Apr 03

12 little ways life is different in Korea

Cherry Blossoms in Korea

It’s strange how a period of time can simultaneously feel like a moment and an eternity.


It’s been 45 days in Korea, now. I remember the day I arrived like it was yesterday, but it feels like a year’s worth of experiences crammed in, since. I’ve been told that all expats go through “culture shock”, and that I should still be in the initial “honeymoon” phase–the period of time during which everything seems wonderful. I think I am, though I’ve started seeing signs of the following phase which is when one starts noticing and being frustrated by all the differences.


I’m not usually bothered by the various ways that life differs here; I tend to just shrug–or more often, laugh– it off, but I’ve certainly observed my fair share of… discrepancies.


In no particular order, here are some of the initial ways I’ve noticed that daily life differs in Korea from back home:


1) Bow: Bow to your coworkers. Bow to store employees. Bow to your friends. Bow to people on the street. When in doubt, bow. It’s not usually a full-on 90 degree angle bow (those are reserved for your elders and high ranking people) but it’s still a tip of the head and a slight bend at the waist. I am probably going to be inadvertently bowing at people for the rest of my life.


2) Hand money & objects with two hands: Your free hand doesn’t get to just party while the other one does all the work; it’s rude to hand something over with one hand. If you don’t use both hands to deliver the object, you must place the other hand on your stomach or forearm.


3) Get a boyfriend: Korean culture places a heavy emphasis on coupling up. People are often confused why I’m single. “You don’t have a boyfriend?! But, but… but WHY???” It’s as if I said I don’t like breathing oxygen. Being in a relationship seems to be the holy grail of life here– and once you’ve found your other half you should wear matching underwear and outfits and consider your life complete.

 Matching Underwear in Korea

4) Take your shoes off: I still have not quite grasped the idea of why you take your shoes off in some places and not others. You always take your shoes off in the home; you change to slip-on shoes at school; and sometimes you take your shoes off in restaurants. Luckily Korea is crazy for cute socks so there’s good incentive to toss off the shoes and show everyone your pink Hello Kitty toes.


5) Watch out for motorcycles: In such an incredibly law abiding country, I am baffled as to why motorcycles are apparently immune to traffic rules. They drive on the sidewalk, they blow through red lights, and they speed through the city like Hell’s Angels. Forget North Korea and impending warfare… motorcycles are the biggest hazard to my health in this country.


6) Hypochondria mania: Koreans are the complete opposite of North Americans when it comes to health. If you have even the slightest tickle in your throat, they immediately urge you to go to the hospital. There, you will promptly receive a shot in the butt and a pile of pills, all for the low, low price of about $12. Koreans also walk around often wearing face masks, though I haven’t quite determined if it’s what they do when they are sick, or if they are paranoid about other people’s germs. Some mysteries may never be solved.

 Sick masks in Korea

7) Corn on pizza: Whether you want it or not, you will have corn on your pizza. Just be thankful you’re even eating pizza in Asia, ok?


8) The word ‘maybe’ is meaningless: “Maybe you will teach this after school class” does not mean there is any doubt about whether you will actually teach it or not. They say “maybe” in just about every sentence, usually to soften an order or opinion. It can be confusing at times… so my general rule of thumb is to just ignore the word in any sentence.


9) Waffles Galore: An unexpected phenomenon I’ve found is that Koreans love their waffles. Waffle street food, butter waffle cookies, giant honey waffles… If you love waffles, Korea is the place to be. Bring on the Mrs Buttersworth.

 Honey waffle in Korea

10) Mirror mirror on the wall: Koreans care a great deal about their appearance and love to look at themselves in the mirror. It is not considered vain to stare at your reflection in every window you pass, and many of my students set mirrors on their desks so they can gaze at their own face during class.


11) Boys touching each other: Korea isn’t a haven for homosexuals, the boys just love to walk down the street holding hands with their friends. Men walk arm in arm, my boy students hold hands in class, and they are all generally touchy-feely with each other. Of course there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a shock coming from a culture where men are very careful not to touch each other too much, lest they appear gay.


12) Boobs are bad, butts are okay: The Korean dress code is the opposite of western culture; while even the slightest bit of cleavage is considered risque and completely inappropriate, they see nothing wrong with walking down the street in skirts so short their butt cheeks hang out. Sometimes I wonder if they’re even wearing pants. They also walk in insanely high heels and dress in outfits during the day that may only be worn by “ladies of the night” back home. To each their own!


I could go on and on about the various ways that life differs here, but much of life is also quite similar. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my travels, it’s that despite their cultural differences, humans across the globe are inherently the same. Life around the world is like pizza; it always has the same structure, but people choose to top it in their own ways.

That probably sounded a little weird, but I’m awfully hungry now. Off to lunch for kimchi and mystery meat!

  • I personally like the bow (and in Thailand, the wai- pressed together hands brought to the face). It’s a little memento of respect and makes you stop and actually consider the person you are addressing. I’m going to miss here in the States…

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      If I ever actually meet you in person I’ll make sure to bow 😉

  • Alana – Paper Planes

    I wish I had made note of the initial quirks about living in Thailand when I first arrived…it becomes familiar and ‘normal’ all too quickly!

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      I know exactly what you mean! Luckily I made this list within the first couple weeks I arrived because by now I’m already starting to forget what’s “weird” or different. Guess it’s just a good sign of acclimating! 🙂

  • mmm…corn on pizza, so good!

    The boy on boy love was a little bizarre but always hilarious to watch my students hump each other or stroke each other’s hair.

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Haha I guess I’m getting used to the corn on pizza thing. My coteacher read this blog post and was surprised to hear that people DON’T always eat corn pizza! “But, but… without it, the pizza is so BLAND!” Lol. And the boy love does still crack me up at times…