If you are reading this, hopefully you are considering going to Korea. In this post I would like to discuss some aspects of Korean culture that I learned while in Korea. Some of these things I wish I knew before I went to Korea, but you really have to be immersed in the culture to fully understand the dynamics within the culture. I was there for four months, and some things still confuse me. But that’s part of the experience of going abroad and being slightly confused on a consistent basis taught me a lot. Everything in South Korea was also slightly more complicated to understand because I don’t speak much Korean and English is not widely spoken.
The first and most useful thing I learned about Korean culture is the art of bowing. When you receive something, you bow. When bump into someone, you bow. When you have to apologize for something because you are the confused foreign person, you bow! It’s just a small nod of your head really, but in South Korea a bow goes a long way toward expressing your gratitude and showing respect. Once I left Korea, I found myself subconsciously bowing for every little thing. It was an extremely useful skill that helped me get through a lot of situations especially if there was a language barrier.
Another aspect of Korean culture is how people interact with each other on a daily basis. In the United States, we tend to be very informal and friendly in our daily interactions. However, in South Korea visitors often say people seem unhappy. This is not true. People in South Korea just walk around with a very controlled and straight face. You do not smile at strangers or make eye contact when you pass by people. This does not necessarily mean they are unfriendly people though. If I ever stopped someone and asked for directions, their straight face would fade away and they were often extremely eager to help me find my way. It is simply part of the culture to maintain a neutral expression in public. In daily interactions, Koreans tend to be much more formal. They use formal language with those they do not know and it’s very important to express politeness through both vocabulary and body language.
There is no such thing as personal space in Seoul, South Korea. It does not exist. It is a myth. Almost 10 million people live in Seoul. Everyday around 7 AM and 6 PM, the subways are overflowing with people commuting to work. You have to elbow your way into the swarm of people crammed into the compact metal car. During the peak hours, there is not enough space for everyone to hold on to something. But there are so many people that you all just sway with each other as one body moving with the cart. It feels like you are a can of sardines because sometimes you can fully lean your weight on the person beside you and you will no one will lose their balance. People are extremely used to these sorts of crowds everywhere- in the subway, the busses, the streets and the stores. In daily life, people are not bothered by bumping shoulders, pushing people, or elbowing their way through crowds. Being from California, I am a bit more used to crowds. But some of my friends felt this was the hardest aspect of Korean culture to accept. But, Korean people are not being rude, there is just no room for personal space when there are so many people.
Ultimately, Korean culture was extremely interesting to experience. There was definitely a steep learning curve, but keeping an open mind helped me navigate much more easily.