Photo: Elizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock

How Not to Look Like an Idiot in Korea

South Korea
by Deva Lee Jan 21, 2014

For those who’ve never been to Northeast Asia, there’s only so much googling that can prepare you. If you’re from a Western country, you’ll be bringing a knapsack full of cultural norms that are invisible to you but glaring to Koreans. Some of these will make you look like the new kid on the first day of school — and just about as popular. Here are some tips for avoiding embarrassment when you first arrive.

Figure out the food.

Don’t assume there will be a fork, a knife, or a salt shaker on the table. Do assume there will be some fabulous side dishes. Don’t be afraid to dive into them.
Unless you’re in an international restaurant offering international cuisine, most restaurants serve food eaten with chopsticks and spoons. The meal you order will likely come with some side dishes and sauces that are intended to complement your meal.

Don’t use chopsticks to eat your rice.
This is the custom in other Asian countries, but not in Korea. Alongside your chopsticks you’ll find a handy spoon for rice and soup. Locals may deviate from this norm, but if you do you’ll just look like a noob.

Don’t admit to hating kimchi.
Not every tourist or expat likes it, and for some it takes getting used to. If you’re not a fan, keep it to yourself. Kimchi has become symbolic of Korea, and your opinion on it will be read as a sign of your feelings about the country as a whole. Saying you like kimchi, or at least one of the many kinds of kimchi, is sure to make you far more endearing to locals.

Don’t mistake tofu for feta.
This unfortunate assumption has led many expats to harbour a festering hatred for tofu. The same applies to the brown goo inside bread and on ice cream: That is bean paste, not chocolate. Much of your enjoyment of food in Korea will depend on your expectations. Unlike the Japanese, Koreans don’t eat with their eyes. Presentation of food isn’t always a priority, but taste certainly is. Now that you’re expecting tofu and sweet bean, you’ll be spared oral shock.

Don’t bring food for one.
Sharing is the norm, and bringing a portion for one will make you feel selfish and sad, especially when someone hands you some awesome homemade kimbap.

Don’t refill someone’s glass unless it’s empty.
You’ll never pour your own drink in Korea — the youngest person at the table is responsible for keeping everyone’s glass full. If you find yourself in this position, note that a little left in the bottom of the glass is a sign that the person doesn’t want a refill.

Do eat when you’re drinking.
It’s customary to order food when drinking alcohol. This is presumably to ensure that, despite drinking rituals, everyone makes it out standing. At makgeolli bars, ordering anju is mandatory. Considering the high alcohol content of rice wine, this helps prevent disaster.

Learn the language.

Learning to read and speak basic Korean will not only improve and ease your experience significantly, but also show respect for others — whether they can speak English or not. I recommend learning some compliments: Flattery will make you charming, and charming has more fun.

Don’t expect people to speak English.
There is very little English spoken in any given clinic, hair salon, or post office, and this can be alienating at first. Even if more people in Korea were bilingual (a national goal), it’s unlikely to ever be the language people use on the street.

Don’t ask people for an English name.
Korean names might be difficult on the tongue at first, but asking people for an English name — or worse, giving them one — shows an unwillingness to learn about a world very different from your own. Some people will prefer to be called by their English name, but that’s up to them, not you. They’ll let you know without you having to ask.

Leave your traditions at home.

At least in the first few months. If you’re resistant to change or protective of your home comforts, you’re likely to spend your time disappointed and uncomfortable.

Don’t use the word “real” or “proper” when you mean “Western.”
Do they have any proper toilets? How much is W50 000 in real money? Do they sell real bread? Really now, assuming your culture is the norm makes you look silly. Plus, you’ll spend all your time searching for things that probably aren’t popular in Korea — like feta cheese!

Try not to be offended by stares.
Previously known as the Hermit Kingdom, South Korea is finding its international feet at an economically rapid, but culturally slow, pace. You will likely be wearing or doing something that’s highly unfamiliar to some people. Feel free to stare back, as you’ll likely find something equally ‘strange’ to stare at.

Don’t generalise about Korean people.
This is tempting at times, because of the cultural homogeneity evident in the country, and because Korean people sometimes generalise about themselves, often in the third person. “Korean people like x or y” is a common refrain. Nonetheless, assuming certain unshakable truths about all Koreans is forgetting the rapid social changes in the country that have characterised the last few decades and ignoring certain subcultures and idiosyncrasies that make Korea so interesting.

Do let people know when they’re stereotyping you.
Your idiosyncrasies are interesting too. The assumption that all foreigners dislike spicy food, eat hamburgers and pizza, and don’t speak Korean must be crushed, and you can help.

Look the part.

Cover up.
Showing your shoulders and chest is taboo here, particularly for a woman. Regardless of the humid summers, vests and low-cut tops are not commonly worn.

Don’t wear your shoes indoors.
And soon you won’t want to. Apart from the fact that dragging street dirt into your bedroom is gross, the glorious underfloor heating called ondol will make you want to lie face down on the floor in winter, never mind warm your socks.

Be experimental and intrepid.

Whatever adventurous bone in your body took you to a foreign country, use it to try things that make you curious and a little nervous. The rewards are usually excellent.

Do press all the buttons on the robotic toilets.
You know you want to. Proceed with caution, but proceed nonetheless. You’ll leave dry and warm, trust me.

Do accept invitations to do things and go places that you would normally avoid.
You may find that moments shared in these situations make some of the best memories. Only at the top of a mountain, after four hours of hiking with people you don’t share a language with, will someone offer to share the best lunch you’ve ever tasted — and a view you’ll remember for decades.

Do go somewhere on the map that’s difficult to find.
While it’s hard to imagine there’s anywhere without apartment buildings and neon lights, there are villages tucked between mountains and on tiny islands that will make you feel well and truly lost. It will likely be very inconvenient to get there, but in these places you’ll see a Korea that differs from the pervading frantic pace in towns and cities. And the food alone will be worth your trouble.

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