Last summer, I went to South Korea for the first time to visit my relatives. This summer, a few of my relatives came to the United States and stayed with us for the past two weeks. Being in South Korea last summer really opened my eyes. The Korean culture and the American culture are quite different from each other. If you’re going to South Korea, there are two things you should be aware of: the Korean customs and culture shock.
The 3 major Korean customs you should be aware of are bowing, dining etiquette, and gift giving.
Korean bowing is similar to the American handshake. Bowing can be used for different occasions such as greetings, farewells, and showing gratitude. However, in South Korea, it is very important to bow towards people older than you and higher rank than you. This is important because of the respect towards age and seniority. Age and seniority can impact how one may bow to another. The younger or lesser person initiates the bow and bows lower to the older or senior in order to show respect.
Before entering a Korean home and even some restaurants, everyone is expected to take off their shoes. Walking into a Korean home with shoes on is considered to be of great disrespect.
Koreans eat with chopsticks and spoons, unlike Americans who eat with forks, spoons, and knives. When using chopsticks while eating, never put your chopsticks in the rice as it is considered rude. Moreover, it is not appropriate to pick up any plates while eating because all plates and bowls are expected to stay on the table. When drinking, Koreans use both hands to pour a drink for someone else. Koreans use both hands to hold the glass when someone else pours your drink. The person of lower seniority or age turns their head away from the elder or senior to show their respect.
Giving gifts in South Korea is considered to be very common. When visiting a Korean household or first business meeting, always bring a small gift such as fruit, good quality chocolates, or toilet paper. Do not buy expensive gifts as Koreans may feel obligated to buy a gift of equal value. Gifts should not be wrapped in green, white, or black paper since this is considered to be unlucky. Contrary, giving a wooden goose is a sign of luck. Do not sign any cards in red ink or give a gift in a set of four in which indicates death. Both hands are used when giving or receiving gifts.
Now, let me talk about culture shock. Going to another culture can be overwhelming. As soon as you enter the country, everything is different. When I walked off the airplane and entered Incheon International Airport last year, the first things that I noticed were that everything was written in Korean, everybody was speaking in Korean, and everybody for the most part looked similar. Towels in South Korea are about the size of a wash cloth/hand towel (I would suggest bringing your own towel from home). It is completely normal for two people of the same sex to hold hands (two friends holding hand, mother-daughter holding hands, etc.). When this happens in the United States, people would automatically think that the people holding hands are homosexual or view it as strange. Another thing is that Korean pizza is very “special.” When we ordered a chicken pizza last year, the pizza was topped of with chicken, corn, some other vegetables, and other weird toppings; The pizza also came with a side of pickles.
Another thing is communal dishes/plates. While eating, there is your main dish-usually soup, rice, and your side dishes. Usually, you don’t get your own plate. You’ll have your own rice bowl, but all the other dishes are shared. All the food is placed in the middle, and everyone eats directly from these dishes.
For anyone going to South Korea, I hoped this blog post will help you prepare before you go!