Culture Shock in Korea: Why You Might Feel Uncomfortable!

Korean culture is dynamic, fun and interesting. But all cultures are different, and if you’re coming to Korea, there are some things that you might have to get used to. Here’s some culture shock in Korea that have made some uncomfortable! Be ready!

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Culture Shock in Korea via Public Bathrooms

Bathrooms are mine fields for encountering culture shock in Korea. Here’s a few things that might make you say “errr…….T.T”

 

Garbage Cans for Used Toilet Paper

Some older buildings can’t handle flushing toilet paper as it will clog the toilets. So sometimes there will be signs attached to bathroom walls asking you to throw away your used toilet paper in a garbage can. These cans are usually to the side of the toilet and are usually filled with everyone else’s used goods for the day. This Korean culture shock is yucky, but if you don’t follow the rules, you might be the jerk that clogged the toilet.

Tip: These older toilets can KINDA flush toilet paper, so you can take a chance. But it is extremely risky (and of course rude if you’re unlucky!).

 

Ajoomas in Mens Bathroom

Most public bathrooms in Korea have designated janitors. The reason this is a Korean culture shock for some men is when an ajooma (older woman) comes in with a mop in hand while you’re doing your business. And although you might be worried of having an ajooma check out your junk, don’t worry. They’re just there to pick junk up! (don’t worry ladies, men won’t be cleaning your bathrooms in Korea ;))

 

Squatters

Instead of having a toilet seat to do your business, you might have to do your thang in a squatter toilet, or maybe more accurately described as a porcelain hole in the floor. Squatter toilets are leftovers from before Korea’s rapid modernization and are commonly found in less developed areas of Korea. But you will still find these gems even in modern cities like Seoul (usually in older buildings). If you’ve never used one of these, you will feel uncomfortable.

 

Soap on a Stick

A lot of people are used to having public bathroom soap come from a dispenser instead of bar soap. That way each serving of soap is for 1 person and 1 person only. No sharing of germs and other nasty stuff that might have been on your hands. But some public bathrooms in Korea have soap on a stick. And that’s used by everyone. It’s basically the same as using bar soap, but the fact that it’s on a stick comes as culture shock to some newcomers to Korea. But if you find one these, you should feel lucky. There are many cases where you won’t find any soap in public bathrooms in Korea. Soap on a stick it is! (See a pic here)

 

Culture Shock in Korea via Touching

Touching the Same Sex in Korea

If you come from a culture where touching among the same sex is not common, you might feel a bit of culture shock in Korea. Younger Korean women like to hold hands or at the least link arms with their bffs to show some affection. It’s even acceptable for Korean women that have met for the first time (and really hit it off) to at the least link arms. As for the males, it’s more common among older Korean men to hold hands with their homeboys. But even younger Korean men don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with putting an arm around a buddy’s shoulder. Sounds like childhood friends hanging out right? That’s what it’s basically about: showing affection like kids do. But you did the same when you were a kid didn’t you? If not, you might have to get used to it in Korea!

Watch our video below discussing touching the opposite sex in Korea. Also, your homie Keith has a post on Korean hugs vs American hugs on his personal blog. Make what you will of it. Touching might be a source of culture shock if you’re coming to Korea.

 

Culture Shock in Korea via Food

Double, Triple and Centuple Dipping

Korean food is inherently designed to be a communal activity. With the exception of individual rice bowls, Korean food is traditionally put out in the middle of the table for everyone to dig in at the same time. This goes for both banchan (side dishes) as well as main dishes. Most people don’t have any problems with banchan as chopsticks are great for picking up individual pieces of food. But where many people new to Korea feel a bit of culture shock is with the main dishes (mostly stews). Main dishes are traditionally ordered for the entire table. So the 4 other people you’re sharing your kimchijjigae with will stick their spoons in the same pot, take a sip, and dip again for another mouthful. To some, that will be culture shock in the form of spit swapping, but in Korea, it’s just a very normal way of eating. Although nowadays there are some people that are trying not to do this, there are still many Koreans that love to dip, dip and dip.

Tip: If you feel uncomfortable with this, ask for another dish to pour your own food into first. Find this tip, along with other useful tips for eating like a Korea local here.
Language tip: 앞접시 주세요 (apjeopsi juseyo) – please give me a (small) dish

Do you have your own Korean culture shock experiences that have made you feel uncomfortable? Share with us in the comments!

 

About Keith

Keith Kim is a Korean-American living in Seoul, Korea. He likes espresso shots, photography art and he loves his Playstation 3. He started seoulistic.com as a hobby site, and is now in the process of turning it into a full-time business. Wish him luck! Check out his blog for an uncensored view on entrepreneurship, dating and life in Korea.Personal Blog: gyopokeith.com Facebook: facebook.com/gyopokeithkim Twitter: @gyopokeith Youtube: "Gyopokeithe-mail me anytime at: gyopokeith [at] gmail.com

34 comments

  1. Vanessa

    This post is so interesting!
    I found out that brazilian public bathrooms sometimes are similar to the korean ones you have described hahaha There are always garbage cans full with used papers, and some small places may have a soap bar.
    I think the bigger shock would be about sharing the food, but if it’s with people I’m not very familiar with, because with my friends I often do that hahaha
    If I go to Korea one day, I’ll come here again and share more culture shock I may have 😀

  2. T

    “Garbage Cans for Used Toilet Paper” <- Since I got used to this, I remembered when I was in gangnam and I couldn't understand where the f.. the garbage can were, so I was searching the next toilet 'room' and so on, but nah no garbage can for the paper at the toilet so I ended up not taking a shit, until around 30min later I was thinking back on this and I then realized I should just flush it down the toilet…………. lol

  3. Agne

    Actually we have garbage can for toilet paper in our office, because building is quite old and we have to call emergency service due to bad sewage system on a regular basis… *_* But I can’t bring myself to throw used toilet paper in a can, I’m always flushing it (probably that’s why it always clogged, oops :D) So I’m already mentally prepared to these kind of toilets :))

  4. Fay

    Whew… I don’t feel so backward now. My mom raised us to put paper in the can instead of flushing. I don’t do that now, but glad we weren’t the only ones!

  5. Funny thing is, most home’s I’ve been to can flush TP, but many place outside of home can’t!

  6. Danna DD

    Yeah, in Serbia, you just choose a tree. :I
    I’m kidding. xD It’s not really like that, but something similar so I don’t think I’d be surprised. :)

  7. Maeva

    I already went to Japan and I was surprised to see that squatter are not that uncomfortable. In France in some old place we used to have another kind of these toilets we called “turc toilets” which are so dirty compared to the one I saw in Japan.
    We also used to have soap stick in school which I always thought it’s really really dirty.
    Even though I’ve been to Japan, I never tried the “high tech” toilets there, I was kinda afraid to it so since it’s the same in Korea, I think it will be my big problem there.
    I can’t believe there are so many talk about toilets on this page hahaha

  8. Even though I don’t have korean parents I can confirm this thing of not hugging the opposite sex and doing these stuff in front of children :D! So funny!

  9. John

    The whole community culture surrounding food in Korea is something I’ve been curious about regarding one of the few Korean restaurants we have in my city. I’ve never been there, partly because I’ve been pretty broke, and partly because the meals are ridiculously expensive around dinner time (up to $30 just for the main entree).

    I know that being in the middle of the country in a city of which maybe 2-3% of the population is Asian doesn’t necessarily help (especially for any meals involving seafood), but my gut is telling me that the meals are actually meant for more than one person. Which basically makes me feel forever alone because when I go out to eat, it’s often by myself. This would be the first I’ve been discriminated against because of that, lol. ;_;

  10. Shannon

    The bathroom post is quite different from what I expected. I would never imagine that public bathrooms could be so different. When we go to mall here in Brazil (at least in Rio de Janeiro) we would always find liquid soap. Always. Sometimes there’s no soap but I’ve never seen soap on a stick. Only at people’s houses. Not bashing or anything! Every country has its particularities. I’m just commentig 😀
    I have a question. Do people use the soaps on a stick? Or they don’t?

  11. Although squatter toilet can be uncomfortable for most foreigners, actually it is more clean than other general toilets ! Because you don’t have to seat and touch : )

  12. groovekidable

    If only I read this article earlier, I wouldn’t be that jerk who clogged the toilet with toilet papers last week!!!! D=

  13. This is quite interesting! I just opened my blog on Korea, please visit me someday! Thank you! :)

    globalcmarket.blogspot.kr

  14. 147

    Those squatters are common place in China, but I have looked at them here, and there’s no way I would ever want to try them. Their upkeep is atrocious.

    They are much more well maintained in Japan and Korea from what I’ve seen, and I may if I really need to do my business.

    They still creep me out.

  15. #1 When I went with my friend to her grandmother’s house during Chuseok…her oldest aunt basically fed me and gave me virtually no privacy. She was just trying to be kind, of course, but I felt like a 5 year old. It wasn’t a matter of my ability to use chopsticks (I’m ambidextrous with them), but she felt the need to “babysit” me. This also happened with the games of poker we played. I couldn’t really play…I just sat there and let her move the cards I was holding in my hand, hahaha. Regardless, it was a great experience and a lot of fun. I did get to go into the kitchen and help the women cook while the men were watching TV. I was pretty happy about that. – ah, yes – I’m a guy.

    #2 I used to think that my co-teacher understood me when I asked her things in English, but I was wrong. After I realized that, I thought that we just had a language barrier when it came to her not doing what she said she would do. Once again, I was wrong. I recently started texting her, in Korean, through KakaoTalk and realized that she’s just apathetic about doing the part of her job that involves helping me out while I’m living here. I could get around this if I wanted to complain and complain…but I would rather not flaunt my discontent to her (in private or public), but rather find alternative ways for getting what I need (it’s like figuring out a crazy puzzle in a video game ;-). I’ve also learned that my co-workers care about me much less than my Korean friends that I’ve known for a much shorter time. I can understand where the apathy and “out-group” mentality comes from since most native English teachers stay for just one year, but it’s still a shock. They aren’t bad people. I like most of them :-). For those looking to come here, still come. I really enjoy my job and love living here :-). Like any country, there are good things and bad things. For me, the good things outweigh the bad. I have amazing friends here and things keep getting better and better.

    #3 I remember the first time a Korean person asked me “Why are you learning Korean?” I thought the fact that I was living in Korea would be one obvious reason, but it wasn’t. I thought another somewhat-obvious reason was that she knew one of my majors was anthropology. Anthropology is the study of humans (my focus was on food culture) and language is one of the core parts of human culture (including food). During that conversation, I felt like she was telling me that Korean was not worth learning. She looked troubled that I was learning Korean. I may have misread her expressions, but that’s the vibe I felt. I think she was just concerned about me since I’m not Korean and I’m living in Korea…..but I live in an area where English isn’t really spoken. She isn’t the only one who’s said this type of thing to me, but I’ve only heard it from middle-aged people (i.e. probably in their 50s). I should add that it isn’t common for me to hear this, but it’s always a shock when I do. However, I’m glad I kept studying hard because now I have friends that can’t speak English and my life is so much better because of them.

  16. jessica

    I love your blog! I am a German blogger preparing for my move to South Korea in June 13. And what can I say, I CAN’T WAIT! So excited!
    Keep up the good work. I will definitely stop by your blog regularly. Anyong! :)

  17. halfafrog

    Wow. Yeah. That would be really weird having some dude trying to hold your hand (as a guy). Great way to get punched! Though my best friend married an Italian and I had to kiss 500 Italian men on the cheek with 3 days growth beard ….I guess each culture to their own….

  18. Joel

    When I’m eating with my hyungs, they would eat from my bowl suddenly ( i was eating pasta) without asking my permission. Back in Singapore, trying each other’s food is acceptable but it’s just plain rude to eat from another’s plate without first asking for permission. My 2 cents worth of experience ^^

  19. P Smith

    Why does bathroom soap last so long in Korea?

    Because the Koreans never use it. At best, most will do a token wetting of hands, not actually wash. I had people give me weird looks in public bathrooms because I would actually spend twenty seconds lathering and rinsing my hands.

    • Kim miran

      I am Korean and always wash hand after use public bathrooms.
      Sp please don’t use such a word ” Koreans never use it”

    • Kim miran

      I am Korean and always wash hand after use public bathrooms.
      So please don’t use such a word ” Koreans never use it”

    • Ruby

      I know what you mean! I think about one out of ten (if that) wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom. Most girls just fix their hair or check their makeup with their germy hands and walk out.

  20. Not only Public Bathrooms, toilets in each house can not flush TP. And there is no TP in the bathroom of restraunt, hotel, department store.

  21. Hah, a religious cult (Shinchonji) has stolen your content! Check the link.

  22. AU

    The live dogs that are soon to become someone’s meal which are openly sold and butchered at public markets are the most disturbing and sad.

  23. Very interesting. It’s similar with my country, Indonesia. We can’t flush TP in most of public toilets. Also except big cities’ malls, public toilets usually are those squatters. It’s uncomfortable but I kinda think it’s more hygiene because there is no “skinship” with the toilet. Hahahaha…

    About the soap, it’s either soft/liquid soap or no soap at all!! lol

  24. Ashley J

    It’s funny to me that when I spent some time in Turkey, I was shocked to experience “squatty potties” there too, for my first time. The concept seemed so strange to me but heeeey, if you have to go, you have to go. While visiting Bahrain, I also experienced men being affectionate with other men there and unlike in America, it wasn’t seen as any type of homosexuality or anything sexual at all. It was simply them being friendly. It was more commonly seen on crowded streets, men holding hands or even linking arms. I was later informed that men usually did this in public when having a conversation as so no one accidently walked between them while talking or interupted them, as that was looked at as being extremely rude (to tell you the truth, I think that interupting a convo is rude anyway, but it’s not rare for people here in America to do it when they think what they have to say or do is more important).

  25. Jasmin

    Just finished reading a ton of your blogs already and just want to say, thanks so much for putting the effort in giving this advice! I know for sure it made me more comfortable and knowledgeable on what to expect when I do go to Korean. Your personality is awesome! I hope your well.
    Thank so much, again :)

  26. amanda

    thanks for explaining the hugging thing. I recently watched some movies and tv shows from korea and was intrigued that they weren’t as passionate as american films but you explained it well on this site. I have a korean friend and well i guess i shocked him when I hugged him.

  27. daiya

    The touching thing really threw me off, and part of the main reason I ended up coming to this site. I’ve been getting into kpop lately, and I watch EXO Showtime. From the very beginning I was silently going insane because they’re so openly touchy with each other and in America, I know half of them would have been punched and cussed out and accused of being homoesexual for just hugging a little too long. But with them, some even shower together (mostly at Tao’s insistence) sometimes and share the same sleeping space. In America, it would be considered super weird for a guy’s bro to be like, “hey man wanna share a shower together to save time?” That’s how people get knocked out and never spoken to again.

    Is there a reason behind the same sex: ok different sex: not ok touching rules? It seems like same sex couples would have an easier time blending in in this way.

  28. J.

    IMHO those squatty public toilets are much better than regular ones. Who would possibly want to sit on a public toilet (I didn’t even do it in my Western home country)? And even though they can get pretty messy here in China, heck, I certainly don’t entertain the thought of licking my shoe-soles either.
    I was told, that the problem with the older toilets and the flushing is, that the paper wouldn’t dissolve and therefore clog the pipes. Shouldn’t it be easy to produce the proper paper? Or to change the strength of the “current”?

  29. E.Q

    Squatter toilets are more healthy and more hygienic!!
    healthy because when you seat on a squatter you don’t need any extra push to do your business and finally you are completely done(empty may be :)) ) and also it is specially really good for your kidney!!
    and hygienic as the other friends said here because you don’t need to seat on a toilet that so many people have seat on it before!!!!
    but for people from Turkey and Iran it is hard to get used to toilets which don’t have water to wash!!! in every single toilets they have water pipe and a water hose!! so they can easily wash themselves and there’s no need to TP and so it’s more clean and hygienic!! I prefer Squatter with water hose!!! :)) clean,safe and reliable 😀 (‘____’)b

  30. Allison

    Are squatter toilets also used in older women’s bathrooms? Because any woman who has been in a gross bathroom (in a western country) can tell you that “hover and aim” is rather difficult.