7 Things to Know Before Coming to Korea

Thinking about spending some time on vacation in Korea or deciding on whether you want to take the plunge, pack up, and move here? I’ve been living in Korea for about six months now, and have started a list (which I will eventually end up adding to, as I’m still thinking of little things as I type this) of specific things you need to know before you come here. I tried to think of things that were a bit different from what I’ve found on other blog lists and came up with these seven.

1. Do not expect to find a lot of Western foods or restaurants that cater to dietary restrictions.
If you’re coming to Korea, you need to be able to eat Korean food. It’s as simple as that. This seems obvious, right? If you’re visiting a country, the food should be of some interest to you, and if you’re traveling, you need to be able to eat out with relative ease. I only bring this up because I have coworkers who continue to turn their nose up at Korean food. They pick it apart, demand to know every ingredient used, complain, make faces when trying new dishes, or simply will refuse to eat anything if the picture they see on the menu doesn’t seem like it would agree with their palate. I find this extremely rude and disrespectful, especially when in the company of dining with Korean people. If you aren’t entirely sure what something is, or think it looks different than anything else you’ve eaten before, don’t hesitate! Try it! I’m one of those eaters who will try anything once, and honestly, if I hadn’t been this adventurous when it came to eating here, I wouldn’t have found even half of the dishes I love so much. Korean food to me is absolutely delicious, which is a huge part of the reason I chose to move here. I think the best rule of thumb when eating here is try anything at least once, you never know. And, side note, eating Korean food is the best way to avoid breaking the bank when traveling. Western food is so much more expensive, and is typically served in smaller portions.

If you are a picky eater, if you are gluten-free, if you are vegan or vegetarian and have limited experience with Asian food (this means fermented vegetables, different types of spices, raw fish, a variety of seafood like octopus, squid, seaweed, etc.), I’m going to be honest with you and tell you right now, you are going to have a hard time eating in Korea, especially if you don’t know the language. I know Seoul has more options when it comes to eating more internationally (there are some Greek, Indian, “Mexican,” French, and American restaurants), especially if you find yourself in one of the foreigner areas like Itaewon, but overall Korea doesn’t exactly cater to those who have dietary restrictions. This is definitely something that’s changing, as most coffee shops have soy milk options, and I’ve seen some places that serve strictly vegetarian menus, but often these are few and far in between. The easiest would be pescatarian, as there is plentiful seafood, but other than that you need to be able to communicate point-blank with servers if you need your food prepared a certain way. Fair warning though, generally Korean people don’t have the same concept as vegetarian as Americans do (especially if you go to a restaurant run by elders). When you ask for no meat in a dish, they are going to assume for the most part you mean dark meat. There have been times where I’ve ordered and asked for no meat, and was brought chicken instead. You have to specify vegetables only when you order. But still, be prepared for them to look at you a bit oddly, as it’s not customary practice for the food to be prepared to an individuals specific taste. And if you’re vegan, good luck. Most things are prepared in fish sauce or served with eggs or something similar, so make sure you know the dishes really well and are prepared to have a conversation, or attempt at one, with your servers when you order.

2. People will bump into you, and no one will apologise for it.
Korea is a pretty densely populated country, especially if you live in one of the major cities. Yet, even in Jeju, I’m still no stranger to this. At first, I thought it was because I was a foreigner and generally unliked by those older than me, but at a certain point I came to a realisation that this was not just happening to me, but everyone else around me. It makes sense though, especially when you are on any form of public transportation. My last visit to Seoul made me realise that I have managed to adapt to this (and take a small pleasure in it), and when that work rush hour hit, you would find me, a small (though, I suppose average height here) foreigner girl, not giving a, well you know, when it came to shoving my way through a crowd. Embrace the essence of the shrug emoji. Koreans also have a different understanding of personal space. If you are on the subway, people are going to get right up on you if they see the smallest ounce of space left between you and the person next to you. They are going to slide themselves there, breathe down your neck, and it’s generally going to be an uncomfortable experience if you aren’t used to that level of crowded spaces.

But, when your stop comes and you are somewhere in between both sets of double doors, you need to turn yourself to one, ignore whoever you may hit, and part your way through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. There’s an unspoken understanding about doing this. It’s not seen as rude, it just means that you, along with everyone else, has somewhere to be, and you are not going to miss your stop for it. Only apologise if you smack someone in the face on accident with your purse, or you fall into someone while trying to reach the door.

Definitely watch out for the ajummas though, they really don’t care. Like, they already had a hard life and are over everything and everyone level of not caring.

3. Learn the 5 “golden phrases” and teach yourself how to read Hangul.
Hangul, the Korean alphabet, might just be one of the simplest written languages to learn how to read. It should generally take you about an afternoon to learn. Because the language is written phonetically using compounded characters, it’s not tough. You can be a slow reader, that’s fine, but at least learn how to read it. I say this because to me, it seems nearly impossible, or at least significantly more frustrating to live here if you do not know how to read Korean. If you’re outside touristy areas, there will not be signs in English for you – especially menus.

While in Seoul you might be okay not knowing any Korean, if you want to go to any markets or travel to areas that aren’t densely populated or known for tourists, you’re going to need to know at least a little bit of Korean. The locals only understand a small amount of English (typically if they are younger), so don’t expect to go up to people and speak in English and have them understand. There are 5 important beginner phrases that I think are the MOST helpful for getting around.

  1. Please (Please give): 주세요/ ju-se-yo – I’ll give you a scenario. Say you go to a cafe and you want to order a drink. You’ll go up to counter and say  “(the drink you want) + juseyo.” Example: 아메리카노 주세요/ americano juseyo/ Americano please. If you’re at a restaurant you can use this phrase too. If you want to ask for more water, you can just say: mul juseyo. For anything you would like while ordering, just sentence the structure with noun + juseyo.
    Bonus: If you don’t know what something is in Korean, just point, either to the menu or the item you would like in the case and say: 이것 주세요/ igeo juseyo/ e-go ju-se-yo/ This please.
  2. Where is (this)?: 어디예요?/eodiyeyo?/o-di-ye-yo? – This can be configured to phrases like, “Where is the bathroom?” (화장실은 어디예요? / hwangjangshil odiyeyo?), and is structure in the same way as the previous word, where you take the noun, add eodiyeyo to it, and have your completed question. If you are asking for a specific place, this would be the phrase you would use.
  3. Do you have (something)?/ Is there a (something)?: 있어요/ isseoyo – This would be used more for specific things, like when you are out shopping. Say you’re at a coffee shop and want to know if you can get soy milk in your coffee instead of regular, but you are unsure if they have it. You would say: 두유 있어요?/ duyu isseoyo/ du-yu i-so-yo. I use this mostly when I’m at the grocery store and need to find something. If they have it they will say something like, “Ne, isseoyo.” If they don’t you might hear the phrase “없어요/oep-seo-yo” which means, to not have.
  4. How much is it?: 얼마예요?/oelmayeyo?/ ul-ma-ye-yo? – If you ever go to a market, this is useful. I tend to just wander, point at things if I can’t see a price and say: igeo oelmayeyo? 
  5. Hello, and Thank you: 안녕하세요 and 감사합니다/ an-nyeong-ha-se-yo, and kam-sa-ham-ni-da. So, every time you walk into a store, do a slight bow and say “hello.” When you receive something, you do the same, slight bow and “thank you.” One thing about both of these phrases, is that like a lot of Korean, not everything is pronounced when you say things; often words are slurred a bit. So, while 감사합니다 is phonetically spelled out as kamsahamnida, when you say it or hear others say it, it sounds closer to kamsamnida.

This is by no means everything you should know when you first come here, and it’s easy to pick up some other basic greetings and words to help with directions, but this is a good list to get you started.

4. Google maps won’t help you.
Some of my coworkers still use Google Maps. I don’t know why or how because it’s literally the least helpful navigation tool in Korea – I deleted the app about a week after I got here because it’s just not supported here. The best navigation apps are all in Korean, but if you know how to read Hangul, it’s not too hard to figure out. This is why it’s so important to learn how to read the language.

There are a handful of useful apps that I use for navigation:

Naver Map and KakaoMap are by far the most useful for navigating, and sometimes I switch back and forth depending on where I am (for instance, KakaoMap is much more useful in Jeju because it’s better supported here, so it’s more accurate than Naver; while Naver Map is faster in Seoul because the company is located just outside the city).

For transportation, Kakao Metro and Kakao Bus are what I tend to use. The metro map even has an option for romanised Korean, so if you can’t read Hangul, this is pretty useful!

5. Be wary of people who approach you in the street and strike up a conversation in English with you. 
Before I explain this one, I want you to understand that Korea is a very safe country, especially for solo travelers. Never at any point have I felt unsafe while I’ve lived here. All the precautions that I take while I’m alone in America (never walk alone at night, never wear your hair up in a ponytail when walking alone, don’t go into empty public bathrooms if there is little traffic, etc.) have basically become moot since I moved here. Now, that’s not to say I’ve thrown caution to the wind or anything. I’m still careful not to put myself in situations that I will later regret, but there’s many things that I do now that I wouldn’t otherwise do if I was living elsewhere.

I know this sounds a bit odd: be way of strangers in this incredibly safe country. However, 95% of the time, the people who come up and speak to foreigner’s either 1) want to learn/practice their English and are looking for a language exchange partner, or 2) are religious recruiters. The first is just kind of annoying if you aren’t in the mood to talk to anyone, or aren’t looking for a language exchange partner. The latter is more what I’m referring to in this situation…

Religious recruiters are no different than those who come door to door in America, the same mildly annoying and awkward conversations are almost identical, but the recruiters you have to be wary of are the one’s who ask if they can take you somewhere. Red flag up? Yeah, mine would be too. Why would you go with people you don’t know somewhere in a foreign country…alone? Let me just explain the circumstances, because I’ve heard of other foreigners having similar experiences, and if you check any forums about living in South Korea, someone has posted about this.

A couple of people, young, normally girls, college age, come up to you in the street saying they are students and want to ask you a few questions. Friendly enough. Then you strike up a conversation and they ask you why you’re in Korea. My coworker, a teacher, took the bait when they said they were students who ran a club at their university about Korean culture and worked with international students. They asked my coworker if she would be interested in coming to an event they were hosting at the university on traditional Korean culture (etiquette, dress, food, etc.). Unfortunately, my coworker hasn’t been broken by society and taught not to trust anyone like me (kidding…), and she went with them.

Let’s just say, if you go with a group of students somewhere because they want to teach you the traditions and cultural norms of Korean society and have a meal with you – just leave. It’s a cult.

6. The Confucian mindset is the unspoken rule
Whether you agree with it or not, hierarchy prevails in Korean society. The number one question I get asked besides my job, is how old I am. I used to think it was odd because in American culture people generally won’t ask you for a specific age, you can get away with saying things like “I’m a student,” and they understand. But here, it’s much different. When I would try to answer with, “Oh I just graduated,” they would press and ask for my age once again. I’ve learned not to be offended by this (I really used to think people were looking down on me because I am so young, despite knowing the formal and informal language aspect of the culture).

In the Korean language there are different levels of speech used based on the relationship you have with the person you’re talking to, and this goes beyond just informal and formal speech. In Korean there are seven speech levels, but really only three are used in everyday life. There’s formal, which is used when the person you are speaking to is someone who is your senior, someone who is important, or someone you’ve never met. Then there’s polite speech, which is used when you are speaking to someone whom you are relatively friendly with, such as a friend, or another student (IF they are the same age as you). The last is informal, which is used if you are speaking to someone who is a few years your junior, a family member (sometimes), close friends, or a significant other. For informal speech, I always ask the person before I use it because I don’t want to appear rude. It’s funny how the hierarchy manages to slip into your thinking, because I’m still sometimes uncomfortable using informal speech at times.

If you aren’t directly speaking to someone, you will see this hierarchy play itself out in other ways. If you’re on the subway, it’s generally polite to let elders on first, or when greeting someone, you will tend to give a deeper bow to someone much older than you verses the polite bow you give when meeting someone just a few years older than you.

If you are just visiting Korea, and don’t plan to stay very long, I would just act according to the Southern politeness level they have in America. Treat your elders with greater respect than you would someone your age, but maintain a polite demeanour with everyone you interact with. But, if you’re moving to Korea, I would do some research about the proper etiquette used in specific situations like drinking, eating out, meetings, etc.

7. Toilet paper goes in the bin next to the toilet, not the actual bowl.
It’s scary how much of a habit this became for me to the point where I hesitate to throw paper in the actual toilet now. This seriously grossed me out when I first got here, but now, I don’t even think about it. There’s normally a bin next to the toilet which is where you have to throw toilet paper when you’re done using it. The plumbing in Korea is not the best, which is the reason for this, but you can still throw toilet paper away in the toilet in certain areas. A good rule of thumb though is to just throw it in the bin if you aren’t sure. Better safe than sorry.

I have yet to use one of these because I will 100% wait in a public bathroom for regular toilets, but squatter toilets are a thing here, so be prepared to get your best most stable squat on while you use one of those toilets. They are normally found in more traditional/historic areas, or at public parks or hiking trails. Don’t ask me though, I’m honestly too scared to use one…


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