“Two sets of numbers? Why?!”

That was my reaction when I discovered Koreans used two different counting systems.
There’s the sino-Korean numbers, short and snappy akin to Chinese –  il (일), ee (이), sam (삼), sa (사), oh (오) – which are commonly used for almost anything, but not everything.

An example of this system is if I want the students to look at page 25 of the
I would say “ee-shib-oh” (이십오), which are the respective numbers for 2 (이) 10 (십) and 5 (오).

Then there is the native Korean numbers, which are used fGraphic explaining Korean number systems 1-10or counting things in certain situations, such as ordering drinks or talking about days and dates.

They are slightly longer and only run to 99, starting with the commonly used 1,2,3,4,5 – hana (하나), dul (둘), set (셋), net (넷), daseot (다섯)

The natives are usually forgiving when a waygook (foreigner) doesn’t fully understand Korean culture or language so our mistakes are usually of little consequence as we get the benefit of the doubt.

For example, beer is called maek-ju (맥주). Two beers is not “ee maek-ju”.

They will understand the foreigners waffled attempt but strictly speaking, the native numbers should be used, plus the appropriate counter word gae (개).

Counter words are a plenty but gae is a pretty acceptable cover-all to use for almost anything.
Just don’t use it when talking about people! The counter word for this is myeong (명).

So, the correct way to say two beers is du-gae maek-ju (두개 맥주) , or  du-gae maek-ju ju-se-yo (두개 맥주 주세요) if you want to add a little social grace to your request.

What if you and a buddy walked into a bar and were feeling thirsty?
You might ask for a table and then put in an order for four beers for two people.
You could say ne-gae maek-ju, du myeong ju-se-yo (두명네개 맥주 주세요).

The sight of little dogs in glass boxes is common around bigger towns and city pet stores.

Where the dual number system gets really confusing is when it comes to telling time.
It was deemed most logical to combine the two counting systems – one for the hours  (shee/시), the other for the minutes (boon/분).

It is 5.10 –  da-seot-shee shib-boon (다섯시 십분).

This proved quite tricky to remember when I should use the native numbers and when I should use sino-Korean. Still now I find myself tripped up by it.

Other customs in Korean culture also seemed alien at first, even to someone who has explored and experienced vastly different cultures throughout South East Asia.

Taking my shoes off before entering a home, school or many restaurants is now the norm.
Bowing every time I greet somebody soon became natural.  Even shaking hands or passing items to people while touching the other arm no longer seems unusual.

Photo of man passing pen while observing Korean culture of touching one arm with other hand

In the Confucian society that Korea has long subscribed to, a lot of these practices of Korean culture are related to the respect shown to one’s peers and elders and Korean people take great pride in it all.

Now, it has become normal, second nature to me to the point I find myself a little Koreanized, even when in the company of non-Koreans.
The wrist-grab handshake or two-handed receipt of money is something I have pulled on foreigners, often to their amusement.
Once or twice, I caught myself bowing to shop assistants in Italy.
On several occasions, I even had to pump the brakes before I uttered a Korean word of thanks.

One aspect of Korean culture that I can’t get used to is the custom of sitting on the ground.
Perhaps it’s my once-broken pelvis or just my general lack of flexibility but I can’t help but wonder how this aspect of the culture has endured the wave of the future.
How has it resisted the allure of using the obviously more comfortable invention that is the chair?

Many of my students practice the country’s martial art of taekwondo.

If sitting on the ground is truly so wonderful, then why do they have chairs at all in Korea? Why do all the teachers and Principal not do away with their chairs and tables in the teachers room and just sit on the floor, surrounding by their files and computers?
Because that would be uncomfortable and inconvenient, right?

Yet, when we go to eat and try to enjoy the pleasure of a meal, there is an insistence to sit on the floor. This even happens in a restaurant that has tables with chairs. I can’t be the only one longingly eyeing the chairs on the other side of the restaurant.

A rare occasion when we sat on the floor.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the communal aspect of eating as a group in Korea. The Korean culture of sharing many dishes between everyone is one I’ve grown to enjoy. Furthermore, I actually like using chopsticks – except for things like crab meat because that’s just a ridiculous challenge no hungry man should have to endure.

Sometimes, even with friends seeking a bite to eat in certain areas it proves unavoidable and we resign to the floor. I constantly shuffle from one butt-cheek to the other amid frequent stretching and uncurling of the legs before trying to assume the position of respect once more.
However, if I’m on the ground too long, my legs simply won’t last in that position. Soon enough I’ll be stretching my legs out under that table.

Hopefully my Principal is not sitting on the other side!


What aspects of new culture has boggled you? How have you adapted?