What They Don’t Teach You: 8 Things That Surprised A Korean Studies Major About South Korea

Being an East Asian Studies Major with a minor in Korean, I knew a good deal about South Korea before going overseas. I was in a good position—loosely conversational in the language and knowledgeable on the country’s culture and customs. Because of this, I didn’t face most of the initial culture shock felt by my other study abroad friends. Living in Seoul for an extended amount of time, however, allowed me to discover new cultural differences that I had never heard of before. Some of it is good, some is…less so. All of it, however, has led to me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the country. Without further ado, here are 8 things that still shocked me about Korea, coming from a Korean Studies major.

1. Korean college isn’t as hard-core as they say

Korean University campus - stone building in background, with multicolored trees

Before going abroad, I heard horror stories about Korean schooling, how students would study all day until the crack of dawn to only barely pass their classes. Korean college students with free time? Inconceivable. I expected endless hours of homework and assignments.

Once I arrived, however, I found college to be not nearly as intimidating. During my semester at Korea University, I had virtually no homework and only 5 projects the entire semester. I was shocked. There was loads of free time and my classes were very laid-back. I just had to sit and listen to lectures.

While this may sound amazing (and it kind of was), grades weren’t free and there were was still some stress involved. Classes were structured “sink-or-swim”, with grades depending entirely on midterms and finals. Most of my classes were designed 50% final, 30% midterm, and 20% participation. Students who were self-disciplined and studied before tests did fine while those that didn’t witnessed their grades drop from A’s to D’s instantly with no cushioning of homework assignments to help repair the damage.

This doesn’t negate the brutal expectations placed on Korean middle schoolers and high schoolers, where endless hours of schooling are the norm. Rather, it might temper what to expect from your schooling as an exchange student. I only studied at Korea University so your experience may vary.

2. Groceries are expensive; Eating out is cheap

In South Korea, groceries–especially fruits–are expensive. Coming from the state of Arizona, where an apple is generally 99 cents, I was flabbergasted to see a single apple costing 3,000 won (almost $3). Buying large quantities of fruits and vegetables is cheaper; at Homeplus a box of 20 apples will cost around 15,000 won. That’s a bargain, but when living by oneself it’s impossible to get through them all before they go bad.  Early on, I learned to just buy one kind of fruit at a time from convenience stores where it’s on sale and less expensive.

white Plate containing sushi, metal bowl of brith with large spoon

Comparatively, eating out is cheap. A filling lunch of kimbap and simple side dishes will cost as little as 2,000 won. For 7,000 won one can expect a large bowl of bibimbap and soup with three to five sides.

bowl of bibimbap, bowl of soup, surrounded by smaller bowls of assorted toppings
Wooden trays containing several bowls of korean foods

Korean culture puts a lot of value into the collective. It makes sense that eating out is more affordable as it’s rare and almost frowned upon to eat alone—so much so that they have a word for it, “혼밥” (hon-bap). Despite the cheaper prices of meals, I personally didn’t save any money, instead spending my savings at all the cute cafes in Seoul.  

3. Korean couples not doing PDA is a lie

Before going to Korea, I had seen endless videos describing the conservative nature of Korean couples, saying that even the act of holding hands in the streets was scandalous. This characteristic of Korean society is also used to justify couples’ clothing, a well-known aspect of Korean culture where couples wear matching items or coordinate outfits. If couples couldn’t show their relationship status through PDA, their clothing would.

I won’t deny that Korean couples behaved very conservatively a few years ago. However, now it is entirely different. There’s no way to describe Korean couples outside of being exorbitantly cutesy. They lovingly hold hands and nuzzle heads together; the boys pat the girls’ heads while the girls give their best aegyo—A Korean word referring to overly exaggerated cute displays of affection by using a baby voice and making cute gestures.

If you’re in a relationship in Korea I imagine everything to be viewed through pink-tinted glasses with hearts and unicorns floating in the air. There are couples’ cafes, couples’ clothes, and couples’ holidays including pepero day, white day, valentine’s day, Christmas (yes, it’s for couples), and 100-day anniversaries.

For those of us not in relationships, couples are the nemeses of sidewalks, amusement parks, and basically any public establishment. These days, couples seem to be unable to not hold hands or stick to each other’s sides, even whilst in small, narrow passageways or on stairs. It’s like playing Temple Run, with you as the player trying to get to the end, and the couples are the obstacles you must dodge. This may sound like an over exaggerating but it’s not. I’ve never seen a couple break apart to let someone walk past them, let alone through them. They are one unit, stuck at the seam.

4. The streets of Seoul are astonishingly clean

Korean street featuring paper lanterns of many colors

With almost 10 million people packed into the city of Seoul, it’s shocking how clean it is. I’ve never once seen graffiti in the subway stations and garbage on sidewalks is rare to come by—the only litter being the occasional cigarette butt. It’s even more surprising how spotless Seoul is considering the lack of trashcans in public spaces.

empty subway station in Seoul
Korean street - several people crossing a street. A white car is turning.

My study abroad mentor told me that the reason for Korea’s scarcity of public waste bins has to do with the country’s trash tax. Each resident is required to pay a trash fee, collected through purchasing specialty trash bags at local convenience stores. Many began undermining this system by dumping their garbage inside public waste bins so many of the bins got removed.

Empty seoul street featuring several shopfronts

 I’m not quite sure how Korea has managed its cleanliness after stripping away public trash bins, but part of me thinks that it’s positive peer pressure. Since no one liters, you don’t want to be that one person that does. I’ve personally experienced the Seoul struggle that is carrying around empty bottles and wrappers all day until you can get home or come across the rare species that is the public trash bin. It’s a small inconvenience but pays off in the long run.

Sidenote: If there is a trashcan, make sure to read the signs as trash is separated into plastic, paper, food, and cans.

5. Seoul feels incredibly safe

Crowd of people standing and sitting around watching a dancer

On my first day after arriving in Seoul, I was invited to a buffet dinner by some family friends. After meeting up at the restaurant, everyone dropped their things off at the table, leaving their items unattended, while they got their food. Concerned, I asked, “Should I wait here to watch everyone’s wallets and bags?” Imagine the shock I felt when one of them just laughed and said, “You’re in Korea. There’s no need.”

Since then, I’ve witnessed in many ways just how safe of a city Seoul is. I’ve seen people abandon their open laptops at cafes to visit the convenience store across the street. I’ve seen people sleep on the side of the road with their wallets in hand, peacefully unbothered. Stores will leave clothes and other items outside on display with no employee to guard it. Still, no one considers stealing.

Nightime scene on seoul street. Crowds of people walking past storefronts

This feeling of security extends beyond theft, too. As a woman, I felt much safer in Seoul. Back home, I would be wary of walking alone at night, but in Seoul, I didn’t feel nearly as scared, even when out past 11p.m. Many foreign women I met would often remark how much safer they felt going to clubs in Korea than back home with fewer disturbances and unwanted attention. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise caution wherever you go. However, it is comforting not having to be apprehensive with every turn. 

6. You can’t try on clothes at every store

Racks of sweaters in a clothing store

This was the hardest cultural difference for me to accept. Due to the concern of people getting makeup on clothing, many stores in Korea prohibit trying on tops. Some places go so far as to provide small bags for customers to put over their heads while trying the clothes on. More times than not it’s simply not allowed. I have also been to shops that have banned trying on pants and skirts as well. These boutiques claim that since the clothes are one-size-fits-all and that most Koreans have a similar body type there’s no need to try on clothes before you buy, but I don’t find this reason fully reputable.

Another difference I noticed is that in Korea, window shopping in small stores isn’t welcomed. If you browse, there’s an expectation to buy. While perusing areas such as Gangnam Station’s Underground Shopping Center, a mall comprised of small boutiques and stalls, the owners will call out and ask what you’re looking for- I can distinctly remember the begrudging faces I received when I said I was, “just looking.”

Again, it’s not like this everywhere, but it was common.

7. Koreans will stare at you– like, really stare at you

Staring, in general, is uncomfortable. Most people who stare at others try to be discreet about it and if caught, they’ll shift their gaze instantly. The difference in getting stared at in Korea, however, is that Korean people don’t hide it. Many Koreans, especially the older ajusshis and ajummas, will stare at foreigners and don’t show any shame when caught. I’ve personally gotten a fair share of stares, all of which continued even after I looked directly back at them. While it is slightly uncomfortable, I think it comes from a place of harmless curiosity. I won’t deny that as a blonde and pale-skinned American I stand out in a crowd.

All of this has less to do with me, though, and more to do with my friends who’ve faced extra discomfort due to their race or body size. My black and plus-sized friends have experienced people coming up in their faces to stare for extended periods of time and get stared at more often than I do. These kinds of stares can’t be dismissed as sheer curiosity. They’re more discriminatory and make my friends feel judged and self-conscious. While there are videos out there discussing this problem, it’s hard to prepare for and isn’t something one can get used to-nor should they.

If someone doesn’t fit into the typical Korean image they will get stared at. The rise in the foreign population in Korea has helped in some ways to diminish such stares. However, foreigners still only make up 4.57 percent of the population, with almost half of that being Chinese nationals. Because of this, it’s hard to imagine the stares ending any time soon.

8. Coffee is an afternoon thing

Table in coffee shop - bagel and container of coffee

Imagine waking up in the morning. It’s early and you could really use some coffee. You heard about this amazing, hip new café across the street, so you hazily get your clothes and shoes on, brush your hair, and shuffle out the door and down the street. You approach the café, excited to finally get your little cup of bliss, only to see a sign hanging out front…

It’s closed.

“Closed! What kind of coffee shop is closed at 9am on a Monday?” You begrudgingly walk another block to the next nearest shop- It’s also closed, doesn’t open until 11am.  

So is the one after that. It’s not open Mondays.

This continues until you resolve to just buy a Café Latte from the nearest convenience store. Ahh the sweet taste of defeat.

There’s no mistaking that Korea’s coffee scene is huge. With an estimated 88,000 coffee shops, Korea has the highest number of coffee shops-per-capita in the world. What no one told me, however, was that the culture around coffee is entirely different. I’ve realized that while in some countries, coffee is used strictly as a morning beverage to wake up, in Korea it’s used as an afternoon social tool.

To go coffee latte on table in coffee shop

Coffee shops usually aren’t open until 10am on weekdays and 11am-12pm on weekends with varying weekdays off, the exception being major chains like Starbucks. Coffee shops tend to be rather barren in the mornings and get busy in the afternoon. It’s also common to see people ordering espresso drinks at night. Koreans use coffee the way tea is used in other parts of the world-people sit, chat, and linger over a cup of coffee.  They don’t gulp it down to help them wake up before work.

Coffee drink and waffle on tray within in a cafe

Living in Korea I too morphed into a social coffee drinker, having guiltily ordered an Americano after 8pm on a few occasions. Not fully shaking my morning coffee habit, though, I did manage to find a store that opened in the mornings. However, even then they’d sometimes randomly be closed. In that case, one can only rely on the convenience store.

And that brings us to the end! Honestly, this list could continue for ages. I’ve learned that no matter how much you study a country in advance, it’s a whole different experience physically being there. Traveling abroad introduces new encounters and while each one won’t be perfect, I believe that’s part of what makes it great. The moments of culture shock I faced in Korea, both good and bad, allowed me to fall in love with the country even more because I felt like I was able to understand it more deeply. For those of you who are currently abroad or have been, feel free to share your own culture shocks below!

Emily Creasman is a student at Arizona State University. She was an ISA Featured Blogger and studied abroad with ISA in Seoul, South Korea.

Author: Emily Creasman

Seoul, South Korea

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