Moving to another country, especially one as different as Korea can make you experience one tough culture shock: why are people staring at me… why is cereal so expensive… is it really ok to spit in public? Now, we’ve gotten used to being pointed at by amazed children (and yes, once making a child cry when they saw my face) and lots of Korean ways have become second nature (minus the spitting). So much so that back in England people must have wondered why I bow my head in greeting, instead of waving at them.
Of course we researched Korean etiquette before we came (oh, so that’s how I should leave my chopsticks at the end of a meal), but nothing fully prepares you for entering a completely foreign culture.
Here are some of the cultural changes we’ve become accustomed to during our time in Korea, albeit some more easily than others…
- Discussing People’s Age
What’s one of the rudest things you can ask someone in England? Their age. This rule is even more important when the person in question is elderly. It’s one thing guaranteed to get you in trouble when you’re young and don’t know better: innocently asking an adult “How old are you,” will inevitably lead to a good telling-off.
So imagine our surprise when we first met our co-ordinator in Korea who happily told us on our first meeting his age (and has since repeated it on numerous occasions). We thought it odd, to say the least. But in a country where age equals respect, it’s something to be proud of.
Oh, and this doesn’t bear well for me as the youngest teacher in school; when students ask my age and realise how young I am, it doesn’t encourage them to respect me…
- Discussing How Much Things Cost
Another faux-pas in England: telling someone how much a gift cost. And just in general, talking about the high price of something would make people think you’re boasting or just plain arrogant. It’s an awkward topic.
Roll on me feeling extremely uncomfortable when our director buys us a winter blanket as a gift, and proceeds to describe in detail just how much it cost and how extremely expensive it was (and repeats this ten times over). Um… Thanks…
- Slippers/ No Shoes Inside
No shoes inside the house is a fairly normal rule. But inside public buildings? Now that was new to me.
Comfy slippers in the workplace= so much better than smart shoes and much warmer in winter too; I love putting my furry slippers on when I get inside. Although I have to admit that it makes me feel slightly less professional…
Taking off shoes in restaurants isn’t as fun- having cold feet in the winter isn’t great and bare feet in the hot, sweaty summer…not the most pleasant thing!
- Bowing Heads
I have become used to nodding at people I pass or make eye-contact with (and now also do the same in England, probably resembling a nodding dog at times).
However I still automatically smile too, something I just can’t snap out of. Don’t get me wrong, some Koreans smile back, but more often than not, a bow of the head is all I get. So it’s very likely that when I make eye contact with someone, the Korean is probably left wondering who the crazy smiling Westerner was.
- Lack Of Queues
No, I haven’t gotten used to the lack of queues in Korea, nor will I ever. Maybe it’s just an English thing, but queues are just logical. And when someone cuts in front of me at CU, I still want to murder them.
The best example of why queues are the best? Flashback to the time when I was almost trapped in the closing doors on the subway on the way to watch Korean vs. Brazil at the World Cup Stadium- I was so rammed by the crowds of people, pushing from all sides. See, this is why queues were invented!
(On the other hand, I do love the Korean ticket system when you’re at the bank/ cinema etc, and it does prevent queue jumpers. CU- take note).
- Showing A Lot Of Leg
This is one thing I really don’t understand: in the same culture where it’s frowned upon to have bare shoulders/ arms, people don’t look twice about girls wearing micro-mini-skirts and hot pants.
The shoulders issue isn’t surprising because it’s the same in many cultures, but what puzzles me is why this is seen as wrong, but legs on show is acceptable. I’ve seen some shockingly short skirts/ shorts during my time in Korea (and yes, I know that makes me sound like I’m about 80): seriously, the skirts are so short they’d raise eyebrows in England… and don’t even get me started on the hot pants.
Why does it bother me? Because all I want in summer is to wear thin straps, without being glared at by Ajummas… it’s just too hot to wear sleeves!
- Not Tipping
In lots of the restaurants here it makes sense that you don’t tip- you cook the food yourself, after all. But I still feel guilty when the people are so lovely, or you’re somewhere that cooks for you and it’s delicious, but it’s not normal to give tips here.
The reaction I got once from a taxi driver proved how unusual it was to tip: I told him to keep the change which was only about 500 won, but from his smile and surprise, you’d think I had given him 5000 won!
- Sharing Food
Sharing food usually comes naturally because it comes on one grill/ in one big bowl. But the first time we ate at a Western restaurant we realised it’s also the norm to share food there; you get one pizza and one bowl of pasta, and share both. Pretty good idea when you can’t decide on just one thing from the menu!
The only downside is that the servers as so used to people sharing that they don’t bring out your meals at the same time, leading to one person jealously watching the other eat (worst thing ever when you’re hungry).
- Food Etiquette
There are quite a few rules about eating which we tried to learn before coming to Korea: wait for the eldest person to sit down first, don’t eat too fast, don’t eat too slow, never pour your drink first, don’t leave the table until the eldest person has. It’s like a minefield.
Our first meal, we were concentrating so hard on not offending anyone we could barely relax to enjoy the food… ‘what if I accidently pour myself some water first and instantly offend everyone’, ‘what if I need to leave the table’… ‘what if I put my chopsticks in the wrong place’.
The hardest thing? Never refusing food in case you look rude- let’s just say that after a meal with Korean colleagues, I’m beyond full. I’m just thankful that we go to a Christian school and so there are no shots of soju around…
Needless to say, there have been many slip-ups along the way. Like the first time I entered our new apartment after 24 hours of travelling and forgot to take my shoes off. Bad move. Luckily, our co-ordinator forgave me (I think). There are also the things I haven’t adapted to, and don’t think I ever will- I haven’t started audibly slurping my food, I’d just end up with it all over me! Not cool.
But despite the cultural divergence, there are still little things which make you feel at home. The best is the friendliness of hikers, always having a friendly word to say; it reminds me of being back in England on a country walk, where everyone greets each other like they’re old friends. So despite the many changes, the gaping differences between England and Korea, it’s nice that some things have remained the same.