Traveling to other countries and experiencing new cultures is always exciting. Part of this experience is culture shock. Have you ever wondered how it feels being a foreigner in Korea? I am a Spanish girl who is currently living in Seoul and I would like to share some of my personal experiences with you. Here are five things that might surprise a foreigner in Seoul.
People stare at you
When I first arrived, this used to make me feel very uncomfortable. However, it seems that staring at foreigners is a normal thing, so this is one of the things you just have to get used to.
At first, I was very surprised by this considering the large number of foreigners living in Korea. I’ve caught old people staring at me for extended periods of time on the subway or when I’m walking down the street. I also caught some people taking photos of me.
The language barrier
Since I speak English, I felt confident moving here, but actually a lot of people don’t speak English. If you travel to South Korea don’t expect to be able to always communicate in English.
For example, when you go shopping you may find it difficult to communicate to get necessary information about products or services. During my first days, I got by just pointing at things when I wanted to buy them, but sometimes I had some “surprises”, especially with food!
The main problem you may encounter until you learn some basics in Korean are: miscommunication and difficulties in obtaining accurate information. However, there are many signs in English and you can revert to body language.
There are many types of accommodation in South Korea but apartments are usually small in comparison to western standards.
I live in a common type of apartment. It is a tiny studio which is called a “one-room”. One-rooms are popular among college students and single people. They usually consist of one large room which combines the living room, bedroom and kitchen. And there is also a separate area for a washing machine and a small bathroom.
A funny thing about Korean apartments are the bathrooms. They are all-in-one-bathrooms. There is no partition between the toilet, sink and shower. Moreover, the shower is connected to the sink and they share the same pipe. So many foreigners occasionally forget to change the shower back to sink and often shoot themselves in the face. This has happened to me many many times!
I was surprised by how strict Korea’s recycling policies are. There are many special disposal bags you have to buy for the different kinds of garbage you will be separating. Trash collection is paid for by taxing these plastic bags that can be purchased from any convenience store or supermarket in your local area and will correspond to the area you are living in.
In my neighborhood, trash must be divided into ‘common trash’ and food waste. Common trash bags are white while food waste ones are yellow. The costs of bags vary from one district to the other.
Make sure that you separate your garbage properly because generally garbage men in Korea will not collect your trash if it is not in one of the special color coded bags.
It is not mandatory but you should also recycle at some restaurants and cafes in Seoul. This typically includes separating what is leftover from your meal (both liquids and solids), cups, plastics and everything else.
The public transportation system in Korea is absolutely amazing! Almost any location in Seoul can be reached using public transportation. At the subway all station display signs are in both Korean and English but bus stop names and timetables are rarely in English and bus drivers usually don’t speak English.
In my case, I always prefer to use the subway rather than the bus.
Why? I find riding the bus scary: Bus drivers in Korea are well known for their speed. Buses always leave on time so many bus drivers drive really, really fast and may also disregard road rules. This might make you feel a bit unsafe, especially if you are standing up during the trip. So, if you are riding the bus in Seoul, remember to hold on to something!
In addition, most bus drivers like to pick up and drop off passengers as fast as possible, so when you are getting off, press the bell button fast and be sure that you are standing up and wait near the exit of the bus, even while the bus is still moving. Otherwise, the bus driver might get impatient and you might miss your stop.
Oh! And when using the bus cards (T-money), you have to tap it when you board the bus and tap it on the machine again when you leave. Don’t forget it or the bus driver will yell at you!
What do you think about these things? What are your experiences with culture shock?