Culture Shock


I once wrote about the time I hated Korea – about a time when my every attempt to smoothly, swiftly and successfully complete something as fundamental as shopping for supplies was seemingly blocked by an invisible force working explicitly in opposition to me. I mentally – justifiably or otherwise – lay the blame at the feet of Korea. Not a person or a group of people; but a whole nation: an accumulation of its history, geography, tradition, cultures, inhabitants and everything else that constitutes the place. I hated Korea. I later realised that what I had undergone is known as culture shock. During orientation in Jeonju (which seems like years ago, now) we were warned about this – it being the second phase that every native teacher experiences while here, after the honeymoon and before two others I’ve forgotten but that might well return to haunt me one day. I sat there and sort of scoffed to myself, however: I’m a seasoned traveler; I’ve lived abroad before; and anyway, shouldn’t culture shock hit as soon as one touches down in his new surroundings, rather than a few weeks or months down the line as this guy’s claiming? I’m not the kind of guy to go around irrationally blaming people and objects for behaviour traits that a population has cultivated for thousands of years. Of course, I was wrong – as my earlier blog will testify to – and since then I’ve caught myself muttering angrily about some Korean idiosyncrasy or other simply because I’m not used to it. Here I’ll write a little about some of the more interesting and relevant ones.

First up has to be the way locals conduct themselves on roads, pavements and other pathways. The driving here is appalling. I can only speculate regarding the reasons for this – perhaps due to Korea’s rapid financial growth the number of cars on roads has increased quicker than is operative; surely the culture of bally bally contributes too – but I cycle only on the pavements and even then I rarely feel 100% safe. Driving misdemeanours are so common here that I now barely even notice a car ignoring traffic lights; going round a roundabout the wrong way; using the wrong lanes or even the pavements to create illegal shortcuts for themselves. It’s no excuse but patience is tested by the peculiar traffic systems here. Often you’ll reach a great crossroads only for every single (pedestrian and vehicular) light to be red. You can be caught at such a red light for up to five minutes (literally – I’ve timed it). I was in email correspondence for a while with a Korean before I moved out here and I asked him for some advice regarding cultural differences I might experience. He mentioned a few normal things, like eating and drinking etiquettes, and then wrote DO NOT CROSS ROAD WHEN LIGHT IS RED. It’s turned out to be sound advice, as the cars will not or swerve to avoid you if they have right of way. You can get screamed at for crossing when you shouldn’t, but it’s apparently fine for cars to do their equivalent. The other morning I was clipped by a wing mirror walking down a residential backstreet that had no pavements (I was doing the walking, not the mirror) – the driver couldn’t wait those five seconds it would have taken me to get out of his way.

As a cyclist erratic behaviour is something that I am regularly exposed to, and something that frustrates me no end. The roads are too unsafe to use, but the pavements provide their own pitfalls. As I’ve mentioned, you’ll often find cars and other vehicles just driving down them, and pedestrians are almost as bad. I’ll be hugging one side of the pavement with someone walking on the other, their back to me, and suddenly they’ll veer into my path for no apparent or obvious reason. It’s mental. It’s as though the majority of the population here want to be run over by me and my bike. Often I’ll cycle by the river where there is a designated cycle path, but you’ll find a lady on one side of it with her dog on a lead on the other; bikes parked perpendicular to it; kids playing on it, oblivious to anything that isn’t their yo-yo; and large groups of elderly women who seem like they actually choose these paths as locations for their weekly gossip sessions. I had a bit of a hairy moment when I was cycling on another pavement-less road outside a stretch of cafés and a guy on a motorbike was heading directly towards me on the wrong side of the road, seemingly to park in front of one of them. I don’t know what he expected me to do as he did nothing – I assumed he would move over to give me some room and so I didn’t swerve – and eventually we both had to slam on the breaks to avoid a head-on collision. I gave him a stinkeye like no other.

Fashion and clothing here is quite funny. How you look is hugely important in Korea – it is possibly the most vain country I’ve ever visited – and hence there is little diversity looksiwise, especially for females. An ajumma – an older, married woman or, literally, ‘auntie’ – will be easily identifiable by their short, curly hair; their ridiculous, unnecessary visor; their bum bag; and their one item of clothing made from parachute material. The ajumma is a fierce warrior, never to be underestimated. The younger generations typically fall into one of just a few categories: you have the ‘cutesy’ girls who wear short skirts and massive baggy jumpers generally with some kind of cartoon animal or nonsensical Konglish phrase on the front; you ha the ‘gilet’ girls who wear big, bubbly and very colourful sleeveless jackets over whatever else they may be wearing; and you have the girls who look as though they’ve come straight from a Topshop modelling shoot. And not the scruffy kind either – the ones whose style it kind of is to look a bit unwashed and unkempt. These girls will have perfect fringes and new, expensive-looking clothes. Korean is also the high heels capital of the world – even the slippers we’re made to wear at school have wedges on them a good few inches thick.

You get guys who fall into that last ‘girl’ category too, with their bright, unsoiled trainers and jeans that look as though they’ve been ironed on; as well as the sporty ones who wear matching tracksuit top and bottoms combos. I get the impression everyone here spends a lot of money on their clothes and appearace. You can’t watch TV for more than half a hour without seeing at least one advertisement for plastic surgery – and whereas in England any ad would be aimed at someone who’d been involved in some kind of accident – here in the ads you see beautiful, smiling twenty-somethings popping into clinics for some minor facial alteration. Hugely popular in Korea is double-eyelid surgery, which involves reshaping the skin around the eye to create an upper eyelid with a crease – something apparently extremely desirable. Another thing Koreans love is small heads, which is good for Elizabeth – apparently kids at her school come up to her and approvingly scrunch their hands up into balls: “teacha, you head like fist, gooood!”. It is also very common to see couples dressed up exactly as one another – from head to toe, literally.

Finally, as this is a long post already, I’ll mention one other Korean trait. I’m not sure whether its a desire to help and lend a hand, or a belief that waegooks in Korea can’t look after themselves without a little interfering, but it’s definitely there. The other morning I cut myself shaving and came into work only to be rushed into the school nurse’s office for it to be painfully scrubbed clean and covered. The other morning I was teaching and had turned on the TV without the co-teacher noticing, and as I waited for the screen to appear she turned it off, thinking I’d just been standing around incapable of pushing a button on a remote control. A lot of the time when eating there is a ‘right’ way of doing things – at school I’ve had co-workers almost scream at me as I almost put my rice in the kimchi bowl or mix my noodles with sauce that is meant for the vegetables. In restaurants – where it is common to cook food for yourself at your table – we’ve had waitresses vary from those trying to explain that after a certain amount of time the heat on the octopus soup should be turned down, to those who rush over from one side of the room to ours to knock parcels of food from between our chopsticks because the meat inside had been cooked incorrectly. It is also impossible to judge the spiciness of food without actually tasting it, because any dish with the smallest hint of chili will be accompanied by “oh, very spicy!”. You get so used to hearing this that when food actually is spicier than I can handle I am completely unprepared and spend the rest of the meal hiccuping into my soup. This attitude can yield some decent results for me though, especially now at school as everyone thinks I’ve lost weight since being here and so they give me food at any opportunity.

As annoying as some of these habits can be at times, they’re all part of the reasons I wanted to live abroad in the first place, and part of unpredictable and inexplicable environment that Korea can be. I don’t hate Korea for its differences, they’re some of my favourite things about the place. I just wish I could take a break from them sometimes!


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  1. #1 by Cafe23 on November 29, 2011 - 12:52

    Hey there! Wow, such an interesting post. I am in the midst of trying to learn more about Korea (I’m Korean, but born and raised in Canada) as I am planning to go there for the first time ever in the summer. I am blogging about my search for info on how to survive in Korea ( .. Sounds like I will get some tips from reading about your experiences on your blog! =)

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