I had the privilege of participating in a 16-week Spring exchange program at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, South Korea, from February to June 2023. This invaluable opportunity allowed me to experience Korea from a unique perspective, as a student. This gave me a deeper understanding of Korean culture and society than I would have gained as a tourist.
Here are some of my observations that surprised me, perhaps due to culture shock, or simply intrigued me. They all left a strong impression on me. Let’s get started! (Read to the end for a Video treat!)
1. Left Hand Drive, Right Hand Traffic
The first thing you’ll notice is the direction of traffic in South Korea! Here, cars drive on the right side of the road, drivers sit on the left in the car, and people keep to the right when crossing the road and standing on escalators!
2. There’s a Bin for Everything!
South Korea takes trash disposal very seriously, down to the category of waste! Certain fast food restaurants and cafes require customers to clear their food waste, leftover drink and ice, and general trash in different bins. You’ll often spot a few rubbish bins positioned next to each other with the respective category of waste labeled clearly. Furthermore, unlike Singapore, rubbish bins are not common along the streets. If you have to get rid of some form of rubbish while you’re out and about, be prepared to hold on to them for a while. You’ll often see rubbish bins with orange lids along the streets, especially outside restaurants. Do not mistakenly dispose your trash in them, as they are meant for bagged food waste!
3. You may hold the door for me… or not
South Koreans do not have the practice of holding the door for strangers, nor do they express gratitude after someone holds the door for them. Do not get offended or alarmed, as this is not intentional or out of rudeness, but simply a cultural difference!
4. One Order per Person Policy
Some restaurants in Seoul make it mandatory for each customer to order at least one main course from their menu (for example, if there are three people seated at a table, they must order at least three main courses). Be mindful of this if you plan to find a restaurant intending to only get a drink.
5. Black and White cars
While in Busan, my friend pointed out to me an interesting observation that could not be unseen. Most of the cars in Korea are either black or white!
6. Good Skincare is Key
There is a strong beauty culture in South Korea, with a lot of emphasis placed on looking good and staying youthful. This may be because of their strong belief that the face is the first thing people notice when meeting each other, and to make a good first impression, South Koreans value clear and luminous skin as it is a sign of good health, purity, and social status. My South Korean buddy shared with me that some women do not dare to leave their house without makeup on, even if it is a simple trip to the convenience store!
7. Remember to Brush your Teeth too!
This took me by surprise on my first week of school in South Korea: students would brush their teeth in the toilets on campus after they have had their meals or in between classes!
8. Academics and Education
South Korea is known for its rigorous and highly competitive education system. To get into some of South Korea’s top universities, some students enrol into specialised high schools which offer focused education in specific fields and subjects such as science, mathematics, arts (including dancing and singing) and sports.
9. Table Manners
Drinking culture in South Korea holds significant social importance as it is seen as a way to build and strengthen relationships. However, be mindful to observe the pouring and drinking etiquette when drinking with your South Korean friends! Younger individuals are expected to pour drinks for their seniors while holding the bottle with both hands as a sign of respect. The glass should be held with one hand while receiving the drink. Offering a full glass to someone is considered polite, and if someone’s glass is empty, it’s common to refill it promptly. When drinking, younger individuals shall drink facing away from the senior while using one hand to cover the glass out of sight from the senior. Furthermore, it is considered disrespectful to take sips by oneself, thus South Koreans encourage drinking together as a group!
10. FREE K-Pop concerts!
Did you know that universities in South Korea host K-pop concerts for their students annually? While on my Spring exchange in KAIST, I had the valuable and unique opportunity to watch world-renowned PSY perform his top hits and experience my very first K-pop concert on campus for free!
Click here to view PSY’s performance: