Reverse Culture Shock
South Korea vs. America
Since returning home from Korea four years ago I can't count the number of times I've been asked about my time there. What was it like? How were you treated? Did you enjoy the food? My answer is always the same. Korea is truly an amazing place with beautiful people, gorgeous landscapes and delicious food.
And because I've been lucky enough to visit nearly 30 countries since my time in Korea I can't help compare it to my other destinations (and my home). Of all the places I've seen, Korea is the wildest, strangest and most breathtaking country I've experienced. It's cultural norms make Korea extremely unique in so many ways. There's such an interesting dichotomy. Technology, education and fashion are light years ahead of the States but equality and societal freedom are stuck in the past.
Korea is a place where upon first meeting someone they'll ask your age and if you're even a day younger you must speak in honorific form. Saying no to elders isn't an option whether it be at home or the office. Koreans often work themselves into a stupor - becoming so overwhelmed they commit suicide (youth included) or binge drink until they pass out. It's a wildly intense country that does everything 1,000%.
This intense energy has served an important purpose though. The early 1950's were marked by a war torn Korea where North and South were divided. During the war, South Korea was completely destroyed but within 50 years worked it's way back into power (through advancements in science and technology - hence the extreme pressure on education).
This way of life is rooted in Eastern philosophy and cultural values. Eastern culture pulls from Buddhism and Confucianism where life's answers are found within and focus is placed on social responsibility. From my experience, Easterners never want to make ripples and sacrifice for the whole rather than the individual. On the other hand, Westerners value the individual above all else and practice philosophies from Christianity where science rules.
After living and teaching in Korea, I've experienced so many of these cultural differences (big and little included). It's these differences that have fueled my curiosity and love of strange places.
RESPECT | Age surfaces often because the Korean language has different levels of respect. If you are younger than another you must speak to them with respectful language. Actions are influenced,too. For example, if you're dining out the eldest at the table should pay the entire bill. When drinking "cheers," those younger must look to the side to avoid eye contact with the eldest.
STEREOTYPES | I'll admit, my opinion of Americans changed while I was in Korea. I thought only foreigners in Korea were loud, obnoxious, abrasive and arrogant but it turns out many are the same at home (sorry, guys). Koreans are generally meek, humble and quiet (until they drink and volume goes up).
PERSONAL SPACE | Koreans and Asians in general have a different idea of personal space. There is none. They will push you out of the way and step on your feet without thinking twice. Korean men do not hold the door open for women, they do not offer up a seat and they do not say excuse me. At the busiest train stations, it's someone's job to physically shove people into the train.
GENDER ROLES | You'll often see two men holding hands walking down the street in Korea, two women or even mother and daughter doing the same. Men look androgynous or even feminine and dress in fitted stylish clothes rather than ill-fitting clothes like most American men. I can't count how many times I thought, "Oh, she's cute," only to realize it was a man. But when it comes to being gay, Koreans will live in secrecy for a lifetime or end their life to avoid exposure and familial shame.
JUDGEMENT | In Korea, within minutes of meeting someone they'll ask you questions like, “How old are you?” or “How much do you weight?” or even say things like, “You have wrinkles.” or “You look old.” or “You are fat, you should not eat that.” They mean well but it can definitely come off wrong, especially to someone who doesn't understand the culture.
SIZE | In Korea, everything is small. Cars are small. Showers are small. Dressing rooms are small. Apartments are small. People are small. Get ready to be smushed.
APPLIANCES | Perhaps because of cost or space many conservative apartments don't have dishwashers or clothes dryers. Dishes are washed by hand and clothes air dry. Closets are uncommon too. Instead, an armoire is used.
WASTE & EXCESS | In Korea, waste doesn't really exist and small is the norm. Landing back in the States, I remember picking up breakfast at McDonald’s. I was shocked they gave me a large cup without even asking. The napkins and wrapper were HUGE and condiments unlimited. In Korea, you can't even get more than one ketchup packet.
PLUMBING | Story has it plumbing in Korea lacks because the country was rebuilt so quickly after the war. You must put your toilet tissue into the garbage bin and NOT the toilet to avoid clogging. In fact, you're fortunate if a public bathroom even has toilet paper. (Make sure to always carry some with you.)
PAPER PRODUCTS | In the States it's normal to use paper towels and napkins for everything. In Korea, you will almost NEVER see napkins or paper towels anywhere - not restaurants, homes or restrooms. While eating at restaurants you are given an actual role of toilet paper to wipe your hands. Otherwise, a small hand towel might be used.
PUBLIC | All subway stations are super nice, lined with marble floors, clean and modern. Stations all have restrooms, too. Garbage cans are rare in Korea, even on the streets. It's impossible to find one and when you do they are always overflowing with trash. Early each morning you'll see elderly women picking up trash until sidewalks are rubbish-free.
FOOD WASTE & RECYCLING | In Korea, there are no sink disposals. You must save all your food scraps, put them into marked bags and place them into compost bins outside your home. Recycling is taken very seriously and public bins are used to sort plastic, glass, metal, Styrofoam and more.
For me, learning about differences is what life is all about. There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to culture or way of life. The Korean lifestyle is based on history and necessity and they truly respect each other and the world they live in, something we can all strive for.