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Table of Contents

Cultural Differences

            Some have stated that the most difficult obstacle when trying to adapt to a foreign country is learning the culture.  This difficulty also presents one of the best opportunities for learning.  This is especially true when comparing two countries whose cultures are very different.  Korea and North America are places that are by no means exceptions to this rule.  This provides a very unique, special, and exhilarating experience.


            When thinking about Korean culture, one may wonder where to start.  Let’s start with your first meeting, or introductions.  As you are likely aware, most Asian countries use some form of bowing when meeting.  Whether meeting someone for the first time, meeting old friends, or saying goodbye, the bow is used.  The deeper the bow, the more respect you are showing.  Typically however, a slight bow is all that is required.  Pay attention to those around you and take cues from them.  As a teacher, you may sometimes be the recipient of a very deep bow from an appreciative parent. 


Sometimes men shake hands when meeting.  Rarely do men shake hands with women.  When shaking hands, you show respect by using both hands.  Shake the person’s hand with your right hand, and place your left hand on your own arm somewhere between your wrist and your elbow.  Also, if you are given a business card, referred to as “name card” in Korean, you should show interest and look it over thoroughly.  If there is a title such as manager, you would score points by addressing the person as “Manager Kim”, should their surname be Kim, for example.   


            The two-hand maneuver should be used in all situations when giving and receiving.  This is true of exchanging money, borrowing a pen, and particularly when drinking.  Drinking is a very big part of Korean culture.  Koreans generally like to drink, and they are quite skilled at it.  When drinking, apply the two-hand technique, and never pour your own drink.  You should wait for someone to pour your drink, and you should pour their drink for them.  Wait until they have finished their drink before pouring another.  Also, if you want to show your tight grasp of Korean culture and impress your hosts, try the following.  If someone is quite a bit older than you, and that person pours your drink, turn away from him or her as you drink, almost as though you were trying to hide the fact that you were drinking. 


            In Korea, hierarchy is visibly present.  It is even engrained in the language.  There are different ways to speak to someone depending on whether they are older, younger, or the same age as you.  Much respect is given to elders.  In return, they are expected to be very helpful to their younger counterparts.  In Korean, the word friend is reserved for people of the same age.  If you are not the same age, you are not friends; there is a different term for the relationship.  This is why you should not be surprised when a Korean person asks your age.  They are just trying to find out how to refer to you and what type of relationship it is. 


By the way, as soon as you get off the plane, you will be a year older.  Don’t worry; you’ll gain that year back upon return to your home country.  Koreans count the time from conception to birth as one year.  Although it is only nine months, a baby is considered to be one year old at birth.  Therefore, if you are 27 now, you will be 28 when you are in Korea.  Another difference is that on January 1st, everybody’s age changes.  Your age does not change on your birthday.  For example, if you were born on October 6, 1980, and it is currently the year 2004, the following would apply to you.  On October 6, 1980, you would be 1 year old.  On January 1, 1981, you would be two years old, even though you have only been alive for a little over 2 months.  On January 1, 2004, you would be 25 years old.  On October 6, 2004, you would still be 25 years old.  Yes, it can be a little confusing, but you will catch on quickly enough. 


You may find yourself guessing at the sexual preference of many Koreans. But don’t be confused; you are likely misinterpreting the situation.  It is common for heterosexual people of the same sex to walk hand in hand.  This is true of both men and women.  It is very common to see two school-aged girls walking down the street holding hands. It is equally acceptable to see two gray haired men walking down the same street, also holding hands.  If you are a male, you may find yourself uncomfortable if you are out having a drink with some Korean male friends, and one of them puts his hand on your knee while talking with you.  Do not misinterpret this, it does not mean he is hitting on you.  Try to be comfortable, and open yourself up to things being done in a different way.


The same applies at the bathhouse, should you choose to go.  You will likely see people of the same sex washing each other’s backs.  This is also a sign of respect, where the younger person usually scrubs the back of the older person.  Fathers and sons or mothers and daughters can often be seen scrubbing each other’s skin clean.  Contrarily, there is not usually much touching between people of the opposite sex unless they are dating.  If you are a touchy type of person, you may find some Koreans will be quite surprised if you touch them.  Try to gauge the situation and act accordingly.   


As a foreigner, you may be asked many questions from curious Koreans.  There are many questions that Koreans ask naturally, which Westerners would not normally ask.  Even on your first meeting, you will likely hear some of the following questions:
“How old are you?”
“How old do you think I am?” (Guess lower than you think!)
“How much money do you make?”
“Are you married?”
“Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”
“Why not?”
“What is your blood type?”
“Where do you live?”
“How much do you weigh?”
“Do you like Korea?”


Asking these questions to someone you’ve met for the first time is considered quite acceptable in Korea.  You will also find that Koreans are refreshingly blunt.  They will make comments about you that you would not expect to hear.  For example, if you haven’t seen your Korean friend for a long time, and you have put on some weight, they will likely inform you of this.  You may be told that you have big eyes, or a big nose.  This is actually a compliment.  Many Koreans are envious of Westerners’ “high” noses. 


Most Koreans believe that physical appearance is very important.  The style of dress tends to be much more formal.  It is quite common to see most men going to work in suits, and women often wear skirts and heels.  There are also many people who dress casually, and there seems to be a trend towards this style of dress, particularly amongst the younger generation.   


If you have tattoos that are visible, you will likely be the subject of many glances.  In Korea, it has been popularized by movies that only “gangsters” have tattoos.  However, most know that tattoos are more common in Western countries; therefore they will likely be more curious than anything, wanting to see it, and wondering if it hurt.  Piercing is very uncommon for men.  Also, facial piercing is not generally practiced.  You will have to decide what you are comfortable with as far as your appearance goes.  Realize that you are in a different country, and therefore must adapt to that country.  You would not be compromising your individuality by removing jewelry when working.  Individuality comes from within, from sticking to your core values.  If you know this, you can be comfortable in modifying your appearance when in different surroundings. 


Always remember that cultural differences provide extremely exciting experiences and learning opportunities.  Remember to “take yourself out of the picture”, and enjoy what is happening around you.  You will become a much more well-rounded, traveled, and knowledgeable person.  Take advantage of this, and learn as much as you can. 

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