Korea-USA Side-by-Side

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August 10, 2013 by travelinggrits

Some characteristics of typical American lifestyle were absent in Korea, but there were some equally useful conveniences there that could find a place in American society.

By no means do I wish to make sweeping generalizations about either country based on their curiosities. You cannot characterize a place simply by its amenities, just like one’s accoutrements cannot fully illustrate one’s deeper values, attitudes or beliefs.


bells on tables in restaurants

No need to do the awkward hand-raised, catch-of-the-eye maneuvers of American restaurants. When you’re ready to order or need assistance, press the oversized red button that rings a bell in the back of the restaurant.

moving escalators for shopping carts

Lotte, E-Mart and HomePlus: these one-stop shops resemble multi-storied Wal-Marts. If you’re planning to pick up a few groceries, appliances, toys and clothes, you’re going to need a shopping cart – and to make it even easier for you, the escalators are slow-moving ramps to the next floor. If you get hungry, stop by the food court – but you might as well just walk up and down the grocery aisles for the free samples of everything from tofu to cookies to yogurt to seaweed. And when you’re ready to leave, pack your new treasures in a recycled box provided at the exit – much easier than stringing your arms with plastic bags.


heated floors

If you tour a Korean palace, you’ll notice a space under the main living areas connected to a furnace where wood was burned to warm the floor. Even today, houses in Korea favor electric heated floors over a heating unit. For a society that still sits on the floor more than in chairs, it’s smart. Just imagine snoozing on a padded mat on a heated floor with a soft, thick blanket – that kind of snuggly cocoon beats jumping in a cold bed any day.



backup cameras in cars

Driving on Korea’s narrow side streets would be a nightmare for most Westerners used to the open road. Sometimes getting home can be like playing Tetris with oncoming vehicles, and all cars are required to post the driver’s cell phone number in the windshield just in case a parked car needs to be moved. But Koreans don’t even break a sweat when parallel parking in tight spaces – thanks to backup cameras and buzzers in almost every vehicle.

undo elevator floors

Have you ever ridden on an elevator when another misguided soul selected the wrong floor? It always gets my goat when an elevator stops when no one actually needs to disembark. In Korea, this is no longer an issue – simply deselect the button and save other elevator passengers the trouble.

complex secret passwords to activate your bank account

Online banking is common, and banking security is even tighter. You must download encrypted software on any computer that you wish to use for transactions as well as enter a secret password. When making an online money transfer, you must enter digits from random rows on a secret numbered card you acquired when you made your account.

easy public transportation

There is a “five-hour rule” in Korea: no place is more than five or six hours from another destination on the peninsula. Korea is a smart network of buses, subways and trains with schedules easily accessed through phone applications. Even taxis are cheaper – starting fares are around $2 and there’s no need to tip. Especially when I could buy a cheap ticket, climb into a cushy seat and sack out for a few hours while riding to my destination, I had no desire to return to the driver’s seat.

public exercise machines outside

Health in Korea is a topic for another blog post, but one aspect deserves mention here: the public exercise machine. In parks, on small woodsy trails, even at roadway rest stops, you will see a multitude of metal exercise equipment designed to provide moderate movement using your own body weight. These playgrounds for adults are often populated with older men and women vigorously pumping and swinging their limbs.

widespread smartphone and WiFi usage

I had a hunch, but some statistics (cursorily researched) verify my suspicions. According to NewMedia TrendWatch, approximately 90 percent of all mobile phones in Korea are smartphones, but smartphones only make up around half of mobile phone subscriptions in the U.S. (New Media TrendWatch, 2013). I previously shunned the smartphone wave, but I caved in Korea – when a plan that includes the cost of data and the phone itself is only $45 a month, it’s a good deal. Free WiFi is everywhere, and cafes typically have more wall outlets for recharging.

smartphone cases and phone charms

Perhaps the prevalence of small shops and street carts selling phone charms and smartphone cases is indicative of the importance of these devices to Korean society. From bunny ears to cartoon characters, phones are the newest and most creative way way to accessorize. And while you’re there, buy some cute socks – because if you’re taking your shoes off to enter houses and restaurants, it’s a bit embarrassing to be sporting dingy white socks.

delivery food

One Korean professor I met who had lived in America for a short time told me what she missed most was delivery food. Pizza, chicken, noodles, stew, you name it – no delivery fees, no taxes. If it’s brought to you on plastic plates, just put the dirty dishes outside your door and the delivery man will return to pick them up.

cooking at the table

Korea’s top gustatory staple is kimchi, but another common cooking feature is the grill. Korea’s finest eating establishments often use hot coals or electric ranges at your table to cook marinated meat or keep a fresh batch of seafood stew piping hot. The eating experience is much more interactive and arguably more enjoyable.

far, far fewer annoying billboards

I’d much rather see the mountains and trees themselves than an advertisement for a weekend getaway.

squatty toilets

I’ll leave it at this: there’s something quite natural about crouching over these holes to do your business. Plus, a cold toilet seat is never a concern.


elevators that go to all floors

In select buildings, particularly in universities, Koreans experimented with the idea that designating one elevator for odd floors and one for even floors might save energy. I’m not sure it really does any good, other than forcing me to run up or down a flight of stairs if I’m in a hurry.


I found out that there was a salad bar in the American-style restaurant in the nearest Lotte Mart, but I never went there because my Korean friend was afraid I would be too disappointed. I imagine it would be similar to the salad sections at wedding buffets: cold compilations of mixed beans, vegetables and seafood. At my homestay, “salad” was usually a pile of raw shaved cabbage heavily doused in a sweet, thick dressing.

free refills and water cups

I didn’t think about it until I returned to America, but I never saw a self-serve drink machine in Korea. Soft drinks were always distributed in glass bottles on restaurant tables or in cans at the convenience store. Additionally, there is a general assumption that drinking cold water while eating disrupts the digestive system, so most Koreans only drink a small cup before or after the meal. As a habitual Nalgene chugger, I was always sneaking refills to quench my thirst, and I still marvel at Koreans’ ability to eat such spicy food without washing it down.

diversity of architecture

Korea’s urban landscape can be beautiful in big cities, but in smaller cities and towns there is usually a wash of dull apartment buildings and street fronts. In America, I enjoy strolling through neighborhoods to scan the decorative variety of houses, but since home ownership is uncommon, there was little opportunity for this pastime. The outside appearance of a restaurant has almost no correlation with the quality of the food, however.


I never realized what a nice luxury an expanse of green grass in a lawn, park or playground was until it was absent from all of these.

ovens and dishwashers

I wanted to show off my cooking skills to my host family, but as I mentally ticked off my favorite recipes – chicken caesar lasagna, eggplant parmesan, buffalo chicken dip, brownies – I realized one crucial piece of equipment was missing: an oven. An oven is a luxury; we even went to a neighbor’s house to see her proudly demonstrate the use of her oven to cook bread. Korean cuisine typically needs only the flame of a stove or the powers or fermentation and coffee shops supply small baked treats, so it’s not such a huge loss for daily life. Likewise, I am sure dishwashers also exist in some houses, but the absence of large baking dishes and the common tradeoff of small bowls for dinner plates made it unnecessary.


Koreans would be appalled to see the size of a paper dinner napkin placed at every seat in an American restaurant. In Korean eating establishments, a small plastic dispenser on the table offers 3×3-inch, tissue-thin squares mostly used for dabbing up spills. Even while using chopsticks and sharing from a platter in the middle of the table, Koreans manage to make far less mess on themselves and their eating areas than American diners.


toilet paper

An American would indignantly complain about any public bathroom not stocked with toilet paper. In Korea, it only takes one awkward pit stop at a bus station to learn that quietly carrying your own small packet of tissue in your bag is the norm.


My host mother asked me one time why I never made noise when I ate. I tried to slurp my noodles that evening, but I had been so indoctrinated with American table manners that I was literally incapable of making a single sound. Although I had been told loud table noise was also not polite in Korea, in close company once the food was served conversation stopped and smacks, slurps and burps were the language of the satisfied. After a while it was not so disturbing, but there was one sound I could never get over: the throaty cough of a man hocking spit in the street.

seatbelt usage

Riding without seat belts or cramming four people – including small children – into a backseat just doesn’t seem as taboo in Korea, but it can be hair-raising for the safety-conscious.

cheap dairy products and desserts

For a milk, cheese and yogurt lover like me, I would often salivate over the dairy aisle but turn up my nose at paying $7 for a bag of pizza cheese or a small tub of cream cheese in Korea.  There’s no menu for your sweet tooth at most restaurants, and dessert at home was usually sliced fruit. Perhaps a healthier alternative, but sometimes unsatisfying for a former chocoholic.


So, how do they stack up? Rather than arguing for the superiority of one over the other, perhaps each side can take some tips.



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