Culture shock in South Korea

First published on in 2012
If an expat has ever dreamed of being a celebrity, they should move to South Korea. It’s doubtful there is any other place in the world where an average-looking Westerner gets showered with as many compliments as they do here. Being constantly gawked at and told how beautiful or handsome they are is probably the biggest thing foreigners have to get used to when they first move to South Korea.

That, and the language barrier. While the younger generation will probably be keen to test out their English skills on expats with a friendly greeting, most of the older people in the country do not speak much English. As a result, they avoid too much contact with foreigners because they find the interactions rather awkward. Don’t misinterpret this as bad manners – South Korean people are generally shy and avoid uncomfortable situations at all costs.

A simple way to ease these situations is by brushing up on basic greetings. Also, learn to bow. A bow can work as a greeting, a thanks or just an acknowledgment, and should be given to anyone who is of a similar or higher social ranking. South Koreans pay great respect to their elders, so expats should always bow to people who are senior to them, unless they are being served by them in some way.

If someone is visibly foreign, South Koreans generally won’t expect them to be completely clued up on their social and cultural practices – they are very welcoming and accommodating people. Once an expatriate has been in South Korea for a while, they will quickly learn the ins and outs by simply observing those around them. For starters, it is important to be accepting, adventurous and respectful.


An expat’s South Korean hosts will be incredibly impressed if they try all the food that is placed in front of them. The food may look odd, but looks can be deceiving. Those with a delicate palette should try building up their resilience to spicy food before they arrive, as the majority of the dishes here have a bit of a bite.

Foreigners should also brush up on their chopstick skills because most restaurants in the country do not stock knives and forks. Locals are very impressed by expats who can wield a pair of chopsticks but are just as supportive of those that simply make an attempt at using them .

While most Western foods are available in South Korea, the local cuisine is worth a try. Vegetarians in South Korea should be aware that most of the main dishes have meat or some kind of seafood in them. A good idea for vegetarian expats is to ask a Korean friend or co-worker to write a note for them, saying that they do not eat meat of any kind, so that they don’t end up with chicken or seafood in their meal.


Koreans are fashion conscious, a fact visible in almost every facet of daily life. New shops and eateries pop up overnight to keep up with current trends. This dynamism requires expats to be flexible; because things change so quickly, they have to be able to keep up. While this is rather enjoyable in a social context, it can be annoying in the work place.

Foreigners have often found themselves slightly perturbed by last-minute announcements that spring up at work. But since there’s nothing that can be done about it, try to be accepting and accommodating – causing a scene won’t change the fact that the day will have to be rescheduled in order to accommodate the changes.

For the fashion conscious, it is wise to mirror the dress code of people of a similar age. In the workplace it is advisable to dress formally for the first week or two and then adjust according to one’s particular work environment. Women should take note that although they can wear short skirts, no cleavage should ever be shown.

Another thing foreigners will have to get used to is taking off their shoes whenever they enter a home, workplace or restaurant. Keep a pair of indoor shoes (which can be found at most convenience stores) at work and change into them after arriving. Whenever they enter a restaurant or someone’s home, expats should be sure to take off their shoes and leave them at the door.


South Korea is a very modern, hi-tech place. The public transport is incredible and the Internet and telecommunication services are lightning fast and cheap. Although most of the road signs, instructions and bus terminals here are written only in Korean, the language is one of the easiest in the world to learn, so be sure to take weekly classes at the local YMCA.


Another cultural aspect that takes some getting used to is the use of space. South Korean cities are crowded with apartment blocks, skyscrapers and bustling markets. Being able to adopt an ‘Eastern space not Western space’ mindset will be helpful, especially when negotiating apartment sizes and Seoul subway carriages during peak hours. Although the cities are crowded, there are plenty of forests, beaches and islands to escape to on the weekends – always a welcome respite after a busy week amidst the hustle and bustle.


Although Korea is arguably a male-dominated society, the modern-day Korean woman strongly values her independence and will generally stand up to belittlement if she needs to. A word of warning though; women who smoke on the street, walk around in low-cut shirts or drink excessively will be looked down upon. Being foreign does give expats a bit of leeway, but they will probably receive a few dirty looks if they behave this way in public.

South Korea is a country that balances ancient heritage and cultural appreciation with the best in modern-day technology and pop culture. It is a place that offers an abundance of natural wonders and easy access to the rest of Asia. Delicious food, amazing people, a huge expat community and great money-making opportunities also help foreigners adapt easily to life here. With a little bit of effort, a Korean phrase book and an open mind, expats can have it all.


DO get toilet paper before heading to the stall. Most public toilets in South Korea do not have toilet paper in each stall; there is usually one big roll near the sinks for everyone to share.

  • DO be prepared to squat. Although most toilets in the country are the usual Western style, expats may encounter a squat toilet at some point.

    DON’T expect to eat much fruit in South Korea. It is very expensive.

    DON’T write anyone’s name in red ink as this traditionally signifies death.

    DON’T leave chopsticks sticking up in a bowl as this is only done when commemorating the dead.

    DO look away from the table when taking a sip of alcohol with a group of Koreans, this is considered to be polite.

    DON’T pour your own drink: if another person at the table offers another one, let that person pour it and return the favour by pouring one for them.

    DON’T fold your arms in front of yourself when in the company of older people – this is considered rude. Rather leave them hanging by your side.

    DO always use two hands when accepting money, a business card or anything of importance.

    DON’T ever blow your nose at or near a table of people who are eating.


Teaching English in South Korea


First published on in 2012

A steady stream of English-speaking foreigners make their way to South Korea each year in search of financial, professional and cultural gain. By far the most popular source of income for these expats is English teaching jobs which are relatively easy to obtain as long as you meet a few basic requirements. Jobs can be sourced from overseas before you arrive, so your employer can apply for a work permit on your behalf.
Most employers in South Korea will only hire English teachers from the UK, Canada, America, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia who have an accredited university degree and a TEFL or TESOL certification behind them. Some of the more lucrative positions also require the applicants to have some English teaching experience behind them, but this is not always the case. The types of English teaching jobs are varied and abundant and include positions at public schools, private after-school academies (hagwons), private lessons and universities in both cities and small towns.
The Korean people place great value on an ability to understand and speak English. Children as young as four are introduced to the language and from elementary school level English must be taken by all students as a second language. The nation’s insatiable desire to learn and speak English means that finding a job teaching is pretty easy, whether you chose to find work online before you leave or when you arrive in Korea.

Perhaps the most pain-free and trustworthy way to get an English speaking job is by going through the South Korean government programme, EPIK (English Programme in Korea).

EPIK is a programme affiliated with the Korean Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MEST) and is operated by the National Institute for International Education (NIIED). Established in 1995, EPIK aims to improve the English-speaking abilities of students and teachers in Korea, to foster cultural exchanges and to reform English teaching methods in Korea. The EPIK programme encourages cross-cultural exchanges while promoting the development of English language competencies for Korean students.
EPIK teachers are interviewed over Skype before they are hired and then go through a week-long orientation and training period when they first arrive in Korea. Teaching in public elementary, middle and high schools across the country, EPIK teachers are essentially government employees and enjoy benefits such as a furnished home for the period of their contract, 50 percent of their medical insurance premiums, a travel allowance, settlement pay out and an exit allowance on the completion of a contract. A teacher who has gone through EPIK will generally teach for 22 hours a week and spend the rest of their office hours planning lessons. Applying through EPIK can be done directly on their website, or applicants can go through a recruiter (usually free of charge) which can make the whole process run more smoothly. There are two big yearly intakes in February and August but direct placements throughout the year are also possible.


A hagwon is a private academy that students attend after school that focuses directly on the one subject. Children of all ages attend English hagwons, even those in the pre-school age bracket. Hagwon jobs are easier to find once you’re in Korea, but going through a recruiter in your home country may also prove fruitful. Hagwon jobs are usually better paid then public school ones but hagwon teachers do not enjoy the same kind of governmental ‘protection’ as public school teachers do and receive less vacation time each year.
When searching for a hagwon job, be sure to do plenty of research. Ideally, go and meet the owner of the academy before you sign a contract as you may sign yourself up for something you did not expect. Hagwons that cater to students who want to get a head-start on their English usually employ a staff of both Korean and native English-speaking teachers. They can vary quite considerably in size from very small operations with only a handful of staff members to huge franchises employing thousands of teachers. Classes are divided according to age group and level and it is usually the role of the foreign teacher to help students improve their conversation and pronunciation skills. Hagwon employees will also usually be provided with a fully furnished flat, reimbursement for their air ticket to Korea and receive 50 percent of their medical insurance from the employer. Hagwons hire new English teachers all year round.
Teachers wanting to work at a university generally need a Masters degree in English. These jobs usually have better hours, more vacation time and a higher salary. Plus, the fact that you will be working with Korean co-workers and students who already have good English ability often makes for a better experience. Finding a university job is easier to in Korea, but can be done online too. It seems a common progression for English teachers who have worked the public or private school system for a while to become university employees.