A Crash Course in Korean Culture Shock

The last few weeks have been largely about going back to my university town of Aberystwyth, in fact in the last few weeks I have been twice. Whilst this has been great fun one drawback is the fact that I have to get to Wales and back by coach, and the travel hours add up, in total over the last few weeks I have spent 32 hours sitting on a coach (each trip takes about 8 hours). This gives me lots of time to read, lots of time. In that time I’ve finished Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ (not bad, interesting concept reasonably well defended), E.L James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Wanted to see what all the fuss was about, not a great book but I can see why it may have gotten popular), and I’ve taken a considerable chunk out of Stephen Kings 1400 page ‘The Stand’ which I’m really enjoying. Another book that I’ve read during the day-and-a-bit spent on a coach is ‘Korea (Culture Shock!)’ by Sonja and Ben Hur. It is this book that I would like to talk about in this post.

‘Korea (Culture Shock!)’ is a guide to Korean customs and etiquette and I’m pretty glad I read it before going to Korea, I’m fairly sure that I will make much less of a prat of myself in Korea having read it. It describes and explains the correct ways to behave in Korea. I’ve taken a few of the general themes from the book and summarised them, both with information from the book and also what I’ve heard or read about whilst looking into teaching abroad. There was lots that surprised me and even more that I just wouldn’t have even considered and which may have caused embarrassment or upset further down the line.

Culture Shock:

a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment.’ Symptoms include ‘a pervasive sense of anxiety, confusion, helplessness, irritation and lack of control’.

Culture shock seems to happen to everyone, in varying degrees of intensity. I know when I first landed in Delhi last year I spent my first night thinking ‘What the hell am I doing? Why am I here? I’m stuck here and its hot and loud and horrible’. Luckily these feeling didn’t last past the first night and from day two I had a great time, I even grew to love Delhi after I went back and stayed there for a few more days, which I never thought would happen.

When moving to live in a place I’ve seen culture shock described by many people as a staged process. Everyone has their own names for the stages but the one that is repeated the most has three stages; The Honeymoon Phase, The Negotiation Phase and the Adaption Phase.

The Honeymoon Phase: When you first arrive everything is novel and exciting. The way people behave, however different, is viewed with a sense of awe and wonder.

The Negotiation Phase: After the initial wonder subsides and the novelty of a new place and a new culture wears off irritation and resentment can often take over. New ways have to be properly adapted too, even if they seem less effective or just plain silly. This phase can also come with a good dose of homesickness too.

The Adaption Phase: After a time the new ways are easier to deal with, some will become a normal part of day to day life, whilst others are accepted and viewed more positively.

There is no time limit on these stages, some people may be stuck in the negotiation phase for longer than others whilst some people might skip one or more stages altogether.

I’m eager to see how these stages will manifest with me when I go, I don’t tend to get homesick when I’m away from home but this will be very different to going away to university or travelling alone for a few months at a time. I don’t think new ways should be a problem, but I guess the only way to find out is to jump in and see what happens, which I’m really looking forward to.

Most of the issues related to culture shock are due to the unconscious belief that your own way of doing things is the ‘correct’ way and other, seemingly less effective ways are therefore ‘wrong’. I think this will be an important and useful thing to remember when an aspect of the new culture is causing tension. Making friends, particularly Korean friends, and not letting the little things get to me will also help get past any issues quickly and avoid any lasting, negative culture shock symptoms.


I actually ran into that  a little more than I meant to and I don’t want this post to become an essay so I’ll stop with ‘Culture Shock’ and save the other things I was going to talk about, ‘Friendship and Interpersonal Relationships’ and ‘Drinking’, for later posts. I will however take a few of the ‘Korea (Culture Shock!)’ Etiquette Do’s and Don’ts so you can get an idea of how Korean culture is followed in practice. Some of these will be explained in more detail in later posts.

Excerpts from ‘Korea (Culture Shock!)’ by S. V Hur & B. S Hur.

• Bow when greeting another person for the first time in a day. If the discrepancy in status is very great, only the person of lower status bows, while the other responds verbally. When two people are introduced they also bow.

• Preserve social harmony at all costs; you may have to tell small lies, or adopt indirect, less efficient behaviour than in the West.

• Pass objects to someone of equal or higher status with the right hand. To show the most respect, two hands are used, or the right hand supported by the left. When passing objects to people of lower status either hand is acceptable, but using two hands is not appropriate.

• Don’t show your anger. It is impolite, and can permanently damage interpersonal relationships. Keep your temper at all times.

One final thing. I received an email today with my visa application number, I’m going to call the visa office in the Korean Embassy tomorrow and sort out the final stages of my visa application.

James Vs World

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