Helpful Tips for an Easy Transition to Korea


Korea, ‘the land of the morning clam’ has its own unique culture and social norms. Korean society is based on Confucianism. Confucianist values are embedded in Korean culture and customs. For many foreigners these differences turn out to be the stumbling blocks that make their stay short and rather unpleasant in Korea.

There is no denying that the differences between Korean culture and the Western culture are varied and result in cultural shock for many westerners. Cultural shock is a normal part of living abroad and adapting to a new culture. However, due to the huge differences in culture here in Korea, many ESL teachers find it difficult to cope with and give up. Many teachers leave well before their contract is up and many leave once their contract is done, never to come back again.

Harsh as that may sound, it is a reality. Over the years, I have heard many foreigners comment about how adapting the culture in Korea is much more difficult than other countries. Many of these foreigners are not only well traveled but have lived and worked in other countries as well. Their claims therefore cannot be rejected out of hand.

We cannot change a whole nation and their cultural values to suit ourselves however, we can try and change ourselves. Here are a few tips that can ease your transition to living and working in Korea as an expat.

Learn Korean :

I know, I know. Regardless of how much we may like to think that most of the world speaks English, the sad fact is that not everyone does. This is especially true in Korea. While the younger generation will probably be keen to test out their English skills with a friendly greeting, most of the older people in the country speak a little to no English. Take the time to study the language. If you do not like learning it the traditional way like me, make Korean friends, hang out with them and learn the language. Learning the language helps provide the necessary tools needed to survive in the country. Not only does learning Korean opens the window to a better understanding of the culture but it is essential for your day to day life. Imagine going to a restaurant or a coffee shop or even taking a taxi and not being able to communicate because no one speaks English. Although, this is rapidly changing, especially in bigger cities where you can easily find people who speak English. Even then learning the language is something you won’t regret…trust me!

Try to be humble:

By now we all know that Korean culture is basically Confucianist. Humility is pivotal to Confucianism. Humility goes a long way in this country. How many times have you complimented a Korean on their good English and gotten the response ‘oh! I can speak English a little’ or ‘no, I don’t speak English well’ or another similar statement. Many times I’ll bet. Koreans believe that by acknowledging that you are better than someone else, you are setting yourself apart from others. It is seen as being arrogant. Unlike western cultures where individualism is encouraged, Koreans are group oriented. Community comes before the individual. Many westerners may not agree with that view, but we must remember we are here in their country. Following their rules and being humble eliminates cultural barriers and builds long lasting relationships.

Make Korean friends:

Many expats tend to stay within their own communities. Yes they work with Koreans, yes they hangout with their Korean coworkers from time to time but most of the time they spend time with other foreigners. I can already imagine a lot of you saying ‘well what’s wrong with that? I spend my weekdays with them, I don’t want to spend my weekends with them as well’ or ‘ well I speak their language, eat their food while I’m working but during my free time I want to speak in English with other foreigners who can understand me and I don’t have to stop and explain every third word’. All valid arguments and I understand how many of you may feel. But still since you are here why not give it a shot. This does not mean that you must exclusively hangout with Koreans but spending time with you Korean students or friends here and there can lead to a much more enjoyable and enriching experience.

Don’t be a hater:

Can’t count how many times I went out with other ESL teachers and regretted it. I felt annoyed and negative. I felt like all people did was complain. I’m not saying that Korea is perfect but it does offer pleasant and memorable experiences. Just because things here are different from where you are from, does not make them bad or wrong. Many westerners try and judge Korea by western standards and that’s where they go wrong. Things maybe unfamiliar or unusual than what you are used to but try to embrace the differences. Again, I’m not saying don’t complain. Venting from time to time is normal but nitpicking every chance you get is unhealthy. It harbors negativity and turn a potentially good experience into a miserable one. Try to develop a more balanced view, avoid negativity and enjoy your adventure. Don’t let the cynicism ruin it for you!

Self improvement:

It is never too late to learn and you are never too old to learn new things. As a teacher you may have ample knowledge in your field of expertise but that does not mean you know everything. There are always opportunities to learn new things or relearn simple things you may have forgotten. Remember just like a river needs to flow as humans we need to grow and improve. You may be good at what you do, you may have a hectic schedule but try and find time to do things that will help you better: a better person, a better teacher.

Be mindful of your behavior:

Remember when you are teaching English you are not just teaching the language you are teaching your culture as well. Like it or not, Koreans do closely watch and scrutinize you based on your actions. Case in point, years ago all you needed was a bachelors degree to come and teach in Korea. You were not required to provide a criminal check or apostilled bachelors degree. However, it was discovered that a few ESL teachers were using fake diplomas to get a job. Also, the Korean immigration claimed that foreigners were committing crimes, smuggling illegal drugs etc. Despite the fact that only a handful of the teachers were responsible, the laws were changed, the requirements made more strict and for most teachers more stressful.

It goes to show you that how you act, your behavior not only reflects on you and your country but on all foreigners who are living and working in Korea. A few bad apples can spoil the barrel.

When you decide to stay for the long term in a new country, it is important to be accepting, adventurous and respectful. Instead of constantly complaining about every little aspect become part of the solution. Try to change your perception. Follow these simple tips and your stay in Korea will be more fulfilling.

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