1. I'll start with the Confucian influenced social hierarchy of society. One of the first things many Korean people ask when meeting someone is: how old are you? Why? Because the older people get more respect in so many aspects of life, and the younger people are always lesser than them. We can sort of relate to this concept back home, with respecting our elders and all, but I have a good example of how much different it really is:
My co-teacher Mr. Park is a good and experienced teacher, with great English skills. In fact he is one of the top coordinators for English programs in the city. He does get some advantages I think, but he has ambitions that he won't see for years because he is 39, and the positions higher than his are basically reserved for the people older than him, regardless of skill level. He just went for an interview to take a promotion that would be a more comfortable job for him, it would pay more, and it's right near his house (our school is on the other side of town). One of the major requirements for this job is being able to speak English, as it has a lot to do with the English program in Ulsan. Mr. Park CLEARLY has the best English out of the candidates, but was asked arbitrary questions, all in Korean during the interview. Needless to say, he was ruled out before he walked in the door, and he knew it.
Looking back at the West, there are a number of very successful people in and out of education, who are young. I can remember my favorite, and most inspiring teacher ever, Mr. Bruce Willingham. He was a second year teacher when I had him in 8th grade, who used to complain about his car still being the one he used in college. He was also my wrestling coach, but he had more talent and drive for teaching/education than anyone I have ever known! Either 1 or 2 years later Mr. Willingham took a position as a principle, and has a very big influence on education in his area. When I told this to Mr. Park, he couldn't believe it!
This is true in many aspects of life here in Korea. One more example is when there is a group of teachers, say all of the 4th grade teachers. The youngest of the group always has to distribute the spoons, chopsticks, dishes, etc. Also at the end of the meal that teacher gets the coffee and pays the bill. I guess in some cases the elder teachers are very rude to them too. I am luckily exempted from this rule, as I am seen as a guest, but sometimes I take the role of the youngest one, just to experience the culture as much as possible.
2. One of the most obvious ones is: bowing VS shaking hands. In Eastern Asia it is customary to bow to people, while it is more customary to shake hands and wave back West. The thing that makes this so different, is how you bow, who you bow to, and if you shake hands and bow at the same time or not, are all factors that come into play. Since I am a teacher, if I am walking outside of the school, and I see a young student walking by, it would be most polite of him to stop, put his feet together with his hands at his sides (not in his pockets), and bow at the waste 90 degrees. That is also what I have seen a teacher do to the principle after accidentally hitting him with a volleyball. That is the most respectful way to address someone.
In the case of the friends, it is usually just a little bow of the head, if anything. This was tricky for me at first, since I'm used to nodding my head up at people, and this is like a down nod. Also I thought I had to do it to everyone older than me, so I got some weird/confused looks on the street. Sometimes it has to do with respect, but I guess now days it is more acceptable for people to be a little more lazy with it. This is most obvious in another similar custom: handing and receiving things with 2 hands. It became receiving something with your right hand, and touching your wrist with your left. Then you touched your elbow, then your shoulder, and now it's okay to just touch your chest. This can vary depending on who is involved, like I would use two hands with my principle.
Often you'll end up doing both a bow and a hand shake.
3. Another big thing is cars VS pedestrians. In Korea, cars seem to have the right away, not the other way around. Also jay walking is a huge no-no, but red lights are basically optional for cars. This is the most frustrating of the differences, because there can be almost no traffic, but I still feel pressure to walk a whole block to a zebra crossing. On the other hand, if you are at the cross walk and you get the go signal, you had better look both ways before stepping into the street, as a red light is treated like a yellow light here.
4. Drinking culture. I came to Korea knowing anything about this, but I planned on being a professional, and not going out or drinking much. Apparently both are possible here! It is a pretty big thing to go out with other teachers, and 'bond' over soju and mekju (watered down vodka and beer, respectfully). I don't mind having a few drinks here or there, but a good example of this is last night. We had a dinner with all of the school faculty to welcome the new teachers. Because of my increasingly busy schedule I have to do Taekwondo on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, without exception. Because of this I told them I could come, but I couldn't drink. It was fine.. except I still had to do 2 shots of soju! Some teachers go 'touring' with the soju, offering (and insisting) soju to everyone. I felt that I would have been very rude had I declined to the new teachers last night, so I participated. Also it is much more common to have these types of dinners during the week, but not on the weekends. In America we don't drink as much during the week because of work in the morning, but in Korea they don't drink on the weekends so that they can spend time with their families.
5. Food culture. There are little differences that make having a traditional Korean meal quite a different experience. There is the obvious use of chopsticks and sitting on the floor, but there are many little things that you have to observe if you want to be polite. First of all if someone has an empty glass in front of them, you should refill it for them right away. If you don't notice and they start to fill it themselves, you should 'snatch' it from them, and then pour their drink (seems rude, right? Not at all.) Also there are usually many side dishes that everyone shares that range from raw garlic and hot pepper paste, to anchovies, to kimchi, to lettuce and sesame leaves, to onions (cooked or raw), and the list goes on. While waiting for the main dish, or all of the people to arrive, I never really know if it's okay to start nibbling, so I wait for someone else to start. It can also be poor etiquette to place your spoon or chopsticks back on the table, but I think that is just high class, as most people do it anyways. What is interesting is many will start off with very good manners, and as the meal goes on (drinking or no) they get more and more relaxed with things.
Also a side you may get is this here, some.. not so tasty bugs. BTW you get unlimited refills on these types of sides.. which in this case we did not need.
6. Technology. I feel like it is a fairly new phenomenon, but it seems that everyone has a smart phone here, and using it doesn't ever seem to be rude. Whether you are having a conversation with someone, at work, at dinner, or anywhere in public. I don't think this is very different in the West, but I feel like it is on a higher scale here. Even my foreigner friends complain when someone is on their phone too much (especially at dinner), so I know there is a difference for us at least.
7. Public transportation. Public transportation seems to be a lot more efficient and widespread in Korea. This is based on my personal experiences, so it may not be 100% accurate, seeing as how I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, and now I'm in the 7th biggest metropolis of South Korea. But because of Korea's small size (similar to the size of Minnesota) and high population density, it is easier, and more practical here. Since the US is so spread out, it would be impossible to have the same overall accessibility to public transportation, almost anywhere you are. There are also things you should know about being on the subway for example, like you should not lay down or eat on them.
8. Pop culture. I am not someone who pays a whole lot of attention to pop culture, but in Korea it is very interesting, and sometimes confusing to me. Korea is considered a very conservative country, such as women are required to wear very modest clothing in the work place, and the traditional hierarchical social structure. But the K-Pop stars (young women) wear things that would make Madonna blush, have lyrics that are just blatantly suggestive, and they are everywhere! There are also advertisements that are similar to those in the US, focusing on the marketing strategy: sex sells. Now none of this is new to me.. but the fact that it is like this here seems to catch me off guard almost every time. (not to mention the decision to sensor nudity and swearing SOMETIMES on cable television..)
Here is one of the K-Pop groups, maybe Girls Generation.. I don't honestly know. I guess Madonna has done worse, but they way they dance and what not.. in this country.. blows my mind.
9. Generosity. Many Koreans, especially in the middle class, are very generous, or at least have been in my experience. I have received gifts, been taken out to eat, and showered with compliments in my time here. While having a meal with someone, they are often happy to serve you, give you the last of anything, and just be friendly. There are always exceptions to this rule, and it may be in part because I am a guest in this country, but it is notable.
10. Education. There is a very fundamental difference in how education is done in the East VS the West. The West focuses on individual accomplishment, and encourages creativity. In the East they focus on the student body as a whole, and encourage memorization and studying. I think there needs to be a perfect balance of education, a ying and a yang if you will. Also I feel like a lot of people know how intense education is here from middle school through high school, but it is crazy intense. Most of the students are often in a classroom (both public and private academies) for more than 14 hours a day. Their whole lives are determined by their performance on the College Entrance Exam, comparable to our ACT, with all kinds of pressure. Many Koreans even think it is too much.
So as you can see society is very different here, but I do enjoy it. Some things I will miss, but being back home someday will be very comforting. I may even get a little bit of reverse culture shock when I go back, but I'm glad I am here experiencing it. If I do continue to travel and teach for the next few years, I will get to have a similar experience everywhere I go, and I do encourage everyone to try something like this if you get the chance.