Hello! My name is Madelyn, and I currently teach in Seoul, South Korea. I have been living in Korea for the last year but have been an avid traveller for 10 years. Seoul has definitely won my heart and is an incredible city to be able to teach in. I got TEFL certified through Premier TEFL and then embarked on their internship program soon after! When you move to a new country, there will inevitably be cultural differences. Some of them are fun, and some of them can be a bit scary if you don’t know about them ahead of time.

Madelyn - Change career with TEFL blog

Below are 10 things I tell every one of my friends that comes to experience culture in Korea. If it’s for a visit or to live and teach, these are definitely things you should know before landing!

IMPORTANT NOTE: I want to note that these Korean ‘culture shocks’ are not a way to shame any way of living, the joy of moving abroad is to experience new ways of life. These tips are purely here to help you be prepared and respectful when coming to South Korea.

1. Bathroom Business in Korean Culture

Bathrooms were probably the biggest culture shock as they can be very different spaces than where I come from (Canada).

Firstly, take toilet paper with you everywhere. Some bathrooms will have tissues outside the stall but some bathrooms will not have any tissue at all. This is the same for soap. So always carry a little of each with you when you go out.

Also, you don’t always flush toilet paper. This took a while for me to adjust to. But due to the old plumbing in a lot of the buildings you place used tissue in a trash can next to the toilet. If you don’t know if you are supposed to toss or flush, look for a sign on the stall door. It’ll usually have a little picture showing you which to do. When in doubt though, chuck it in the trash. You don’t want to be the one that clogged up the toilet!

There are two types of toilets in Korea, seated and squat. Seated toilets are where you can sit on a seat to do your business. Squat toilets are placed in the ground and you squat to do your business. Usually, the stalls will be marked outside, so you know what you are getting before walking in.

SAFETY TIP: A problem that has popped up in South Korea in recent years is hidden cameras. Particularly in women’s bathrooms, you will see tissue that has been shoved into holes in the walls/ceilings/doors and sometimes blocking the bottom of the stalls. This is to prevent anyone from placing a hidden camera there. Just give the stall a little look over before you drop trou (do your business!).

2. Safety

The second biggest shock for me was how safe South Korea is. There are literally CCTV everywhere in South Korea, so the crime rate is moderately low. People will leave their computers, phones and wallets on tables at cafes and it’s perfectly safe to walk around at night. You will even see people leaving credit and debit cards on benches if they have been dropped so the owner can find them. I have lived here for over a year and still can’t get used to it.

TIP: The only place I’ve heard of people having anything stolen is at clubs/bars. These areas are targeted because there are so many people and they are usually dark. So it’s easier to grab someone’s purse or coat. Stay safe if you plan to go out dancing.

Madelyn making friends traveling abroad

3. Personal Space

Personal space isn’t really a thing in South Korea. People are extremely aware of noise and will often be near silent on buses and trains. But you will get pushed, squished and bumped into when walking down the street. It’s not considered impolite in Korean culture and often isn’t done with any malice. But just be prepared to not enjoy as much personal space especially when in Seoul.

4. Order Anything Anytime Anywhere

Clothes, shoes, makeup, food, literally anything can be ordered at any time of day. If you live in Korea, you will be able to use Coupang.com, which is the North American equivalent of Amazon (except better). Usually, anything you order will be delivered within 24hrs. As I mentioned before crime is very low here so packages are just left outside your door. No one will touch or steal them!

3 am and want a pizza? You can order that. Want an ice cream sundae with ALL the toppings at 2 pm on a Tuesday delivered to your work? You can order that. Looking for a purple and green polka-dot Mickey Mouse watch? You can order that. Anything-you-want-you-can-order-it.


5. Dating in Korean Culture

Another shock I underwent coming to Korea was how different dating is. In Canada, if you go on a date it’s dinner and maybe a movie or some other activity. In Korea, dates are often full-day events with multiple locations, activities or meals. The first date I went on here I thought was going to be an hour maybe two and I made plans with my friends for afterwards. When I told the person I was with I had dinner plans after our hike they were a bit upset. Later, they communicated that they thought I didn’t like them because I “left early.” Now I know to keep the day clear if I’m going out with anyone.

The other difference I’ve seen is that most people rely on blind dates over dating apps. It’s much more common for friends to introduce you to an acquaintance than to meet online in Korea. When looking through popular dating apps you will see a lot of people conceal their faces as they don’t want anyone to recognize them. Even if you meet someone online and like each other, they will usually ask you to tell their friends you met in a different situation.

Top Korean culture shocks - Two friends talking

6. Cost of Fruit

Fruit here is very expensive and seen as a luxury. As most fruits have to be flown in, it costs a lot to transport them. You can find the best deals on fruit, especially tomatoes and bananas, at local open-air markets. On average, the price of a watermelon is $20 or $10 for a small package of strawberries or blueberries. I highly suggest eating more local and in-season fruits such as persimmons (Oct-Jan), Korean melons (summer-early fall) or Asian pears (year-round). You should also shop around in order to find deals, especially in the summer months!

7. Everything Moves Fast in Korean Culture

Koreans are well known for efficiency, but I didn’t truly comprehend this until I got here. If you order food in a restaurant, it will be on your table within a few minutes. If you have to go to a government office to process paperwork, it will routinely be performed on the spot or within a day. Coming from a country that is agonizingly slow this was a wonderful surprise. If you need clothes fixed, dry cleaning, or ordering something online – it can be done within the hour.

The flip side of this though is it has produced an impatient society. People will not want to wait in line or too long for anything. This keeps the systems moving quickly but can also be a bit stressful when the people around you are agitated.

8. Beauty Industry Obsession

A large influence in Korean culture is the K-Beauty industry. Anything you have ever desired to fix about yourself is achievable, and usually quite affordable, especially in Seoul. As someone with troubled skin, it felt like paradise to be able to get facials and healing skincare. But there is an obsession with appearance that can lean into the toxic side. Wanting to be pale, skinny and beautiful are strong beauty standards. Plastic surgery, including botox and other such procedures, is very popular here. Especially if you visit Gangnam, you will frequently see people coming out of surgical clinics looking like movie stars wrapped up.

Personally, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with changing your appearance, as long as you are safe and happy. But the pressure of “perfection” can definitely get to you if you are outside of the desired standard. So just remember to stay gentle with yourself and give yourself some extra self-love when you’re here!

9. School Is Taken Very Seriously

Top Korean culture shocks - Madelyn TEFL Teacher

Schooling is taken very seriously in Korean culture. Even starting as young as 5 years old children will attend multiple schools and after-school academies (Hagwons) or activities. I currently teach 7-year-olds and they are learning at a gr.2-3 level in science, English and Maths. They get homework both online and written along with weekly journals they need to fill out.

The early preparation for kids is so they will obtain an excellent score on their high school entrance exam. This exam starts the pathway from high school to university and finally into the job market, which is extremely competitive.

Students experience severe levels of stress throughout their schooling and have very little time to relax and play. As a teacher, it’s important to be able to support this focus on learning while holding a safe space for them to still be kids.

10. Table Etiquette in Korean Culture

Like any country, there are rules around how to be polite. In South Korea, a lot of these rules revolve around table etiquette. Below are some I’ve learned to help you be respectful during your dining experiences. Now a lot of these are old traditions so not everyone follows them. When in doubt it’s better to be overly polite until you see what everyone else at the table is doing!

Pouring drinks, if you are the youngest at the table it is your job to pour drinks for everyone else. Always pour with two hands but don’t pour for yourself. Once you have filled everyone’s glasses, someone will fill your glass for you.

When you are drinking, make sure you turn your face away from anyone older than you. It is considered impolite to drink facing someone especially if they are your elder.

Don’t stick your chopsticks in your food or use your chopsticks to pass food to another person’s chopsticks. Both of these resemble traditional death rituals and are considered bad luck and rude. Sticking your chopsticks into your rice or meal looks like the incense that is used when someone dies. Passing food from your chopsticks to someone else also resembles how bones are passed during funeral services. If you need to put your utensils down, place them on a napkin next to your plate!

Madelyn making friends traveling abroad

Moving or visiting a new country is always an adventure. As long as you learn about the cultural differences and respect them you will have a fantastic time. Every culture has its own wonderful aspects that make travelling so enjoyable. So even if some things might shock you, embrace the differences and enjoy the experience!

If you have more questions about moving abroad or Korean culture, be sure to check out the other amazing blogs below or see Premier TEFL’s full blog library at premiertefl.com/blog

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