Even though I’ve been here for 8 months now, I still experience culture shock every now and then. It’s no secret that eastern cultures are very different from western, and though South Korea has many western influences, it is no exception.
One big difference is that South Korea is considered a high-context society, whereas the US is a low-context society. This means that in South Korea, the way you say something is just as important as what is said in terms of understanding meaning, but in the US, we can usually get the same meaning from something whether it is texted, said over the phone or in-person. This means that Koreans tend to take things at face-value, and are fairly literal in my experience. Joking over text or being sarcastic can lead to disappointing results.
Another difference is that the US is an individualistic nation, whereas South Korea is a collective nation. People don’t tend to stand out in a crowd, but instead, have strict beauty standards which people strive for. There are 2 basic haircuts I see for the vast majority of girls, long with bangs, or a short bob with bangs. Guys also tend to have the same basic hairstyle universally. Plastic surgery is commonplace in Korea, as well as makeup. Cosmetic stores are a dime a dozen in Seoul, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Korean girl who leaves the house without a full face of makeup on. In addition, pretty much everyone has the same fashion sense.
Another interesting thing I’ve noticed here is that though the ideal of elder-respect is deeply ingrained within the culture, even in college with freshman bowing to seniors in certain majors, specific words and titles used to speak to someone older than you, and a full vocabulary of formal language, actual respect towards one another seems uncommon. I think maybe three people have actually held a door for me the whole time I’ve been here, no one ever says thank you when I do it, and I’ve noticed that if someone is struggling with something… they continue to struggle because people just ignore them. I was actually told by a friend who was on an intense hiking trip that he saw someone collapse during the hike. The people he was there with started doing CPR on him, but no one else slowed down or stopped to see if he was okay. The elderly population in Korea is a bit of a tricky situation. Korea’s birthrate is very low, and the elderly population is therefore disproportionately high. There’s also a bit of a catch-22 with this population – they tend to be very aggressive and impolite towards everyone else (I can’t tell you how many times an old lady has elbowed me out of the way to cut to the front of the line waiting for the metro) and have a misplaced sense of entitlement and therefore younger people don’t really respect them or feel obligated to treat them well, and it just cycles around.
As much as I love Korea and living here, (the food, oh THE FOOD!) I appreciate and miss societal norms and values in the States (and the ranch dressing). Especially the part where I’m not required to participate in a group project for every single class!