Dealing with Culture Shock in Korea

Dealing with Culture Shock in Korea

A few weeks ago I woke up with a massive stye on my eye. Despite the fact that I take excellent care of my eyes and face (something that was drilled into me by my mother since a young age), I happen to be one of the lucky people who just so happen to be prone to styes. The protocol is generally the same: No makeup, throw out the mascara I was using at the time, wash hands more than necessary and a regular hot compression on the affected area. However, this particular stye was a bit tricky.

No matter how great of care I took care of myself, this stye would not diminish. After three days of embarrassment, annoyance and overall discomfort, I decided it was time to face one of my biggest fears: I had to go see a Korean doctor.

Before I get into my stye ordeal, I would like to clarify that I haven’t had the best experiences in Korea when it comes to medical situations. Both of my parents are medical professionals in America, so I’ve always sort of grown up assuming all doctors practiced basic sanitary procedures in their professional workspace. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in Korea.

  • In February 2014, I sliced my pointer finger open so badly that it required 11 stitches. While waiting my turn for the stitches, my friend and I noticed the nurse who had just finished the sutures on someone else didn’t wash her hands before giving me the anaesthetic shot. Shortly after, the doctor came in and, without gloves, began to stitch my finger.
    Bonus: While I was crying, he told me, “you are crying because you are woman.”
  • Upon returning to the hospital a few days later for a routine check up, one of the gloveless nurses walked up to me in the waiting room, removed my bandages without saying a single word and pressed on the affected area. She proceeded to walk away, not giving me any direction or information. She returned back to her computer and began typing. Confusing and painful to say the least.
  • In April 2015 I went into a more upscale hospital in Gangnam for my routine check up. When it came time for my blood work and blood pressure, the nurse informed me that I have low blood pressure. She took my blood pressure three more times and told me that while it was still low, there was nothing significant to worry about. Despite the fact that I requested medication or information as to how I could fix this, she urged me to just have “no stress.” I fainted for the first time in my life a few weeks later on public transportation.

Anyway, this eyeball nonsense occurred during the MERS scare, so I was a bit hesitant to enter any type of medical facility as the hospitals were the only places the virus was spreading (I’m sensing a trend here, Korea.)

However, medication was the last resort, which meant I needed to visit an eye doctor. When I walked into the building, I was pleased to see the optometrist studied at Yale University. While I know this seems selfish, I enjoy as much English as I can get when it comes to situations like these.

Once my name was called, I eagerly walked into the doctor’s office, excited to finally be able to have a quick fix for this minor, but inconvenient, issue. The conversation that transpired was exactly what I didn’t want it to be, yet everything I assumed it would be (because Korea.)

“What is the matter?” he asked.

“I have a stye on my eye. It has been here for a few days and isn’t showing any reduction so I would like some eye drops and ointment, please.”

“How many days have you had this?”

“Three days, sir.”

“Sit down, I need to show you something,” he said.

When I sat down, I immediately felt fear and confusion. He ordered me to rest my chin on some sort of contraption that held my eye open. Without washing his hands, the doctor proceeded to touch my eye with his bare hands. Why does this always happen?

As he flipped my eyelid inside out, he was able to take a close up image of the stye.

“As you can see, this is a very serious eye disease. This could have been treated Saturday or Sunday, but today it is too late.”

“So what do you suggest I do?” I asked with fear in my voice.

“This is a very serious issue. It cannot be treated with medicine or antibiotics. This is a disease. We need to do a surgery today.”

I immediately felt myself getting angry.

“Sir, I would just like some antibiotics, ointment and eye drops. After it is all finished, if it’s not gone, then we can discuss surgery. This is just a stye, it is not a disease.”

“This is not to be taken lightly. This disease is serious. We need something done immediately.”

After another minute or so of me attempting to logically explain the situation (a true feat in Korea), the doctor gave in to my request.

“This will not work, but I will write anyway,” he muttered as he handed me the prescriptions.

As I waited in the pharmacy, a wave of anger swooped me up and held me hostage for the rest of the day. While I know the healthcare system in America has many of its own flaws, I have never felt as scared as I have when I go to Korean doctors. Doctors are supposed to form relationships with their patients and walk them through their treatment options calmly and informatively, not terrorize them and pressure them into ridiculous situations.

As if that hoopla wasn’t enough, the Korean staff gasped and told me that I looked “horrible” as soon as I returned to work. While my coworkers are genuinely nice people, it’s another one of those aspects of Korean culture I just haven’t grown accustomed to. Throughout the day, the Korean staff continued to question why I had a hot pack on my eye and reminded me constantly that it could be “very dangerous,” which made me more angry. In addition, they were genuinely interested as to why I did not immediately opt for the surgical route.

By the end of the day, the condition of my eye improved significantly. And, as predicted, my eye was able to open up completely after just three days of using the medicated eye drops.

Left: My walk to work that morning. / Right: Four hours after the appointment.

Left: Mean mugging and visibly trying to open my eye on the walk to work that morning. / Right: Four hours after the appointment.

When I get this frustrated with Korea, I find it absolutely impossible to remove myself from a rut from time to time. I’m sure I’m not alone with this sentiment, but I’m not sure I am able to handle the frustration in the best way possible. I know it’s always peaks and valleys, ups and downs, highs and lows, tomatoes and tomahtoes, but I wish I could stop these types of situations from affecting me so much.

Was I surprised that the doctor immediately jumped to the conclusion of the surgical removal of a STYE? Not really.

Will trips to the hospital or doctor’s office always be a source of culture shock in Korea triggers as long as I’m in Korea? I hope not, but I assume so.

Was my anger justifiable? Yes.

Do I need to be better at handling this inner anger and realize that I have to let go of expectations and accept things for what they are? Yes.

Does anybody have tips for beating the culture shock blues?

“One day, young grasshopper.” – The Universe



  1. July 8, 2015 / 5:24 am

    Whoaa! I recently had a not-so-pleasant experience with the nurse at Severance. It was my son who needed skin treatment. Now that I am reading yours, I think I really have to write about that, too.

    I understand where you’re coming from. In the Philippines, we would spend a long time in the doctor’s office even if the visit is just for vaccine. It takes a lot of their time (and money from consultation fee) but I really appreciate the relationship that they build with the family. Here, it is ppali-ppali. My first son was only properly diagnosed when we went directly to the international clinic of Severance 6 years ago (Korea culture: go first through the neighborhood clinics then go to the bigger hospital upon referral) after being told that his was just ordinary colds by the neighborhood hospital for many months. Anyway, great for you that you insisted on medication first.

  2. July 10, 2015 / 2:41 pm

    Whoa! Those are some scary experiences you had there! Good thing the doctor finally gave in to writing you that prescription! You know what, no offense to Korea but reading your post made me think, “no wonder MERs spread so fast!” I mean if the hospitals here are as unhygienic as the ones you went to then crap, we’re doomed!

  3. July 13, 2015 / 6:23 am

    Not really sure if I can truly offer you any advice for getting over culture shock in hospitals. Perhaps you can find a doctor that spent time practicing in America and speaks English to go to as your regular physician. I totally understand where you are coming from and have had many similar issues with Korean doctors.

  4. July 13, 2015 / 7:29 am

    Geez, that’s a horrible experience! And to immediately jump to the surgery option seems irresponsible.

    I’ve had friends with non-urgent medical needs actually request copies of info to be scanned and sent home for a doctor back in the States to look at. Not sure how feasible that is in all situations, but I’m sure it’s good for peace of mind!

    I guess I was lucky, I had a really good experience in the hospital when I messed up my wrist. No surgery scares, and the doctor’s beside manner was much better than yours.

    Hopefully there’s no next time, but if there is, I hope it goes better!

    • July 13, 2015 / 7:42 am

      I usually confirm with my parents before I do anything medical here. I know people here are professional and know what they’re doing – I just haven’t had the opportunity to be their patient yet. One of my buddies fell last year and had to get stitches on his face. He woke up with a nose job. Just can’t make this shit up!

  5. July 29, 2015 / 6:57 am

    I’m so embarrased…..sorry.
    However there are good doctors in Korea.
    Don’t hesitate to go to the hospital, when you are sick.

  6. February 9, 2016 / 8:51 pm

    I had no idea that hospitals were that unsanitary! Korea seems like a place that would be very on top of hygienic practices. Lots of people seem quick to judge that America’s healthcare situation is the worst in the world, but if an American doctor were to touch someone’s eye without washing their hands, it would be absolutely chaos!

  7. August 12, 2017 / 11:00 am

    Excellent post, Laura! It’s always great to read about pleasant as well as unpleasant experiences we face abroad! When it comes to the tips for beating the culture shock, I would say that we should accept every situation as it is and learn from it! 😉

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