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Overcoming Culture Shock in South Korea

Traveling to another city, state, or even another country can give you a nice dose of culture shock if it is anything different from what you are used to. Some adapt easily while others might feel overwhelmed. From my experiences abroad, here are five things to expect when you travel to South Korea and how to embrace and overcome what is different.


The Language Barrier

In Korea, they speak Korean. Surprise! Yes, you may find some who can speak English but if you are not in Seoul or in a popular American chain like Starbucks, you may find it difficult to communicate. Traveling and ordering can be a challenge if you can’t read Hangul. But, you are in luck! Learning to read Korean is very easy. It has an alphabet system and you can learn it in an hour. I had a Korean friend forcefully teach me and I am still extremely grateful until this day that she did. Even though I barely knew any Korean, knowing how to read was a life saver!

There are a lot of free, accessible apps and online resources that can teach you if you don’t have a Korean friend, the time or money to crack open a textbook before going. There are also apps and resources, sometimes the same apps and online resources, that teach you the basics of Korean, like greetings, common grammar, and how to order food. My favorite app right now is LingoDeer. My favorite place to go online is Talk To Me In Korean.

Watching dramas, movies, variety shows, and listening to Korean music is a great way to practice your listening and to pick up new words and phrases. Pointing and hand gestures always work. There are a lot of people who are very understanding and will be willing to help you. I survived a year and a half by learning the art of hand gestures and the kindness of others.


The Bathrooms

Oh, the bathrooms. One thing most people know about are the squat toilets in Korea. Don’t worry, those are not the only toilets you will be using. Actually, you may be able to avoid them a majority of the time and in all honesty, they aren’t that bad.

The tissue thing is what gives most people, including me, a bit of a problem. You do not, I repeat, DO NOT flush the tissue down the toilet. Throw it away in the trash can as most places in Korea don’t have plumbing set up to handle it. If you do flush tissue and it clogs or overflows, you will have to pay a hefty fine. It is a little difficult to get used to the system but in the end, you will get used to it, whether you want to or not.


Fashion and Vanity

You may think that everyone is vain because they care a lot about their appearance and are always looking at and fixing themselves. However, they aren’t vain at all. There is a societal pressure to look a certain way. I had a hard time wrapping my head around it, but I came to realize that no matter what, a majority of people in Korea always dress their best. Almost everyone, including men, have a very detailed skin routine and wear make-up or at least BB cream. You might even find yourself starting to care more about your appearance as fashion is such a big part of Korean culture. You might not be used to the style but have fun playing with it. Be yourself and have fun!


The Importance of Age

Another adjustment is the importance put on age and how your age is determined. You will be asked how old you are and your age determines hierarchy among the people you meet, especially when you go out to eat and drink.

You must respect those who are older than you and take care of the ones who are younger. You also must use specific terms after a person’s name. If you are male, you should call an older man hyung and an older woman noona. If you are a female, you call an older man oppa and an older woman eonni. As a foreigner, you won’t be pressured into using these terms but if you want to make an effort to learn the culture, why not try? At first, I kept thinking the terms were everyone’s name or nickname – I was thrilled to find out I was wrong!

Don’t pour your own drink, it is considered rude. Usually, the youngest pours the drinks. If you are drinking alcohol, you must turn your head to the side if you are younger than the person in front of you. It’s rude to look someone older than you in the eye when you drink. Because of these diffefnt customs, you might worry about offending someone. If you are unsure about something, don’t be afraid to ask!


Stares, Touches, Pictures, and Rejection

You will be stared at. Someone might ask to take a photo with you or take a photo of you without permission. Someone may try and touch your hair. You might be rejected when going to the club or trying to get a taxi. But worry not.

Being stared at is always uncomfortable. You can either choose to ignore them, smile back at them, or stare back at them. There are some people who have never seen a foreigner in person. They are probably just curious. All you can do is show the best impression of yourself and be understanding. One way I got over this was going to a jjimjilbang. It completely takes you out of your comfort zone, but in the end, allows you to fully immerse yourself and be comfortable around others.

Having your picture taken with someone else is a bit strange, but it’s actually a little fun. I hate having my picture taken, but find it amusing to brighten someone’s day by taking a picture with them. So don’t be too freaked out if someone wants to take a picture with you! They might think you are someone famous.

You may be rejected when going to the club or a taxi. There are clubs that do not allow foreigners inside. It is completely unfair, but there are plenty of other clubs out there that are a lot of fun! Just roll it off your shoulder and go somewhere else. If a taxi driver rejects you, get their taxi number, report them, and grab another taxi. Taxi drivers are not supposed to reject you. It is actually illegal. As always, be careful and pay attention to your surroundings.


When going to South Korea, keep an open mind and open heart. Each place has its own culture that will be different from yours. Learn about the culture, history, and most importantly, have fun! Korea is a wonderful place with a lot to discover and you will leave with some of your greatest memories.


Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash

Explore South Korea with EFVisit Seoul

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