Life in South Korea: My Experience as a Foreigner

Life in South Korea: My Experience as a Foreigner

There will be culture shocks!

korea travel story

12,480 km. That’s how far I am from my home country of South Africa, give or take a few hundred kilometres to get my minuscule little town. I’m not alone in my uprootedness – there are countless expats around the globe who have chosen to travel and make lives away from the places they call home.

My destination of choice was South Korea; the Land of the Morning Calm, as they call it. I very soon found out that there are times when it’s anything but calm, and rather resembles a frenzied nation scrambling to stay ahead.

In this article, I’ll be sharing some tips for overcoming culture shock in South Korea, as well as five cultural insights that I’ve learned about this beautiful country after being here for a year.

The various stages of living in a new country

My motivations for moving to South Korea were varied: I had an insatiable urge to travel more, while I also sought respite from the day-to-day stresses of my life back home. Teaching English seemed like a viable solution to satisfy all those impulses.

The Honeymoon Stage

At the outset, I had no idea what awaited me. I had almost zero insight into South Korean culture, the language, the town where I’d be staying or how to teach a classroom full of prepubescent boys. Suffice to say, the first few months, known as the honeymoon stage, were an eye-opener. I was so enamoured with my new environment, absorbing all the sights and sounds that I couldn’t fully make sense of how to navigate my new environment.

The Frustration Stage

As the months wore on and I settled into my new routine, the frustration stage set in. Minor encounters which I had brushed off  initially became more of a nuisance, mostly down to language barriers. In my endeavours to overcome this frustration phase, I persisted with self-studying Korean and slowly but surely, added to my repertoire of survival phrases which helped me to adapt to my surroundings.

This became my new normal, and although I recognised all the hallmarks of this culture shock phase, the feelings of detachment, isolation and serious introspection persisted. I’d been warned about culture shock when I first moved to South Korea, and in some ways, I thought I was prepared for it. But what I wasn’t ready for was the feeling of detachment that came once the euphoria had worn off.

The Acceptance Stage

I was left with the reality of making a quiet hideaway my new home. Simply existing wasn’t an issue in itself — my sparse Korean was enough to get me by without breaking into a fit of fury. More than a year later, I’ve come to learn a lot about the social dynamics that come with moving to a new country, as well as learning more about myself. Experts call this the adjustment and acceptance (or mastery) stages. Having familiarised myself with Korean society, I’ve come to learn a few things about the quirks of this country and its culture.

Thinking of moving to South Korea? Here are five important things to take note of

If you’re just passing through as a traveller, or you’re set on staying here long-term, these are five things to be aware of when you find yourself in South Korea.

1. Honorifics are everything

Korean honorifics are an integral part of Korean society, closely tied to the language. Using the wrong title can lead to a world of embarrassment if you aren’t careful, so be sure to brush up on a few essentials before you head over. This politeness almost borders on reverence, especially when addressing elders. Bowing is to be expected no matter what your age is, and greetings are almost mandatory, while not recognizing someone’s presence can be seen as insulting.  

2. Everything is shared

In Western etiquette, we would consider reaching over a fellow diner to be churlish behaviour. In South Korea, however, diners are encouraged to reach for whatever they want and take it without any impunity. Within a dining context, almost everything is shared. Vast spreads of various side dishes are laid out for groups of patrons to share; chopsticks dipped into every dish imaginable. There’s also the drinking etiquette which requires you to pour for anyone older than you first, and then for them to reciprocate. Be sure to hold your glass with two hands to indicate your respect for the pourer!

3. South Korean work ethic is unmatched

South Korea is a fiercely competitive nation, in part attributed to its history and dealings with its former colonizers. Most historians will point to this relentless work ethic as the driving force behind the Miracle on the Han River; South Korea’s phenomenal economic turn-around. These competitive undercurrents start from a young age, where learners are pushed to their academic limits, all in a bid to get into the top universities and secure jobs at one of the prestigious multinational firms. This unbridled work ethic is part and parcel of Korean society, so much so that the government has passed a law bringing the number of working hours down from 68 to 52 in a bid to encourage workers to focus on their wellness.

4. Bottoms up!

South Korea is the world’s largest consumer of alcohol. This is largely due to the fact that soju, an easy-drinking Korean spirit made from fermented grains, is dirt cheap and widely available. Cheap alcohol fuels the drinking culture in the country; a culture which is supposedly driven by work stresses and social conventions. Being such a collectivist country, post-work social gatherings are considered the norm here, a place for colleagues and co-workers to imbibe copious amounts of alcohol.

5. Perfection is expected

There is an immense social expectation to look flawless in South Korea, so much so that you’ll often see women at the gym in make-up, and couples dressed to the nines whenever they’re out. This infatuation with beauty is intertwined with the K-beauty scene, a burgeoning cosmetics market and the fact that plastic surgery is so readily available. If you ever end up getting your ID photo taken in South Korea, tell them to go easy on the Photoshop – you might just end up getting a picture of someone who looks completely different.

Then there are the more minor foibles and idiosyncrasies that one has to deal with on a daily basis. Things like the public spitting, eating cross-legged at traditional restaurants, the manic old taxi drivers, the wet room-style toilets, and the thin line between sweet and savoury foods – to name a few. If you can survive all of these things, then you’re well on your way to calling South Korea your home!

Also read: 11 Fun Things to Do in Korea During the Different Seasons

About Author

Stuart Hendricks
Stuart Hendricks

Being a street photographer and travel writer, Stuart is always searching for the perfect shot that tells a story. He's got his heart set on adventuring around Asia using South Korea as his base and creates content to help aspiring photographers document their own travels through the continent.


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