12 Things I Never Expected in Korea

It’s not easy living in Korea as a foreigner.
There’s a lot of things to hate and there are a lot things to love.

Hate derives from a lack of understanding
And there is a lot that I do not understand in Korea…

Being from an English speaking country, I am acutely aware of how I have been raised in a culture that’s fundamentally individualist vs. collectivist. In a collectivist culture, anyone older than you, or having a higher ranking job than you, can tell you what to do and you will do it. Understanding this is one thing, but living in it can feel quite oppressive if you’re not used to it.

I’ve even used the word soul crushing on a bad day.
But that’s a bad day..

Living in Korea is always exciting and interesting, and I have never once regretted uprooting my life here for a while.
Here’s a list of some of the good and bad things that have surprised me in Kimchi Land

Please note these are my personal thoughts and opinions based on my experience as a public school elementary school teacher in Ulsan. They are also my experience as a white foreign woman in a foreign country, meaning I am perceived differently than a person of colour, or if I were to have male reproductive organs, and my experiences reflect so. 

1. A Serious Schooling

Recently, my talkative 12 year old student told me that he was angry after an in-class quiz. I asked him why, and he explained in the English he knew, that he studies English every single day after school but the quiz was still difficult for him. Normally, I’d sympathize and seceretly want to tell him that’s life, kid… but he’s a South Korean student, and I felt a deep aching sadness for him. I should’ve said it’s just the beginning, kid. 

Korean people have explained to me on multiple occasions, that Korea doesn’t have natural resources like countries like Canada. There are only people and their minds, their hands and feet. That means that competition for jobs, business survival, and new ideas is vicious and cut throat.
Some students sleep later than I do, and some definitely get home later than I do, since most attend after school programs and go to private academies, called hagwons in Korean.
I made a comment recently to someone that high schoolers in Korea all seem to be overweight. Tell you what, I would be eating the shit out of my feelings too, if I were a Korean high schooler. They have an exam called the Suneung, in November. Not kidding, planes are grounded, the stock market is delayed, and I got to show up to work an hour later because they wanted to reduce traffic so final year students wouldn’t be late for the exam.

The pressure is so high because a good university = a good stable job = a stable life. There’s a reason Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world among young people…

As a part of Korea’s over competitive and devastatingly difficult school system, it’s my job to make English fun while I can.

Here’s an article the BBC wrote about Korea’s schools.

2. Economically Modern, Socially Archaic 

After the Korean War ended in 1950, Korea has grown rapidly. It is one of the world’s top 10 powerhouses in terms of economy and technology. It’s modern as modern can get! You’re useless here without a smart phone. Even the credit cards are used to tap universally in a taxi, bus and corner store. However, socially, it’s still crawling out of the 1950s.

If you’re Korean, I don’t recommend you be gay, divorced, Muslim and don’t be tattooed or pierced either.
It’s not easy being these things back home, but at least you can be. 

-I have never met an openly gay Korean person, nor have my Korean girl friends when I asked.
-My students are savage af and will “tease” their friends of divorced parents and say they have no mother or father…
-I have only ever seen one Muslim Korean, which I really wanna ask her about…
-I have seen a lot of young Korean people with tattoos, and piercings are limited to ears.

If you’re a foreigner, you will be judged and the older women will definitely talk about you and maybe glare at you – but a Korean person would likely be scolded or shamed for any of the above.

Big cities like Seoul and Busan are more progressive than other parts of the country, so you will find more tattoos, piercings and gay bars.

3. Friendship Differences

In Korean, there is formal language used for people who are older than you. The only people who are considered friends are people your age.
The word friend to a Korean person literally means something different. In English culture, friend encompasses anyone you have a relatively close relationship with, even sometimes when you don’t.
That means that if a Korean is older than another Korean, they wouldn’t say they are friends, they’d use a title that means “older brother”, and their relationship to them is not equal. Now, I’m a foreigner, so we can be friends because the rule doesn’t really apply, but if you’re Korean and your older than someone, you are to be treated with more respect.
Back home, some of my best friends are 5 years older than me and we treat each other the same and our roles are equal.

Here, the class you go to school or university with are your only possible “friends.”
I find this the most difficult in the workplace. I want to be able to have friendly relationship with other staff, but instead I need to use formal language and be very polite because I am younger than everyone.

4. Dangerous Air, No Masks 

(This one may be regional only – my friend near Seoul says everyone wears a mask.)
Korea is one of the world’s most air polluted countries, especially in Spring. In March and April in Ulsan, air quality went from Unhealthy for Special Populations (kids, people with lung conditions etc.) to straight up Unhealthy for everyone. My throat hurt, my nose was stuffy and I got a random sickness that I know I wouldn’t have come down with in Canada.

The crazy thing is in Ulsan, one of the most polluted cities in Korea because of its industries, no one wears pollution masks. Everyone talks about the pollution but no one actually puts a mask on, except for the odd grandmother.
Particulate matter, especially the small stuff (PM2.5), is carcinogenic. There is no reason not to wear a mask, except they’re uncomfortable. I was so shocked that parents weren’t even getting their kids to wear them but people were telling me I should wear one…

seoul pollution.jpg
Seoul’s pollution in early Spring

5. Staff Dinners

Staff meals are no joke in Korea.
Frequency changes depending on your job, but hwesik/회식s are a staff meal at a restaurant with all staff members.
Some dinners have 3 rounds, where you eat food, go to a cafe next, then to a norebang or a bar afterwards.
Usually you sit on the floor because it’s the only style of room that can fit that many people, and depending on your boss, you could drink enough soju to be blackout drunk even though you work the next day.
In true Confucian hierarchy fashion, the boss is king or queen.
You will drink a lot because your boss tells you to and you can’t say no…

When the principal walks in, you stand, when the principal gives a speech you wait, and when the principal finishes their meal, you need to be finished too.
My principal is a Christian, so there’s not a lot of drinking, but apparently the last principal loved to drink, so everyone got lit together. It’s a great way to bond and build rapport with your coworkers.

It can be a blast! If you’re into it…. If you don’t drink, don’t like your boss or coworkers, don’t like socializing or… can’t speak Korean.. then it can be really socially isolating and miserable.

Good example of a boss giving a speech (not my photo)

6. 정 “Jeong” or Kindness

Non-romantic kindness and love is referred to as jeong (or jung) in Korean. Jeong takes place everywhere, but I’ve noticed it manifests most in the form of snacks.
For example, the women at my gym bring rice cake snacks and they always invite me to try some with them (while I’m on a treadmill lols). My Korean co-teacher constantly shares her snacks with me and always brings me something new to try. I’ve also had plenty of lovely people give me their umbrella when they see I don’t have one (to keep!!) When a friend and I hiked to the top of a mountain at the end of winter, a man gave her a pair of gloves to keep!
Korean people aren’t the smiliest people in the world, but they may literally give you the shirt off your back if you need one, maybe with some light scolding and tsk-tsking.

7. Teacher-Student Relationships

Teachers have a more intimate relationship with their students than they do in Canada. A grade one teacher at my school (equivalent to a kindergarten teacher in Can. elem. schools) told me that in the first week of school, students’ parents were calling her at night to make sure they packed the right thing for their child. My first question was how did parents get your home number??  It’s normal for parents to call a teacher’s home number, but they don’t as the students get older.
Another thing I noticed, is that teachers lovingly hug and touch their students. In Canada, teachers need to keep physical boundaries between themselves and students to protect themselves from any accusations that physical contact could promote.

I also recently learned that Korean students feel more cared about if teachers are strict with them. If a teacher has high expectations and rules, somehow they understand it as loving. If a teacher let’s the class get away with murder, that teacher is perceived to care less about the students. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it does here.

8. Sameness

Uniformity: a euphemism for everyone doing the same flippin thing.
This is a harsh criticism, but I think it’s true. Here to be different, you are weird and judged. In a collectivist society, you don’t want to stand out. It’s far safer to sit down, shut up, and conform. Hair, clothes, makeup, cars, city designs. Errthaaang
Trends change, yes, but everyone follows them to an extreme.

When you travel, you will be able to identify Korean people by their style.
Men’s haircuts being your first indication. Bowl cuts, middle parts and perms.

bowl cut.jpg
This is one hell of a good haircut though. They don’t all look as fresh as this

In Korea, if you see any kind of wave or curl in a Korean person’s hair, 9/10 times it’s a perm. It’s also normal for men and little boys to get perms! I’ve seen dad’s and their sons sitting together in a hair salon, with rollers in their hair.

These kids are too young to even realize they have perms

In a more literal sense, I’ve noticed that people are always wearing uniforms if they’re part of any group thing. In Canada you can show up in a workout shirt of the same colour and BAM, you’re considered a team. Here, you all get the same shirt or hi-vis, or hat and you all wear it together.
Car colours are the same. There’s no funky bright red or pink. It’s blue, grey, black and white.

Korean makeup trend: straight eyebrows, orange/pink eyeshadow, coloured lenses, lip tint on the inside of the lips.

All the same clothes are sold in every store. All the cities have the same stores. All the cities repeat themselves and look the same. The only reason cities look different is because of their natural landscape.

Yes, I’m making a gross exaggeration, but also… I’m not. 

Also. Matching Couples. 

9. Foreigner or Non-Korean?

If you ask a Korean person what the word “waygookin/외국인” means, they’ll say it means “foreigner.” But if you ask a Korean how their trip to LA was, they’ll tell you they spoke to many foreigners in English. In this instance, they’re referring to Americans in LA. The word used to mean foreigner actually means Non-Korean person. 
This is an indicator of Korea being an extremely homogenous culture. Being a non-Korean person in Korea, you are literally foreign – a new thing that people don’t understand and what they do know is from Hollywood movies. Stereotyping, racism and misunderstandings are normal and expected. It’s kind of why I’m here – to show Korean people another culture. It also means that I will never 100% be able to fit in as a Non-Korean person.

Image result for alien
Me in a nutshell, who dis?

10. “Be careful!” and “…Alone?”

I have never been told to be careful so many times in my life. I have never been asked if I’ve gone somewhere alone, so many times in my life.
It largely has to do with being a woman, and my own culture upbringing and Korean culture and gender norms.
I enjoy what Korean people consider to be risky activities. I like to hike, surf, run, carry heavy things up stairs by myself (lol), etc.

Women are socially constructed to be cute, especially in recent generations (boys too though..).
People are shocked that I love exercise, love hiking, and I can lift things… in general. I’m usually the only woman on the “man’s side” of the gym, with the squat rack.
Vancouver is an extremely fitness-focused city, but I didn’t expect to be told I’m strong so many times as if it came as a surprise.

When I first arrived, I asked some male coworkers if there was any cliff jumping and they all looked around at each other and unanimously said no. I quickly realized that it’s not that there aren’t spots, it’s that one does it…
I think we may be crazier in English speaking countries…

It’s less okay to be alone here.
For most, eating alone is kind of embarrassing, and going for a hike alone is out of the question (despite there being no bears, cougars and full bars at the peak).
Maybe the result of a collective society is to do things together?


TWICE members showing their cute/aegyo side

11. “Swiper, What’s Swiping?”

You can leave your shit anywhere and no one will steal it. It’s a revelation.
– You can leave your laptop and phone on your table at a cafe and go pee without asking anyone to watch them, and they’ll still be there when you come back.
– You can leave your shit on your beach towel and run into the sea and no one will take your phone and camera.
– Businesses leave their stuff on the sidewalk overnight, like tables and chairs with cushions, and no one will take them or break them.
– There are mirrors in public washrooms, and no one has broken them or vandalized them.
-Hell, there’s very little graffiti and I have never actually seen anything vandalized. It’s mostly the trash on the ground that shows any sign of rebellion or apathy.
– I’ve seen someone save a spot at the table outside a 7/11 by leaving their phone on the table and walking inside to buy something.

Is it honesty or is it fear? Maybe both. In Korea there are CCTVs everywhere. You are being watched. And if you’re not, well you think you are so you’re not gonna try anything anyway.
I will miss it when I go back to Canada.

Image result for swiper no swiping

12. Living at Home

Most Korean people live with their parents until they’re married. 
That means even in your late twenties, your mom is probably cooking you dinner and washing your clothes. It also means that if you’re in a serious relationship (or not), and you live in a tiny apartment with your folks, sex has to be done in a love motel .

Flashy and colourful on the outside, themed or hotel-y on the inside

-Living at home with your folks also means you probably don’t know how to cook. Women typically learn how to cook once their married. And men… you can guess.
-Living at home with your family really changes how you buy things in Korea. Things are often sold in big amounts, like a bunch of 20 bananas or apples being sold in a big box.
-As a foreigner, I buy my own food and cook for myself on most nights. This means I have less money to eat out, compared to my Korean friends whose parents cook and pay for food.

It should be noted that Korea’s conservative (and xenophobic) ideologies are mostly found among older people.
Things are slowly changing, as more foreigners are moving here for work and more young Korean people are learning other languages and living abroad.

If you have any comments or questions feel free to comment.

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