What to Expect as A Foreigner Living in Korea
We know that moving to a different country can be scary if you don’t know what to expect. Here are some of the most important things to be prepared for if you’re thinking of living in South Korea. We will look at interesting customs, language, being a teacher, and other aspects of living in Korea!
English is Not Commonly Spoken
Korea doesn’t focus on being foreigner-friendly. You’ll note that other Asian countries have English signs and menus, and English speaking levels are quite good. Not in Korea! It is not uncommon for people to grow old in the same small towns that they were born in, and most people don’t bother to go traveling. So don’t expect to be able to communicate in English.
Most Koreans take great pride in their racial homogeneity, and sometimes don’t like the intrusion of foreigners. However, you’ll also feel very welcomed by complete strangers. Old women will try to talk to you on the bus, even though they know you can’t understand a word they say. But a sweet smile translates well!
Locals Often Stare
You’ve got to be prepared to be stared at, a lot. It doesn’t matter what you look like, you’ll attract attention, especially if you’re based in a smaller town. Sometimes that attention turns into: are you Russian?
This translates directly to: are you a prostitute? Fun. You’ll also have old men and women side-eyeing you, directly. There is no shame in staring at people in this country, and they will fully satisfy their curiosity before looking away.
Teaching English in Korea
English teachers are well paid here, and the benefits are pretty fantastic! People from all over the world come here to work and save money because it’s so doable. Some of the many benefits of teaching in Korea are that your apartment is generally paid for and you rarely pay tax. Your school will even foot half the bill for your medical insurance.
So, almost your entire generous paycheck goes into your pocket! You can then choose to spend it on wonderful holidays during the 26 workdays you get off, or save every penny.
Also, if you’re working at a school, you’ll have hot tasty lunches every day. They don’t always hit the spot, but it’s an adventure in any case.
The food in Korea is seriously amazing! There is such a wonderful variation of good and decently healthy food here. From Korean barbecue to bibimbap to fried chicken, they’ll have something for just about any mood.
Most people, including foreigners, barely ever cook for themselves, because it’s cheap and easy to grab a gimbap (their version of sushi, without the fish) at your favourite little restaurant.
Just know that you will have to learn how to use chopsticks. Knives and forks are not a done thing here, but that’s not a problem, because chopsticks work great!
You will likely have seen a bit of Korean culture already with the worldwide popularity of k-pop, k-drama and k-beauty, but we’ll look at a few more interesting aspects of Korean culture. Plastic surgery is the current fad, but Korea’s history of hard work and an age-based hierarchy also add to the fascination.
Plastic Surgery is Encouraged
Modern-day Korean culture is largely vanity based. There is a very specific beauty standard here, and people will often do anything to achieve it. There’s a reason that Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world!
If you want to see what that standard looks like, just take a look at these K-pop girl band members. The fixation can be particularly uncomfortable when you see young teenage girls staring at themselves in a hand mirror they keep on them at all times.
Or when the high school girls all go to the bathrooms during lunch break to remove and meticulously reapply their makeup for the rest of the day. Or when a schoolboy tells his teacher “she’s more beautiful than you”, as if this seriously affected her worth. Cringe.
American culture is huge, and western beauty standards have certainly affected their own. Casual plastic surgery now extends to a very common double eyelid surgery. For many girls, this surgery is seen as a rite of passage and is now a common high school graduation present.
Yae-Jin Ha says that many have “internalised the notions of western superiority embedded in the Korean cultural psyche” in her interesting article on cosmetic surgery in South Korea. Western features, like double eyelids, a high nose bridge and pale skin are considered the ideal beauty standard here, in a country where it is not often natural.
We find that, sadly, the rest of the world doesn’t get a chance to see how varied the natural aesthetics of Koreans really are. Also, a natural face often means that one has fewer prospects for jobs, a partner, and wealth, so it’s understandable that more and more women (and, increasingly, men) go under the knife.
Hard Work is Celebrated
Of course, looks are not what make this impressively successful country run. That would be their work ethic! In Korea, falling asleep at your desk means that you are doing something right. Koreans are expected to work late into the night from a very young age.
However, in 2018, the government passed a new law that reduced work hours from 68 to 52 a week, in order to improve the quality of life. So, although school students are often studying until 10 pm, adults have it a little easier. In fact, many Koreans say that school is the hardest time of their lives, and that even the university doesn’t compare.
The pressure to be successful is very high. Which is not to say that everyone is particularly productive. There are lots of laziness and procrastination, just like in the rest of the world!
Age is Important
A particularly important South Korean custom is the importance of age with regard to respect and your position in the social hierarchy.
You’ll find that the first question you’re asked is: how old are you? This is not meant to be rude, but allows them to place you in their hierarchy.
The second question you’ll hear is: are you married? This furthers your standing (or lack thereof). Even having a boyfriend or girlfriend will make you more important in their eyes.
For this reason, expect locals to jump to the conclusion that you’re dating anyone of the opposite sex that they see you with. Interestingly, locals won’t assume romance if you’re seen with someone of the same sex, even if you’re holding hands.
Risen from the Ashes
In one lifetime, South Korea has gone from a developing country with poor natural resources, to one of the world’s most productive industrial economies. This impressive turnaround is known as the Miracle on the Han River and was made possible through the extremely hard work of Korea’s people.
As many of the elderly still remember a time of abject poverty, there is a current culture of excess. You’ll see it in the way locals eat. There must always be multiple sides to every meal so that people have choice, which is something they didn’t have before.
The Korean Lifestyle
We already know a bit about the lifestyle you can have in Korea, but let’s look at some other aspects that make living in Korea the pleasure that it is. Drinking and convenience!
Drinking Alcohol in Korea
Koreans know how to have a good time, in their own way. They might not let loose like you’re used to, but it’s certainly not all work for them. They’re one of the top drinking countries of the world, and they will drink you under the table any day of the week.
Literally, if you’re not careful, you could be going to work with a hangover after a casual dinner with friends or colleagues.
They’ll bring out the soju, and keep pouring for you (and themselves) every chance they get. Then when you crawl through the door the next day, broken, they’ll greet you with a sunny smile and act like it never happened.
The verdict’s still out on whether they are just incredibly resilient, or if their hangover cures (which you can buy in every corner store) really work.
Convenient Corner Stores
Which brings us to another very important aspect of the Korean lifestyle. Corner stores! They are absolutely everywhere, and stock absolutely everything. Seriously, if you look down a street and don’t see at least two stores, your head will swim.
In them you can buy your dinner, some dessert and a bottle of rice wine to complete the picture. You can also find less romantic things, like toilet paper, Nutella, socks, band-aids, etc. They really do live up to the name ‘convenience stores’.
Last Words on Living in Korea
All things considered, South Korea is a very interesting country, and it’s worth spending a year or three of your life embracing all things Korean. You’ll go home with a new appreciation for cultures different from your own. And after all, is that not why we travel?