What is considered clean and what is considered unclean is always revelatory when you’re trying to understand how a different culture thinks. Here is what I’ve noticed about cleanliness and hygiene in Korea.
Hand Washing– I love hand washing! I wash my hands at all those times that you’re supposed to: after going to the bathroom, prior to eating a meal, before performing surgery. So, what’s great about Korea is that everyone else doesn’t just ignore it like a huge portion of the population does in the US. Often when I go to lunch with a coteacher, they scrupulously wash their mitts before eating. It’s not all the time, but in my own little bubble at least it seems substantially more common than in the US. It’s even institutionalized in the restaurant industry. When in restaurants you can expect to be provided with a wet cloth at the beginning of your meal. Keep in mind that even after performing these ablutive ministrations, there is little to no hand-to-food contact during a Korean meal.
Spitting– If you love clean hands and spitting, pack your bags and move to Korea right away! It is common and entirely acceptable to noisily and ostentatiously eject various laryngeal masses onto the ground. I’ve heard that in some other East Asian countries people spit inside and on trains and buses, but I’ve never seen that in Korea.
Shoe Removal– Just as it was when I was living in Japan, everyone takes their shoes off when coming inside. Homes, restaurants and temples will all have raised floors that are forbidden to shoes. In my school for instance, students and teachers walk to school in shoes then change into sandals or ‘indoor shoes’ when they get there. This practice has an interesting effect on countrywide fashion. The increased presence of visible feet has led to a heightened importance of socks as a fashion statement. Therefore, there are sock vendors everywhere with a limitless array of varieties and styles.
Tooth Brushing– Many a time I have come back from lunch and had a coteacher excuse herself to brush her teeth. Students can also be seen on occasion with a toothbrush in hand, walking purposefully towards the bathroom. According to my coteacher, Korean children are taught to brush three times a day, but supposedly, many only brush twice a day during the school year. Flossing is unheard of. Really, I asked my coteacher about it and she didn’t know what I was talking about.
Individual Food Wrappers– When shopping in Korea it is uncommon to find a box of crackers or cookies. You are much more likely to find several individually wrapped cookies that happen to be boxed together. (note: not mere coincidence) My theory is that hands are generally viewed as dirty. Look at the facts: you avoid touching your food during meals (if at all possible) and you make sure to wash your hands anyway, just in case. It seems to me that sticking your hand into a big box of crackers might just be seen as contaminating. As an interesting contrast, Koreans are all about sharing food. Meals are eaten together and almost all dishes are communal. This means that the chopsticks everyone puts in their mouths are also the chopsticks that touch all the food. Furthermore, at school dinners it is polite for every single teacher to trade a shot of soju with the principal out of the same cup. If you’re worried about doing this though, don’t worry; clearly it’s hands that are dirty, not mouths.