Top 5 Ways To (Not) Be An Offensive Foreigner In Korea

By: Vanessa

Teaching English in Korea seems to have become a launching pad, or at least a stepping stone, for so many debt-ridden college grads hoping to find adventure and financial relief on the other side of the world.

With these foreigners—including my husband and I—come cultural differences. If your desire is to NOT be offensive to the country that is giving you the chance to live pretty luxuriously while destroying your debt, you’re in the right place.

Today I give you my top 5 ways (in no particular order) to not be an offensive foreigner in Korea.

Teaching in Korea rocks… Being offensive doesn’t.
Teaching in Korea rocks… Being offensive doesn’t.

I say “Top 5” because there are plenty of ways to be an offensive foreigner, but most of those apply to any country you visit:

Being a drunk, noisy, aggressive creeper
Not learning minimum words in the local language
Imposing your cultural idealism onto their culture

If you want to be the best ambassador for your culture and home country, go out of your way to be super polite. I’m sure I’ve still managed to offend lots of Koreans, but following these five Korean-specific tips, hopefully you, too, can offend less people than normal in your travels or teaching in this beautiful country.

**Disclaimer: I have never been to other East Asian countries, so maybe these apply across the board, but I’m only writing about my personal experiences in Korea. Of course, some Koreans are not offended by these things, but take it as general advice and just use good judgment**

  1. PDA: Public Display of Affection… don’t do it
    While Korea is the most couple-friendly place I’ve ever visited (couple cafes, couple clothes, couple love note stores), I have yet to see the amount of PDA that I might encounter in America or in Europe. Sure, lots of couples hold hands, but kissing in public is pretty shocking. There are enough noraebangs, DVDbangs, and love motels for that.
    If you’re a Korean, maybe you’d just be seen as indiscrete.
    Kissing is a private matter. Even that little peck at the bus stop.
    But as a foreigner, you would be further imprinting a stereotype that foreigners (mainly Westerners) are sexually promiscuous.

  2. Girls: Mini-skirts = YES; Sleeveless = NO
    Take a look at these two pictures.
    Which one do you think is acceptable for going out in public and teaching young children… and which do you think is too sexy for public?

    What is acceptable skin to show in Korea?
    What is acceptable skin to show in Korea?

    If you guessed A is too sexy and B is acceptably sexy, you’d be correct.
    It’s completely acceptable to wear a mini-skirt or pants so tight they might as well be leggings. About 90% of my female Korean co-workers dress like this (with high heels) to teach elementary school. Do they not realize that kids are short, thus their eyes are always looking UP? As an American, baring the majority of my legs is generally acceptable at the mall, but not at the workplace. But I won’t be the first to state that the Western body shape is a little more, well, curve-alicious. If I wore those same skin-tight pants my co-workers wear, I would probably be busting out of them in all the wrong ways.

    The second outfit, on the other hand, is unacceptably sexy. Shoulders, back, neck, and cleavage (no matter how minor) are considered too sexy for public. Even in the summer, girls in sleeveless dresses almost always wear a short-sleeved cover up. Now, mind you, Korea isn’t Saudi Arabia where you’ll face extreme consequences for baring the wrong part of your skin. Wearing something sleeveless or semi-low cut means you’ll get a lot more stares than usual, and will most likely be reinforcing the stereotype of foreigners being immodest. Personally, I tend to sweat a lot in the summer heat (sorry, gross), so wearing something sleeveless allows for more air flow, if you know what I mean. I’ve found that as long as my collarbone/down is covered, wearing something sleeveless to the park isn’t a big deal. Just don’t go sleeveless to teach. The kids will never-stop-screaming. Trust me.

  3. It’s “Dokdo”---Say it or Leave
    For centuries Korea and Japan have been fighting (literally and figuratively) over a set of small islands between the two countries. Korea calls it Dokdo; Japan calls it Takeshima; the rest of the world calls it The Liancourt Rocks. Apparently it’s a mighty fine area for fishing, and both countries claim it as their own.
    The rivalry between Korea and Japan goes back for as long as the two countries have existed, and each claiming the fishing grounds of Dokdo seems to be a means of keeping the rivalry alive.

    I even have a shirt that says this!
    I even have a shirt that says this!

    Why should you care, as a foreigner? Well, if you’re in Korea for longer than a week, you will most likely encounter Dokdo in the newspaper, on TV, or even in class. Several students have asked me, “Teacher, do you like Japan?” When I responded with, “Well, sure, do you?” They replied, “No, because Dokdo is Korea’s.”
    I’ve been asked my opinion on the rivalry, and let me tell you, choose your words wisely. We may not understand the significance of a few rocks, but showing indifference, or god forbid, siding with Japan, could put you at odds with this lovely country. On that same note, don’t call it “The Sea of Japan”—it’s “The East Sea”!

  4. Give and Receive Everything With Both Hands
    I read this in my guide book before coming to Korea and wondered how true it actually was.
    It’s true, folks, it’s true.
    When you give the cashier money, pass it with both hands.
    When you take your coffee from the barista, take it with both hands.
    If you have something in your left hand, at least move your left hand closer in an attempt to use two hands to take the coffee.
    Almost every Korean who has handed something to me has used two hands or at least touched their right arm with their left as they passed it to me.

    Don’t be a monkey, use both hands!
    Don’t be a monkey, use both hands!

    Why? Who knows… it’s just considered polite. Maybe something to do with showing you’re not going to pull a weapon on them? But don’t hold me to that.
    Shaking hands is tricky business though. It’s generally acceptable to shake with your right and put your left over your stomach as you give a little bow. If you use two hands to shake, you have to be careful where you place your left hand because, traditionally, it’s the “dirty hand.” Putting it on your stomach is the safest option.
    I’ve been living in Korea for a year and a half, so using both hands has become second nature. In fact, a few weeks ago as I was watching an American TV show, I saw someone pass something casually with only one hand, and I actually thought to myself, “Hey, that was kind of rude.”
    Maybe I’ve been in Korea too long…

  5. When Asking A Favor Or Talking About A Problem, Don’t Just Say It
    This is probably my biggest peeve living in Korea. When I want my friend’s help or need to talk to my boss about a problem, I’m used to just spilling it out right away. “Hey, I have a big test this week, could you help me study?” “Hey, would it be ok if I came into work an hour earlier so I could leave an hour early for my doctor’s appointment?” Normal stuff, right?

    If only it were culturally sensitive to say this
    If only it were culturally sensitive to say this

    Thankfully, my Korean friends, co-workers, and boss understand that I’m a foreigner and may be a little more blunt, but that doesn’t mean that when they are addressing me that they are as straight-forward as I am. Many times I have to read between the lines to get at what they are actually trying to say.
    Take this text message from a Korean friend whom I had told (a month earlier, mind you) that I would help her practice for her job interview.
    “Dear Vanessa, Are you having a cool Friday night? I think you are pretty tired. How is your time tomorrow? If you need rest or anything to do, I am ok.”
    I knew that she wanted to get together so I could help her with the interview, but just coming out and asking would be too forward. The impatient side of me screams inside, “Just tell me what you want!” But I know that’s not how it works here.
    So, even though I haven’t really learned the circular ways of wording questions myself, I have gotten pretty good at deciphering them. Sometimes.

    And now students, don’t forget to take your kimchi with both hands… while wearing a mini-skirt.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingVanessa is an American expat living in Korea South. Blog description: If you enjoy Engrish, adorable kids, adventures, and general awesomeness, feel free to check out Sauteed Happy Family . We're a young, fun couple writing about our wild times teaching and living in Korea... featuring our cute cat Chulmu!
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Contest Comments » There are 3 comments

Annie wrote 9 years ago:

How helpful! It's the nuances like these that you read about, but aren't really sure how they're played out daily to the locals. Great article!

Amanda R. wrote 9 years ago:

I didn't know that Japan was also feuding with S. Korea over islands. Here in China they are fighting over the Daioyu/Senkaku islands.

Bennett wrote 9 years ago:

Great top 5! The passing of business cards with one hand is considered impolite in China as is PDA an uncommon sight. As Amanda says, it's also a feud between China and Japan over islands!

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