10 Ways I’ve Embraced Korean Culture for the Long Haul
Because you don’t need to be Korean to be, well, pretty Korean.
The first time I set foot in South Korea, I was mesmerized. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to look because every single thing was so new and different. I couldn’t read anything. I felt like an illiterate Alice in an illuminated wonderland. Signs meant absolutely nothing to me because I was so unfamiliar with Hangul. I relied on memory to discern whether it was white kimchi (백김치) or red/baechu kimchi (배추김치) that I was ordering. There was no other way to process information other than memory.
It was a stressful time, and only after I set my mind to learning a new alphabet did things come into much clearer focus. After a few months of delay, I finally decided the time had come after I kept ordering the wrong cuts of meat at my local BBQ joint. I was fed up with my methods of pointing and smiling at what I wanted — the time for action and autonomy was upon me. It was as simple as downloading an app and spending a few hours remembering the shape of the symbols and the sounds they carried.
In less than a day I was reading, albeit as slow as a 5-year-old. But I was reading! Things made a little more sense to me, and I could scan through a full restaurant menu before deciding what I really wanted. I could read the subway map, road signs, and store names. I felt like I had lifted a veil and wiped the grease off my lenses. I was one step closer to fitting in a little better.
Cut to three years later and Korea felt more like home. I’d made friends, experienced heartbreak, tasted everything I could, and cycled cross-country. I climbed mountains and taught little kids to read. I learned to embrace Korean culture, and I respected how far this tiny country had come through such a challenging past.
When the time came to leave, I was devastated. While weighing up the options of staying and leaving, I decided I needed to challenge myself professionally. Staying was easy, as my job was guaranteed, and I was comfortable. Leaving promised nothing but challenges and uncertainty, but I was looking for a challenge. On my last flight out of Incheon International, I sobbed, but I knew that I would be back, and that Korean culture would remain with me.
Since moving to the U.S. (I’m from South Africa), I’ve held onto a few habits and practices that I learned while in Korea. It does help that my wife is Korean, and she is often partial to my cravings of kimchi and roasted seaweed.
Here are 10 ways that Korean culture has stuck with me.
1. I crave kimchi
It’s no longer a fundamental part of my lunch and dinner, but I still make place for the fermented cabbage in my life. My fridge never has less than a 4-pound jar of the stuff, bubbling slowly in the background.
2. I leave my shoes at the door
If you come over for dinner, coffee, or just to drop off my Amazon package, rest assured that you’ll be removing your shoes at the door. It’s an Asian practice that I’m totally onboard with, because the less dirt, bacteria, and gross stuff that touches my carpet, the better.
3. The floor is as comfortable a place as any
My wife and I sometimes eat dinner sitting on the floor. Our coffee table is low enough and it gives us extra room to stretch our legs out. The dining room table will always be there, but the floor is our go-to.
4. I have a secret stash of roasted seaweed (김구이)
Dried, roasted, salted seaweed is my weakness. Thankfully it’s healthy, low in calories, and high in iodine, vitamin B12, and potassium. My mother-in-law, who lives in Korea, heard about my penchant for the stuff and shipped 80 (eighty!) bags of the stuff across the ocean for me. She’s done this twice. I couldn’t be more grateful, and love snacking on it when I’m craving a salty Korean snack.
5. I can make kimchi jjigae (stew) from scratch
Possibly my favorite Korean meal, brimming with flavor and depth. Kimchi jjigae is a dish with all of my favorite ingredients — pork belly, onions, kimchi, gochujang (spicy pepper paste), tofu, and spring onions — served with steaming hot sticky rice. You can’t go wrong.
6. K-beauty rules everything around me
I estimate that 90% of my skincare is made in Korea. I’m a big fan of natural ingredients that are gentle on my skin and deliver on their promises. The fewer ingredients the better, and who can beat the selection that K-beauty offers? There’s a product for every season and every skin type, and it knocks the competitors out cold.
7. I sometimes do a slight bow without realizing
In Korea, when you greet someone you bow slightly as a form of respect. This habit stuck with me when I moved to the U.S., and I’m sure some people considered it slightly odd. I’ve let that Korean culture habit fade into the background now.
8. I never leave the house without my sunblock
Korean women are revered for their flawless, pale skin. It’s a sign of wealth and status to have pale skin, while in the West having a healthy tan can mean the same thing. I’m trying to maintain my skin’s appearance for as long as possible, and for me that means always wearing an SPF 40 or higher.
9. Hold the bread, extra rice please
I’ve come to appreciate every grain of rice that I come into contact with, in fact much more than bread. Especially bread in the U.S., which has left me disappointed time and time again. It’s sweet, it has a shelf life of like 33 years, and it just doesn’t give proper bread a good name. Rice is my preferred carb since having it as part of each meal in Korea. It’s gluten-free, it’s soft and fresh and comforting. Less bloating and discomfort all round.
10. Bare-faced equals BB cream
I’m very comfortable in my own skin and have no qualms with living a #makeupfree life, but there is one thing that keeps my confidence levels up: BB cream. It’s light, contains SPF, and has a color-correcting factor, which helps to lessen redness and give me a more “put-together” look, even though I’m trying to be as natural as possible. It’s been a staple in Korean women’s regimens for decades, and it is now part of mine too.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a kimchi stew to see to.
Have you adopted any aspects of Korean culture into your life?
I hail from South Africa, where I cut my teeth as a journalist, writing for the biggest-selling English magazine in the country.
I spent three years in South Korea and discovered a passion for K-beauty and the jjimjilbang.
I'm always on the go, but I make time for my skin.
Follow me on Instagram at @meg______b and at linkedin.com/in/megan-bursey-530b4177