Dear Waygookin: Tips For Newly Arrived Foreigners In Korea
Working in Korea for as long as I have, you get to meet a number of foreigners and of course English teachers. In my experience a majority of them are like a ‘fish out of water’ and basically have no clue what they are doing.
Like every other nation around the world, Korea has its own unique language, culture and customs. While these give Korea its distinct identity, many of these social behavior and customs are remarkably different from Western countries.
Many westerners have a hard time adapting and getting used to the culture and the working environment here. I have met numerous foreigners who come to Korea with high hopes only to get disillusioned and give up. Although I understand that things can get tough at times, Korea can be a nice place to live and work in, if you do things the right way.
Here are some suggestions:
Don’t Complain About Everything
While venting is healthy from time to time, don’t overdo it. Constant complaining helps nothing except feed the fire of negativity. Choosing to work abroad means there will be differences and frustrations you’ve never experienced before. You have to except the fact that it’s different than what you are used to. Learn to appreciate the differences and deal with it. It’s a roller coaster of cross-cultural experiences. Enjoy it!
Have you ever noticed how stylish everyone seems to be here. Aren’t you amazed at how Koreans look incredibly fabulous even though they’re just shopping at a department store. In Korea looks matter. Your appearance is very important. How you dress and carry yourself makes the difference between being treated with respect or being outright ignored.
Let me clarify. I’m not saying that Koreans are vain. All I’m saying is that this being Asia things are done and viewed a certain way. For example, many native English teachers dress up in jogging pants, or a dirty, wrinkled sweatshirt and flip-flops, etc. to go teach their classes. Whereas their counterparts, the Korean English teachers look like they are coming off a fashion runway.
Yes, at times this categorizes as overdoing it or maybe even vanity. But for the most part this is how Korea works. You need to dress up for your part.
After seeing how amazing everyone looks all the time, ask yourself “why can’t I do that”? Do it! Think semi-casual. It will not only make you feel good but also help you become a part of the group. No one is asking you to change who you are in order to fit in but to be more mindful of your surroundings.
Avoid Confrontation And An Overly Critical Attitude
The culture….food….environment…..what’s socially acceptable or not etc. is totally different in Korea than back home. Needless to say, it’s inevitable that there will be issues and misunderstandings. In western cultures it is acceptable to openly show disapproval or disagreement. Most Koreans however rarely express anger or criticism in public as a rule (except ajumas). The concept of losing the respect of others (losing face) especially in public, is very important in many Asian cultures and more so in Korea.
Regardless of how things are done where you’re from try to respect the Korean social and cultural norms. Try to avoid open confrontation. Don’t be over critical. Stop the constant comparison with ‘Back home’. Take the indirect diplomatic route. It works! Minimal loss of face for everyone involved will ensure a better working relationship and an overall stress free experience.
Know The Culture
This one is basic. If you plan to live and work in Korea for a year or more…Learn about the culture. With many different unwritten rules and an emphasis on social hierarchy, it can sometimes be difficult for foreigners to assimilate into Korean work culture.
For example:Age is very important in Korean culture. There are strict rules of politeness and socially accurate behavior concerning age.
Additionally, in Korea addressing others by their title or position is important. In Western culture, position titles are not used when addressing a person. Using Mr., Mrs., or Ms., and the last name is not only acceptable but polite. In Korea, title indicates status, so it is important to refer to a person’s title.
Knowing these small nuances will be appreciated by your coworkers. However, more importantly the fact that you’re making the effort to learn about the culture, will also allow workplace relations to flow more smoothly.
Don’t Air Your Dirty Laundry
South Korean society has traditionally been influenced by Buddhist and Confucian values. These values emphasize diligence, stoicism and modesty. Preserving dignity, or “face,” is the most important. Individual needs are considered secondary. As a result, talking openly about emotional problems is still taboo.
Growing up in western countries, we are more used to individualism. We are used to a society where individual concerns are the focal point. Westerners are very candid about certain things (some are viewed as socially unacceptable topics in Korea). If they have a problem, they openly talk about it.
However, as a foreigner, when you air your dirty laundry in public you unavoidably alienate yourself. You end revealing aspects of your private life that should really remain private, thereby losing face and consequently respect in Korea.
This is a crucial aspect of Korean work culture. Unlike western countries, drinking is not looked down upon in Korea. In fact it’s the glue that holds the society together. Drinking is not only socially acceptable but it is also essential for developing good personal relationships between you and your Korean co-workers or your students.
Koreans usually have dinner parties or ‘Hweshik’(회식). Drinking in Korea is more than just about partying. It is a bonding process. It is how Koreans generally get to know each other, become friends or resolve conflicts.
When you are invited to such gatherings it is polite to accept and share a few drinks. It builds camaraderie and is good for establishing a better relationship with other Koreans.
Hangout with Other Koreans
There is no better way to learn about a new culture and language than to hangout with locals. The same applies to Korea. Have an open mind, especially when it comes to Korean cultural events and festivities. Make a point to take advantage of these opportunities! Share food and drinks.
Sharing food and drink is a universal gesture that brings people together. Try it! You can make new friends and experience new things. Spending time with other foreigners is important. You can be yourself and vent if you have to. But in my experience, more often than not, these groups are full of haters who only have negative things to say. That is not to say that all these groups are like that.
It is important to have an expat social network but just beware. Try to broaden your horizons by making Korean friends as well.
These are the few basic tips that I believe can help any foreigner, regardless of their nationality, to have a wonderful and fulfilling Korean adventure!