Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The South Korea Survival Guide

"Sara, do you have indoor plumbing in South Korea?” “Isn’t it really hot out there all the time?” It’s amazing what some people still don’t seem to understand about South Korea. After reminding my friends back home that Korea is not in Southeast Asia, they have Samsung phones and their parents drive KIAs, I started to wonder more about what people think. A great many of them pictured me as a kind of survivor in a mysterious land, where I have always felt that South Korea has been very welcoming and comfortable. However, it is still a different culture, and I do feel that I’ve had to adjust. While there are no wild animals to fend off, dangerous treks across minefields or a need to survive alone in the wilderness for weeks with limited supplies, there are still a number of strategies to employ in “surviving” South Korean culture today as a foreigner.

Essential Skills

The first key to successfully making it through your sojourn in South Korea is by obtaining and mastering a specific set of daily life skills. Some of these may come to you naturally, but some take practice.

1. Body language

This is the true language of the world. In my first month in Korea, it took me a few weeks to work up the courage to eat out or go shopping alone because I didn’t know how to speak the language. The day I successfully pointed out side dishes to be bagged and weighed from the grocery store counter instead of just opening another can of spicy tuna for breakfast was a milestone event; one that required no talking. Now, in my second year, with a moderate grasp of the language, I have still found that gestures often trump spoken language. The value of body language is also what will keep us from being replaced by English-speaking robots, so use it wisely.

2. Balance

Not all of us are men, and not all the toilets are meant to be sat upon. The rest I leave up to you.

2. Patience

There will be moments when you are asked to attend a meeting or a lunch, and it may seem as though you are forgotten. Chances are you haven’t been forgotten, it’s just that your co-workers feel more comfortable speaking Korean and are happy to see you actively there among them. Take this time to practice meditation.

4. Willpower

Maybe you like very fresh seafood, or perhaps you want a little less intimacy with your food. Whether it be chewing a still-wriggling squid, roasting pig intestines, or pulling tender meat off a hunk of spine, a lot of the food encounters require a little acclimation. I once was asked to point to the fish I wanted, then watch it be scooped from the tank and butchered up for me to eat raw. Two years ago I may have turned up my nose at a fish with bones still left in it.

5. Chopsticks

They’re flat and heavy, but you don’t want to be the only one at the table using a spoon. Embrace the chopsticks. The goal is to be among children and their parents, and seeing the parent point at you, the foreigner with the cutlery skills of a yangban aristocrat, and scold their child. Chopsticks are not without advantages. They are very useful for twirling noodles, picking apart fish or slicing through that extra large leaf of kimchi (using two hands), or skewering fruit. They are also perfect for stirring coffee.

6. Singing

It’s better to sing into a microphone with increased reverberation effect in a small room than into an empty soju bottle a cappella in front of fifty teachers. I’ve done both, and I strongly recommend you consent to the former before being hauled up without time to protest to the later. Maybe you can’t sing. As long as it’s in English, you can sing fine. I’m not sure if you’ve heard Korean “trot” pop music, but there should be nothing frightening you away from singing here. Also, it’s worth noting that you should always pick your own song. If you don’t be prepared to sing the most obscure song you’ve never heard of. I keep an emergency “noraebang song list” saved on my cell phone.

7. Sharing

Some of the best foods in Korea are large dishes meant for sharing. And, unless you plan to eat pork cutlet and fusion spaghetti whenever you eat out, you may need to grab some friends if you plan to eat Korean food. Make your mother proud; she’s been training you to share since you were an infant. I’m not ashamed to admit this, but I have relied on sharing in the past to avoid the things I’d rather not eat mixed in with the rest of the dish; to help adjust to the food. It’s natural, healthy, and recommended that you share your meals so you can continue to build your relationships with others.

Blending in

It’s hard not to stand out in Korea as a foreigner. This does come with a bit of excitement; sometimes feeling like a celebrity, with parents dragging their kids up to say “hello” to you. While living here though, you will most likely want to convince people that you’re not actually a tourist. For most of us it’s impossible to fully blend in without cosmetic surgery, but there are a few ways to clue others in that we live here.

1. Two hands

It’s polite to offer and accept things with two hands, from drinks to money. Although most Koreans will forgive a foreigner for forgetting this, you’ll notice that they almost always appropriate this respectful custom to you. It’s courteous to remember to do the same, both with those familiar to you and strangers. The same goes for bowing; hand-over-hand locked at the thumbs for a highly respectable bow, or even just a brief nod of the head.

2. Order food at hofs

It’s a foreign concept for most westerners to order food at a bar. Whereas in Korea, you sit down at a table and are handed a list of anju, a kind of appetizer list, along with the drink list. When I was new in town, my friends and I thought the whole food thing was mostly optional. This was until I realized it had some adverse effects on our reputation. Even drinking moderately, the people around you may start to worry you are an alcoholic.

3. Bring a toothbrush to work

I once told my students that it was funny for me, when I first came, to see a line of teachers waiting at the sink after lunch. My students replied, “Are Americans dirty?” It’s a good idea to be seen in the toothbrush line.

4. Hiking apparel

For those who really want to look the part. As soon as you start hiking up a mountain in your T-shirt and jeans, you’ll start to feel a little unprepared. Not that I’m ready to trade in my jeans for colorful spandex just yet, but I do confess to buying a name-brand hiking backpack.


Everyone embarking on survival in a foreign land needs to draw upon their resources. Outside of your EPIK coordinators, tourism offices and embassies, there are many more local options.

1. Co teacher

This is your first local friend; the first person who will help you familiarize yourself with your town and your students. Also, they are probably the only person who will see you properly to the hospital when you fear a miscommunication with your doctors. Your co teacher is also a potential source of homemade kimchi, or sweet potatoes in the morning when they predict, usually correctly, that you have again neglected to eat breakfast.

2. That old woman on your street

She might be collecting your packages for you. She might usher you into her home to eat fresh peaches and shikhye on a hot summer day. Don’t shy away from the opportunity to greet your neighbors.

3. Students

If you ever find yourself in doubt about what to teach, ask your students. My students are my endless source of information about pop culture, fashion, and how to connect to their age group.

4. Face masks and kimchi

You may never need to go to the hospital again.

5. Friends

There is a need to talk once in awhile, when we train ourselves to talk slowly and maintain a long vigil of silence in formal business settings. It’s imperative to make some friends you can talk to rapidly and relax with- especially at your experience level. It’s fun to explore with friends without being led around. Also, don’t forget to make Korean friends. As much as I love my friends from America, many of them probably think the best chicken place is the first one they walked into. Korean friends have a broader range of insight, and also are the best way to fully get in touch with the culture.

6. Saunas and jjimjilbangs

Our bathrooms are small and space-efficient, but sometimes it’s nice to relax in a big bathtub. Plus, there's no better way to start feeling comfortable around a bunch of strangers than finding yourself disrobed among them; it’s perfectly natural and they don’t judge you. The jjimjilbang also offers a locker and a cheap place to sleep when you don’t want to put up money for a hotel or motel.

Status Boosts

Not all aspects of survival are hinged on basic necessity. If you really want to be an active, thriving member of Korean culture, there are certain ways to gain an immediate boost in renown and acceptance.

1. Cell phone

Your cell phone is a big deal. My first year, I opted for the plain free phone because it was still far cooler than the one I had in America. But fate dealt me a new hand when my phone fell out of my pocket into the toilet of a public restroom. True story- that happened. My second choice was heavily influenced by the phone’s theme song I heard on TV every day, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I now possessed the same phone as a good number of my students (much to their delight). Every time my phone was sighted, it provided the perfect motivation for English conversation, and gave me an edge in popularity.

2. KPOP knowledge

I was reluctant at first, but once I finally committed some band names and song catch phrases to memory, it did wonders for my rapport with students. Mostly, they don’t expect you to know KPOP. This is an advantage. The shocked gasps when you can sing a few words or say definitively that “yeah, he’s so handsome!” then you cease to be such a stranger among your students. And any time you can refer to a popular song or singer in your lessons, it grabs their attention.

3. Cyworld

South Korea’s primary online social network. It’s so exclusive, that even the members have trouble trying to figure out how to make you an account. But once you’re in, you have achieved a very respectable status among young Koreans.

4. Immersion into a cultural tradition

You don’t need to dedicate yourself to the studies of Confucius, but it always earns a little bit of extra respect to actively engage in something cultural. I chose to start learning Hapkido, and some of my friends have taken Taekwondo, traditional painting classes, and learned to play the ajaeng, a traditional wooden string instrument. Maybe could just be really good at Yootnori, but it’s definitely worth your while to take up a Korean hobby.

5. Basic language

A lot of people are afraid to talk to you. Although basic English and body language can get you through most encounters, even a small knowledge of the language will help people warm to you. Especially reading Korea’s alphabet, Hangul. Once my fellow teachers learned I could read Korean, it was a kind of entertainment for awhile to point to things and have me read them. It also goes a long way in motivating Koreans to speak your language if you show them you are trying to learn some of theirs.

6. A plant

You may not want to be the only teacher in the school without a plant on their desk. It’s aesthetically pleasing and will draw out some approving nods from the other faculty.

7. Billiards

Four balls and no pockets. If you can learn and show off your prowess with four ball billiards, you may quickly gain a few new friends. The same goes for bowling, tennis, and volleyball. Any interest or ability in sports gives you a connection and something to do with other members of your school faculty; especially drawing out the ones who have limited English ability.

8. Foot volleyball

I used to think the tennis courts near my house were just marked incorrectly, until I finally watched people using them. It’s played in teams, kicking the ball or hitting it with your head. Like other more common sports, this is a great way to spend time with other people and pick up a new curious skill. I’ve been in a few of the smallest farm towns in South Korea that still had a foot volleyball court. To be sure, I’ve never met another foreigner to know about this game, so you can imagine how exciting it would be if you were to participate.

I no longer view South Korea as such a foreign place, and I’m not just here to pass through. I have not only survived, but I have adapted. While you may not be intending to spend a lifetime here, it still is important to accustom yourself during your stay; show the people here that you can learn from them as much as they can from you. You don’t want to be holed up in your apartment clinging to your computer and counting your days to return home. Surviving South Korea quite simply comes down to figuring out what you can do to enjoy yourself the most during your time here.


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  2. Nice!
    I am also a slacker blogger- but I plan on posting one this weekend called 'How to figure out what those pills are!' aka Korean Pill Finder tips.

  3. I think the same can be said for any move. No two places are the same and the unfamiliar can be frightening. If you don't make an effort to fit in, it isn't going to happen.

    I will admit to being one of your friends who thought you would be fending off tigers in the middle of nowhere. Currently I'm trying to stop picturing you "balancing". :-P

  4. Wonderful post! Dad

  5. Thanks for the post! Joe (Williams) and I are excited to be coming to SK in May (as long as war doesn't break out...). I'm a little worried that I will end up seeming rude, as I look the part but have no clue about the customs. So, your advice about accepting things with two hands is nice to know. I will obviously need to do some more research between now and then. Have you happened to come across any websites, books, etc. that are good introductions to the Korean culture?

  6. Should have mentioned 119!!! I totally didn't think of that until yesterday on my walk home down a dark alley ㅋㅋ