“Do’s and Don’t’s” in South Korea

South Korea is such a unique country with a culture like no other. In this post, I’ll tell you a little bit about what is acceptable in Korean culture and what is definitely not acceptable. I’ll start by teaching you how to dress, how to attend class/work, how to act on the subway, how to shop, and how to eat like a pro! –So one day if you get the chance to visit Korea, you’ll appear to be “totally normal…”

FASHION:

DON’T put minimal effort into your outfit, even if you are just running to the GS Mart for a banana milk. If you go out wearing sweat pants or a sloppy outfit Koreans will think that you have just about given up on life. DO take the extra time to put on something nice.

For girls, don’t wear low cut shirts or expose your shoulders. This is considered very provocative. The cardigan is your new best friend! However, feel free to wear short skirts, dresses, and shorts. Showing off your legs is not considered lewd. But you might want to be wary of how short your bottoms are, especially if you may be going to a traditional restaurant. For guys, don’t take off your shirt in public and try to dress nice.–It’s okay to care about your appearance here! In fact, you’ll see mirrors placed randomly around, like in elevators and even the cafeteria! Korean students (yes girls AND guys) will generally be found primping their look in front of these mirrors.

Makeup and skin care is huge here.You will find that most girls (and even guys!) will wear makeup daily, even if they aren’t going anywhere special. Girls and guys alike, aren’t afraid to try out some snail cream, or pig collagen masks designed to brighten, smooth wrinkles, and making their skin healthier overall. Most of what is in style for both boys and girls here is reflected in Korean pop culture, most especially in dramas and pop music. The overall message, dress to impress!

 

CLASSES/WORK:

DON’T yawn if you are tired. The professor (or your boss) will think you are bored with their lecture and perceive you as being rude. This doesn’t apply only to class (or work), but also to Korean everyday life. If you feel you must yawn in public cover your yawn with one or preferably both hands. But if you’re in class or at work, you should try your utmost to refrain from yawning. DO hold your questions until the end of class and ask the professor when the class is over. Koreans will view questions posed during the lecture as a challenge to the professor and almost as though you don’t trust or believe in what they are teaching you.

 

THE SUBWAY:

DON’T sit in the seats at the end of the subway car reserved for the elderly, handicapped, and pregnant.

DO feel free to sit in any of the seats in the middle of the car or stand if no seats are available. If you are seated and you see a person older than you get onto the car, DO get up and offer them your seat if all the other seats are taken. This part of Korean culture stems from their roots in Confucianism and the honor placed on age and experience.

If you fail to do either of the two things mentioned above, Koreans will glare at you and mutter “Aiee, weegook-saram..” —ugh, foreigner…

 

SHOPPING/GREETING:

As you walk into a store and hear “Anyeonghaseyo,” (Hello) DON’T ignore the shopkeeper, DO bellow back “Ne anyeonghaseyo!” and give the shopkeeper a head bow. If you buy something, DO hand your card or money to the cashier with BOTH hands or support your outstretched right hand at the elbow with your left hand. As you leave the store DO say “Kamsahamnida, anyeonghigyesaeyo!” (Thank you, goodbye!) and bow to the shopkeeper once again, even if you did not buy anything.

In America, it isn’t that common to be greeted by shopkeepers. Sometimes we walk into stores, look around, and leave all without even acknowledging the clerks. In Korea, you will always be greeted by the clerks. In some instances they may even follow you around the store. At first I thought this was creepy, but I finally got used to it and realized that they want to help you out if you have any questions.

Bowing is a huge part of Korean culture. In America we don’t have anything that is similar to the bow. Some people propose that handshakes are similar, however, handshakes are something Americans do upon meeting one another for the first time. Bowing is something that everyone in Korea does, all the time. Want to acknowledge the shopkeeper? Bow. Want to thank someone for helping  you? Bow. Want to apologize for bumping into someone on the subway? Bow. See your classmate or professor walking down the street and want to say hi? Bow. There are different degrees of bowing. How low and long you bow indicates your level of sincerity and the status of the person you are bowing to. When you bow to a shopkeeper or your friend, a head nod is acceptable, but if you have sincerely wronged someone you better bow with your hands on your stomach and your back almost parallel to the ground and hold it for a good 5 or more seconds. In some cases, if you have done some serious wrong, you may even have to get on your knees to apologize. Bowing is another Korean tradition that has roots in Korean Confucianism.

  

 

EATING FOOD:

DO be aware of where you are eating. If you are eating at an old fashioned restaurant, you may have to take your shoes off at the entrance and sit cross legged on cushions at miniature tables during your meal. If you are eating at a cafe, more westernized restaurant, or say the school cafeteria, don’t worry about taking your shoes off. DO know how to use chopsticks properly! Korean chopsticks are different than both Chinese and Japanese chopsticks. Korean chopsticks tend to be longer and heavier and are made out of stainless steel (HISTORICAL FACT: In ancient times, only the King ate with steel chopsticks. This was because the metal would change color if the food was poisoned). Also please DO know that Koreans DO NOT eat rice with chopsticks unlike both the Chinese and Japanese. If you notice a large spoon at your place on the table, that is not a serving spoon, but is in fact the utensil you should use to eat your rice and drink the broth from your soup. You should use chopsticks for the vegetables and meat. Don’t ever stab your food with your chopsticks or place your chopsticks up right into your rice. Both of these gestures are considered threatening. (Also on a side note, never write a person’s name in red ink for the same reason)

Korean food consists of many side dishes. Breakfast is not generally eaten in Korea but if it is served, you will get a meal that is similar to lunch or dinner food (My school has served hamburgers for breakfast….). A typical Korean dinner will consist of rice, soup, and an assortment of kimchi/pickled vegetables. DON’T pick at your food. Try to eat everything on your plate and alternate between the side and main dishes as you eat. For example, DON’T eat all of your kimchi first and then all of your meat. In the cafeteria do as the Koreans do and DON’T grab a glass of water with your meal. DO drink after you have finished eating your meal. Just be forewarned, the cups here are VERY tiny. You may need to keep refilling your glass. When you’re eating out, don’t pour your own drink, but always pour the drinks of others and refill their glasses when you see they are getting low. If you are eating out, you should order one or two main dishes for the whole table and not individual meals. Koreans tend to share their meals… I have never seen a table get separate dishes and not share. It just isn’t done.

   

 


So now that you know how to dress, how to act in class/at work and on the subway, shop, and eat food properly in Korea, you’re pretty much an expert on Korean etiquette! If you’re reading this post and you enjoyed it, I hope that one day you’ll be able to show off your skills and knowledge of the “Do’s and Don’ts” of what to do in Korea, in Korea! ^o^

In other news, here is an update on my time at Konkuk:

Busan was amazing (Pictures below) and I just had 5 days off of school for Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving (Korean Thanksgiving is similar to American Thanksgiving). And this coming weekend I’ll be visiting Buyeo! Buyeo is famous for it’s ancient fortresses and temples.

    

11 Responses to “Do’s and Don’t’s” in South Korea

  1. Vici April 24, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

    Thank you Michelle for your article! It was quite detailled and the fotos were enjoyable as well. 🙂
    I’m wondering now if you stand out if you don’t wear makup. I mean, even if you care about your appearance elsewhere?

    • Michelle April 24, 2016 at 11:43 pm #

      Hi Vici! I’m glad you enjoyed my post! These are just a few things that I noticed when I was in Korea. Most Koreans won’t think ill of you for not wearing makeup. But in general you will find that most Koreans will wear makeup and will be dressed up nice. A lot of people don’t wear makeup and Koreans think that people who don’t are very confident, which is a good thing! Koreans won’t be offended by a person deciding not to wear makeup. Also, if you want to dress casually in Korea, then by all means do so and rock your outfit! haha 🙂 Koreans are more concerned about the appropriateness of your outfits rather than the look.

  2. Joana September 25, 2016 at 7:41 pm #

    Hello I am almost done with highschool and I really want to go study in a college in korea. How can I apply for a college in korea? Do i need to have money?

    • Michelle September 26, 2016 at 4:04 am #

      Hi Joana. I’m glad you’re interested in studying in South Korea! I studied abroad in Seoul at Konkuk University through my home university and a study abroad program called International Studies Abroad Agency (ISA). Depending upon the route you want to take after high school, you can study in Korea in a variety of ways. You can take a gap year between high school and college or work in your home country by studying in Korea through a program provider such as the ISA or USAC. You can also do just as I did — by applying to a university in your home country and then after a year or two, going either through an exchange or program provider for a semester/year. Alternatively you can also apply directly to a university in Korea and enroll there after your high school graduation. I encourage you to research these options and see which choice is best for you. To find more information I recommend “google-ing” your options for program providers and study abroad options for universities in your home country. You can also find out more about Korean universities through their websites (many of which are in English). Some of the most reputable universities in Korea are: Sungkyunkwan University, Korea University, Konkuk University, Yonsei University, Ehwa Womans University, Hanyang University, and Seoul National University to name a few (also consider looking at universities outside of Seoul). Again, Google is your best friend for finding more information. If you go through a program provider, the application will be online through their website, as will the application for direct enrollment into a Korean University. You WILL need to make an initial investment if you plan to study abroad in Korea. If you go through a program provider or a home university you will need to pay a fee to the program and/or your home university. If you apply directly to the school in Korea you will need to pay their tuition. You should also consider transportation to and in Korea as well as living expenses/housing. I recommend that you research more into your different options and also create a budget sheet for required expenses such as tuition, housing, travel, and food. As an international student you will need a VISA to stay in Korea. If you are planning on working in Korea VISAs will limit your ability to find jobs –especially if you hold a study abroad VISA. I also recommend considering applying directly for jobs in Korea if you cannot afford to study there. I have heard that many employers will pay for your travel to Korea. However, I do not know much about working in Korea as I was not allowed to work in Korea with my VISA. I hope I was able to answer your questions! I wish you the best of luck and I sincerely hope that you will be able to travel to Korea! It really is a wonderful place!

    • kennedy capote November 4, 2016 at 5:45 am #

      Hello! I was wondering and had a question. My family is Korean but I was never raised with any of the traditions or foods in Korea. If I wanted to study there or maybe live there, would I have to like their food? I only certain things and I’m very picky. Do you have any tips around this or to solve it?

      • Michelle November 5, 2016 at 6:21 pm #

        Hi Kennedy! One of the best things about Korea is the food. Korea has food for everyone! Apart from the traditional “Korean” dishes, you can find many “western” restaurants such as McDonalds and Papa John’s Pizza. If you are going to Seoul, you can also find a variety of different types of cuisine in Itaewon. Itaewon is known for its “foreign” restaurants ranging from Italian food, to Middle Eastern food, to Thai food, to Mexican food. However, part of the fun of going to live in a culture different from the one you are used to is trying new things. If you are worried about not liking Korean food, my suggestion is to start trying different Korean dishes now before you go to Korea. (I highly recommend kimchi fried rice and ddukbaegi bulgogi!) You may not like the taste the first time but if you keep trying it, it may grow on you. I also consider myself to be a picky eater as I don’t like fish or mushrooms, but I loved the food in Korea! I was open to trying different dishes, even if they had fish and mushrooms in them. I don’t think that you should be worried about not liking the food because as long as you are open to trying new things I’m sure you will find some foods that you like! Good luck and happy eating!!

    • Stella November 18, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

      I told my grndamother how you helped. She said, “bake them a cake!”

  3. Nelly October 20, 2016 at 1:26 am #

    Hey, I really enjoyed your post! I plan to go on a language exchange program next fall (in South Korea) and your information gave me some very helpful tips. But I was wondering…After the paragraph that ends with: “The overall message, dress to impress!”, what movie or music video is the second clip (On the right) from?

    • Michelle October 21, 2016 at 12:34 am #

      Hi Nelly! I’m glad you enjoyed my post! And that is amazing –I wish you the best of luck with your language exchange program and I hope you will have many great adventures in Korea! The gif that you are referring to is from the television show “Healer” starring Ji Chang Wook and Park Min Young. Healer is an awesome show by the way. 10/10 recommend 🙂

  4. Louchi March 17, 2017 at 2:57 pm #

    Woah Michelle this is really awesome, nice info, thank you. So uhmm did I need to learnt and be atleast an intermediate level korean before going there (college), or I just need to learnt a lil korean and let the time do its part? And I’m really insecure about my face, but really I’m a handsome dude as an asian (that’s what my friends said) but still korea is just you know… too harsh in judging face, so any word to boost my confidence 🙁

    • Michelle March 17, 2017 at 6:53 pm #

      Hello! Aww thank you for enjoying my post! About your first concern, you do not have to be fluent in Korean to attend a college in Korea –especially if you apply through the Office of International Programs at the school. You do however have to have a good understanding of English as this is the mediator language for most Offices of International Programs (at least this was the case at my school, Konkuk University). This means that most of the classes that you will take as an international student are going to be in English–unless you are comfortable taking classes in Korean– and your mentors will most likely be speaking to you in English. However, knowing Korean (even just a little bit) will definitely be a big help! It sounds like you already have the motivation to learn Korean so you should do just fine! I do recommend studying a little bit of Korean before you go to Korea, but you can get by with just English. And you will definitely learn a lot of Korean while you are there. When I was in Korea I took a beginners Korean class at Konkuk and was able to survive with what little Korean I knew. About your second concern, you definitely do not have to be worried about how you look! I’m afraid my blog post may have given the wrong impression that all Koreans care about is looks. I’m not going to say that Koreans will not judge based on how you present yourself, but they value confidence more than appearance. Just being a foreigner in Korea will make you “cool” and so long as you do not go out in public looking disheveled (ie: you are wearing pjs and you didn’t comb your hair), I don’t think you have to worry about anything! Trust your friends and believe in yourself that you ARE handsome! If you do this, not only will you realize that you really are handsome, but you will also be more confident, and this is something that Koreans value very highly 🙂 Just rock your style, whatever it is and don’t give up! I hope that you will have an awesome time in Korea!!

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