Torn between Two Worlds: A Cultural Guide To South Korea

Wandering the color-filled and lively streets of Seoul in late 2014, I find myself in a place that does not really seem to be Korean initially. In one of the fastest growing economies in the world, a lot of cultural changes are taking place, which makes traveling to Seoul a special experience. The Americans, who have been celebrated as the liberators in the Korean War, have left their undeniable mark on the humble nation of South Korea. Having said this, a lot of Koreans are obsessed with Western beauty ideals and consequently, Koreas has the highest rate of cosmetic plastic surgery in the whole world (Eyelid surgery to create a double lid and lengthening the nose are the most popular among the operations). In many ways, Korea is able to demonstrate to the rest of the world, what the future might look like. But as a country with a distinct societal structure and pronounced traditions, they are faced with a number of tensions.


Although South Korea has been officially liberated with the end of the Korea War, they were not as free as they hoped was the case. Having said this, they had to endure an era of military dictatorships and economic hardship until democracy finally arrived towards the end of the 1980s in the midst of culminating student protests all around the nation. Yet, additionally, a very subtle process has been a central influence in Korean society to this day. Being surrounded by the communist North Korea and China in the North and West as well as the disfavored former colonizer Japan in the East, Korean society has always looked up to the Western ideals from America shining bright all the way over the Pacific Ocean. Gigantic malls and office buildings are decorating the city’s skyline, people buy their coffee and breakfast from overpriced chains such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, and they like to spent their Saturday afternoon cheering for their local baseball team. In a lot of ways, Koreas has embraced and absorbed the American way of life.

Nevertheless, the more than 50 million Korean people are still clinging on to a number of distinct cultural traditions that make it possible for me to envision a historic Seoul, in which the trade of food was of central importance to people’s lives and they spent their afternoons in teahouse being reluctant to adapt foreign trends. Apart from the numerous spas and special characteristics of the life on well concealed alleys, ancient sites such as the Gyeongbokgung palace or the Bongeunsa temple are still tokens from that period. Because of the on-going tensions, the example of the ajumma/아줌마 (the Korean name for middle-aged or elder women) is particularly suitable to underpin the current situation. These women have been born into an underprivileged world for females and had to dedicate most of their lives to the well-being of their families at home without being necessarily able to pursue their own goals in life. Once their children move out and they get to enjoy a quieter existence, their societal status also increases and like all other older people in Korean society, they are to be treated respectfully. Still, because a lot of young people are outgrowing many innate Korean traditions and identify with the individualistic lifestyle that comes hand in hand with the Americanization, the ajumma feel at a loss and might be coming across as grumpy and ignorant to foreigners.


Thus, in order to be prepared for the unique cultural experience when traveling through this beautiful country and not coming across as ignorant yourself, you should be aware of such specifics. For your convenience, I have worked on a list of both things you should definitely try out and others that can be considered cultural no-goes.


DO bring enough deodorant for yourself, as most of the Koreans do not use it and prices are really high

DO try out the enormous range of different Korean foods. Although most of the ingredients are similar, there are many, many varieties of plates to be tried out

DO familiarize yourself with a couple of Korean basics in order to get along in a country, where most of the people do not speak English. In addition, the Korean alphabet may look very confusing at first, but it can actually be learned within only a couple of hours as well

DO ask at your hotel for a Korean version of your address so that you do not have to face an irritating situation in the cab

DO be prepared to eat with chopsticks. Although a spoon is often served for soups, Koreans normally do not eat with fork and knife (the knife is actually often replaced by a pair of scissors to cut the meat at a Korean BBQ)

DO go to a local Noraebang/노래방 (Karaoke bar) and enjoy a nice night with your friends in one of the private rooms

DO take into account that Korea has 4 distinct seasons with a very hot summer and a freezing winter. In my opinion, the country is most beautiful during fall

DO be careful with drinking the tab water. Although it is drinkable in major cities, it might not be such a good idea in the countryside and generally does not taste good

DO try to experience the “real” Korean culture with a temple stay or a visit to one of the many spas (although the big ones are likely to have been Westernized already)

DO bring enough clothes and shoes to Korea if you are oversized and planning to stay longer. You will not be able to find XX-versions easily

DO press that button on your table to call for a waiter and make sure to pay the bill at the register (often located near the exit) instead of asking for it

DO make sure to bargain at a local market, as some people might even be insulted if you do not try to reduce their ridiculous first offer


DON’T take the black cabs, because they are the expensive ones (a red sign on the front shield of the cab signifies that it is vacant)

DON’T stick your chopsticks upside down in the bowl of rice as it is a very bad sign for Koreans. Just lay it horizontally over the bowl or the plate

DON’T only spend your trip in Seoul, as the countryside and the other cities have so much more to offer and are likely to provide you with a better picture of what Korean culture really looks like

DON’T ask people directly about sensitive topics regarding politics or ideology. Make sure to tackle your questions about North Korea to closer friends or when you get to know each other closer over a bottle of soju

DON’T forget to take off your shoes in a stranger’s apartment or a couple of traditional restaurants, where you will be seated on the floor

DON’T get irritated by all the fancy buttons on your modern toilet. You will most likely not need any of them and you can still find a flush on the toilet itself

DON’T get angry, if people do not understand English. It will just make the situation worse, if you seek a confrontation

DON’T take a seat on the benches at the far ends of every wagon in the subway. They are assigned for the elderly and the sick

DON’T tip at a restaurant or in the cab as it is not a custom in Korea. People will often find it personally insulting to be tipped by foreigners

DON’T drink too much of the Soju. With its light taste, its effects are easily underestimated

DON’T be afraid if the waiter tells you that the food is very spicy. Korean people often think that people from the West cannot handle a bit of spices (please take this only as a general guideline as some of the foods are indeed incredibly hot)

And ultimately, DO NOT under any circumstances miss out on booking your trip to this great country!

Felix Jehle Written by:

FELIX JEHLE was born and raised in Freiburg, Germany. Before graduating from High-School in 2010, he has absolved several internships for local newspapers. In his free time he loves to play tennis, read books, or just go outside to meet with friends. With his passion for the Latin language, he has developed a favor for Roman tongues. Trying to add Spanish to his knowledge, he is now working on his 4th language besides English, German and Italian. In August 2010, Felix decided to go on a big trip. With a ‘Working Holiday Visa’ for Canada in the bag, he started off to Montreal, where he spent more than 4 months of his trip. Afterwards, he started a journey through the United States and an extensive trip to South America. Upon his return to Europe, he picked up his studies of Media&Communication in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.