You’ve signed your contract, there’s a new E-2 visa affixed to your passport, and the flight is booked. You're about to embark on a year, or more, teaching English in South Korea.
Navigating Korean culture can sometimes be difficult for those who grew up in the West. Not because Koreans are rude or anything, but because there are sets of rules that seem to govern even the smallest of daily interactions.
While you might think that criticizing or correcting a co-worker or policy might help you in the long run, most likely, it won't.
While many Koreans will give foreigners a little leeway when it comes to cultural etiquette, if you want to be respected in your school it pays to try a little harder to understand how and why Korean society functions. Here are a few ways you might offend your Korean co-workers while teaching abroad, and some tips on how to avoid becoming red faced from embarrassment in the staff room.
1. Call Everyone by Their First Name
Korean society has very clear social hierarchy that stems from Confucian tradition. Your rank in this hierarchy has to do with age, family relations, and social status and your rank determines who you can call by their first name (hint: it's not everyone!).
Worried about making a huge cultural faux pas and forgetting who you can call by their first name? Don’t be. The list is pretty short and includes younger family members, close friends born the same year as you, any pets you may own, and your students.
Notice that co-workers aren’t on that list. Teachers in Korea simply call each other seonsaengnim, or teacher in Korean with the honorific ‘nim’ at the end. Of course, some of your Korean co-workers may ask you to call them by an English name and then you can forget everything I just said.
2. Wear Your Shoes Inside School
While you might be used to taking your shoes right when you enter a home, in Korea it’s more than just a suggestion or a preference and it extends past homes. You won’t find yourself removing your shoes before entering, say, a department store, but you will become quite familiar with the concept of indoor and outdoor shoes while at school.
Traditionally, Korean life was spent very close to the ground. Meal times meant sitting on the floor around a short table and sleeping was done on a mat. Because of this, people took their shoes off to help maintain a high level of cleanliness. While chairs and beds have been adopted by many in Korea, people still take off their shoes as a sign of respect.
Students, teachers, and even the principal will change into indoor shoes when they arrive at school (slide on sport sandals like those popular in the early 2000s seem to be the most popular choice) and store their outdoor shoes in a small cupboard in the entryway. And because you'll most likely be wearing sandals inside, don't forget to throw a few extra pairs of socks without holes into your suitcase.
3. Criticize or Correct Your Co-Workers... Especially in Front of Others
There will be times in Korea when you are so frustrated by something that happens at school, or so annoyed with a co-teacher, that you want to give everyone a piece of your mind. While you might think that criticizing or correcting a co-worker or policy might help you in the long run, most likely, it won’t.
It wouldn't be living abroad if you didn't make a few cultural blunders along the way, so don't get too worked up about offending people while you're teaching English in Korea.
Saving face is an important concept, not just in Korea, but in all of East Asia. It's somewhat difficult to fully explain or understand the idea of saving face, but essentially it means you shouldn’t make someone look or feel bad, especially in front of others and especially, especially if they are someone who is above you in the aforementioned social hierarchy.
This means that while you’re in Korea you may find yourself holding your tongue, pretending to agree with things you disagree with, or telling a few white lies a lot more than you’d like, even about things you might find stupid or inconsequential. It also means you should get used to not getting a straight answer all the time as other people might be helping you save face.
4. Pour Your Own Drink
There will undoubtedly be a point when you are invited to a hweshik, or company dinner, and at this dinner there will be drinking, probably an amount of drinking of that is both inappropriate for the day of the week and the present company.
There’s really no way to get out of these things in a polite manner, especially when you first arrive, so get ready to see your old man principal wasted at some point. Like most everything in Korean, drinking has its own set of etiquette rules.
The most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t pour your own drink. Bottles of beer and soju will be placed on the table and people will take turns pouring them for everyone else. When receiving a drink, you should hold the glass with both hands and say thank you. If you're on the pouring end, hold the bottle with your right hand and hold your wrist tightly with your left hand.
When everyone has been served, put your glass in the air, shout out gunbae (cheers), and get ready to speak English with a lot of co-workers you previously thought couldn’t speak English.
5. Call Dokdo Island by its Japanese Name
If you aren’t well versed in Korean-Japanese history, now would be the time to pull up Wikipedia. The short version is that in the early 20th century Japan colonized Korea and committed some pretty atrocious acts. Japan still hasn’t acknowledged or apologized for these things and Koreans (unsurprisingly) are angry about this.
Additionally, there are a group of islets in the Sea of Japan (known as the East Sea in Korea) whose sovereignty is debated. Called Dokdo by Koreans and Takeshima by Japan, you'll be asked your thoughts about the Dokdo situation by your co-workers, students, and quite possibly the cashier at thee grocery store.
When everyone has been served, put your glass in the air, shout out gunbae (cheers), and get ready to speak English with a lot of co-workers you previously thought couldn't speak English.
Although you'll probably have no strong feelings about these islets, always refer to them as Dokdo and always say you believe they are the rightful land of the Republic of Korea. You don’t just risk offending your Korean co-workers if you say otherwise, you risk getting your E-2 visa revoked. (I’m kidding... I think.)
6. Say You Don’t Like Kimchi
Food plays a large role in Korean culture, and Koreans take great pride in their cuisine. Kimchi, a type of fermented vegetable most commonly known as its spicy cabbage form, is served as a side dish at most every meal, breakfast included.
While I learned to love kimchi, it definitely has a rather unique flavor that isn’t acquired by everyone who didn’t grow up eating it. If after a few weeks of politely trying a bit at every meal you find you really just can’t stand it, don't tell anyone. I repeat: do not tell anyone. (Besides maybe your other expat friends.)
Try to avoid it as inconspicuously as possible and if you’re asked why you aren’t eating kimchi, make up an excuse. Though, I’m not sure what excuse will do, since kimchi is seen as the cure for just about everything.
Be Open to Learning
It wouldn't be living abroad if you didn't make a few cultural blunders along the way, so don't get too worked up about offending people while you're teaching English in Korea. Do your research, try your hardest to abide by cultural norms, and remember that as a foreigner you'll get a few free passes. Who knows, maybe a year from now, you'll be the one explaining these cultural nuances to newbie teachers!