Adapting to Culutral Differences in Korea

There are many different types of people teaching English in Korea. Some are professionally trained with degrees in TESOL; some hold postgraduate degrees in other disciplines and are teaching in Korea because they want to experience another culture; some are teaching English while doing other work, such as research; some are teaching English while looking for other jobs; and some are merely passing through.

Most of these people bring their own unique expectations to their jobs, as well as their own individual reactions to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Some expect to be treated professionally and are shocked when they are not. Some expect to make a lot of money but later realize that they are actually earning about the same as a unionized bus driver in Seoul. Some expect to receive a large Western-style house and are disappointed to find themselves living in very modest accommodation. Being aware of cultural differences before you start employment as a teacher in Korea will help you prepare for any disappointments you may encounter.

The Status of Foreigners in Korea

Korean society makes a sharp distinction between an individual’s inner circle of family, friends and business colleagues, and outsiders. Members of the inner circle must always be treated with absolute respect and courtesy, while strangers are treated with indifference. Korean society is not egalitarian: a person’s status is strictly defined in relation to others.

Adapting to Korean Society

The following advice on culture shock was supplied by KOTESOL. You can find more information on culture shock and how to cope with living in a foreign country in the Consular Affairs publication Working Abroad: Unravelling the Maze.

When first arriving in a country, one is usually excited and eager for new experiences. After a while, the newness wears off and homesickness begins. Do not be too hard on yourself; it happens to everyone — “I will never understand this place.” “I want some real food . . . some real friends . . . a real apartment.” “Why do Koreans do this or that?”

It is usually just a matter of time. As you continue to cope with the realities of living in Korea, you will begin to take for granted things that used to annoy you. Life will become enjoyable enough that you will no longer care about the inconveniences. You will suddenly find that you like kimchi; you will realize that your students are interesting people and that helping them to improve their English just adds to that interest; you will begin to understand your friends who want to show you the Korea beyond the expatriate community; you will begin to try to learn some Korean and use it.

There are many foreigners in Korea who came and stayed; they have carved out their own niche in Korea and want to remain for a long time. Many others, however, eventually reach the point where they feel it is time to leave. With luck, you will realize this before it affects your life too profoundly. It is time to leave when you begin to be negative about the country and its people. When you no longer want to go to work, dislike your students, become irritated with everything and everyone and have angry discussions with others of like mind, it is time to go.