It has been an interesting first couple of months as an American in Korea. Going to any new culture for the first time always brings culture shock. And I have definitely experienced culture shock once again. But it is different from what I experienced when I traveled through Europe.
When I traveled through Europe, I was going from place to place for the most part. I wasn’t staying in one place for to long. Now, I am living in Korea as a foreigner long term. And there is a lot to get used to here!
Here are my honest first impressions of being an American in Korea. So far I have experienced both negative and positive, and I am trying to take them both in stride. Because I know in order to get an accurate perception of a country, I have to get through the initial culture shock.
American in Korea – 10 First Impressions
South Korea is Dirty
I am listing this one first, because it was honestly one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Guri.
Guri is city of about 200-300,000 people and is to the east of Seoul.
The streets generally have some trash, but the main thing you’ll see is snot and spit from all of the loogies that have been hocked. It’s safe to say that spitting and hocking loogies is the South Korean way of life.
A lot of people wear masks over their faces for this reason.
Another big reason that contributes to the dirtiness is, their are no trash cans! Anywhere. I haven’t figured out why, and either have my co-workers. If you are planning to throw some trash away, you can either go into a McDonalds or Burger King, or keep it in your pocket tell you get home. Or just throw it on the ground like everyone else does.
I have been to some other parts of Seoul and I think that Guri is definitely one of the dirtiest places. But most places around Seoul share the same characteristics.
Darts are an Obsession Here
One of the positive first impressions of being here is that people love darts! It’s an obsession here. And two of my foreign co-workers play at least a couple times a week.
There is a company called Phoenix Darts where you can purchase a card and keep track of all of your stats. It keeps track of all of your games and what your ranking is.
You can play against people from all over the world that are playing on another Phoenix Dart machine. It’s definitely my biggest hobby here at the moment.
They even have tournaments once a month where you can win money for placing at the top.
I started playing darts almost 10 years ago in college, so it is refreshing to know that one of my favorite hobbies is popular here.
Koreans don’t value individuality as much as some cultures do. Obviously, Americans do. So it was very easy to recognize the difference when I came here. I’ve never been to a place with more sameness.
One of the first things I noticed while walking through Hongdae was how everyone was wearing black. I realized that nobody wanted to stick out. It’s rare to see anyone with tatoos or earings. Colored hair is very rare as well.
And from my experience of teaching and talking with Koreans at my school, there is definitely a very similar thought process. Everything is very predictable.
Everyone works, works, works.
The food is all generally the same. It has the same chili paste on just about everything. It’s all rice with a little vegetables, and some meat.
And one of the easiest examples of the sameness are the buildings! They are all exactly the same.
Korean culture seems to care mostly about how you do things, rather than the result you receive. As an American, we care about results and not how you got there. There is definitely a FIXED way of doing things here. This causes the sameness all over.
Koreans are Helpful
I barely speak Korean at all. But I still have encountered Koreans multiple times speaking English in order to help me out with directions, placing an order at a restaurant, or anything in general. It’s nice, since I’m not the one speaking their language. I think a lot of the time they enjoy practicing the English that they have learned.
There is a fried chicken place across the street from where I live, where one employee speaks almost fluent English. He has explained to me how to get places, and answered many of my questions about the Guri area.
I have had at least 5-10 Koreans come up to me around the train station, asking me if I need help with directions.
This is another thing that you will notice as an American in Korea. South Korea is obviously a very small country. It is actually the size of Iowa. And they have over 50 million people!!!! That’s insane (Iowa’s population is 3 million).
So personal space is completely different here. It is normal for a motorcycle to zoom by you and miss you by a foot. It is normal to be shoulder to shoulder when walking. The only other place that I ever experienced something similar was in Naples, Italy. In this Korea Times article, Chang Soon-hee actually coins the term “personal space disorder”. She explains that people are so hurried in South Korean culture that they basically don’t even notice or care where other people are walking. I have definitely ran into a few people since I have been here so far!
It takes some getting used to for sure. Because when someone almost runs you over with their motorcycle, it’s not that big of a deal to them. But at first, you are like, what the fuck? They are used to a very small amount of personal space.
I am currently living in the smallest apartment I have ever lived in. It’s comparable with my freshman year of college in the dorms. But this is a normal amount of space here.
Nature is almost non existent
At least where I am. There are obviously some places in South Korea that have excellent nature! It didn’t take long to notice this about Guri. But it’s weird how their is absolutely no grass here. Not very many trees. And I never see any animals hardly ever. When I hear birds chirping, it is like music to my ears. Once again, it could just be Guri. But I am used to having nature around everywhere. On the bright side, I can go to the mountains pretty easily. It’s been very cold lately, so I haven’t tried yet. But hopefully soon.
It’s interesting to think how living somewhere with things that you don’t like, can really show you what you do like. I already know that I want to live somewhere next with hardly any air pollution, that is very connected to nature. We will see if that pans out in my next move.
Fortunately, there are some really cool Buddhist temples all around that you can actually go and join in for free if you want. I’ve checked out one so far in Bongeunsa.
Teaching Younger Students is Harder than Older Students
This is for a few different reasons. The younger students at the school I teach at, are not as advanced as the older students. There are some exceptions. But most of the time I am teaching energetic 7 year olds with less English ability than the older students.
I imagined before I got here that teaching older students would actually be harder than younger students. I was dead wrong.
My youngest class can’t sit still for more than a couple of minutes and trying to explain directions is difficult. We get it done, but it takes a lot more focus and investment from myself, in order to make sure every single one of them knows what to do throughout each moment of class.
The older students are better at English, and I can talk more naturally to get my teaching across.
If I were to teach long term, I could see myself teaching middle school and high school. I enjoy the younger kids too, but I don’t think I could do it long term.
Excellent transportation system
I have been to many cities and used their metro train systems. I have never used a system that is so easy as Korail is. It’s extremely easy to get from place to place and not difficult at all to figure out what lines go where. Of course, using the Seoul Subway App makes it way easier. Here are a few other best apps for living in South Korea.
It’s nice having a card that I just add money to, and not having to buy tickets every time.
Cooking Myself is Usually Better Than Eating Out
If you really like Korean food, then you might disagree. The food doesn’t cost much and it’s convenient. You don’t have to prepare anything. I’m just not completely sold on how good Korean food is. I have definitely learned how to cook a lot better than I could before.
The majority of my meals are usually just chicken and vegetables. Or maybe eggs and potatoes. But I know exactly what is in my food and I know exactly how I like it cooked. And if it ever gets boring, I can eat out.
One Korean food that I have started to like is Kimbap. It’s only like 3,000 won and seems relatively healthy. I normally go with the tuna kimbap which is rice, vegetables, and tuna covered in a seaweed wrap.
If I want some familiar fast food, then I can always go grab some McDonalds. When I am in the US I never eat McDonald’s. But the familiarity makes it far better than it probably really is.
There is also a costco relatively close. It’s about 30 minutes west towards Seoul, where I can get just about anything I want from back home.
Soju and any Korean beer is terrible
If you know anything about Korea, you probably have already heard that Korean made beer products taste like crap. But I still had to try it when I got here to see. It didn’t change my preconception on it at all.
However, I found Coronas and Heinekens for around 2-,3000 won a bottle in the grocery store.
My alcohol consumption has definitely gone down since I moved here anyway. This is because if I want to go out drinking, I will most likely have to get a taxi back to my place. The trains shut off here by 12 pm every night. The places I would like to go to are Itaewon and Hongdae. Itaewon is where a lot of expats in South Korea like to go, because it caters to foreigners. Hongdae is where Hongik University is. Both are at least 45 minutes away and the train closes at 12 pm. So I have to pick my spots.
I’ll see if any of these first impressions change in the next few months, the more I get used to the South Korean way of life. I know that I will discover more things to do that I like, the more I live here. But as an American in South Korea, these are the ten first impressions that were easily noticeable when I first got here.
Check out this post if you are interested in teaching in South Korea as a foreigner!