Culture Shock in South Korea

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The first time I went abroad was to Argentina. I was fifteen years old, and absolutely fascinated by the concept of culture shock. I thought culture shock would be like a disease: symptoms, diagnosis, treatment. I thought that it would be easy to recognize and consequently easy to overcome.

I soon realized, though, that culture shock isn’t easy to deal with at all. That realization lead me to have really negative attitudes towards Argentina. At the time, I hated the country and couldn’t wait to go back home. A similar thing happened to me at sixteen when I went to China. I was way too overwhelmed with the differences to handle myself.

Now as a pseudomature pseudoadult, I am way more capable of living and thriving in an Eastern culture. Most of my time so far in Korea has been so busy and stressful (work, studying for the LSAT) that I’ve barely had a moment to breathe and look around at my surroundings. Nonetheless, some things have shocked me. In both pleasant and unpleasant ways…

1. Pleasant: Ice cream on top of a salad, served with fried chicken. Exactly what it sounds like. Not half bad, either.



2. Pleasant: Dog Cafes. Today, a friend and I walked into a dog cafe. This dog cafe was pretty small, with only four pure white, exquisitely groomed toy poodles. They were absolutely not potty trained, and the people who worked at the cafe followed them around cleaning up after them. I got a hot coffee for 8,000 Won, which is like $8, and sat for a bit playing fetch. Dog cafes, man. A good way to find peace. Koreans have a tendency to prefer little dogs here, mostly poodles. Tons of stray dogs are euthanized every day, which is sad. One of my coworkers fosters dogs in her apartment, which is interesting. I didn’t know you could do that here!

3. Unpleasant: Tank top taboos…and sexism. Women are seen as very sexual or scandalous if they wear tank tops. But how am I supposed to run in this heat with a full on shirt? Impossible. I wear tank tops anyway, and get stared at a bit. As far as sexism goes, well, what can you do. It’s everywhere in every country.

4. Unpleasant: Racism. People aren’t shy about racism here. But what’s ironic is many Koreans feel that Americans are the racist ones! I had a moment of culture shock yesterday when one of my students said Americans are racist, and I snapped back with the retort “No Koreans are more racist!” …Yikes! I probably shouldn’t have said that. But earlier that day, I showed a picture of Yale basketball players (black) as part of my lesson on extracurricular activities, and the students described what they saw as “CHOCOLATE SIX PACKS!” And when I showed them a picture of Ghandi and talked about him, the only thing they took away from it was that he looked like a frog…sigh.

5. Unpleasant: The language barrier. Not knowing any Korean is really rough, and definitely contributes to culture shock. I’ve been trying to learn as many useful phrases as possible, but really, it’s so hard to navigate around here when you can’t ask where the bus station is, what time the buses leave, or, well pretty much anything.

6. Pleasant: It’s easy to be friends with foreigners here. People are very open to conversations and spontaneous hang outs.

7. Pleasant: Heated floors. 

8. Pleasant: Cute art and home decorations. Please take a moment to appreciate my toilet seat. It says Romantic Flowers on it.



And here are the sliding doors to my bathroom:



  1. Pleasant: Quiet mornings and vibrant late nights. 


10. Pleasant: Teachers are respectedMost of the students I have at least make some effort to behave. I’ve had some really unruly children, but not because they backtalk. They’re just too hyper.


11. Unpleasant: Drinking culture. If your boss or friend pours you a shot. You. Must. Take. It. I really hate that! I don’t like to drink every time I go out so it’s a little annoying.


12. Unpleasant: Internet censorship. To be honest, it kind of sucks that South Korea blocks porn. There, I said it. SORRY NOT SORRY! Oh and Netflix. Oh and Spotify (on my mobile device) You can download a VPN, but I haven’t found a good free one yet.

13.Unpleasant/Pleasant: Technology. The curriculum I teach is so technology-centered. I kind of don’t understand why it’s necessary to load up the classroom with a Smart TV, tablets, etc.


14. Pleasant: Respect for elders. Can we add that in America??

annd finally….


15. Pleasant: Everything is smaller. Smaller food portions, smaller people, smaller roads. I dig it.


Yeah. So that’s my culture shock list thus far. I definitely am missing my boyfriend and some aspects of American life. And I am still confused about certain aspects of Korean business culture, and am nervous in general about my job, the probation thing, feeling settled, making friends, etc. But it’s only been a week and a half. There is time.


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