Social protocol in South Korea dictates that your local
host meets you at a place you can easily find, then will escort you to their residence
or a restaurant. Try to arrive at your meeting point on time, and if you are going
to a local's house, be sure to remove your shoes upon arrival. Once in the door,
greet every person individually.
Wait to be shown a seat as seating arrangements may be pre-arranged or dictated
by social standing and seating yourself in the incorrect location may embarrass
your host, despite the fact that he may say nothing. Once at the table, there will
most likely be a plate, small plate, chopsticks, and perhaps a spoon. The small
plate is essentially a "discard tray," on which you should place bones,
shells, etc. The chopsticks are obviously for eating the food and you may want to
become accustomed to using these before arrival as touching food with your hands
is off limits. When offered any dish, do accept it as turning down food is quite
The oldest person present should begin dining, so wait until invited to begin eating
or until everyone else is clearly already eating. If served both rice and a spoon,
eat the rice with the spoon. Unlike many Far East countries, don't bring the
rice or soup bowl up to your mouth, but leave these on the table itself. If you
are being served drinks, which may or may not be the case, fill the glass of those
around you and let them fill your glass (although women should not fill other women's
glasses). If drinks are served with food, it tends to be either tea or water, rarely
is it an alcoholic beverage.
Throughout the course of the meal, if you decide to take a drink or even speak to
those around you, put your chopsticks down. Although this may mean trying to renegotiate
your chopsticks dozens of times during a meal, it's the best course of action.
If you want a second helping, refuse initially and only after your host's insistence
should you accept. When you do finally finish eating, place your chopsticks back
on your chopstick rest and eat ever last grain of rice. In many households you're
expected to leave a little food on your plate (but finish the rice), while in restaurants
it is more common to finish everything.
If dining out, the person who initiated the meal should pay for everyone. All others
should make an effort to pay, but this will be refused. As the meal began, your
host will most likely walk you out to a point that you are familiar with so you
are sure to return safely; don't expect to be left at the door. If you dined
at a local's home, be sure to send a thank you note the following day.
There is no tipping in South Korea and offering a tip
can be an insult. This trend is slowly changing in some western restaurants and
hotels, but is not yet common.
Celebrations & Events
Most traditional Korean foods associated with celebrations
are served for important personal events, including birth, weddings, funerals, and
other important personal events. During these events differing foods are served.
At birth foods are generally served in sets of three as that is considered a lucky
number. These foods include rice and sea mustard soup among others. These same foods
are also served on later celebrations like the Coming of Age Ceremony (gwan rye),
but at this festival rice wine, rice cakes, kimchi, noodle soup, and additional
foods are served to celebrate this event.
At weddings rice wine, rice cakes, chicken, and numerous other traditional dishes
are served. At funerals alcohol and the head meat of a pig or cattle is served;
red chili pepper is also served at funerals as it is believed to expel ghosts.
The South Koreans cling to a number of traditional drinks,
like ginseng, ginger, and fruit drinks, but tea is quickly growing in popularity.
For one of most authentic drinks however, skip these options and reach for sikhye,
a sweet rice drink.
Beers and rice wines are common in South Korea for everyday
drinking, but their most local beverage is soju, which is a liquor distilled
from rice or another starch, such as barley or sweet potatoes.
Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in South
Korea, but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also,
many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water, as it will most
certainly be different from what your system is used to.