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Traveling to Korea: 20 Things You Must Know About Korean Culture


By Chris Backe - Posted on 05 July 2011

A foreign country means foreign customs and cultures - exactly what most of us are looking for. While Korea is quite modernized in many ways, there are some eccentricities to expect while in Korea.

Photo of shoes outside a temple, South Korea

1. Take off your shoes when you arrive - or not.

An increasing number of time-crunched locals are going the Western way and keeping their shoes on their feet. Since you probably won't know which camp your host is in, follow their lead to be absolutely sure.

2. Don't be too surprised to see the locals using their middle finger to point, tap a touch screen, or otherwise refer to something.

There's no insult intended with the gesture - it's just the longest finger hitting the button first.

Photo of a sign with a poor English translation, Jeju Island South Korea
Photo of Poor English Translation, Jeju Island South Korea © benkucinski

3. For most locals, English is sorely lacking

This means good job prospects for English teachers, but finding a local to communicate in good English is a tall order. Don't be surprised to be mistaken for an English teacher, and try to handle their practiced questions gracefully.

4. The Seoul subway system is huge, the lines sometimes long, and the ajummas pushy.

The trains don't run 24 hours, however, so making a long trip or more than one transfer after 11pm begins to push it. Instead, keep your eyes for some of the buses that run well after the subways shut down. Several late-night buses leave from Yangjae station (line 3) while others leave from Sadang station (line 4). If you're close to one of those stations, try one of the buses there before resorting to a taxi.

5. Ladies, the typical local has little problem showing off their legs - thus the abundance of short shorts and skirts.

Most of the locals would look (stare) at someone with uncovered shoulders, however. Don't ask me what's going through their minds - just avoid sleeveless shirts or spaghetti strap shirts.

6. Men, if out on a date, be prepared to pay for most everything.

Equality in paying is becoming more common, but a woman might lose face if she's the one handing over a card. This goes double if you're the oldest one at the table.

Photo of a hooka lounge in Hongdae, Seoul South Korea
Photo of Hongdae Hooka Lounge, Seoul South Korea © seafaringwoman

7. Hongdae and Itaewon are the two most popular areas with foreigners that like to party.

If you like to be catered to and see English menus, you'll feel right at home. If you came to experience the Korean version of nightlife, get thee to Kondae (Konkuk University, line 2) or Sinchon (also line 2). While some foreigners also visit these areas, you'll notice fewer English menus (a great chance to practice your Korean!)

8. Speaking of Sinchon, there's actually two of them.

One is Sinchon (pronounce it 'Sin-CHOWN') and is in northwest Seoul near Hongdae. The other is Sincheon (pronounce it 'Sin-CHAWN') and is in southeast Seoul near Jamsil. More than a few locals have to pronounce it carefully to make sure they meet their friends at the same one!

9. When you're ready for a day trip out of Seoul, the country is your oyster.

Virtually all of mainland Korea is roundtrippable in one day, thanks to an excellent train and express bus system. While the locals often reserve their tickets ahead of time, the process is bit harder for foreigners to do. Your best bet is to head to a train station, where you can reserve tickets well ahead of time - in ENGLISH! - through an automated ticketing machine.

10. Speaking of trains, sometimes the train has sold out of seats and you'll have to take a standing room ticket.

This does not mean you'll be standing the whole time. It just means there's no seat available for your entire trip. When you first get on, take a look around to see if there are any empty seats. Be prepared to give up your seats to the legitimate ticket holder as you approach a station, of course. On most Sunday night trains coming back to Seoul, it'll be PACKED - something to experience once, but otherwise it's worth avoiding.

Photo of K-Pop performers in South Korea
Photo of K-Pop Performers, South Korea © UNC - CFC - USFK

11. People tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to K-pop: you love it or you tolerate it.

You'll hear it almost everywhere you go, and there's not much you can do about it. If it's not K-pop, it's either techno (even on a Monday morning!) or a selection of Western pop songs.

12. Riding the bus - get on, pay your money, and get ready for a ride!

Bus drivers follow a couple rules of the road, but that's about it. Don't expect them to wait for you to find a seat or get your things situated - they don't do that for the locals, and they don't certainly don't do that for the foreigners, either.

Photo of a bus ticket, South Korea
Photo of Bus Ticket, South Korea © LWY

13. Speaking of buses, a number of in the front half of the bus are reserved for the old, the handicapped, and the pregnant.

Unless you happen to fit into one of those categories, make your way to the back of the bus. The older generation has no qualms about putting you in your place if you happen to be in 'their' seat! The same goes for the seats at either end of any subway car.

14. One of the biggest complaints among foreigners who live in Korea are the taxi drivers.

Most speak little English, although some might want to practice their English on you! Have your destination written in Korean if possible, and get in the car instead of asking through the window. Crossing town shouldn't cost more than 25,000 Korean won (about $23 USD), unless there's some serious traffic.

Photo of shop at an open market, South Korea
Photo of Shop in an Open Market, South Korea © Gaël Chardon

15. The easy rule to remember when bargaining: if a price is posted, it's generally not open for negotiation; if no price is posted, take that as the first price offered.

Most places tend to offer a pretty fair price to begin with, so negotiation isn't even really needed. If paying in cash, ask about a cash price - using a credit card will add a percentage to the final price, since most vendors will pass the transaction fee onto you. Department store or larger stores won't charge extra to use a credit card, but you won't find anyone willing to negotiate with you.

16. For better or worse, the Confucian mindset prevails and permeates throughout Korean culture.

Imagine a giant totem pole, where people stacked on top of each other. One is 'above' another based on their age, their gender, and their position in the working place. Therefore, don't be offended when you're asked your age. It's a way of figuring out whether you're above or below them.

17. If enjoying Korea on a Monday, you may notice a problem - lots of stores and sights are closed!

A lot of businesses are of the 'mom-and-pop' variety, and Monday is the best day to take a day off. A few places close on Sunday instead, leaving Monday an excellent day to go exploring.

18. The country's attitude towards recycling is wonderful - and sometimes completely ignored by the locals.

Don't be that guy that stuffs food waste into the recycling bin or drops your bottle just because you can't find a trash can. Any bathroom will have a trash can, and most subway stations have some by the turnstiles.

19. Speaking of bathrooms, the locals throw their used paper in a bin next to the commode instead of flushing it on down.

You'll probably say this is unsanitary, and you'd be right. Public restrooms have gotten a lot better in recent years, but it's still a good idea to keep a package of paper in your bag (or pick some up at a convenience store or the vending machine outside most subway station bathrooms)

Photo of a bottle of soju, Seoul, South Korea
Photo of Soju, Seoul South Korea © grahamhills

20. The last tip to pass on: watch out for the soju.

The green glass bottle of 20% ABV alcohol costs a mere 1,500 won at convenience stores (about $1.40 USD) and about twice that at a bar or restaurant. Drink it out of shot glasses, and sip judiciously unless you want to get drunk fast. A number of people prefer mixing it with yogurt (I personally enjoy cutting it with cranberry juice) to avoid the taste of rubbing alcohol.

About the Author

Chris Backe is the blogger behind chrisinsouthkorea.com, a popular blog focused on traveling and life in Korea. He's made it a point to visit at least one new place, event, festival, or performance every week. Chris has lived in Korea since March 2008, teaching English and traveling across the Asian country.

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Anonymous's picture

Great information! My friend moved to South Korea last August and I have heard plenty of stories about the kpop and karaoke, but of these other cultural differences I did not know about. I have however, heard of the infamous soju.

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Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the info! Moving to Seoul in April. Every little bit helps. ;)

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