How Korea and the USA are Culturally Different

How Korea and the USA are Culturally Different

These are some interesting cultural differences I have found here in South Korea. Just to be clear, none of these differences are bad and I am not being judgmental on any of them. They are all just observations I have made in my two months living here and thought they would be interesting to share with you all!

  1. Many Koreans love to practice English with you. They will talk to you in Korean as if they think you are fluent and then say random words in English… “Boston! Baseball! America!” It always makes me laugh. Hey at least they are trying! And thankfully I have been taking Korean lessons so I can use some conversational pieces now! When I speak Korean in class…even just a sentence my students get so excited. I always tell them “You teach me Korean, I teach you English!” We work together.
  2. Prepare to have no personal space in Korea…westerners are very use to having a bubble around them at all times. There’s no such thing here. Standing in line somewhere…you turn your head and bam there’s someone standing right next to you. You get used to it…kinda.
  3. Customer service is the BEST in the world in Korea. And they don’t receive tips…that may tell you something about their wonderful culture.
  4. You don’t flush toilet paper – there are bins in each stall of the bathroom that you put your used toilet paper in – Korea’s plumbing system isn’t that good
  5. I have officially gotten used to eating with chopsticks! I can hold it the “Korean way” and have been complimented many times on my chop stick skills! 🙂
  6. There are three types of ways you will get toilet paper in a bathroom… 1. If you are lucky there will be toilet paper in your stall 2. There will be toilet paper outside of the stall and you estimate how much toilet paper you need. Or 3. There is no toilet paper and you better hope you have some with you or else you’re outta luck haha Also I find it interesting that the soap in Koreans schools are all bars of soap.
  7. There are no drying towels or air dryers in schools…you simply air dry your hands every time you wash them which is a lot since I work in an elementary school. And it’s all squatting toilets except one western style toilet in the bathroom.
  8. Fan Death – it’s believed that if you sleep with a fan on in your room and your door is closed then you will die of Fan Death—-this is no joke to Koreans. There are stories of Korean teachers showing up at English Teacher’s homes just to make sure they know not to sleep with a fan on – you can compare it to how we say you have 7 years bad luck when you break a mirror except taken more seriously.
  9. You take your shoes off at school and put them in lockers and put on your indoor slippers. Mine consist of adidas looking sandals that I wear every day. The kids take off their shoes and carry them up to their cubbies outside of their classroom and slip on their white croc looking shoes. When they go to gym or lunch time they carry their shoes outside with them to put on. You never wear your outdoor shoes inside the school. They even have guest sandals that can be borrowed to wear or in some cases I have seen them put surgical shoe covers on if there is a parent’s day and not enough slippers for everyone.
  10. You shake hands 3 different ways in Korea and it’s a hugeee sign of respect. You also hand money or things a certain way to people out of a sign of respect…Use both hands if possible when presenting and receiving something. If that is not possible, use your right hand and support your right elbow with your left hand.

…Bill Gates once went to visit South Korea and shook the president’s hand wrong and it was ALL over newspapers…huge sign of disrespect. You are supposed to bow and put your left hand across your body or touching your elbow while shaking hands.

  1. All students bow to you as you walk through the hallway. They will at times stop what they are doing and bow and say “Hello Teacher!!!” or “Annoyinsayo Saem Sim Neim!” It’s the cutest thing and I plan to never get used to it so every time it happens I think it’s just as cute as the first time.
  2. All men are required to enter the military after high school for 2 years of their life. I have heard very mixed reviews from young Korean men on this issue. Many are frustrated by this since it basically pauses their life for two years…they have to stop going to university or stop their job to enter the military. It’s fascinating. To give some perspective…even if you are a famous Kpop singer you have to stop your music career for two years to enter the military if you haven’t done so yet. The average age of the younger military men are 19-21.
  3. You must pour drinks a certain way out of respect – when a much older respected person (such as your principal) pours you a drink…you accept the drink with two hands and turn your body away from the principal and take a sip. You never sip directly in front of him/her. You also graciously accept the glass with two hands. And offer to pour their drink for them. Your cup never goes unfilled…if you finish your drink, expect that it will be filled within 15 seconds..and if for some reason they forget for a minute or two it’s always OH IM SORRY HERE!…and pours you another. This can be a bit dangerous while drinking Soju or Makkoli so if you don’t want your cup refilled…best not to finish your last cup.
  4. Koreans wear some serious hiking clothes. They have actual track suits they wear and are prepared to take on anything with their hiking poles and sticks. I love hearing the ages of people hiking too. I was hiking this steep part of the mountain and a man next to me told me he was 81. I was panting and he was casually hiking at 81 years old. Amazing. I think a Christmas gift to myself will be a sweet Korean hiking outfit!
  5. Decisions are mainly made by hierarchy. So if you ask permission for something…expect to wait for the answer because it has to go through your co-teacher, then your vice-principal, and then your principal. And this is similar in businesses as well.
  6. It’s rare to cover your face when sneezing or coughing…and don’t expect to hear a “bless you” because there is no such thing here. You sneeze loudly in the office and it’s silent.
  7. Expect every meal to have rice, kimchi and soup served. I have actually gotten very used to having kimchi. I had never had it before moving to South Korea and it’s a taste that I can’t compare to anything else. Definitely takes some getting used to.
  8. Expect to be asked to take a picture with you at least a couple times a week…I’ve gotten used to it and just smile and say “Kimchiii!” (instead of cheese they say kimchi! 😀 )
  9. In the gym…you need to wear indoor gym tennis shoes…and you take your shoes off at the front door of the gym and wear slippers into the locker rooms. You also can’t wear your gym shoes inside the locker rooms. The gyms also provide clothes there too so you can walk into the gym, grab a pair of shorts and a t shirt and go get changed and workout then return the clothes. Basically no excuses here of why you shouldn’t be active. They don’t have the cleanliness standards that the good ole Lifetime Fitnesses have and they don’t use AC like our gyms but it does the trick and I still really love it!
  10. Many Korean stares are really intense as you are walking down the street. Especially the older generation…but I know they just have that “resting bitch face” going on because every older person I have met has been incredibly kind once they get over the shock of staring at you!
  11. And the finally 20. Bus drivers drive insane here. Like crazy speedy and really fast stops and starts. If you don’t hold on…expect to fly into someone’s lap. However, I do trust their driving and relax now but at first it was pretty intense. Just don’t look ahead and enjoy the ride.

Throw yourself in the mix of the culture. Don’t hibernate in your apartment. Get outdoors, go hiking, go to the markets, and experience the life and culture here. It’s a wonderful thing. The more I walk around my neighborhood the more I have become comfortable. The more they see the token foreigner with blonde hair that always walks around, the fewer stares I get. I also joined a gym finally! It was very terrifying the first week…their customs are very different and I had to adjust quickly. Basically stare at whatever everyone else does. They have been so welcoming and kind to me. and the guys who work there have been super kind which make the experience much better. Now I have been going for a week straight so I think people are getting used to me now. YAY! And hey..if you are looking for a ripped Korean man…go to the gyms because that’s where they have been hiding! More motivation!

This is a country with over 5,000 years of history so of course many people will be stuck in their ways but things are changing as all countries change with time. I remind myself that I need to become comfortable being uncomfortable every single day. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world. All countries have their own quirky customs, traditions and mannerisms and as different as some things may be…I have loved learning about everything. I am beginning to adjust to life here in Korea and loving every minute of it.

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3 thoughts on "How Korea and the USA are Culturally Different"

  1. Brad says:

    Having lived in South Korea for over 10 years, I can confirm that, yes, there still are many restrooms throughout Seoul (and every other city) where they have signs reminding you to not flush toilet paper down the commode. They often have small receptacles in each stall where people place used toilet paper. In 2018, the government has tried to curb this (due to complaints by Koreans and tourists) by implementing a new ordinance of the Public Toilets Act; however, as laws are not widely enforced here (and due to some older buildings having weak flushing systems), many restrooms still explicitly suggest to throw used T.P. in the stall’s bin. I’d say in 2009, about 50% of the restrooms suggested to use the bin for used T.P. – in 2020, it’s probably decreased to around 25%.

  2. Ren Fannin says:

    Quick question, have you ever known anyone to start teaching in South Korea who was already married? I figure moving would be rough so I wanna ask if it is even a thing. I went to school for linguistics but now I find I dont really use it much here in the USA. I’d love to get the opportunity.

  3. Linda Park says:

    Um lol… I lived in South Korea for 10 years and moved to Canada. I have lived here for about 7 years, and with no doubt South Korean flushing system is way better. Also, I know this because I am South Korean but you do need to flush the toilet paper in the toilet. It is considered gross if you don’t. I don’t know where you went but flushing the toilet paper in the toilet is part of the culture 🙂

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