What to Know Before Coming to Korea
Even the inexperienced traveler could tell you that there are some significant differences between Asian culture and Western culture, and although I’ve lived in Seoul for over five months now, I still feel as though I understand the tip of the iceberg, and may never fully understand the Korean mentality. It is with the hope of making life easier for fellow wanderlusters that I have complied some of the most crucial Koreanisms to understand, which can at times seem really foreign and different from what we are used to at home. Of course, if you are Caucasian, Hispanic, or Black, Koreans can physically see that you are not one of them, and will cut you some slack, but knowing what you expect before you come to Asia can help make your transition all the easier.
How to say your age - While seemingly trivial, this is a really important concept to understand prior to visiting the peninsula. The Korean language has a complicated grammatical system influenced greatly by the status of the person with whom you are speaking. It is therefore not uncommon for perfect strangers to ask your age when they meet you, so they know what degree of respect with which you should be addressed. Although I was born in 1988, if I were to say I was 22 here, Koreans would equate that number to about 20 years old. For Westerners, the Korean age system is a difficult one to understand, as Koreans age is typically one or two years older than Western age. Everyone turns a year older on Lunar New Year, and a baby’s first birthday is celebrated when they are 100 days old, rather than 365, which means that the numbers just don’t match to that of the West. To avoid confusion, state your age both in Western years and Korean years, or ask a Korean what your age is here.
Saving face - One of the most distinctively Asian qualities about Korea (also the most frustrating) is the concept of ‘face.’ It’s easiest to think of face as how people perceive you, and the image that you present to your peers. The idea of face is not only important in helping understand Asian mannerisms, but also how you should treat people, especially colleagues. The act of saving face takes on a lot of different forms, but most commonly, it’s refusing to admit that you’re wrong, even when you know you made a mistake. Admitting that you have made an error can hurt how people perceive you, so it’s not common for Koreans to not back down from an argument, even though they understand they’re in the wrong. For teachers, face is also important to understand when dealing with students. Many students will not willingly volunteer information, or communicate in English for fear that they might be wrong, or speak poorly, which would force them to lose face in front of their peers. It can be incredibly frustrating, but has been an integral part of Korean culture for centuries, and will not likely change anytime soon. The best way to address this, is to just let things slide, and allow Koreans a graceful exit after a mistake has been made to prevent continued conflict.
Wear nice socks - it’s like what your mom used to tell you about wearing clean underwear, you never know who’s going to see them and when. I’ve yet to decide if everything in Korea is done spontaneously and at the last minute, or if they Koreans just never feel compelled to keep me in the loop, but it often happens that I find myself attending a last minute dinner, visit to a house, or even going to see a teacher in the hospital. Removing your shoes is commonplace in Korea, as it is traditionally done before entering any house, Korean restaurant, or temple, meaning that you could find yourself shuffling around in your socks at any point in time during your stay. Just last week I found myself struggling to hide the hole in my favorite pair of wool socks when I was asked to attend an impromptu lunch, and was seated cross-legged beside my fellow teachers. Typically I do my best to look presentable from the ankle up, and allow myself to wear whatever comfortable, mismatched socks I like beneath my Converses, but that doesn’t cut it here. Prepare accordingly.
If you don’t know when it’s appropriate to remove your shoes, look for this tell-tale sign: if you have to step up onto a platform to enter a room or building, then shoes should be removed. In a Korean restaurant, for example, the doorway will generally be on ground level, and the seating room will be raised about a foot off of that (to allow for underfloor heating). This is an indication that shoes should be removed before entering, to help keep the floors clean.
Get ready to drink - My boyfriend recently came to visit me in Korea, and it wasn’t long before he found himself bonding with locals over a pitcher of beer and shot upon shot of soju, the rice-made hard alcohol so popular that it is also sold in juice boxes. I still feel horrible about the fact that I didn’t warn him about the quantity of drinking that occurs in Korea, and how the effects of soju sneak up on you surprisingly quickly. Drinking is extremely important in the Korean business world, so much so that I’ve often hear young men complaining that they have to go out drinking with their bosses multiple times a week, until the early hours of the morning, only to return to work in a few hours and attempt to be productive. Koreans tend to pour with a heavy hand, and enjoy sharing their alcohol with others, so if you don’t want to drink, it’s most polite to accept the shot, wet your lips, and put it down again. To downright refuse would be rude, and to try to keep up would be masochism. So the next time you have a round poured- smile, raise your glass, and shout ‘건배’ (guhn-bae) to earn immediate crowd approval.