21 Lessons in Korean Culture

Long time, no write. I have been in Korea for over a year now and am about to step into a new adventure. But before that, I feel like I have lots to update the world on....maybe one day I will have time to write about all of the awesome experiences that have encompassed this past year, but today I have another topic on my mind--culture.

You know, culture is very important. We can step into another country thinking that all of our thoughts and feelings are the same as those whom we will encounter abroad because we are all human, but in reality, we all have starkly different histories, foods, families, traditions, and customs that have shaped who we are. We cannot change or adjust to large differences easily. One or two cultural misunderstandings might slide, but after a while, it is vital to know and understand the culture that surrounds each of us, especially if it is not our own. Success in the workplace and within relationships depends upon it.

This year I have learned many cultural things, primarily petty ones, but within the last few weeks, I have learned some of the most useful cultural idiosyncrasies of all. And so now I write them to educate those like me who once thought that ignorance was bliss. Trust me. It's not.

Some of these were learned the hard way, and others were more simply and forgivingly taught. In no particular order....

1. Don't stay at someone's home past 7 or 8 pm unless they absolutely, positively, strongly insist that you stay. Even if they invited you to come late and there is no indication that they want you to leave, you should still talk about leaving at least two or three times to be sure of their feelings about the situation.

2. Be aware that yes, no, and ok rarely mean yes, no, and ok. You must read between the lines and break through them to learn the true meaning of those words. More often than not, it will be the opposite of what you expected. For example, if I say, "You didn't finish your homework?" a Korean will typically answer, "Yes." This means, "No, I didn't."

However, if you hear the word maybe, you can almost guarantee that it means yes or no, depending on the context. For example, someone may tell you, "Maybe I won't attend class tomorrow." That means, "I won't attend class tomorrow." Or, "Maybe I will go on vacation to Malaysia." It most likely means, "I will go on vacation to Malaysia."

3. The sentence, "I'm okay," means "Yes" rather than "No." So if someone offers you some food that you don't want, and you say, "I'm okay," you will surely receive it.

4. Teachers and students can RARELY be friends. Because teachers are so highly valued and respected, once you are someone's teacher, you will always be their teacher in their mind. They will treat you like a friend by spending time with you, but they do not necessarily feel like this is a friendship in the same way that you will because rank and age form a kind of hierarchy in relationships that is very difficult to break through. Still, it's not entirely impossible. Evaluate each case with care and consideration.

5. When someone asks you, "What are you doing tomorrow?" don't consider it a simple getting-to-know-about-your-life kind of question. It most likely means, "I want to spend time with you tomorrow, so please make room in your schedule for me." You will have to initiate the plan-making, though, in this situation.

6. Koreans are known for their generosity, but never take advantage of it. For example, as their teacher, they will always attempt to pay for your meal (if you are younger than them; if you are older than them, they will expect you to pay). Always insist several times on paying. If they reject your offer more than two times, then give in, but if not, they probably actually want you to pay and will appreciate your understanding. If you have a hard time getting the chance to pay, one day find a way to secretly pay for everyone at the table, and even though they might feel a bit surprised and embarrassed, they will secretly appreciate it. The dutch-pay system is rare.

7. Always be willing to share your food or drink, and often without being asked. There once was a time when Koreans were starving, so even now that there is no food shortage, they continue to share their food, eating out of the same bowls, and so on.

8. Consider it a privilege to be invited to a Korean's home, and especially to meet their family. It is a rare opportunity, as Koreans are very private about their lives among themselves, but even moreso with foreigners. (Still, they might share secrets with you that they won't tell their own Korean friends because you are safer knowing them.) This privilege should be highly honored and respected.

9. When invited to a Korean's home, bring a gift for your first visit, but nothing like you would bring in Western countries, like flowers or chocolate. Koreans like practical things.....like toilet paper or cleaning supplies. Don't ask me why. I don't know the reason.

10. Never ever say anything negative to anyone older than you, even if it's a remark usually stated in jest. For example, "You're so picky," or "Wow, you're stubborn!" Even if followed by laughter, you could damage or completely ruin a relationship that way. It is not your place to say anything negative except maybe to someone younger than you.

11. Don't cry in front of anyone. You might make them feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. Only your closest friends will understand and be okay with your tears, but even for them it might be a bit uncomfortable.

12. Stay at work until your superior leaves, even if you're finished with everything you needed to do and have to wait for hours and hours. (Foreigners tend to be exempt from this expectation, but if there are many Korean coworkers, understand that they might envy you for leaving when they have to stay, so you might want to stay a little longer some days to empathize with them.)

13. Always remember that education and work ethic are of the highest value in Korea, so respect them and do your best to meet everyone's high expectations.

14. Be extra sensitive to the feelings of Koreans, as you could lose a friend over something petty without even realizing the reason.

15. Recognize that sometimes laughter indicates embarrassment, which is of serious consequence in this "saving face" society. Be careful to encourage students as much as possible and to be aware of each situation to avoid publicly embarrassing others as much as possible.

16. Don't buy the same kind of gifts that you would buy for your foreign friends. Special food packages are usually a good choice. Remember to keep your gifts practical.

17. If someone tells you, "It's ok. Don't worry," 9 out of 10 times what they really are thinking is, "I secretly wish you would care about this and change your mind or plans, but I don't want you to feel bad about the situation, so won't you please read my mind and change by yourself without my having to tell you??" Take care to observe the true meaning in every situation....

18. If someone says, "Let's meet at 10:00 am," expect the time to be earlier and arrive earlier, even if the other person is usually late. Never cancel an appointment or reschedule on the same day of the appointment except for super serious reasons, and apologize profusely when you do. Appointments are like verbal contracts that should never be broken. However, if you don't have a set appointment with a person and that person knows you are with another friend and they tell you to stay longer and enjoy your time, know that what they really mean is that they want you to hurry up and come to see them.

19. Avoid hugging unless you have permission. Otherwise you might find yourself standing with open arms in the middle of a room with the other person on the other side of the room just staring at you. Hugs are reserved for close family members only, and them rarely, I think. However, more and more Koreans are getting used to this foreign method and will usually accept a hug from foreigner friends comfortably. On the other hand, you can expect to walk down the street holding hands or locking arms with your Korean friends. This is a normal display of affection and friendship, even among men on occasion. Another expression of love--saying "I love you,"--can be received uncomfortably. I've been told that they mainly say this to their children before they enter teenage hood. After that, it stops. So use discretion in saying this common Western phrase.

20. When attending weddings or funerals, bring money--at least $50-$100 for a wedding. I'm not sure about a funeral. Gifts are unnecessary. Also, don't expect a Western wedding. Expect a Western-style wedding magazine kind of wedding without any of the sentimentalities attached.

21. Plastic surgery is big in Korea. Your appearance as a foreigner will be highly praised, while many of those around you feel fat or ugly in some way. Don't hesitate to compliment good aspects of people's appearance on occasion to encourage them and help them to recognize their own beauty outside of their societal admiration of Hollywood actors and actresses.

And that's what I've learned so far....to the Western mind, many of these things may sound negative, but I think that's only because it's so different from our way of thinking. I'm sure they think many of our cultural peculiarities are strange or ridiculous as well at times. Yet, Koreans still think highly of Westerners. So whatever you do, respect the people, respect the culture, and remember that you are the foreigner. Not them. Gradually you will overcome barriers and make dear friends, though your experiences may be different than you would expect from your home country. In any case, enjoy life, live and learn and grow and change to meet the needs around you. Be openminded, observant, and careful, and all should work out well in the end.