Adjusting to Korean Culture

Culture Shock.

Moving to South Korea brought new meaning to these words for me. Welcome to a country that is reminiscent of the book “1984” where there are CCTV cameras everywhere and people don’t ask questions.

While comparing Korea to 1984 may be a bit harsh, it’s not a complete irrationality.

On the other hand, I moved here from California and have embraced many liberal/left-handed ideals throughout college. I come from a family where I am the youngest of 4 daughters, so I may have had to be a little more outspoken growing up to compete for attention. Anyone that knows me, probably knows that I can often be a bit too straightforward when voicing my opinions.

So now, here I am, in a country where respect is the highest priority and people do as their told without a second thought. THIS has taken the most adjusting to. I thought that moving to Australia was such a big culture shock because I couldn’t find Mexican food on every block, people spoke a little funny and Mac & Cheese was a bit more expensive at the grocery store. Not only has it been difficult adjusting to the food, lack of corporate companies, completely different language and harsh climate, but it’s been the biggest challenge adjusting to the different mentality that is the cultural norm here.

It’s been frustrating, to say the least, but the most eye-opening experience I have ever encountered. It’s the first time I’ve really come to a different culture and was able to see why things are different. Why people act the way they do. Why Asian girls giggle so much and can be so soft spoken. Eastern culture is so vastly different than Western culture, and while it has made me appreciate my home in America so much more, it has also taught me how important it is to be open-minded.

I’ve come to accept that some things just don’t make sense, and sometimes it is best to just not ask questions. Mainly because by asking, you’ll just get more confused and also because a lot of people here don’t like questions being asked. Paperwork must be filled out so it can be filed away for nobody to actually read it – but we’re supposed to do it. The aforementioned paperwork doesn’t even apply to my classes but just fill it out anyway and make it up. Why? Because we were told to. Just little things like that. The repetitive tasks that people here do that don’t make sense but it’s what you’re supposed to do.

Problems are solved methodically and in the proper way and order. No shortcuts. No “thinking outside the box”. No innovation or originality. Why deviate from the familiar when we know what works? Why try something new?

Everything is standardized. Students learn by repeating and the meaning of words learned are irrelevant. You write down some sentences on the board to discuss but the students robotically just scribble them down and don’t even wonder what they mean. Sure, they may have excellent memory, but knowing how a word is spelt or even how it sounds is worthless unless you know the meaning.

There is a definite hierarchy in their society so they’re either very demanding and expect you to drop what you’re doing at any moment for them, or they’re completely passive and submissive. Females are often expected to be more compliant. A lot of the men here definitely cannot and do not appreciate a woman who is confident and outspoken. They prefer the giggling school girl who latches onto their arm and bats their eyelashes while listening to them intently. Needless to say, I am not their type.

Now don’t get me wrong, Koreans are genuinely nice people. They are extremely hardworking and are very respectful. They just have a very different mentality. While it has been challenging teaching teenagers who are rowdy, crazy and loud, it has been an even greater challenge working with adults who don’t even have an opinion to speak because they’ve gotten so used to routine. They’re so used to doing as they’re told, starting from when they were babies, that they don’t even think to question what is told of them.

As Americans, we have been encouraged to be creative, have our own opinions and be individuals. Here, gay people are shunned, women should act a certain way and there’s no time to be creative when you’re in school for 10+ hours a day. They have been one of the fastest growing economies in the last 50 years and they have done this by hard work, diligence and routine. How their society is, works for their country and their economy so why would they do any different?

So it’s been difficult, but there’s nothing I can do but try to understand. And perhaps, not be as much of an outspoken American like I’m used to. As a “waygook” in Korea, as they like to call us, I am unfortunately not given as much respect as I would automatically have in America. I don’t have the same Freedom of Speech that is taken for granted back home. I can’t have a civilized and constructive debate with somebody superior than me – I am expected to be opinion-less, nod my head and walk away because we are not equals. They demand my respect while I am literally powerless.

And so while it may seem frustrating working with other teachers who don’t ask questions and may or may not have a single original thought or idea – it makes sense when having to deal with the same superiors that they have. What other choice do they have but to be obedient and submissive when they hold no real power and it can cost them their job to have any kind of independent, defiant bone in their body?

It might not make sense growing up in a Western culture, but I’m sure plenty of things in America don’t make sense to them either. It just takes some open-mindedness and a whole LOT of patience to get used to.

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8 Comment

  1. Rena F Brown says: Reply

    Great commentary! Thanks for the insight.

  2. Hurlee says: Reply

    I am sorry for saying this and i probably am wrong but in my opinion Americans are the most rude and lazy people i have ever met. Oh yeah, I’m Asian. And i stayed in the states for a month. During that month i have witnessed several racism towards myself. They think they are the most free speaking open minded people but in reality most Americans are not even well educated and they still think they are better than Asian people.. Even though they think they’re open minded and accepting to change they are a lot worse with racism towards Asians. I think they are brought up to be way too open minded that makes them believe that they can say or do whatever they want. While its true that Asians tend to do what they are told but we have more respect for each other and much more hardworking than any the westerners. Overall for me Americans don’t have character and they tend to whine a lot whenever they run into a problem.

    1. Well we can definitely agree to disagree. I’m not sure how you could generalize an entire country as “lazy, rude, uneducated, arrogant and lacking character” after one month and expect to be taken seriously. I also don’t believe there’s such a thing as being “too open-minded” either but you’re entitled to your opinion as ignorant as it may be.

  3. Terry says: Reply

    I do agree the East is so different from the West and it’s a huge culture shock and we may or may not like everything we see.
    But I have had a slightly different experience to you.

    I think the shy giggly girls you’re describing are mainly young school girls. I’m a young adult and have young adult friends in Korea and gosh the girls I know are anything but shy and giggly. Some can be very shy at first yes, but all my native Korean girl friends are very outgoing, fiesty, outspoken, loud, funny and bubbly and won’t let anyone push them around. They’re great fun to be with and they’re such amazing friends. I’m still in contact with many of them.

    Also I like how Korea is a very respectful country, I think it’s something we should learn from them. Where I come from, people can be so rude, I think everyone needs a bit more respect.

    I agree as a Westerner you can feel like you’re not an equal to native Koreans. But vice versa, I’m sure Asians feel the same when they are in Western countries.
    I’ve wittnessed unequality and racism towards Asians and other races in Western countries, I’ve seen little kids pulling the corners of their eyes and shouting rude remarks at Asians. I’ve even seen a grown western woman call an Asian man “The yellow man” infront of her children.
    So I don’t think we’re in the position to complain, rather focus on improving ourselves first.

  4. Ashley says: Reply

    Kay,

    My boyfriend and I are going to apply for the Fall ’14 school year in ROK. I’ve read a post about you traveling to your boyfriend’s house. Is he not teaching as well? Or if he is would they not let you guys live together? Hope to hear from you!

    P.S. Your blog is so helpful!

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you’ve found it useful! The boyfriend is teaching here too but we got placed a bit far from each other – 45ish min on a bus. If you apply through Footprints agency with a bf/gf, they’ll usually recommend that you apply to Ulsan because they’re more likely to place you close together. We just got a little unlucky with how far we are from each other, due to complications with my paperwork. But there are a lot of couples here who live super close to each other. If you apply through EPIK, they started giving you an option on the application this year where you can write in a bf/gf/friend you want to live close to – although nothing is guaranteed. (They only let married couples live together, btw) Feel free to ask any more questions :)

  5. Ceri says: Reply

    This is so fascinating. I’ve heard China described like this on many occasions but I had no idea Korea was the same. This does make me wonder how I’m going to do if I end up there – I’m a very outspoken person who thrives on getting original thought from her class. Eek!

    1. It’s definitely a challenge but like I said, it’s been so eye-opening. I’m sure you’ll do fine if you’re as outspoken as me! I’ve been learning a lot about myself and would’t trade this experience for anything!

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