Life in Korea Travel & Culture

Overcoming Culture Shock in Korea

Here are five things to expect when you travel to South Korea and how to overcome the inevitable.

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 easier than others and don’t experience culture shock as much and some feel it overwhelmingly. I am someone that can adapt easily to places, but there were a few things that I had to get over first. From my experiences, here are five things to expect when you travel to South Korea and how to overcome the inevitable.

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, a popular American chain like Starbucks, or even Busan, you may find it difficult to communicate. Even traveling and ordering can be difficult if you can’t read Hangul. But, you are in luck. Learning to read Korean is very easy. They do have 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 text book 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, how to order food, ect. My favorite app right now is LingoDeer. My favorite place to go online is Talk To Me In Korean. Also, 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. Also, don’t worry. 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. No, those are not the only toilets you will be using. Actually, you may be able to avoid them majority of the time. But, in all honesty, they aren’t that bad. I tried them one day because I had to and I had to do it a couple of times in order to get over my fear of them.

The tissue thing is what gives most people who are not from there, including me, a bit of a problem. You do not, I repeat, DO NOT flush the tissue down the toilet. Throw them away in the trash can that is in the stall with you. Korea doesn’t have the best plumbing system. If you do flush tissue down the toilet and it clogs or overflows, you will have to pay a hefty fine if they find out it was you. It is a little difficult to get used to the system and you will get grossed out, but in the end you will get used to it whether you want to or not. It becomes second nature after awhile. Just try not to think too much about the waste bin.

In the stalls, not in all bathroom stalls, you will find a mirror looking straight back at you while you are on the toilet. You will be weirded out by it and it’s okay. I was completely petrified the first time it happened to me. Mirrors are everywhere. Appearance matters a lot in Korea and everyone is always checking their reflection, making sure nothing is out of place and they look as perfect as they can be. You will find yourself doing the same thing as them without even noticing. Which brings me to my next point.

Fashion and Vanity

You may think that everyone is vain because they care a lot about their appearance and are always looking 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, 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 out of insecurity. But don’t worry, no matter how you dress and if you wear make-up or not, no one is going to care too much. So, be yourself and have fun!

Fashion is a big thing in Korea and they have a certain kind of style you may not be used to, but will have fun playing with. Oh, and men usually have pants that don’t go pass their ankles. It is because they want to seem taller. That was something that bothered me greatly until I asked. At home, if your pants don’t go past your ankles, it means your pants are too short. But not in Korea!

The Importance of Age

Something that most people have an issue getting used to is the importance put on age and how your age is determined. You will be asked how old you are and your age determines where you go in the hierarchy among the people you meet, especially when you go out to eat and drink. But one thing you are going to have to get used to is adding one or two years to your actual age. It’s just best to tell them the year you were born, because it gets confusing.

You must respect those who are older than you and take care of the ones who are younger than you. You also must use specific terms after a person’s name. If you are male, you call an older man, hyung and older woman, noona. If you are a female, you call an older man, oppa and an older woman, eonni. There are other terms for people that are a lot older than you, but we don’t have to get into that now. Don’t worry too much though. As a foreigner, you won’t be pressured into doing so. But it is good to know the terms so you won’t be too confused hearing it all the time. I, at first, kept thinking that that was everyone’s name or nickname. I was so 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 the age hierarchy, this is something that is extremely important. You can easily offend someone and not know why. 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 if you are black, blonde or red-headed. 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. You will be annoyed, but you will get used to it. There are some people who have never seen a foreigner before or a foreigner who looks like you in person. They are curious. Unfortunately, they might have bad impressions because of the media or they might have had a bad experience with someone who might look like you. 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 in order to not be bothered by everyone else.

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 someones 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. If a taxi driver does take you, they might try and go a long way around in order to get more money from you. You just have to be careful and pay attention to your surroundings.

There are a lot more things that you will experience that will shock you, but this will give you a head start. When going to South Korea, keep an open mind and open heart. Some things will shock in you a good way and some things will shock you in a bad way. Each place has its own culture that will most likely be different from yours. Learn about where you are going, learn about the culture, learn a bit about the history, and most importantly, have fun! Korea is a wonderful place with a lot to discover and you will leave with, hopefully, some of your greatest memories.

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