Moving overseas is undoubtedly a thrilling experience. It encourages new world views, increases cultural curiosity and supports a willingness to explore unfamiliar terrains. However, as exhilarating as it is, uncovering uncharted territory also invites a sense of feeling a little lost and uncertainty that can be easily overwhelming.
Acclimatisation is never easy, nor does it take a short time. Somewhere on your stay, you’re bound to experience culture shocks that will cast doubts over what you thought you knew. This inevitable phenomenon will undoubtedly affect how you settle in the country, especially during the first few months.
If you’re thinking of moving to South Korea, then you’re in luck! We’ve gathered a few Korean cultural quirks that may come off as a shock to expats. Apart from learning the common do’s and don’ts, prepare for the 4 common culture shocks so that you can better acclimatise to the country’s quirks and idiosyncracies.
1. Honorifics Are Everything
In the English-speaking world, fancy titles such as “sir” or “ma’am” are often reserved for special and formal occasions, or for one who’s high up in the social or corporate hierarchy. Using such words are seen as a way of dressing up our language and being extra polite.
However, in Korean, titles are pretty much an everyday affair in conversation amongst friends, family, and colleagues and superiors. Respect and etiquette are entrenched in every part of its traditions, culture and even language! In conversation or writing, for instance, respect in Korean can be ingrained in its grammar. As such, you’ll want to be careful when choosing the correct noun, suffixes attached to certain words or even your verb phrases.
Of course, this is a highly complex issue that one can’t overcome simply by staying in the country for a few months. Language acquisition takes longer than that, and whilst most Koreans don’t expect foreigners to know how to speak in Korean, it’s best to not step on a few toes if you can help it. As such, enrolling in a Korean language school before your move will help you better navigate not just the country, but also future relationships with your Korean friends, colleagues and superiors.
2. Everything Is Shared
In Western etiquette, the idea of reaching over a fellow diner may be churlish behaviour. However, in Korea, this is simply not the case. Diners are encouraged to reach for whatever they want and take it without any impunity.
In Korea, sharing food is a big part of its culture. When dining, you’re given a vast spread of various side dishes for you to share with others; chopsticks and spoons dipping into every dish imaginable.
3. Bottoms Up!
If there’s one thing you’ll come to find out in the first few days of your stay, it’s that Koreans love their alcohol. The Korean drinking culture goes all the way back to the old days, where consumption of alcohol is reserved for the celebration of important holidays. Since then, Koreans have cultivated a drinking culture that has permeated the social and working scene.
Believed to help break the ice and strengthen the bond between two people, Koreans will indulge in a drink or two to better interpersonal social and work relationships. So don’t be surprised if you get invited to post-work social gatherings every now and then.
If you’re worried about hangovers the next day, trust the experts to come up with a myriad of hangover cures. From hangover soups to grapefruit ice cream, you’ll have quite a range of cures to choose from to help that incessant headache, nausea and lethargy.
4. “Bali-Bali” Culture
The expression 빨리빨리 (bbali bbali), directly translated to ‘quickly’, appears in all aspects of Korean culture and lifestyle. It appears in the smallest daily routines to even the country’s growth and infrastructure development. Everything moves at a fast pace, and since everything is expected to be done quickly, Koreans may appear impatient to those who are used to a more leisure lifestyle. As such, you’ll want to prepare to do things twice your regular speed.
Then there are the more minor foibles and idiosyncrasies that one has to deal with on a regular basis. Things such as eating cross-legged at traditional restaurants, the thin line between sweet and savoury foods and even the small yet steep hills one has to conquer every single day. If you can survive all these things, then you’re well on your way to calling South Korea your next home!