months of paperwork, we are finally in South Korea!

We landed in Gwangju (a moderate-sized city in the southwest of the peninsula) last Tuesday evening. We stayed in a motel for 10 days while our teaching predecessors finished up and trained us. They just left for Madrid (congrats, guys!). We just got into our new (small) apartment and finished our first day of classes.

I’ll post about our experiences leading up to our arrival in Korea in the future, but while it’s still fresh in my mind, and before we become used to it all, I wanted to compose a list of things which I found humorous, strange, or notable about South Korea (or, in some cases, Gwangju in particular).

*** Let me preface by saying this is not a list of complaints I have about my city or the nation or its people! I’m not intending to make value judgements on these particularities. They just stick out to me and I find them interesting and funny! ***


  1. They don’t use street trash cans. They throw the bags, or in some cases, loose trash, in piles on the street, and people regularly come by with a sort of wheelbarrow/rickshaw hybrid and pick it up. It’s one of the first things we noticed driving in, but it seems like the rickshaw trash people keep up pretty well, all things considered.
  2. Everything has a sound effect or a narration. The toilet, crosswalk, elevator, even the water cooler. Everything also needs a cutesy cartoon mascot, even if it’s not at all intended for children.
  3. Not many people outside of our school speak English. If they do, it’s almost always in a restaurant, but never in the grocery store, hotel, or hospital (where you need it most!). We were led to believe everyone spoke a little, and we think this may be more true in Seoul, but not as much in Gwangju.
  4. The cars are pretty much the same size as in the States, but they are all black, white, or grey. Exclusively. I have seen one red car and a couple sage-y colored cars since we have been here (10 days), but that’s it.
  5. Addresses and GPS services are useless here, unless you understand Hangul (the Korean written language). Google Maps doesn’t work here and they don’t really use addresses anyways. Navigation seems to be done mostly by giving the neighborhood and landmarks.
  6. Weather data is wildly inaccurate here for some reason. We haven’t figured out why, or if the locals have access to better data. We bring an umbrella and raincoats everywhere we go because we literally have no idea if it will suddenly start pouring.
  7. There’s outdoor exercise gyms. Like, weight-lifting machines and ellipticals (non-electronic). You’ll randomly pass an overgrown area that has white exercise equipment. We haven’t seen anyone use them yet.
  8. Popped collars are still a thing here. Crocs (shoes) are a huge deal here.
  9. You can get almost everything people say you can’t get in Korea, except deodorant. We can’t find deodorant (thankfully, we brought lots extra) because apparently, the Korean people have this myth that Koreans don’t sweat (they do). But you can get fluoride toothpaste/mouthwash, Apple products (from Apple-certified resale stores, not actual Apple stores), a ton of American products. Oh, there’s almost no beer selection, but we haven’t ventured out very much. You can find almost anything if you’re willing to pay a little (or a lot!) extra.
  10. Koreans are superstitious, but not so much this generation. Some older Koreans think ceiling fans are lethal and shouldn’t be left on all night, say you shouldn’t leave your chopsticks in your bowl, and don’t want their names written in red.
  11. They use A/C like it’s going out of style. They have no central HVAC, just single units for each room that they only turn on once they enter the room. By the time it finally gets cool, you’re likely moving on to the next room.
  12. Shoes are dirt cheap here (because Koreans have many shoes for many different purposes). I should not have stocked up on shoes before I came. I ignorantly thought I would not be able to find shoes my size.
  13. The older generation is smaller in frame and height than the younger generation. I’m almost 5’10” and I see lots of guys taller than me every day.
  14. It’s not only not the custom to tip here, it can also be insulting. It feels weird not to tip.
  15. At a coffee shop, the barista came over to our table midway through the meal and very formally and politely offered us a selfie stick. It wasn’t a promotion, and no one else got one. Not sure what was going on exactly, but we smiled and thanked her and she scurried away. We are still confused.
  16. The people have been so kind and hospitable! We feel indebted already to these people for being so gracious to the bumbling Megookin who don’t speak any useful Korean.
  17. A lot of the food is very sweet. Even the things you wouldn’t expect. Garlic toast, for instance.
  18. “Automatic” sliding doors require you to push a button. So, I’d describe them as semi-manual. We looked very silly the first time we walked up to automatic doors.
  19. It’s a super easy and convenient area. There’s a convenience store in our apartment tower, as well as a cafe. There’s a mart across the street from our building, a total of a 30-second walk. There’s another big mart a 5-10 minute walk from our building. Grocery stores similar to Target or Walmart here are called “marts” and they’re 5 stories tall.
  20. Instead of our students referring to us as “Mrs. Tanis” or “Mr. Tanis,” it’s “Gabrielle, Teacher,” and “Greg, Teacher.” This is a literal translation from the Korean way of referring to a teacher. It’s super cute. Also, they cannot say our names.