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.
BEING A WOMAN
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.
CULTURAL DOS AND DONT’S IN SOUTH KOREA
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.