You’ve decided to start teaching in South Korea, and the first week you’re here, everything seems fascinating. You’re trying out new food and visiting new cities. However, a month goes by and you’re starting to miss home. It’s harder to communicate with the locals and understand why they act the way they do. Feelings of frustration are rising. What’s happened?
This is a perfect example of a “honeymoon phase” ending. It’s something that people experience when they live in a different country for an extended period. Of course, this is no exception to teachers who move to South Korea to teach English. This post isn’t meant to scare you off, though! It’s meant to teach you about the hidden facets of South Korean culture in today’s modern society. Knowing this beforehand will help you combat the culture shock you will experience living in Korea.
1. Age Importance
South Koreans place great importance on your age, especially in an office setting. When you enter a new workplace and meet your colleagues, you will bow and exchange formal words. As time pass, some of your colleagues will start talking to you informally, but this doesn’t mean you can too. You are allowed to speak informally to a colleague who is the same age as you. However, when interacting with a colleague that is either at a higher position than you or is older than you, you must remind yourself to use formal words.
2. Drinking Culture
Drinking alcohol is a big part of South Korean corporate culture. It is a stress reliever for many overworked employees and also plays a big part in building business relationships. Being invited to go out for a drink with your office superior is seen as a compliment, making it hard for people to turn it down. Therefore, people who have office jobs often feel obligated to attend after-work dinners with their employers. Unfortunately, at these dinners, people are pressured to drink. In South Korean drinking etiquette, offering a drink to another person is a sign of generosity. As a result, refusing this drink could come off as a rude gesture. The extent of how much South Koreans drink isn’t a concern that Koreans seem to understand. Drinking is seen as a normal activity that can strengthen bonds between friends or colleagues.
3. Herd Mentality
South Korea is a collectivistic country, often placing a lot of importance on the group or community rather than the individual. Therefore, the herd mentality in this country is present and particularly strong, and this can be seen especially in fashion trends. Once something starts to trend, everyone seems to hop on the new fad. Whether it is hairstyles, clothes, or makeup, you will see a lot of people in Korea who have strikingly similar styles. It is almost to the point where they look alike. Wanting to conform to social norms and to be seen as a part of a group is normal in any country for most people, however, in South Korea, people take collectivism very seriously. Eating alone at a restaurant or school can be seen a bit weird and people oftentimes assume you’ve been ostracized by your peers if you do so.
Speaking of being ostracized by your peers, there’s a particular way of bullying in Korea that is quite severe. It is called ‘wangtta’ where a group of people collectively ignore a person as a form of bullying. A lot of times people don’t speak to this person and associates them negative qualities. Sometimes, people who are labeled as ‘wangtta’ continue to be a ‘wangtta’ throughout most of their school year. As a collectivistic country, making a person a ‘wangtta’ would be the harshest form of bullying. Of course, once someone starts bullying, everyone collectively does it as well. This makes it hard for someone who is a ‘wangtta’ to break out of their isolation.
4. Humor & Sarcasm
Humor in each country is different and can be confusing to understand, and this is no exception for the humor in South Korea. In this tiny Asian country, making a fool out of yourself or dissing others is a common way to make others laugh. South Korean humor also includes a lot of hitting. For instance, physically hitting your friends as a joke can be seen to be humorous. It implies that you have a close relationship with your friends. Although it looks painful, it’s a lot different than bullying. If you see both parties laughing while the joke plays out, then it’s most likely that it’s just a friendly hitting! If you’re teaching in South Korea, you’ll know you’re good friends with your colleagues if you experience this energetic humor.
Sarcasm does exist in South Korea, but it is usually used between friends. Sarcasm is usually used to make fun of a person in a snarky matter. For example, one might say, “You seem to be working hard,” in an exaggerated tone that makes it quite obvious that they are making a sarcastic joke. So, if you were to throw a sarcastic comment in a monotone, Koreans will have a hard time understanding that you are joking and might take it literally.
You will be surprised how much Korean people, care about looks and weight. Korea is known as the world’s plastic surgery capital with an estimate of 1 million surgeries conducted in a year alone. This prevalence allows a lot of female teenagers to be gifted a blepharoplasty as a normal middle or high school graduation present. A blepharoplasty is also called a double eyelid surgery, which allows a person with monolids to attain a bigger eye shape. This is a sought out facial feature in Asian beauty standards.
The prevalence of plastic surgery can be correlated to lookism. Lookism is discriminatory treatment toward people who are deemed physically unattractive. This includes fat shaming, which is normalized in Korea. It’s so normalized to the point that the media often portrays TV personalities who have “bigger” bodies to be ridiculed by referring to them as ‘pigs’. Often, this type of name-calling is seen as humorous. This kind of social pressure keeps Korean women thin. So thin actually, that two in ten women suffer from undernourishment according to a 2009 report by the Ministry of Health.
Experience South Korea For What It Is
We understand that moving to a new country will be a significant transition, but teaching in South Korea will give you a unique chance to embrace the culture, unlike a visiting tourist. While this blog post might provide you with useful information, it’s a different story when you arrive on new land. That’s why XploreAsia provides our soon-to-be teachers with a cultural immersion orientation course. Provided online and in-class, this course strives to help you understand multiple aspects of South Korean culture. We touch on subjects such as politics, society, life in South Korea as well as the South Korean school system.
We also arrange in-country cultural excursions outside of the classroom so you can experience interacting with the locals and culture. These excursions are accompanied with in-class Korean language lessons so you can build your basic understanding of the Korean language. All these efforts are to ensure you experience a seamless transition into your new life in South Korea. So don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, XploreAsia is here to provide you with the support and guidance you need.