What Shocked Me Most About Living Abroad in Korea (And How I Dealt With It)


10 Things AboutSouth KoreaThat Will

I’ve been living abroad in Daegu, South Korea for a little under five months now, and although the initial culture shock has dwindled, I’m still surprised by new things every day. Just this morning I tried a new flavor of Gimbap (veggies and meat rolled in rice & seaweed, kind of like sushi); I didn’t know it could taste so good! Although, I should have guessed that axing the Spam would be the first place to start…

There are some things, though, that have been extra hard to get used to. Things that shocked me at the beginning, and still shock me today:

Koreans LOVE Spam! (As you may have guessed above)

Now, I don’t want to generalize here since I’m sure not all Koreans love Spam. That’s kind of hard to do, though, when there are $200 gift boxes that are actually being bought at Home Plus during major parts of the year. As mentioned above, Gimbap has Spam, sometimes stir fried rice has Spam, sometimes they serve it for breakfast, sometimes it’s on your lunch tray at school, and other times it’s gifted to you at which point you must politely accept.

The only time I ever actually eat Spam is in my Gimbap, but when it comes to anything else, I usually scoot it on over to the corner of my plate and pretend I forgot about it. Am I being high maintenance? Maybe… but guys, I just can’t do it. I can’t!

How Clean the Streets Are

I’m not entirely sure why, but I never expected Korea to be tidy. I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up in third world countries where the streets were nothing short of filthy, so I expected everything outside of the US and Canada to be this way. However, when we first left the orientation site in Jeonju and made our way East to Daegu, the first thing I remember thinking as I gazed out at the metropolis was, “Everything is so modern and clean!”

I try my best never to litter, as I would anywhere. I also try my best to comply with Korean standards for recycling, which are a little stricter than they would be in North America. Growing up and living abroad in Central America, I don’t remember ever recycling (how awful is that!?). Here, it’s totally the opposite… everything has a place, including leftover food, which I store in a designated bag in my fridge until it’s full enough to dispose of.

It’s a Miracle When You Find a Trashcan

Although the streets are well looked after, there’s an eerie feeling to the cleanliness. When you look around you can’t help but wonder… “Where do all the people put it!?” After five months, I still don’t have the answer. There simply are no trash cans to be found, like, anywhere. I occasionally hold my garbage until I find a restroom, or stumble on the miraculous dividers in subway stations.

I’ve heard that the reason the city of Daegu has restricted the distribution of trash containers is to give work to the elderly. This is not a surefire fact, just something I’ve heard, but in my mind it would explain this conundrum.

YOLO Bodily Functions

I never really caught on to the ‘You Only Live Once’ craze. It always seemed a little bit silly… until I moved to Korea and the acronym took on a whole new meaning. Seriously guys, I’ve never gagged so much on clean streets before. For every ounce of trash you don’t see you’ll find a frothy loogie lining the pavement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed a very attractive girl, and thought to myself, “wow what a killer outfit!” only to witness her hock one up and spit it out, Rose on Titanic style.

Ok, maybe I’m being a little insensitive, because Koreans are also pretty hygienic. It’s just that hygiene is different here. Maybe we’re too paranoid in North America, but the fact of the matter is that our customs are different. It’s not okay to blow your nose here, but it’s totally fine to cough without covering your mouth and snarl all your mucus on the subway. The great thing is that you don’t have to worry about being judged in a public bathroom if you ate too much chili paste. I try not to look down while I’m walking, and I try even harder to carry hand sanitizer with me everywhere I go. Something really awesome is that you’re usually provided with a wet wipe before meals, or as branded gifts on the street.

What a beautiful view- EWorld, #SouthKorea

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The Intensity of a Collective Culture

I’m not sure how to explain this in a way that will make the most sense, but as many of you know, Korean culture is strongly based off of Confucianism and Collectivism. What does this mean for foreigners living their everyday lives in South Korea? Well, it means that we’ll encounter a lot of situations that probably make us uncomfortable. For example, I’m often asked to do things at my workplace that are not in my job description or that seem farfetched. I’ve realized that my first instinct is to inquire about why we are asked to do this, and then potentially argue about it because I don’t see it to be ‘fair.’ However, I’ve also realized that none of my Korean co-workers have this instinct. No matter what the task is, they do it with a smile, because they’re superior asked them to. The argument is that although it might not be better for one, it’s better for all of us, collectively. I’ve learned to pick my battles. I don’t argue about being asked to move chairs from one room to another multiple times a month with no explanation anymore. However, I do argue when they pack my schedule so tight that I don’t have time for a lunch break.

Water Consumption

In Korea, it’s common to either buy bottled drinking water for your home or to boil tap water to decontaminate it. I’m used to this custom, since it’s something we did in Central America and in Puerto Rico. The one thing I’m not so used to is the strange realization that Koreans barely drink water. A few of my friends who have dated Koreans have mentioned their lack of consumption, and that they inquire about their need to carry a water bottle on long days. This baffles me! When you eat at a restaurant, you’ll also notice that water is normally self-serve. The cups they provide are typically silver and tiny, compared to what I’m used to. In the winter time, restaurants will sometimes give you lukewarm water. I’ve learned to buy water at the convenience store, and I typically carry it with me, even when I go out to bars. I also brought along a Nalgene bottle, thanks to my brother, which has been a LIFE SAVER.

#Seoul state of mind. #VisitKorea

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How Beautiful the Country is

For whatever reason, people don’t seem to talk about Korea and its beauty. The ‘Korean Wave’ is spreading quickly throughout the world and so many people are buzzing about K-Pop and K-Dramas… but where are the NatGeo articles on South Korea? Everything from the palaces, to the Hanok Villages, to the gardens, to the coast is resplendent. I’m so in love with the colors of Korea, including the ones you see in nature and the ones you see when the sun goes down.

I try to get out as much as possible to the mountains, and even to the parks. Daegu, the city I’m based in, has Duryu Park with amazing trees and a lake. If you go far enough West, you’ll also find the Arboretum that is constantly changing with the seasons.

Driving and Public Transportation Etiquette

So, I have a few observations:

  • I’m not sure if I know what the word for sorry or excuse me is in Hangul, but I’m almost certain I’ve never heard anyone say it.
  • People will elbow you, especially the grandmas.
  • Buses are allowed to run red lights. If they’re not, they do it anyways.
  • There is no such thing as a side walk.
  • Pedestrians are bowling pins.
  • It’s survival of the fittest.

While I’m living abroad, I want to see as much as I possibly can. I try to get to the train or bus as early as possible. If I’m in a rush to get to wherever I need to be, I know I’ll just be in a bad mood because of the likelihood of a mishap. This is one thing that I’m learning to adjust to and accept. It’s just a different place to be, and honestly, the aggressiveness is not much different than it would be in any large city in the US like New York or Boston.

For every negative encounter I have while using public transportation, I have a few good ones as well. Sometimes, an ajumma will motion for me to sit in the seats reserved for the elderly if there aren’t many people on the train. Other times, someone will help me out when I’m carrying one too many bags of groceries.

I’m curious to know what your most shocking experiences have been abroad, and how you have coped with them. Leave me a comment below or Like Travelsuras on Facebook to answer & receive updates on new posts.

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9 Comments

  1. January 13, 2015
    Reply

    This is interesting, and I think I have experienced most of these as well. Although, maybe Daegu is an exception when it comes to clean streets? I find that there are incredible amounts of trash everywhere due to the lack of trash cans. This is especially evident in comparison to Japanese streets. I guess it could also just be my city 🙂

  2. January 14, 2015
    Reply

    About the clean streets, I think it’s thanks of the elderly completely. It’d be dirtier without of them because as you said there’s no trashcans. I finish everyday with my coat pockets full of trash.
    Just two things about the YOLO Bodily Functions: eww and truth. That and the elbow attack are the worst.

  3. January 14, 2015
    Reply

    I want to live where you’re living! The streets around where I live are covered in litter. It was better during the spring and summer when the ajummas were out clearing it up with their little garbage bags, but since autumn has arrived the trash just seems to pile up around bus stops and public stairways. Totally agree with you about the beauty though. Korea isn’t written about enough, it’s such a stunning country.

  4. January 16, 2015
    Reply

    Yes, the beauty of Korea is definitely underrated. I didn’t expect much at all when I arrived. But almost immediately I noticed the endlessly rolling hills, even surrounding Seoul. Then when I took trips down south, my mind was blown that I hadn’t heard more about how great the country looks.

    In terms of YOLO bodily functions, don’t forget the scattered soju-induced piles of puke on a Sunday morning!

  5. January 16, 2015
    Reply

    Great post! How beautiful Korea was really surprised me as well. I expected metropolises and busy highways, not stunning mountain ranges and rugged coasts! I really loved Gangwon-do for that reason.

    Also, spam? So good in budaejjigae! I can’t eat it plain, but I really got used to it in that. Good stuff.

    Also, the Korean for ‘excuse me’ is sil-lye-hab-ni-da or 실례합니다. You’ll hear it if you listen, though never from the elbow-swinging ajummas on the bus 😉

  6. January 19, 2015
    Reply

    Great stuff here! I get frustrated trying to convince people about how awesome Korea is in so many ways, especially with the natural beauty found outside the cities. I guess you must live in a very clean city because here in Jeollanam Province and even in Seoul, I’ve seen lots of trash all over the streets. I know there’s a system that takes care of refuse, but I don’t think it’s very prompt about taking care of trash. The subways and train stations are clean though, for the most part. Thanks for sharing this. Such a great group of things to be thankful for about this place.

  7. January 20, 2015
    Reply

    I totally laughed and nodded to myself while reading these things you listed. Oh my goodness I couldn’t agree more. It totally freaks me out STILL to see people spitting right infront of me. I gag whenever I see/ hear my students doing it in the bathroom at the freaking door! And the whole no trashcan thing is SO annoying and actually ends up causing more litter to be on the street than anything else. PS love the insta snaps in between especially of gyeongbokgung palace

  8. January 23, 2015
    Reply

    I laughed out loud when I read “pedestrians are bowling pins”. SO TRUE. I have been nearly hit and witnessed accidents a handful of times. I agree with all of these points. I think the hardest one for me to come to terms with was the “collectivism” that you describe in Korea. I come from a culture that, I think, is a bit selfish in ways… We worry about our own needs before the rest of the group. I think a balance is good, and if you worry too much about your school as a whole, you can suffer immensely. I’ve seen people pull midnight runs from my school because of their stress level. Interesting post! I think this would be really useful for new teachers doing research.

    • January 24, 2015
      Reply

      haha Meg, we so are, though! It can get really tough, but then something awesome happens and it’s easy to forget all the bad stuff.

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