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Korea ranks second on the global education index

Notorious for the amount spent on higher education, Korea reaps the rewards ranking second out of 50 countries by Pearson Education on a new global education index called the Learning Curve.


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Stepping out of your comfort zone into a completely foreign culture is one of the most challenging aspects about moving to Korea. During your first few weeks you are likely to experience mixed emotions that at times may leave you doubting whether you made the right move… you can’t speak the language, the smells and foods are unique, you are surrounded by tall buildings and bright neon lights, people are constantly in a rush and you are confronted with numerous customs that you can’t get your head around. These feelings are normal but how you deal with them will have a huge impact on your enjoyment in the country. The best advice we can offer is that you arrive with an open mind, are willing to understand rather than judge and embrace the differences between Korea and your home country.

Culture Shock

The Background

Korean Customs


Take off your shoes: Koreans always take their shoes off before entering apartments and sometimes in schools, offices and restaurants. Shoes are considered dirty and it is a sign of disrespect by not taking them off because most buildings have under floor heating and Koreans sit on the floor.

Offer and accept gifts with 2 hands: When a stranger or someone older than you offers you something or vice versa always use two hands offer or receive the gift.

At the dinner table: There are many customs at the dinner table. To name a few, Koreans never pour their own drink, usually the youngest at the table will serve everyone in order of age and then someone will pour their drink for them. Always wait for the oldest person to eat first and do not finish and leave the table before they do. If someone older than you offers you a drink do not drink it in front of them, turn to the side and of course you must return the favour and pour a drink for them too! When sitting on the floor Koreans sit crossed legged, stretching your legs, despite suffering severe pins and needles, is a sign of disrespect.

Greetings: Koreans often greet each other by asking if they have eaten. This will seem like a strange question at first but when you consider the poverty which existed after the war you can understand that a full stomach is a sign of well being. The best way to respond is with a yes to avoid an inquest and perhaps the uncomfortable but extremely generous situation of having someone buy a meal for you!

Personal space: When you look at the size of South Korea, compare it to the number of people and then consider 80% of the country mountainous and pretty much uninhabitable you can start to understand why people’s perception of personal space is almost non-existent. You may find yourself feeling claustrophobic, surrounded by tall buildings and constantly being pushed around when out and about. Don’t get angry if someone barges you out of the way or pushes in the ‘line’ at the ticket desk in the terminal, they are not being rude, it is simply a way of life but one which is being changed by the younger generations.

Crossing the road: In Korea the car is king so do not expect traffic to stop at zebra / pelican crossings, you’ll need to wait until the road is empty before crossing the street.

Displays of affection in public: Koreans do not display any affection so hugging and kissing your partner in public is absolutely frowned upon.

Sharing: The essence of Korean culture can be best summed up in one word “우리” (pronounced uri) meaning we, our or us. The concept of unity is a prominent part of Korean culture - Koreans even introduce their wife, not as “my wife” but “our wife!” Koreans love to share everything, food and drink especially so you’ll never go hungry. This means that should return the favor, for example, if you buy some snacks from the convenience store during a break in school it would be considered polite to buy some for your co-workers too.

While we do not wish to provide an exhaustive list of cultural differences, you’re sure to work them out for yourself, we do want to highlight a few social customs to help you arrive prepared. Do not worry if you make a mistake, you are a foreigner and are therefore given some slack but try your best to adhere when you can.

Immigration in Korea is a relatively modern concept, up until 30-40 years ago there were very few ‘foreigners’ living in the country. The first wave of immigrants were mainly American soldiers, Peace Corp and missionaries here to carry out military duties, voluntary work and provide aid to a society left crippled by a long history of war and occupation. Following the Seoul Olympics in 1988 immigration began to rise as Korean cemented its position as an Asian and global powerhouse. While Koreans are welcoming of foreigners the country is by no means cosmopolitan; it remains homogenous with deep rooted traditions and values which its people are eager to uphold

The term foreigner (or way-gook-in as you’ll quickly come to learn) is used loosely and essentially means anyone who isn’t of Korean blood. As a foreigner living in Korea you will be treated differently, this will throw up an abundance of positive and negative situations providing for a truly fascinating yet at times frustrating experience. While the number of foreigners is on the increase, outside of Seoul and Busan you will often stand out like a sore thumb. We always chuckle when teachers ask “how will you recognize me when I arrive at the bus terminal?” Be prepared to be the focus of attention with people curious to know about you and your country.