Korea is undoubtedly the most unique country I’ve ever traveled to.
I’ve lived here for the past 14 months and grown accustomed to the cultural differences and unique traditions of the country.
That being said, my initial experience was a culture shock and there are still a few things that I find pretty strange about Korea.
This guide details my experience of the Korean culture and traditions – the good and the bad!
Korean Culture for foreigners
There are so many things I love about Korea. I always speak about the positive impact that moving here had on my life and have shared many blog posts about what makes the country so unique.
However, people love to hate. And along with the good, comes the bad about South Korea!
If you’re planning your holiday or even considering a move to the country, it’s best to know what to expect so that you don’t get a huge culture shock (as I did).
RESPECTING DIFFERENCES IN KOREAN CULTURE AND TRADITIONS
Certain things may come across as weird Korean traditions, but they’re perfectly normal in the eyes of the locals. This is what they’ve grown up with and it is their country so who am I to criticize.
And yes, when Koreans travel to South Africa (my home country) they too will find differences that they don’t necessarily understand. Like why everyone wants to be tanned, and why we eat with knives and forks, and not chopsticks!
What’s important is to appreciate our differences and understand where they come from. Exercise patience and have respect for the culture and traditions of other countries, even if you perhaps don’t necessarily understand or agree with them.
25 weird things about Korea Culture
Here’s my list of strange things and bad facts about South Korea!
Koreans are 1 year older than the rest of the world. Why?
In the Korean culture, when babies are born, they are considered to be one years old. This is because the Korean age takes into account the time spent in the womb!
To complicate things even more, Koreans do not turn a year older on their date of birth. Collectively, every Korean turns one year older on the 1st of January each year.
So, if you’re born on December 31st, you’ll be one years old, but you’ll turn two on January 1st! However, according to the rest of the world, you’d only be one day old.
2023 Update: A new law was recently passed that scrapped the Korean method of counting someone’s age. However, this doesn’t cover all areas and so the mixed counting method and still remains in place. Confusing, I know!
Pushing And shoving is part of the culture of South korea
The notion of saying “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” when trying to pass someone while walking, on an escalator, or in a jam-packed shopping centre is virtually non-existent.
Pushing and shoving has become part of the South Korea culture and people do so unapologetically.
Everyone is always in a rush and they’re not shy to run each other over in the process.
This is one of the bad facts about Korea and the only way to deal with it is to conform and reciprocate the behavior.
And no, you will not be judged for doing so (but perhaps the tourists will give you the evil eye).
Speaking of which, people will not hold the door open for you when you enter or exit a building. It’s every man for himself!
So, be on guard at all times as you may find a door swing into your face.
Social and Business Etiquette in Korea
In Korea, you don’t hug, you bow! Hugging is reserved for couples and close friends or family.
In contrast, where I’m from, a hug is a form of greeting or show of appreciation for something. Hugs are given to people you’ve just met, co-workers as well as friends and family.
But not in Korea!
This is one of the most important things to know about Korean culture. It will save you many awkward moments (as I experienced first-hand).
Without knowing the “unwritten hugging rule”, I received a gift from a Korean coworker and proceed to lean forward to give hebr a hug. She stood there, her body stiff and tense not knowing what to do. I left feeling awkward and embarrassed, and I fear that she may have felt the same way too!
If you want to greet someone or show your appreciation, a simple bow will do as it is a core part of Korean etiquette.
And for the guys, this also applies to a handshake. Rather keep your hands to yourself and present a deep bow.
Air quality is a big issue in Korea. Most people monitor the levels daily to ensure it’s safe to brave the outdoors.
When it comes to the cause of these alarmingly high levels of pollution, most Koreans pass the buck onto China. But some of the blame rests within Korea as well.
So, this is where the facemasks come in handy. Before moving to Korea (this was prior to the pandemic), I had only seen a handful of people wearing facemasks and I presumed it was to avoid picking up or spreading a virus.
Little did I know… Facemasks are multipurpose.
Yes, you wear them when the pollution and fine dust levels are dangerously high.
You wear them when you’re sick so that you don’t infect the people around you.
And you wear them in winter to keep your face warm. Some people even wear face masks as a fashion accessory.
The Language Barrier is Real
Despite efforts to increase the presence of English in the country, the language barrier is still a notable challenge for many foreigners.
The likes of Seoul and Busan have a more fluent community but you’ll struggle to find many English speaking people living in the countryside.
Simple daily tasks have proven to be a struggle for me as I can’t speak Korean. Try setting up a phone plan, opening a bank account, going to the doctor or even ordering food from a restaurant.
None of these tasks are easy when you can’t communicate with the locals.
The Extreme Weather in Korea
Korea has 4 distinct seasons with extreme temperatures defining the winter and summer months.
Winters in Korea are harsh, bringing along freezing cold temperatures with snow all around the country. Summers are excruciatingly hot and unbearable humidity levels are common.
This is often seen as one of the bad things about South Korea but luckily the country is well prepared for any kind of weather.
Apartments, shopping centres, and schools are all fitted with air conditioners and underfloor heating.
In some countries, this may be a luxury, but in Korea, it’s a necessity!
The best thing to do in winter is to go skiing! Check out this post about the best ski resorts in Korea.
Short skirts are ok, but showing your collarbone isn’t
For the ladies, it’s perfectly fine to walk around in miniskirts with your legs on show. However, don’t even think about exposing your shoulders, collarbone or cleavage.
This is a big no-no in Korea as it’s seen to be promiscuous and will attract attention from everyone you come across. You may get away with it in Seoul or Busan, but in the smaller cities, it’s taboo.
If you’re visiting Korea, here’s my guide on what to pack so that you’re in line with Korean customs.
Brushing your teeth
Koreans brush their teeth after every meal – breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This is one of the Korean hygiene habits that I thought was weird at first. But now, I totally get it!
This brushing doesn’t only happen in the privacy of your own home. People carry their toothbrushes with them when they go to work, a business meeting or even lunch with friends.
Bathrooms in public spaces such as universities, shopping centers, and subway stations are filled with people queuing for the sinks to brush their teeth.
When at work, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit at your desk, with your mouth full of toothpaste, brushing your teeth whilst you continue the task you are doing!
The Education System and Professional Work Ethic
Korea’s suicide rate is among the highest in the world and is attributed to its high-stress society.
This is one of those bad facts about South Korea that I hope changes in the future.
The Education System
Education in Korea is extremely competitive and getting into an esteemed university is of utmost importance for all high school students.
Therefore, from a young age, kids are sent to schools and after school programmes to prepare them for their final high school examination that they will write in the future.
Korean kids start attending school from as early as 3 years old. This is the age they start learning basic math, reading, and writing, as well as languages such as English and Chinese.
Once they begin Elementary school, their afternoons are jam-packed with after-school academies or “hagwons”.
These extra classes include art, music, English, Chinese, math, and science. After a 12-hour school day, the students return home for dinner and begin their homework.
Stress on children
This stressful routine continues every day, even weekends.
Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays are times for them to catch up on extra homework or attend supplementary classes.
The kids feel the weight of this pressure and are often tired and miserable in class.
When students reach high school, the pressure reaches the boiling point which often sees them studying throughout the night at study cafes.
This unhealthy stress on students has led to South Korea having the highest suicide rate in the world for children aged between 10 and 19.
READ MORE: Where To Stay In Jeju Island (Insider Guide)
Work Culture in Korea
These stresses continue into the professional working world. The level of output in Korea for employees is extremely high.
Koreans work exceptionally hard, for long hours and the same is expected of foreigners working in the country.
Depression and anxiety are common and is often caused by stress from the workplace.
The law recently changed, reducing the work limit from 68 hours per week to 52. Hopefully, this will see less pressure put on staff but 52 hours is still incredibly high!
Korea has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but it makes you wonder at what cost does this affect the people who work so hard to make it possible.
Korea is a small country that’s made up of 70% mountains. Over 51 million people need to squeeze into this tiny space!
It’s no wonder everyone lives in apartments. Skyscrapers fill the cities with apartments built higher and not wider.
Speaking of apartments in Korea, they are small with a few distinct characteristics such as a “wet room”, an ondol heating system and a shoe corner.
The entry system for your apartment is a pin code which you type into an electronic keypad. This is genius!
Bad Korean Habits: Spitting, Slurping and burping
When traveling to Korea, do not be surprised when the person next to you gives off a powerful burp (or fart)!
And when drinking coffee or eating noodles, it’s perfectly acceptable to slurp whilst doing so.
This took me by surprise and tops my list of weird things Koreans do!
I don’t like it – and not many foreigners do. But if you plan on moving to Korea, this is something you will need to get used to it.
Korean Culture is Obsessed with Animal Cafes
The cafe culture in Korea is unlike any I’ve seen before.
Everything from cute flower cafes, Hello Kitty cafes, figurine cafes to “poo” themed cafes.
You name it, Korea has it all.
However, along with these fun, quirky cafes, come a few that I don’t agree with, namely the animal-themed cafes.
These cafes include the popular meerkat cafe in Seoul. Apart from meerkats, this cafe has a baby wallaby and an arctic fox. There’s also a genet which is indigenous to Africa.
The sheep cafe in Seoul is also popular and you can take selfies with these animals whilst you sip on your cafe latte!
Bearing in mind that these cafes are driven by tourism, it’s clear that they only see these animals as money-making objects.
I do not know how they managed to get the arctic foxes and wallabies into Korea. Perhaps it’s all above board.
But I still feel that these animals should be in the wild, and not bound to tiny cafes in the city center of Seoul.
Nightlife Culture in South korea
Koreans tend to do things in the evening, instead of in the morning or daytime.
Children study late at night, parents work late, and this filters down to their daily routine which continues after midnight.
When it comes to children, it’s common to see them out in the convenience stores with their parents late at night.
My elementary school students often go to bed after 11 pm, and this is acceptable in Korean culture and tradition.
Partying in Korea
So, if midnight is the standard for weekdays, what are the weekends like?
Korea’s nightlife culture is vibrant and fun making it a top destination for backpackers.
But for the early sleepers (like myself) it can prove to be a bit too much.
If you go out in the afternoon, you’ll find the restaurants deserted. There’s no vibe or atmosphere to get the party started.
My city, Cheonan, is a ghost town if you venture anywhere before noon on the weekends.
When organizing a party, a picnic, or even just a catch up with friends, you plan your activities for the late afternoon or evening. They then continue until the early hours of the next morning – 3 am is normal.
And yes, staying up this late is extremely common.
Walking through the streets of Itaewon at 8 am on a weekend, you’ll still find people sitting at the same spots they were 5 hours ago, finishing off their soju and beer! They then head home, sleep the entire day and head out later that evening. And this is how the cycle continues.
I, on the other hand, am used to starting my day a bit earlier than what Koreans deem normal! I like going for a boozy lunch, followed by a pub crawl, more drinks, perhaps watch a sports game and then by 10 pm it’s bedtime.
However, this does not happen in Korea.
Kimchi, Rice and Soup Every Day
Kimchi is Korea’s national side dish that’s eaten every single day. It’s supposedly the reason for Koreans living long, healthy lives, so why not test out this theory.
Along with Kimchi, soup is served with most meals. This isn’t a heavy soup but rather a light broth to complement the dish.
I’m a huge fan of both Kimchi and the broth so I’m certainly not complaining about this.
Rice is yet another staple food of Korean cuisine. It’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I still find this obsession with rice rather weird about Korea. One thing I can say is that the rice here is as good as it’s gonna get.
Plastic surgery and Beauty
Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world and holds the title of the highest number of cosmetic surgeries performed per capita.
This is because Koreans have unrealistic beauty expectations and many people undergo some form of cosmetic surgery to enhance their physical appearances.
A shocking fact about Korea is that one in three Korean women below the age of 29 has gone under the knife.
These procedures are extremely popular in the country. The streets of Gangnam in Seoul are filled with people walking around with bandages wrapped around their faces, proudly advertising their recently performed operation.
The most popular surgery is an “eyelid surgery” to achieve a visible crease and double-eyelid. Korean teenagers are gifted this on their birthdays or after completing school or college.
Other popular surgeries include anti-aging procedures such as facelifts and they even go as extreme as jawline surgeries.
Surgery isn’t the only solution to enhance your looks. Skincare products and cosmetics are a huge industry in Korea with both men and women investing a good chunk of their salaries into their skincare routine.
This extreme fixation on beauty that’s entrenched in the Korean culture is something I’ve never seen before.
In most countries, enlisting in the military is voluntary.
However, in Korea, it’s mandatory for men between the ages of 18-35 to enlist in 21 months of military service.
Korean Hygiene Habits: One of the bad facts about South korea
“You throw your used toilet paper where?!“
Whilst Korea is probably the cleanest country you will come across, their bathroom situation would make you think otherwise.
Many public toilets have signs on the doors asking you not to throw your used toilet paper into the toilet. This is because it is believed that toilet paper will clog up the plumbing.
Instead, you are to dispose of the loo paper in the trash can next to it. And these waste bins do not have lids!
Because of increased criticism and hygiene concerns, the government announced that as of 2018, waste bins in public bathrooms will be removes.
However, I’ve only noticed these changes in the more touristy areas of Seoul, and not in the rest of the country.
Gaming Is Part of South Korean culture
The online gaming culture in Korea is a booming business. More than 50% of the country’s population playing games.
Professional gaming has grown in popularity and Korea has become the home of many die-hard eSports fans.
These game rooms, otherwise known as “PC Bangs” are on every street corner.
Part social club, part internet cafe, part gaming venue, PC Bangs are a popular spot for men and women of all ages.
It’s quite remarkable to see the sheer size of these gaming centers and the number of enthusiastic gamers who visit them daily.
“Bless you” is not part of Korean etiquette
Sneezing followed by “bless you” has been entrenched in my everyday life.
Imagine hearing “bless you” every time you sneeze for 28 years and then moving to a country where “bless you” is unheard of!
In Korea, you sneeze and go on as if nothing has happened. Don’t say “Bless you” or “Excuse me”.
Out of habit, I often say it in class, and my students look at me in shock every single time. I guess old habits die hard.
The Bright Lights
Korea certainly does not have any electricity issues!
This is obvious from the hundreds of buildings that come to life at night.
Bright red, green and yellow lights flicker all night long in an attempt to attract visitors into their restaurants, singing rooms, pubs or hotels.
Personal Space, or Lack Thereof
Personal space. You know, that invisible bubble that surrounds every person, and should not be violated?
Well, in Korea, there is no distinction between “my” space and “your” space.
Expect strangers to get uncomfortably close in elevators and public buses or trains.
I kid you not, there will be 20 empty seats on a bus. And the one person that hops on will make a beeline and sit next to you!
Why? I do not know!
Sizes of Clothes and Shoes
Planning on moving to Korea? Make sure you stock up on clothes and shoes if you’re anything bigger than a size medium!
There aren’t many plus-sized Koreans and this is attributed to my point above on beauty.
Most international retailers such as H&M, Forever 21 and the like will have bigger sizes but expect only a small variety of options to choose from.
If you’re looking for shoes, your struggle will continue!
Gary has been looking for a pair of hiking boots and trainers and cannot find a UK size 11 anywhere in the country. The biggest men’s size we’ve found is a UK 9 and ladies is UK 6!
The Traffic Lights Are Painfully Slow
Never have I ever seen people run for a green pedestrian light as I have in Korea!
At first, I found this amusing. But I soon realized the importance of ensuring you cross before the light changes over to red. If you don’t, you could wait a good few minutes before it’s your turn to go.
So yes, running, even sprinting, for the traffic light is perfectly normal and I highly encourage it (for your own sanity).
Oh, and you do not jaywalk in Korea – no one does it! Even if there aren’t any cars on the road, you still wait for the light to indicate that you may cross the street.
Korea can be expensive
Korea can be an expensive place to live if you don’t watch your budget. This is from my experience as a South African living in the country.
Most Americans and Australians I’ve spoken to say that Korea is cheaper. But as a South African, it’s unfortunately not the case!
Everyday groceries are about the same in Korea than they are back home. But fruit in particular is super expensive. A watermelon costs around 20 000 KRW ($18) and a bag of apples will set you back 9 000 KRW ($8).
When it comes to eating out at western restaurants, the prices are also high.
My goal whilst living in Korea has been to save money. And I did. But you need to be careful with your budget.
To keep costs down, I stuck to the local food (which is a lot more affordable) and I choose beer over my preferred whisky. I also don’t treat myself to manicures like I did back home, and I haven’t been shopping in over a year.
Don’t Say Anything Bad or You May be Sued
Defamation is extremely serious in Korea and the laws are really strict.
If you say something about someone or a business (whether it’s true or not), they can sue you if it hurts their reputation.
So be careful when commenting on social media, even if it’s in a private group where someone is asking for feedback or advice.
This is one of those bad things about Korean culture that I’m not a fan of as people are generally too scared to voice concerns or share bad experiences.
Other Weird Things About Korea Culture
- Small towels. Most hostels and pensions provide you with towels, if that’s what you call them! They’re basically hand towels and that’s what most Koreans use.
- Koreans don’t drink the tap water. Even though the water is perfectly safe to drink, Koreans boil it first and I’ve followed suit!
- For the love of seafood. Koreans are obsessed with seafood. Fish, mussels, and shrimp can be found on most menu items. Shrimp burgers from McDonald’s are also a favorite.
- Seaweed and beauty packages, including toothpaste and soap, are often gifts of choice.
- Writing in red ink is a bad sign. So be sure to avoid this at all times as it signifies that someone is going to die!
- Cars park everywhere and in all directions.
- Matching outfits are a thing and I’ve seen this only in Korea. Yep, couples wear the exact same clothes and this is totally trendy.
- CCTA cameras are everywhere – even classrooms. Parents will watch their kids and make comments (or complaints) about the way you teach.
- Expect lots of stares if you are not Korean. There are not many foreigners in Korea and so I found that locals would often stare at me!
What are the negatives of South korea
Korea is an amazing country but there are bad things you need to know about.
These includes the air pollution, the extreme weather and the pushing and shoving. Korea also has unrealistic beauty expectations and there is so much stress on children and adults when it comes to work and education.
Looking for more Korea travel information? Check out my other posts!
- Jimjilbangs in Korea: 10 Things You Need To Know About Korean Saunas
- Why Naksan Beach is Korea’s Perfect Beach Getaway
- Boryeong Mud Festival: 10 Things You Need To Know
- Getting Lasek/Lasik In Korea
- Best Things To Do In Jeju Island: 5 Day Jeju Itinerary
- Where to Stay in Busan: The Best Neighborhoods to Visit
- Where to Stay in Seoul: Best Places to Visit