I’ve lived in Asia for over 5 years now, and I’ve heard a lot of strange things from Japanese and Korean people. I thought I’d compile them here for your reading pleasure. Some of them are superstitions that many people believe, and others are things that certain people have said to me that the general population may or may not agree with.
Adapting to a new culture means trying not to let your own prejudices get in the way of your view of the culture. However, I’ve heard a lot of funny things come out of people’s mouths, most of them not based on any sort of reason or fact. Some of them are based on ancient Eastern medicine, but others are just hearsay.
- Wearing a mask in public minimizes your risk of catching a cold.
Many Japanese people wear masks on a daily basis. You’ll see tons of people walking around in Japan with white masks on, most of them paper thin. Japanese people mostly believe that wearing a mask will keep them from spreading their germs to others when sick. Others believe wearing a mask will prevent them from catching a cold, since Japan is crowded and most people use public transportation. However, these masks are thin and people wear them all day long. Some of my students used to take them off for lunch time, only to put the same mask they’d been breathing on all day back on their faces.
Other reasons for wearing masks include women who wear them to cover up their faces if they aren’t wearing make-up. I’ve also had friends tell me they wear them when it’s cold outside because it keeps their face warm. In both Korea and Japan, people also wear them to minimize the amount of pollution or pollen they inhale when the air quality is bad, or during allergy season.
- Japanese people have black eyes, therefore they don’t need sunglasses
This one is a weird one that one lady told me in Japan. I was leaving the school I taught at, and I put my sunglasses on before going out the door. I rode my bike to school, and the sun was always in my eyes when I rode over the hills back home. She was so sincere when she said it that I wondered who told her that or what in the world would make her believe that the color of a person’s eyes determines one’s protection against sunlight. I wanted to tell her, “Uh, lady, if we both look at the sun right now, both of us will eventually go blind.” But I bit my tongue and laughed it off as I went home.
- Going outside when your hair is wet will make you catch a cold
You’ll see this in Japanese dramas all the time. The main character goes outside, it starts to rain, and then they immediately get sick and have to be taken care of by (usually) their love interest. I’ve heard that Italians also believe this one. I think this is also related to the fact that Japan is so densely populated – if your immune system is weakened around a lot of other people, eventually someone who is sick will pass their virus to you. However, going outside in the rain or with wet hair isn’t going to make you sick, especially not after 10 or so minutes.
- Not covering your abdomen will make you sick (women)
Once I was outside for a walk with my Japanese friend, and I told her I was on my period. She told me, “You need to cover your abdomen!” and she made me zip up my jacket. I’ve also heard people say that if you expose your abdomen when you go outside (i.e. wearing a crop top) will make you sick. I think this comes from Chinese medicinal beliefs.
- Drinking cold water is bad for you
The younger generation might not believe this anymore, as is the case with most of these Korean superstitions, but Koreans think drinking cold water will make you sick. They think the water needs to be lukewarm/warm in order to be properly digested. I guess because they think your body maintains a warm temperature, they think making your insides colder will make you catch a cold.
- Drinking clear water is bad for you
This is mostly what older Korean people believe. If you go to my mother-in-law’s house, she’ll tell you not to drink clear, bottled water. Instead, she’ll grab the brownish tea-like liquid from the fridge and make you drink that. If you go to a lot of Korean restaurants, many have water machines, but others will have a weak tea-like drink for you in a bottle. I think it’s a sort of barley tea. In Japan, you’ll mostly find cold barley tea in summer and warm green tea in winter in restaurants as well.
- Canned food is bad for you
My husband says this. He’s very against me eating anything out of a can. However, the sweet yellow corn that I love can only be bought in Korea in canned form. Also, yellow peaches and fruit cocktail are also only available here in cans. He won’t give me a reason for why it’s unhealthy. He just thinks it is. Growing up, my house was always full of canned food…
- Fan death
If you don’t know what fan death is, you’ve probably never been to Korea. Fan death is the very popular superstition that if you leave an electric fan on in a closed room (no open windows or doors), you will die. My mother-in-law in particular believes this. She used to yell at my husband whenever he was in his bedroom with the door closed with a fan on. They need to be more worried about their kerosene heaters – those actually cause hundreds of deaths each year.
- Cilantro causes paralysis
This is another one of those weird ones that one of my Korean friends told me. She said she heard from another one of her friends that if Koreans eat too much cilantro (an herb that most Koreans are allergic to or can’t stand the taste of) they will be paralyzed. I find it weird that Koreans hate cilantro so much, since they eat a leaf similar in taste called perilla (깻입). Many Koreans are now traveling to Vietnam for vacation, and they come back complaining that the cilantro in their pho was gross. Pho is gaining popularity here in Korea, but it’s usually optional if you want to put cilantro in your soup.
- Germs are bad
Americans are germaphobes, too, but Korean moms are no joke. They bring bottles of antibacterial spray around with them and spray everything in sight before letting their kids touch anything. Guess they’ve never heard the old adage, “God made dirt, dirt don’t hurt!” because that’s how I was raised. A lot of Koreans have skin allergies and other health issues, probably due to pollution and genetics more than anything, but they think anything their babies touch will cause death if not sanitized.
- Not washing hands after using restroom
This is a weird one after the one above it, but there it is. I’ve seen maybe 2 out of 10 people in Korea wash their hands after leaving the bathroom. The water in Korean bathrooms is usually freezing cold, and there are usually a) no soap dispensers or b) a weird soap on a stick thing that you can use to wash your hands. Also, many public restrooms don’t have toilet paper, but it’s gotten a little better since I moved here. However, many places have notes on the doors telling you to throw away your toilet paper rather than flush it because it clogs the toilets. In most places, this isn’t true, but in older buildings, the pipes aren’t as great and the toilets do clog easily. However, even in newer buildings, people throw away their used toilet paper and it collects next to you in a gross pile.
- Having a baby around animals will give them allergies
This is one my sisters-in-law and mother-in-law believe. No matter how many times my husband or I tries to show them research saying that raising kids around animals actually makes them less likely to develop cat/dog allergies, they simply won’t have it. They are mad at us because we have two cats and think that before we have kids, we need to get rid of my furbabies. Not only is this ignorant, it’s downright rude to tell us that we need to “get rid of” our pets. This is the one that bothers me the most.
What are some weird superstitions you’ve heard, in your country or abroad?