My first real culture shock in Korea came during a meal with coworkers. I had lived in the country just a few days and was adapting well. I had prepared for the move by reading guidebooks and had read that it was customary to share food in Korea. “Like how you share fries or appetizers,” I thought. You know, finger food. That dinner proved my assumption incorrect when our soup was served – one bowl for eight people! I had clearly misunderstood; sharing was not just for finger food, it was for all food. It felt odd when my Korean friends would try food from my plate but it wasn’t long before I would do the same! I have come to appreciate sharing food as it means sampling all the offerings on the table as opposed to limiting yourself to just one dish. It cuts costs and saves time since there’s no need to wait politely for everyone’s food to arrive. Even when alone, the idea of sharing food persists. Last week, I was at a café and ordered a slice of cake. I happened to chat with an acquaintance while waiting in line and was surprised when I picked up my order to see that a second fork had been added to my plate so that I could share my cake. Seeing this, I did what any sensible person would do and quietly slipped away before my friend could see the fork! What they don’t know won’t hurt them, right?!
After I grew accustomed to sharing food, I began to notice sharing taking place everywhere around me, in private and in public. Korea is always bustling with people and thus every public space is a shared one. While I feel overwhelmed in crowded areas like subways and shops, I love other shared spaces, like communal sleeping areas. I love being able to bunk down in a jimjjilbang in the middle of Seoul, relaxing in the public bath and sleeping on a communal floor with hundreds of other people. Sure there are drawbacks (snoring dude, I’m glaring at you) but the sense of community can’t be beat. After just one or two tries, I can now sleep through anything! I sleep on busses and trains, and occasionally share the floor of a pension on a group tour. Sharing space in this way has been a revelation for me. It’s entertaining, cheap, convenient, and it’s surprisingly relaxing. You can enjoy solitude even in a crowd. I would have never believed it had I not come to Korea.
The way Koreans share tasks also surprised me. Rather than taking turns carrying heavy bags, friends each carry one handle of the parcel, a simple idea that I’m surprised to admit I’d not practiced before coming here. Couples push their grocery cart or baby stroller together each using one hand to make the task a little easier. The other day I saw a group of three women at a café. One held her baby as it cried, while another fed the tending mother cookies from a plate and the last warmed a bottle in a mug. I asked if they were sisters. “No,” they replied, “Just friends.” Later, they would take turns carrying and hushing the baby back to sleep. I’ve learned here that the simplest of tasks can be shared and that even what appear to be solo jobs can be managed by groups of two or three.
Indeed, in Korea it seems any one job, toy or thing can be shared. We’ve all seen teenagers sharing headphones, but Koreans take it a step further. I’ve seen friends share one book between them and others playing a game on a shared phone, each poking at the screen with one finger, an effort so ridiculous that it actually looks like more fun than playing the game alone anyway! Clothes can be shared too, but not in the way that you might think. In winter I’ll often see friends and family members sharing a scarf – one garment wrapped around two necks. Yes, it is as awkward as it might sound but it’s preferable to the alternative which is to leave one person shivering in the cold! Friends can even share a pair of mittens, each wearing a mitten on their outer hand and holding hands in the middle to keep the mitten-less digits warm. We’ve all shared umbrellas from time to time, but I had a good laugh when I saw four of my students squeezed under a single umbrella stumbling across campus during a recent rainstorm! Surely none of them were dry, but they insisted on sharing. Even the lesser-prepared band together in the face of rain, two or three heads huddling under a single sheet of newspaper or jacket for cover. On subways, seats are shared, giggling friends of all ages sitting stacked on one another’s laps. If there is only room for one, then the seated person will hold their friend’s bag or that of a stranger. Strangers, and senior citizens especially, often offer to hold my purse on their lap while I stand on the crowded train. I’ve seen people offering one another candy on long train rides and have been offered everything from dried squid to potato chips myself. As I wrote in my blog about Korean picnics, I’ve learned that if you go hiking or picnicking you should probably bring along some snacks to share! Company seems to pop up out of nowhere wanting to share their food with you and it’s always more fun if you have something to share too.
So whether it’s the taxi driver who asked to sample some of my pretzels, my students offering candy, or the couple drinking their soda through a specially made two-straw cup at the movies, it would seem that sharing is an innate part of Korean culture. Don’t fight it – the more sharing you do, the easier it gets and soon you’ll find yourself wondering why you haven’t always done it this way.