Jenn in Korea.

This is all about my EPIK teaching adventures in Korea!

Korea vs Canada


Until this point, I have been compiling a list of just how different things are here than in Canada. There are so many cultural differences that pop up in the most unexpected places. Some we were prepared for, while others we have learned the hard way. Enjoy!


Things which are normal in Korea (but aren’t normal to us):

  • Taking your shoes off in restaurants and apartments (even if you’re a delivery man carrying a bed). In every apartment or restaurant that has a lower step before the floor, you are expected to take your shoes off before entering. I ordered a new mattress recently, and the delivery man actually stood in my door way juggling the mattress while taking off this shoes. I also noticed a similar “lower level” in some clothing shop’s change rooms. Schools have you change into slippers or flip flops upon entering.  There a cubbies for your outdoor shoes as you walk in so you can change into your indoor shoes. The ironic part is that everyone wears their indoor shoes to get to the cafeteria (which you must walk outside to get to because it’s in another building). Some teachers even wear their indoor shoes out to their cars at the end of the day.
  • Being quiet on the buses. I suppose this is a respect thing anywhere you are, however we have been told that this is a huge deal here. Even though we aren’t yelling and having a party on the bus, our Western voices tend to get a little louder than the other Korean’s on the busses.
  • Don’t stick chop sticks vertically into your rice. This is a taboo because of it’s relevance to funerals and death. When someone dies, they put bowls of rice and other things near the coffin and place chopsticks or in-scents into them.
  • Receive and give things with 2 hands. The way you place your hands conveys a huge message. If you do it correctly, it is a sign of respect. If you do it incorrectly, you can be perceived as being rude or disrespectful. Usually if you are giving or receiving something to someone of a higher status (or who is older) you should hold the item in both your hands. You can also place your left hand under your elbow or forearm. Using one hand only is only okay with children.
  • Fashion is very conservative here; Ulsan being one of the more conservative towns. Bigger cities like Seoul are generally a bit more liberal. It is very uncommon to see girls wearing V-necks or low tops. The higher your neck line, the better. If you show shoulders or any glimpse of a chest, people will stare you down…hard. However, some how this rule doesn’t apply to legs. Short skirts and shorts are very acceptable- even in the workplace and in schools.
  • Hoarking and spitting in public is completely normal. Men and women will hoark a loogie no matter where they are and spit it all over the ground. Something I will NEVER get used to. I can hear them from my apartment hoarking on the street (windows closed and all).
  • Surgical masks are worn as a fashion statement, to keep from getting sick and to stay safe from the yellow dust. They come in an assortment of colours and cute animal faces.
  • They like to be first out of the elevator, on the bus, getting off the bus, waiting in line… And by waiting in line, I mean pushing to the front to be served first.
  • Heating is done so though the floor. It’s kind of nice to have warm feet once in a while, but these floors get pretty toasty. It’s also a perk of the restaurants where you sit on the floor- always a toasty bottom!
  • Cars are insane and will aim for you, even if you’re the only obstacle in their way. The motor bikes are even worse. They love running through red lights and enjoy speeding on the sidewalks. Scary as hell… you really have to watch yourself.
  • Schools leave their windows open all year round; everyone will wear their winter jackets all day long and shiver in their chairs. Why? Apparently “fresh air is good for you”. I don’t know- I think I would sacrifice the fresh air for warmth.
  • TV will block out specific objects such as cigarettes, knives and body guts. This is quite frequent when the only English channels play actions movies and CSI. Nothing else.
  • People of the same sex hold hands. Both girls and guys will hold hands with the same sex walking down the street. This is considered normal between friends.
  • The youngest person at the table has most of the responsibilities. They will set the table, cook the meal and pours drinks for everyone at the table. If their cup becomes empty, you are expected to fill their cup ASAP. In addition, you should always check everyone else’s glass before pouring your own.
  • It is also bad luck to pour your own drink. Usually one person will pour someone else’s drink, then hand them the bottle to pour theirs.
  • When taking a shot, turn away from everyone while drinking. It is a sign of respect to turn away while drinking.
  • Oldest will usually pay for the meal and if its your birthday, you pay for everyone!


Things which are NOT normal in Korea (but are normal to us):

  • Covering your mouth when you cough. This is something I cannot get used to. Sitting on the bus and feeling the wind on my head from the person behind me coughing. UHGG! Sneezing too. Gross.
  • Public displays of affection. While Korea is becoming more relaxed about this one, you will still never see Korean couples kiss in public. It used to be very rare to even see couples holding hands or hugging, but now this is becoming more accepted.
  • Personal space. Speaking of things I cannot get used to. Korean’s have absolutely no problem bumping into other people on the bus, at the bus stop, in the department store… anywhere. Even when I am the only person at the bus stop, I still have people standing beside me, close enough that their elbows hit me every time they look in their purse.
  • Choosing which ever pen is closest to you to write with.

    • In school, only use black pen. I seem to always forget this one, but black pens are the only colour you should use when filling out forms or documents.
    • Don’t write anyones name in red. Writing someone’s name in red means they’ve died or you are giving them bad luck. In Asian culture, only the dead have their names written in red.
  • Saying “no” when offered a drink/shot. Offering and pouring someone a drink is a sign of mutual respect. (they’re not actually trying to get you wasted. Well, maybe they are.) If you refuse a drink, its considered impolite and disrespectful. If you don’t want more alcohol, simply ask them to fill your cup with water or pop.
  • Being “funny” in the classroom by tossing things or going against any rules. I just learned this one. I was doing a lesson on food and restaurant etiquette. I had plate of fake food and asked students “What will you have?” I help up a piece of food and they would say back, “I will have a hamburger/ ice cream/ whatever”. After I was finished with the food, I tossed it back into the bin, which was less than a meter away from me. I was then told after class that it wasn’t appropriate teacher behaviour. She mentioned that any rules we tell the kids, such as “don’t throw” should also be modelled by the teachers. Even if it’s supposed to be a joke. Who knew!

5 comments on “Korea vs Canada

  1. Mom
    April 20, 2014

    Great blog Jenn ….. who knew there were so many rules ….


  2. sparky7171
    April 21, 2014

    Oldest will usually pay for the meal ! ! ! …..did you add that one so I have to pay for all the meals in September. 🙂 lol


  3. Paul
    April 25, 2014

    Cool! You are going to have an even longer list by the end of it. You might even internalize some of the things without noticing!


    • jennwignall
      April 25, 2014

      I’m already noticing that I’m leaving out so many things because I just think it’s normal now. Such a strange realization to have.


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