Did You Know: Walking On The Right Side is the Left… Or Is It?

Giraffes: Which way you goin?Not a conversation among foreigners goes by without a mention of one or another flummoxing situation while living in Korea. One of the most common situations to be mentioned seems to be surrounding the perpetual confusion people have while taking a simple walk on a simple sidewalk.

Why is it that every time I’m out for a walk, I end up face to face with a Korean pedestrian? I maintained my straight line on the right side and yet somehow we ended up face to face playing the ever comical, now who’s going to move first and which way are you going to go dance. Foreigners can fairly easily be spotted or heard from a kilometer away be it by skin tone, height or just absurdly loud speaking in another language so how is it that Koreans still end up in the path of us… or are we in the path of them? I’m sure it’s the aforementioned.

It’s us and them again and again and because of that few people take the time to understand the cultural or historical context surrounding a seemingly simple outing.

Giraffes: Which way you headed?Did you know: in the 19th century in Korea, traffic on the road traveled on the left side of the road as the country was under the influence of China and while Japan annexed Korea in 1910, they maintained this left side rule. It wasn’t until 1945 after the Americans and Russians were fighting on the Korean peninsula that driving on the right side was implemented because the military vehicles that were hogging the roads were American-made or Russian-built and therefore made for right side driving. For decades, Koreans had been driving on the left and walking on the left and though the driving switched in the 40’s, walking on the left was maintained. In kindergarten, students on the peninsula sang the words “People keep to the left and cars keep to the right” so says the Korea Times and so of course it makes sense that it became habitual for people to end up walking to the left even if they set out to walk on the right just as it is habitual for “us”, ie westerners, to walk on the right having grown up with that custom. My own husband is customarily guiding me to the left while I’m heading to the right while we walk. If I happen to be on his left side then you can imagine how bumpy that walk is.

::Hip bump::

Me: Where are you trying to go? We’re walking straight…

::Hip bump::

Me: Hon, can you not walk in a straight line?

::Hip bump hip bump::

Me: Okay, seriously, let me walk on the right side so you can walk on the left side.

Eventually we’ll just end up on opposite sides of the sidewalk and so it goes. It wasn’t until 2009 in Korea when it was decided that people would start walking on the right side along with the traffic and so signs were posted everywhere. If you were here at the time, it was a funny scene to behold. Suddenly, subway stations, sidewalks and hallways were littered with arrows pointing people to walk on the right. While some people took to the new “rules” easily, others weren’t so easy to sway. Older Koreans having walked for generations on the left weren’t going to be able to just hop skip and jump on over to the right and call it a fine and dandy walk out there front door and so it is with this in mind, I hope that foreigners realize that it has only been six years since the change so, why you expect to take a walk on the right with ease is beyond me. Don’t hold it against the Korean population for seeming confused, or maybe it’s you that’s confused, when taking a simple walk… it’s not as simple as it seems.

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5 Responses

  1. Alice says:

    Wait… I’m from New Zealand and we walk and drive on the left. I always figured other Western countries walked on the left too haha :p Even though I know a lot drive on the right. I had no idea Korea changed it’s rules so recently, no wonder I never know which side to stay on here!

    • Hallie says:

      Nope, in the States we walk and drive on the right. But it becomes so ingrained, I don’t think most people even think about which side they head towards when they set out. It’s strange isn’t it?!

  2. charliebnim says:

    Its better than in macau and china where people choose each side they want and at their own pace so you sometimes have to walk on the road just to be able to pass …

    • Hallie says:

      haha, well that’s basically what is happening here now because of the confusion. Koreans also do the walk at your own pace and then stop suddenly without warning maneuver. Which they do on the mountains when skiing and other places where in the west we have an unspoken rule that you should gradually pull over to the side if you want to stop. I often wonder if it’s partly a big city thing too though. Just too many people in such a small area.

What do you think?