Culture shock is a topic commonly discussed amongst foreigners in Korea. Upon moving here, everyday we conquer new territories, some of which we find pleasant and amusing, while others leave a bitter taste in our mouth. Most expats remember at least one situation when they have felt that something was off in the way they were being treated. Although serious issues can, indeed, occur, there are many cases in which newcomers to Korea perceive something as offensive or inappropriate but later realize that this is just the way the country goes. While there is no excuse for intentional rudeness, becoming familiar with Korea’s cultural context and urban environment will help you grow adjusted to the local norms. In this article, we have listed few situations to remind you that not taking everything personally is the key to being a happy expat in Korea.
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Many foreigners experience being rejected by a taxi driver and most of them usually perceive it as racial discrimination. It is definitely a tough one because public transportation in Korea is highly efficient, so taking a taxi usually means that you are out of other options at the moment. This situation is especially confusing and frustrating to those expats who don’t speak Korean very well since they are left wondering what the matter is. It is true that some taxi ahjussis are not the most polite people on earth but this scenario can actually be a huge misunderstanding.
Besides using a mobile application, there are two possible ways of catching a cab in Korea: from a taxi stand or hailing. When at a taxi stand, taxis are situated according to their arrival there, similar to people standing in line. This way, passengers must take the first car in line and the other drivers will refuse to take you because that is a violation of their work ethic. Basically, you cannot get into a car of your own choice or in the one closest to you. Yes, even if the line consists of as many as 5-10 cars, as it often is in crowded areas, you are still expected to find your way to the first one. In the case of hailing, many taxis on the road are already reserved and on their way to a destination, so pay attention to the color coding on the windshield: green light reading “빈차” in Korean means that the car is empty, while red sign with the Korean word “예약” stands for a car that is already booked.
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As most expats are well aware, once you get used to it, public transportation in Korea is a life-saver in terms of both money and time. But was your first ride that smooth? There are some situations that commonly occur in buses and subways that can be quite unnerving for those who are new to life here. To begin with, the two types of rides function together but there are some differences in their operation that passengers need to be aware of. For starters, when a bus driver passes you by, don’t take it personally even if you are the only one at the bus stop. He is not ignoring you or being careless in his job. On the contrary, to save time between destinations, buses in Korea don’t stop at every stop unless given a sign. So, next time you are trying to get on a bus, remember to waive or simply step forward towards the road. Similarly, don’t blame the driver if he passes by your stop when you are riding on the bus. It is passengers’ responsibility to signal that they need to get off by pushing the red buttons positioned near the seats.
These rules do not apply to the subway system since trains stop at each station. In addition, another difference between the two systems is the treatment of priority seats. In both buses and subways there are seats marked in a certain colors symbolizing that they are reserved for people with disabilities, pregnant women, mothers with children, and the elderly. In many countries it is not uncommon to sit in such seats if no one with these characteristics is around, and then give the seat away when someone in need shows up. Have you ever gotten scolded for doing this in Korea despite vividly remembering seeing people taking priority seats on numerous occasions? Here is a possible explanation to this frustrating experience: priority seats have different status on different means of public transportation. Simply put, those seats are completely off-limits on the subway and sitting in them is considered an offense. However, this rule is flexible when it comes to busses, and as far as safety is concerned, it is actually advisable to sit down rather than to remain standing, even if those are the only seats available.
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Korea: finally a country where eating out is affordable and tasty at the same time! Sounds like a perfect world until you enter a typical Korean restaurant and are left completely puzzled with some of the manners you encounter there. There are two main situations in which foreigners are usually taken aback when dining out in the beginning of their stay here. First of all, although most restaurants nowadays are equipped with bells for catching the attention of the server, if this option is not available, it is completely acceptable to yell at them to come to your table or even scream out your entire order. Since tip culture in Korea is practically non-existent and restaurants are busy, the staff will not pay attention to you unless being asked to. This can seem like they are lacking basic manners or even purposely ignoring you but that’s not the case: they are simply waiting for your call. Although not being attended in time might be a situation where you would straight up leave the restaurant back in your home country, try to be understanding of Korea’s ways and give your server a shout out.
However, it is not only the servers that you will have to learn not to mind. Especially if you are a foreigner who is new to Asian culture in general, food and table manners can be hard to adjust to. As if mastering the art of eating with chopsticks and learning the names of the hundreds of side dishes was not enough, there are also the habits of those around us that we need to consider. Thus, another shocking thing when eating out in Korea is the loud sounds that many locals make when eating. Chewing, slurping and burping are just a small part of the register that can be heard in Korean restaurants. Even when people you are sharing a meal with do that, don’t think that they are being rude on purpose or disregarding your presence. Actually, making sounds when eating has a positive meaning in Korea and it is usually a demonstration of how delicious the food is. What might sound unappetizing to you is music to the chef’s ears, so try to put yourself in their shoes.
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As foreigners in Korea, it is natural to need occasional help and this can happen at an unexpected time and place. In the most desperate of situations, asking random people about simple things such as directions or how to manage the newest public technology is an unpleasant but quite possible occurrence. Approaching a total stranger whose language you can barely speak is embarrassing enough, but being passed by them in a time of need is just hurtful. However, this is another experience that you should not take personally because, most likely, the person in question did not even realize that they have ignored you.
First of all, Korea’s busy working schedule and rapid lifestyle has gotten everyone moving in a buzz, so paying attention to the surroundings is not always a priority. Also, it is rare to have to ask about anything amongst Koreans because most information is easily accessible online or conveniently written on signs they can read. Helpless foreigners excluded, people who advance to others randomly such as promoters or church agitators, traditionally, have a reputation of scammers here, so the original reaction many Koreans have is to give this approach the go-by. In addition, not being the first one to offer help is actually considered polite according to the Korean concept of saving face or losing face. On the other hand, be sure that once they notice you, Koreans are quick to respond and many will go out of their way to assist you. Moreover, you will be amazed by the lengths they will go to overcome the language barrier just to make sure that your problem has been resolved. Hospitality plays an important part in Korean culture and foreigners are still more or less seen as “guests” in the country, so do not be discouraged from communicating with locals.