Thoughts on Culture Shock in Korea

Thoughts on Culture Shock in Korea

When I first moved to Suji, I was not terribly shocked with the fact that it is so much smaller than what I’ve become used to. I researched so many blogs prior to moving here, one of them being my good friend Sydney’s blog. Within the first month or so of being here, everything seemed so new and different. I was fascinated with everything around me. While not much has changed, some of the initial surprises have now become commonplace as I begin to finally recognize Korea as my new home.

If you know me, you know I am in no way patriotic or tied to my home country in any way shape or form. While I respect the rights I have as an American citizen, I find the culture to be absolutely abhorrent. I’d wanted to leave for quite some time, so I’m pretty pleased with the fact that I now live in a country where I am able to purchase groceries without the entire Kardashian family staring at me from glossy magazine covers as I wait in line. Despite the fact I absolutely hate so much of the culture that is tied to the grand ‘ol United States of Amurka, I’m not stupid. I knew every culture has its downfalls, and Korea was not going to be an exception.

Since people generally say culture shock begins to settle in after about three months, I figured I’d weigh in how I feel about some of the culture shock I’ve experienced in my daily encounters in Korea.

1. Spitting on the ground
When I first stepped off the plane, the first thing I noticed was how impeccably pristine the Incheon airport is. The floor was glistening and the vibe was foreign yet cosmopolitan. As I nervously navigated my way to customs, I noticed something incredibly disgusting on the ground – spit.

Koreans believe spitting removes the toxins from their bodies, and believe me, they will attempt to remove these toxins just about ANYWHERE. While it’s not as common among certain generations (think Babyboomers and younger), it’s not uncommon to be walking down the street and pass an ajumma (elderly woman) or an ajusshi (elderly man) who is hacking up a lung and spitting it out on the sidewalk. Or in a restaurant. Or on the bus. Or on the subway. Or waiting for the subway. Or in a bank vestibule. Watch where you walk.

2. The treatment of animals
I’ve been a vegetarian for the past 15 years of my life. One of the reasons is because I simply do not like the taste or idea of eating flesh. Another reason is due to the fact that America’s factory farming practices are beyond horrific. Until recently, it wasn’t as easy to get grassfed, organic meat that wasn’t pumped with antibiotics. With that said, Korea certainly has a dark side. While Korea takes great pride in its local and organic vegetable offering, a lot of the meat sold here is imported due to the fact there isn’t much space for farming.

I grew up in a household where pets were regarded as part of the family. I had one dog, Brady, for the majority of my childhood, whom I loved dearly. His loss left an impact on our family similar to the loss of a sibling. One thing that really irks me about this culture is the complete disregard for animals, particularly dogs. While certainly not every Korean person feels this way, the dog meat trade is still very present and quite upsetting. While I won’t go into detail how the dogs are killed, I will say that it is believed the meat is “better” the more torture the animal has gone through prior to its death.

Within the past few years, there have been a growing number of activists — Koreans and expats alike — banding together to attempt to stop the trade (i.e. rescuing dogs from meat markets), but it’s still a prevalent aspect of this culture, and is more common than most people would like to think.

I don’t really think this needs any explanation. I’ve come to terms that I’ll never truly be alone so long as I live in Asia.

4. Pickles.
First of all, it’s damn near impossible to find dill pickles in Korea. With that said, restaurants in Korea serve nearly every non-Korean dish with sweet pickles. If you order a pizza, it’s more than likely that pizza will come with sweet pickles on the side. I went to an Indian restaurant not too long ago with a friend and we were served sweet pickles with our naan. WHY DO YOU DO THIS, KOREA? TELL ME.

5. Mirrors. Everywhere.
Korea is known for it’s obsession with vanity. It’s been estimated that about one in every five women in South Korea have undergone some sort of plastic surgical procedure. One of the most common procedures is called the double eyelid surgery, which literally opens up their eyes to make them appear more Westernized.


An example of the procedure results.


Another example.

As you can assume, it only makes sense for a nation obsessed with vanity to be covered in mirrors. Want to know how your outfit looks before a job interview or on your way to work? Don’t worry, the entire elevator is covered in mirrors. Leaving a restaurant and want to make sure you don’t have food stuck in your teeth? Fear not. There’s a mirror next to the door. Waiting in line for the subway and want to make sure your hair falls into place before you meet your date for dinner? You guessed it — there’s a mirror next to you.

In America, if you’d like to see what you look like, you go into a bathroom. With that said, there’s a certain stigma that comes along with staring at yourself in the mirror for too long back in the states. However, in Korea, nobody will think twice if they see someone fixing their mascara or taking a “selfie” (I hate that I just used that term) using a public mirror.

6. Politeness
I haven’t had a single encounter in this country where I felt unwelcome or disrespected. In fact, I’ve felt the complete opposite. While there are definitely times where Korean people can be aggressive (i.e. getting on and off public transportation), I am not affected by it. After all, I did just moved here from Chicago where people push and shove their way onto feces and urine scented trains on a day-to-day basis. Okay, that’s not every train — just the Red  and Blue lines.

When I first moved here, I was so taken aback with the willingness people had to help me out. When I was heading back to Seoul from Busan following my New Years trip, I was (I think visibly) having a difficult time locating my train platform. A couple kindly approached me and asked to see my ticket. They told me to follow them, and walked me down the stairs, showed me where I would be boarding, and told me the best time to head back down to get a good seat when boarding. Earlier that night, my friend Tony and I were walking around Busan trying to find a local pizza place the owner of our hostel suggested, and we were having a hard time. Two people walking the complete opposite direction asked us if we needed help. When we showed them the name of the restaurant, they put it into their Google Maps, and walked us to the restaurant, which was about 10 minutes out of their way.

When I was waiting in line before work to get my Alien Registration Card, a woman asked me if I was a teacher. I told her yes, and she allowed me to skip a few spots in line by trading my number card with hers so I could have a faster process and get to work on time. The other day I looked up from reading my book on the subway, and saw an older woman writing something down on her hand with a pen. Within seconds, a teenage boy sitting across from her got up and handed her a piece of paper to write on instead. As Koreans say, “CUTE!”

The parents of my students are consistently giving me small gifts as reminders of how thankful they are for me helping their children learn a new language. Just last week, the mom of one of my students made a bunch of food for the other teachers and staff including a batch of delicious cookies.

The cookies!

The cookies!

They were made from real, fresh azaleas, honey and — you guessed it — rice. They were absolutely wonderful and looked like she spent many grueling hours in the kitchen. Just today, the mom of another student brought in an assortment of cookies, pies and pastries for the staff as a token of her gratefulness that her daughter is happy in my classroom. I’m not complaining.

7. Bowing. So much bowing.
Many Asian cultures place a strong amount of significance on respect for others. In Korean culture, the deeper the bow, the more respect you’re offering to the other person. While the bow I do on a regular basis really just consists of a somewhat deeper head nod (meaning I don’t get on my knees and bow each time I encounter someone more distinguished or older than myself), it’s still something that I was never exposed to growing up in America. However, after a few months of bowing to nearly everyone I see, I think I like the bow.

While these obviously haven’t been the only observations I’ve made within the past four months, these are some of the most significant. I will write an updated version once I think of more. As always, I will leave with a quote:

“What am I doing here?” – Arthur Rimbaud, writing home from Ethiopia


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