Question: “Now that you’ve been in Korea a while, what about culture shock??”

Question: “Now that you’ve been in Korea a while, what about culture shock??”

Just the other day I was talking to a family member and they asked me a very simple question that I, of course, felt obligated to answer in an entire blog post rather than with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. They asked if I’d had to deal with any culture shock now that I’ve survived my Korean ‘Honeymoon Phase’, which is supposed to last anywhere from 3-4 months. A couple of weeks ago was my 4 month anniversary in Korea and, while I do agree that my ‘Honeymoon Phase’ has ended, I have to yet to settle into full ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?!’ culture shock mode. However, there are still a few things that I wouldn’t consider culture shock so much as a simple ‘Not quite sure what’s going on here…’ phase.


1. Hide and seek with shoulders! But mostly hide.

In Korea, for whatever reason, showing your shoulders is not a thing. Like, don’t try it. It’s a cultural taboo that you can get away with in big cities like Seoul, Busan and, to some extent, Daejeon, without getting too many sideways glances. But try that in smaller cities like Chungju and all bets are off. People already stare at us as foreigners but if you want to see REAL staring, just show a little cleavage or even half a shoulder to know what true scrutiny feels like. I have become queen of the cover-ups, shawls and creative ways to cover the entire top portion of my body. What’s truly bewildering, however, is the fact that you can show basically as much leg as you want with no consequences at all. I’ve seen some scandalously short things worn to work and out in public. Like, if-you-sneeze-the-secret-will-be-out short. Yet no one bats an eye. Huh.

2. The “Korean Surprise”

During orientation the “Korean surprise”, along with what to expect from your co-teacher, are two of the most common things you’ll hear about. It’s pretty harped on, but until you’ve actually experienced it you have no idea how real it is. At least once a day we are subjected to a “surprise!” in the form of unexpected visits, random meetings for things we had no idea even existed, or food that, for some reason, needs to be immediately consumed. My absolute favorite “Surprise! Also, holy crap!” award goes to the time that we were relaxing in the office during a rather lengthy post lunch break. We were so relaxed that two of us were actually laid out across several chairs, the other two leaned so far back we might as well have been laying on couches, and our Head Director walked through the door with no warning at all. Our reaction was instantaneous, so instantaneous that the two laying on the chairs literally fell over in their haste to get up and greet him. He whisked through the office with all the authority of the President of Panem and was gone before we had any idea what had happened. His visits are never planned.

I think the greatest part about the KS is the assumption that we know exactly what’s going on because they may have briefly mentioned something that one time at 8 PM on a Monday night 3 months ago, and of course how could you not know what the rest of us know? At first, with my A type personality, it was incredibly difficult to handle these random moments when I pride myself in always being prepared. Now, I’ve learned to simply go with the flow. Our most commonly used phrase is now, “I have no idea, just go with it.”



I have seen some impressive things in my time, but NONE surpass the time I saw a woman HIKING in heeled boots like something out of an anime. The best part, this is not a rare occurrence. Women in Korea take a lot of pride in looking good all the time, and apparently making yourself look taller is no exception. These heels aren’t just one or two inches by any means. Some girls will literally subway surf in 4 inches or taller, dressed to the nines in the summer! Places I wouldn’t even dare to  attempt wearing heels (for example, anywhere in Seoul) have women who not only walk like they’re on a cloud, but RUN across intersections in them with children, friends and/or shopping bags in tow. Not gonna lie, I’d like for somebody to take the time to teach me their skills because, oh my God.


4. Same sex affection

It’s safe to say that Korea is fairly conservative when it comes to even the idea of homosexuality. ‘Denial’ would be a more apt description for the country in general when it comes to homosexual relationships, though that’s certainly not everyone’s view in the entire country. With such a common viewpoint of anything other than heterosexuality being wrong, I’m often surprised at the amount of affection that happens between men and women of the same sex. Grown men will interlock fingers because they’re close friends, even go so far as to kiss each other’s cheeks in public. Women will do the same thing and all of this is considered normal. Our boys at school, no matter their age, will lay on top of each other, grab each other’s hips and even kiss each other on the lips in the hallway with no one making a fuss. The first time I saw two of my boys kiss each other I was in complete shock. I looked around so quick my head spun just to see how much damage control I was going to have to do knowing that everyone must have witnessed it. What I saw was a crowded hallway full of kids who didn’t even blink. Again, shock. This is in the same country where a Gay Pride parade completely stopped because protesters were sitting down at the front to prevent them moving. Yet two boys in a crowded hallway found in that moment that they cared for each other enough to allow a kiss to pass between them. I just wonder what the true difference is between these fifth graders, two “straight” men holding hands on the street, and two homosexual ones who have to battle during a parade to be recognized.


5. The Selfie

On a less serious note, remember what I told you about Koreans really wanting to look good? I’m 90% sure they look that good all the time because of the infinite amount of selfies they take here. Selfies or, as they call them here, selcas, are as common as they come. Back home in the States it’s almost unfathomable to see a random person taking a picture of themselves while just sitting on the bus. Even using Snapchat to take photos back home I’d try to subtly take it while walking or doing some other task so it didn’t look like I was actually taking a photo of myself. Here, there is no shame in doing your makeup and plopping down for what I have come to call a good old fashioned ‘Selfie Session’. Seriously, I have seen girls (and guys! You’re not off the hook here, just in the minority) sitting alone, with large groups, on buses, in restaurants, at coffee shops, anywhere clicking away on their phones taking pictures of themselves. You think at first that they’re not serious, but when you see them start filtering and photo shopping (I have seen it happen) on their phones you know the selfie game is strong with this one.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *