Things to know about South Korea before visiting for the first time

We will be going to South Korea for the first time to visit our son, Chris. He is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Paju City. His school is between Seoul and the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. He has been living there for several months and has some interesting observations as an American living in Asia. This will be our first trip to the Far East, so Chris has given us some observations and tips of things to be aware of and prepared for when visiting South Korea for the first time.

#1 – Do NOT rent a car. Everyone chooses to be a bad driver. Traffic is intense, signs in Korean are unreadable to Americans, cabs add to the traffic problem, trains make many stops, traffic rules do not apply to busses, gas is about $6 per gallon. The preferred mode of transportation is walking for short trips, and busses for longer trips. Busses typically fill to well beyond capacity for a reasonable price and break all the traffic rules to run on time. There is no logic in the enumeration of street addresses–1588 can be next door to 1040, apparently addresses get numbered based on their age not their location. Double parking is normal–the unwritten rule is that you must leave your vehicle unlocked and in neutral so your vehicle can be pushed out of the way if necessary. An alternative is to leave your cell phone number in the window.

#2 – Eat their food. 25 million people in Seoul can not be wrong. The food is spicy, but it is not hot, like Mexican. Kim chi accompanies every meal, get used to it. Veggies, rice, and meat are served at every meal, even breakfast. Koreans keep dogs as pets, and neighborhoods have stray cats. THEY DO NOT EAT THEIR PETS! Chicken is the primary meat followed by seafood, pork, and beef. Their version of hamburgers, pizza, and spaghetti are awesome. Imagine the best meal you’ve ever had, then go out for Korean BBQ–it’s better! Get used to chopsticks, forks are hard to find. You may have to sit on the floor in a nice restaurant. Dress appropriately.

#3 – Bring sandals and bring your own clothes, especially if you are big. Mens shoes beyond size 10 1/2 are unavailable, as are clothes in XL or larger. Wear good socks and be prepared to take your shoes off at sit-down dinners and when visiting homes. Remember to bring your own antiperspirants or deodorant. Asians do not produce smelly underarm sweat, so they have no need to stock these items in stores.

#4 – Drink their Hite! beer. It is good. Drink their soju alcoholic beverage with both hands, do not pour it yourself, do not sip it–customs. Only instant coffee is available and is served with cream already in it. People who love coffee will need to make this major adjustment. Coke and Dr. Pepper can be found.

#5 – Noribang is the king of entertainment, it’s like Karaoke but you have to sign up and do it in a private room. Go somewhere and sing. Koreans like to climb mountains for fun. E-Mart is their version of Wal-Mart and is an interesting place beyond the shopping experience. Some shopping districts are like a series of kiosks in a department store.  There are scores of these kiosks and they all sell the same things, but they all have different prices that are negotiable, if you can communicate with the sales person.

#6 – Summer is hot like Las Vegas and muggy like Houston. Winter is cold like Michigan, but less snow. Fall is pleasant. Spring weather is to be determined. It rains almost every day. Everyone carries an umbrella.

#7 – Koreans do not make eye contact or say ‘hello’ to strangers. Friendships take time, but when it happens, you become family. Koreans will ask your age and will give you more respect based on your longevity. Old men in Korea are completely shameless and can get away with virtually anything purely based on  their age.

#8 – Younger Koreans around Seoul can read and write in English, but do not speak it well. You may not see many children during the school year. They go to school all day, then go to a prep school for night classes, and then they have homework.  English is not spoken outside of Seoul, so limit your unescorted adventures.

#9 – Video game players are extremely well-paid superstars and heroes, athletes are not. The Wonder Girls are a phenomeon like the Beatles were.

#10 – There is nowhere in Korea where you can’t see mountains. Everything is either uphill or downhill.  City skylines are mostly apartment buildings. There is no land that is just open land.  It’s either lived on, worked in, farmed, or is a road.

#11 – The sabre rattling between North and South Korea is an atmosphere much like what was experienced between the USA and Russia during the Cold War. Both sides hope the other will not begin an act of aggression. The South Koreans live their normal lives.  They do not live in fear, but have a plan of what they will do should anything happen.

Bring an open mind. South Korea is nothing at all like European or American culture. It is a strange place and will take some getting used to. Always pay close attention to where you are, where you are going, and how to get back on your own–it may be difficult to find help from anyone.  Be polite, have patience, and make an effort and you will do just fine. Now that he is used to it, Chris loves South Korea, its people, food, and customs.

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Published in: on January 19, 2011 at 6:55 pm  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I found this to be of particular interest. My husband and I will be planning a vist particularly in the fall.

  2. Great job of listing some of the does and do nots of tradition! I wondered why they drink the way they do. Maybe you could include why it is that some turn to the side to drink also? I find their customs facinating and would some day love the chance to visit. Do they still follow tradition as much as say even 50 years or more ago? What is the significance to making sure to have and or give an umbrella when it rains other than the obvious of getting wet if there is another reason, such as like or affection, etc. when giving one to another person? What is their traditon and is it still the same regarding marriage (still by the parents if allowed or not or can they choose on their own type of info being asked) and who supports who and why if not just out of respect for elders? I am sure I have forgotten other things to ask, but can always come back to ask at a later point. Again, thank you for taking of your time to enlighten those of us who are not in the know of these traditons and customs! Thanks for a great post and hope to read more! Have a great day/night!

    • I have just written about what I know. In 10 days, we discovered a lot. There are many things about their culture that will have to wait until next time. I am glad you found this information helpful. All I can say is that this isn’t America, so stuff that we unconsciously do would not be acceptable there. They have customs and traditions that Americans may never understand. Observe, be polite, and be patient. When you get there, you will do just fine.

  3. I have a Korean friend, who has told me about some of the things you mention in your blog. Just by talking with him about Korea, I have learned a lot about his country, and wish to go there for a visit. I have even tried to understand the language and have purchased a learn Korean book for my future trip. Thanks for the comments, they are very helpful.

  4. After having 2 Korean martial arts instructors, I have become very interested in their culture. Would love to visit one day. Thank you for a great and informative article!


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