South Korea - Culture Shock

January 1, 1970

by Hannah Scott

Introduction

South Korea is a country vastly different from England, that much goes without saying. The east in itself is compared often to the west in cultural, political and historical differences.
It was these differences however that drew me to Korea and are the reason that I find myself here now. Differences don’t always have to be negative and as I am about to explain in this article, they are something that should be celebrated appropriately and seen as a positive way to understand each other and move forward as a united world. Although the things I am about to describe may be ‘shocking’ as the title says, they should also be credited for the culture they bring to this incredible, beautiful and highly underrated country.

Honorifics And Formal Speech

South Korean culture seems to be one that is built on the thoughtfulness, respect and consideration of others. This even starts with the basis of language. Honorifics are widely used in South Korea not only between say a teacher and pupil like in western countries but between friends and family too. There is an unspoken rule of respect for those older than yourself and this is reflected heavily within the language. Even amongst friends, it is expected to some extent to use honorifics and formal speech to address older members of the group. It may seem strange at first but in my experience, it makes for positive affections and mutual respect.

Food Sharing

South Korea is abundant with incredible and unique foods, from kimchi to bibimbap and bulgogi, there is so much to try. The food itself, however, is not so much the cause of culture shock as to how it is enjoyed. Sharing really is considered caring here and this isn’t even confined to original Korean restaurants but also extends to Western-style establishments too, something that I learnt the hard way. When ordering your food be aware that if the waiter looks at you like you’re crazy for how much you have ordered, then they are probably right. A range of traditional dishes are usually selected for all participants of the meal to enjoy. Smaller plates or bowls are then provided to share out the food between everyone. Even at western-style restaurants, this can be the case. Always check how big that pizza’s going to be before you order, trust me. Like the use of honorifics this can take some getting used too but often it creates an incredible dinner atmosphere and there is always something to talk about, since all flavours and dishes are enjoyed by everyone.

Food bowl

Pedestrian Crossings And Roads

This may seem like something quite small and insignificant, but it is also something that I really wish I had been aware of before arriving in South Korea because it can be confusing at first. Pedestrian crossings and rules of the road are really quite different here, compared to the likes of England. Firstly, just because there is a zebra crossing does not mean that it is your right of way and it also doesn’t mean that cars will stop automatically for you. It is best to still wait until there are no cars or a kind driver lets you cross. Traffic lights also work quite differently. There is no, red, amber, green pattern here but just red, green and flashing green, occasionally accompanied by a number countdown. The flashing green really stressed me out at first, as occasionally it would begin to flash as soon as you start to cross the road. However, this isn’t a sign that you need to hurry up, it is, in fact, a way of people knowing to not begin crossing the road as it will soon turn red. Also, it is important to note that again, just because the little man is green doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look around you. Cars will often still come from different directions, specifically on busy junctions but as it is a crossing with actual lights, they should stop for you.

Crossing

Trust And Consideration Of Others

As I mention previously South Korean culture seems to be built on consideration of others. This extends to not only train seating, where it is expected that you give up your seat for those less able than yourself but also to restaurants, cafes and even bars. This goes far beyond the idea of moving to the side so that others can get past or queuing appropriately so that everyone has their turn. It seems to extend to a fundamental trust that not only yourself but your belongings are safe in any given environment. I have seen countless times, bags and phones left unattended on tables in crowded bars as a form of reserving said table. A friend of mine even left his coat with his credit card and cash in the pockets at the other side of a busy club while we were on the dance floor. When asked about this he said not to worry about it because no one would even think about stealing it. In my experience that in itself is a stark difference from many western countries, where I feel I have to hold my bag tightly to me, even when it is on my person. The blind but not at all ignorant belief in others in South Korea really is something of beauty.

Trains

Trains and subways were something I was very nervous about when first booking this trip, but with a bit of practice and the help of the internet there is nothing you can’t do and nowhere you can’t go when it comes to trains. I was lucky enough to have to conquer Tokyo trains first and therefore in comparison trains in Busan were a breeze. The ticketing system there is pretty simple and the machines and staff are very helpful within the stations, routes are fairly straightforward and the trains themselves were generally quite quiet. Seoul however, was a different experience altogether. I highly recommend getting a travel money card in this city as the ticketing machines aren’t the easiest things in the world to use and can lead to missed trains. The travel cards, however, make each trip much more simple and cheaper, with a simple scan in and out of each station. These can be purchased for between 4ooo and 7000 won in any given station. I also highly recommend downloading apps to help with navigation of subways as I have even seen locals get confused with the maps provided at the stations. I use an app called ‘Metro Man’ and this can easily be found on both android and apple phones by simply searching either Busan or Seoul Metro. As it requires no internet connection it is the perfect app for any traveller.

Train

Military Service

Although this doesn’t affect travellers directly, as it is only relevant to Korean Citizens, it is something that I feel should be part of this article. Mandatory military service is still enforced in South Korea for men between the age of 19 and 35. Each man must at some time between these ages serve around 2 years as part of either the army, navy or air force. Many young men that you will encounter will probably already of completed this service and I personally found it a very interesting experience to listen to their opinions and stories from that time in their lives. If you are a fan of the genre of music, Kpop, then you may already be aware of this as celebrities and idols are not exempt from this national service, but can only postpone this if they wish. Specifically, those from English speaking countries may find this shocking as mandatory service hasn’t been used in some countries for a long time.

Conclusion

Despite it’s difference to the UK and other English speaking countries, South Korea is an incredible, unique and beautiful place. With an awareness of the above elements of its culture in mind and an understanding that these are normal parts of everyday life for Korean people, the enjoyment that can be had in this amazing country is only heightened. I can only say that if you are thinking of visiting South Korea, simply do it, you won’t regret it.

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