The 10 Biggest Culture Shocks for Expats and Tourists in South Korea

May 17, 2021
The 10 biggest culture shocks I discovered as first as and now as an American expat in living in South Korea. 

The 10 Biggest Culture Shocks for Expats and Tourists in South Korea

When traveling and especially moving to a new country you are bound to come across at least one or a few culture shocks.

Culture shocks aren’t necessarily bad things, as they can also be fun surprises you weren’t expecting such as racoon cafes (more on that later).

Coming from a western perspective there are definitely some culture and lifestyle shocks in South Korea that you may experience yourself. I even took a break from blogging for a year to take time to adjust to the changes.

Here are the top 10 culture shocks I discovered while first visiting as a tourist and later while living in South Korea as an expat for the past year.

1. Buying fruit can break the bank

When I lived in both the USA and Europe I ate fruit every single day. Fruit is quite inexpensive and well-stocked with dozens of varieties in most grocery stores in the west.

In South Korea, it is a completely different story, as fruit is seen as more of a luxury food item. You can even find fruit gift sets costing over $100 USD.

Fruit is not only expensive but it is only available during particular seasons such as strawberries in winter or mangos in the summer.

I have gotten used to eating different fruit that is cheaper in Korea that I usually wouldn’t buy in the US such as pineapples because they don’t break the bank.

I am definitely looking forward to raiding the fruit aisle the second I land home.

You can find many fancy fruit buffets in Korea such as this mango-themed one.

2. Plastic surgery and beauty obsession

If you didn't know, South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Therefore it is very common and less pricey to get plastic surgery. This is partly due to how Korean society places such a heavy value on looks.

If you are considered attractive by Korean standards, you will typically get much further in life. Considering that a lot of people feel the need to get plastic surgery or cosmetic procedures for their future success.

Due to the value of looks, many men and women spend a lot of money on skincare, cosmetics, and fashion.

In South Korea it is also extremely common for men to wear light makeup, care about their clothing style, and even perm their hair which is rarer in the west.

Also unlike in America, typical Korean resumes must include a picture.

The resume picture is one of the most important deciding factors of whether or not you will be considered for the position you are applying to.

There are photo studios all over the country that specialize in taking professional resume photos.

I decided to take one myself because I thought it would be a fun experience as they are known for being edited to perfection.

After I took several photos, I choose my favorite one and sat next to the photographer and watched them photoshop my picture. After I got it done I honestly felt slightly insecure and wanted to try to look more like the photo.

Since moving to Korea I have started to care more about my looks and invest more time and money into my skin-care, hair, and clothing. This beauty culture can also be positive as thanks to Korean skincare my skin has never looked and felt better.

My South Korean style resume photo. Can you tell it's me?

3. Lighting fast delivery speed

While living in America I was pretty satisfied with Amazon’s 2-day delivery and expected food delivery to take around 1 hour. However once I got used to Korea’s lighting delivery speed I’m not sure I can go back.

Korea’s version of Amazon called Coupang is famous for its less than 24-hour delivery services. If I order an item before midnight on a Monday I can expect to receive it by 8 am on Tuesday with free shipping.

As for food delivery, I have had food delivered to me in under 20 minutes before, but on average it takes only 40 mins to receive my next meal.

Food delivery is also super affordable compared to America. Restaurants in Korea typically offer free delivery or no more than $4 USD. Whereas in America food delivery can cost almost as much as the meal and is often slow.

If you visit South Korea you must try ordering fried chicken at the Han River, it's one of the most fun and unique experiences to get food delivered in the middle of a park.

4. Lack of work-life balance

The work culture in South Korea is one-of-a-kind and I’m saying it in such a positive way. The South Korean economy and the country have completely transformed within the past 50 years from a poor country to a global and industrialized economy.

I would attribute this to Korea’s general value of hard work. I thought working in New York City was a fast-paced and demanding work environment but it can’t compare to Seoul.

In Korea, the phrase work-life balance does not exist as work is always the top priority. Overtime is extremely common and almost expected at any job without any overtime pay for typical office jobs.

Hierarchy is also very important in Korean work culture and the younger employees must respect and appease the older employees by leaving the office after them and by using formal language when speaking to them.

There is also work-related drinking culture where employees will often be expected to go to dinner after work with their coworkers and usually be expected to drink a lot and serve the senior employees. Along with dinner and drinks, they will usually go to a karaoke bar afterwards.

Employees do not feel like they have a choice to decline these work dinners as then they will be seen as disrespectful and therefore not considered for promotions.

This particular work culture typically creates a toxic and stressful environment. This affects people's mental and physical health as well as social life which is hard balance with the work culture.

Before moving to Korea I heard a lot about the work culture and made sure to do my research to ensure I didn’t have to work in a typical Korean environment. I got super lucky with my current job. I have never had to work overtime and have only gone to a work dinner three times but was never forced to drink or go to karaoke.

5. You need to wear masks even after Covid is over

Before moving to Korea I’ve been fortunate enough to think twice about air quality. While living in Korea, i’ve realized how much I’ve been taking having clean air to breathe for granted.

In Korea there is often fine yellow dust particles in the air which effects the air quality. The yellow dust is especially bad in the Spring and when it rains.

When the air is bad you can see everyone wearing masks and I try to avoid going outside as much as possible.

The bad air quality has affected my health and especially my skin. When I moved here it took my skin and body a bit of time to adjust to the worser air quality and I bought an air purifier which has made a huge difference.

It’s sad but true that even after Corona is gone people will still need to wear masks in Korea often to protect themselves from fine dust.

When the Namsan Tower is great it means the fine dust level is low, when it's red wear a mask!

6. You can go to the hospital for anything?

Korean's are used to going to the hospital for everything, even a cold can be a reason enough to visit. With hospital visits costing as little as $10 USD there is no reason not to visit if you aren't feeling well.

Medical care is a right in Korea and is extremely affordable and efficient.

Growing up in America I can count the number of times I visited a hospital on one hand. Typically Americans only visit a hospital if they are giving birth or dying because it is so expensive even with health insurance.

When I first came to Korea I had to get a full-body health check at a hospital for my job. At the time I didn’t have insurance yet and it cost me less than $100 USD which is considered expensive here.

I don’t even want to imagine what that would cost at an American hospital even with insurance.

Medicine is also typically very affordable, I’ve gotten light colds and headaches a few times since moving here and have paid around $4 USD for medicine on average.

7. Safety is on another level

South Korea is an extremely safe country overall and is therefore amazing in that aspect for expats and travelers alike.

In South Korea is it 100% common to leave your expensive cell, phone, laptop and, even wallet on your table in public places such as cafes or restaurants if you need to use the restroom or order for example. When you return the likelihood of any of your items being stolen is slim to none.

I cannot even fathom doing something like this in New York or Paris as I would pretty much be asking to be robbed.

I also feel completely safe and comfortable walking alone late at night or taking public transportation as a young woman. This sadly is not the case in a majority of the cities I've lived or visited.

The main reason why South Korea is so safe is that the CCTV or security camera culture. It is almost impossible to find a public place or street in South Korea without CCTVs.

8. Cafe culture

If you love beautifully decorated cafes and delicious drinks and desserts you will not be disappointed when you visit South Korea.

You can even find unique animal cafes including racoon or meerkat cafes where you can play and feed animals while enjoying your coffee.

If you go on almost any street in Seoul you can almost be certain to find a unique and aesthetically pleasing cafe.

Korean's truly take their cafe culture seriously and it shows due to the immensity of beautiful cafes throughout the country.

Along with beautiful interiors, Korean cafe culture is very creative when it comes to crafting new drinks and desserts such as strawberry lattes, non-alcoholic vin chaud ade, and too cute too eat desserts for example.

I feel like every time I go outside I find a new cafe to add to my go-to list.

A typical aesthetically-pleasing cafe you can expect to find in Korea.

9. Getting around without speaking Korean can be challenging

As I’m living in Korea I am spending a lot my time, effort, and money to learn Korean.

I think it’s a great experience to learn another language, make friends from a different culture, and be respectful to the country I’m living in. However, I am often surprised at the lack of English even in the capital city of Seoul.

I found that many of the restaurants and cafes even in Seoul only have menus in Korean. I even had to speak Korean to sign up for a Korean class.

Therefore, I found that the more I learn Korean, the more my quality of life is improving.

I would imagine that tourists that don’t speak or read any Korean would have a difficult time with language barriers.

Therefore, if you are planning on visiting or living in Korea I highly recommend that you at least learn the alphabet before coming. You can learn it in under a day and it will make traveling or life in Korea 100 times easier.

Also, services in English tend to be more expensive as they are targeted at tourists. As an example, my coworker and I love getting our nails done with fancy designs which are super popular in Korea.

I go to a salon where you have to speak Korean and usually pay no more than $50. My coworker goes to an English-speaking salon and pays $80 which is a pretty huge difference.

In my specific case, sometimes a lack of English is positive because it forces me to use the language and practice which I wouldn’t be able to do as much in such an English-friendly country.

With less English comes the inventions of hilarious shirts like this.

10. School is taken way more seriously than the West

School life could not be more different than America if it tried. Similar to the Korean work culture, the study culture is just as intense.

Most students beginning from elementary school are studying from 8 am until 10 pm. Korea has a famous Hagwon culture which are private academies that specialize in different subjects from English to sports.

Students normally attend their normal schools until 3 pm and after 3 pm they go to different hagwons to continue learning.

The reason for this is that every student in Korea wants to attend one of the 3 top universities in the country. To get into one of these universities students must be at the top of their class.

If students get into one of these universities it almost guarantees them a well-paying job and successful life after graduation.

If you don’t attend one of the top 3 schools it is much harder to get a good job. This causes major competition among students and leads to a lot of stress beginning from a young age.

While teaching at a kindergarten with students ages 5-7 years old I have already witnessed this crazy education culture affecting such young children.

I have actually had a lot of students fall asleep in my class and tell me they went to bed later than me.

This has really made me appreciate how I got to grow up in America and enjoy a pretty stress-free and fun childhood.

Have you ever experienced any culture shocks while traveling or living abroad?

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