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Cultural differences that I have experienced as an exchange student in South Korea

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Going to a foreign country may be daunting mainly due to the cultural differences, but getting to know another culture will open doors to a new exciting experience
girl wearing an umbrella

I never thought that I would be spending my entire exchange student year in South Korea. The country, which is miles away from my home in the UK, was somehow an attractive destination for me. You may think that it was due to the growing popularity of K-pop and K-dramas in Europe, but for me, that was not the case. My main motive to go and study in Korea was the curiosity to experience a different culture, the student life and to see how dissimilar it is from my home country.

Even though I have made Korean friends back in the UK, tried Korean food and joined Korean society events, I still experienced many cultural differences which I have never thought of before going to Korea. So, I decided to share them with you and write about the six most considerable cultural differences that I have experienced in South Korea.

Food culture in South Korea

Food culture is a fascinating topic for many of us as trying a local cuisine abroad is one of the best ways to experience the local culture. In my own experience, trying local cuisine in South Korea has taught me a lot not only about the food, but about the culture, the way people eat and the history behind the food, too.

For Koreans, food is meaningful due to their history. Back in the day, Korea was not a rich country meaning that Koreans may have suffered from hunger due to lack of food availability. Therefore, having a meal was the number one priority for South Koreans, as nutrition allowed them to continue their hard labour and sustain their lifestyle. Due to this, even nowadays, Koreans see mealtime as a high priority in their lifestyles. Therefore, instead of saying ‘how are you?’, Koreans may greet you by saying: “Have you eaten?” Initially, I was a little surprised by this and wondered why my Korean friends always ask me if I ate lunch or dinner.  Later, I found out that this is just a simple greeting, and it has developed due to Korean history.

Korea is a collectivist country, so Koreans tend to value community. That reflects on the food sharing culture. I experienced that when I went to a restaurant with my Korean friends and, rather than ordering one dish each, we ordered shared dishes. Even the restaurant dishes usually serve two or more people, which is very different from the UK, where we generally eat individual dishes.

Additionally, Koreans commonly prefer not to talk during mealtime and instead focus their complete attention on consuming their meal. I have learnt about this cultural aspect by going to restaurants with my Korean friends. At first, I was constantly chatting, but my Korean friends would answer me briefly each time and continue enjoying their meal. I kept wondering why they are not talking a lot because, back in the UK, going to a restaurant was the way for friends to socialise. Out of curiosity, I have asked my friends about this. They told me that a restaurant was for eating and socialising happened in the cafe or the pub after the meal.

Table with traditional Korean food
Having traditional Korean food: gimbap and spicy rice cakes

Korean Cafe Culture

Cafes were my favourite places in Korea. I’m able to count on one hand the days when I did not go to a cafe, as I went there almost every single day, either for studying, catching up with friends or, simply, to have a cup of coffee.

My motivation to visit cafes so often was, mainly, because there were so many of them. One street could have multiple cafes, either owned by a chain or managed independently. Wherever I looked, there was cafe after cafe…

Interestingly, in Korea, there are two different types of cafes: the quiet ones for students to study, which sometimes are open for 24 hours, and themed ones for friends to catch up and take pictures for social media. Themed cafes include animal cafes, such as cat, racoon, sheep and more, and cafes with hammock seats or a swimming pool. I may write another blog article about different cafes in Korea as there are just so many of them.

So, the main difference between cafes in the UK and Korea is that, in the UK, they are mainly for socialising over coffee, but in Korea, cafes are the way of life, as you can socialise, study or just relax for hours on end.

Cat sleeping on furniture
Raccoon cafe in Seoul, South Korea

Student living in South Korea

Student living in a Korean dormitory has a lot of differences if we compare it to the UK.

Firstly, there are gender rules. While in Europe, students are usually living in mixed-gender dorms. In Korea, that’s impossible. Korean students are strictly separated by gender, not just by flats but also by buildings. 

Secondly, the dormitory has a curfew. For example, students must not come back to the dormitory later than 11 p.m. and must not leave it earlier than 5 a.m. That’s disappointing, right? How about the student parties and late-night hangouts? But don’t worry because on the weekends there is no curfew.

Also, another thing that has shocked me about student dorms in South Korea was that we had to share a room with another student. During my two semesters, I had two different roommates with whom I shared a room.

This dormitory structure has both positives and negatives. By sharing a room, you may never get lonely, but there may be a lack of personal space. So, be aware of that if you are planning to study abroad in South Korea.

Two beds and desks aligned on each side of a shared room
Typical shared room in a Korean dormitory

Korean University Life 

University life is probably one of the most important points for us students. All of us may be interested in how university life is different and how the classes are in South Korea. All I can say is that university life is slightly different if you compare it with the UK. The keyword that I would use to describe Korean student life is COMPETITION. 

Everything starts with the class selection process, as in Korea, students have a specific set time when they can enrol in classes for an upcoming semester, and there are only limited spaces for each one. For example, at 10 a.m., students have to select their classes, and only the fastest students will get to take the one they like. Students who were not fast enough, unfortunately, will have to take less popular classes. The reality is that, within 15 seconds, there are not many classes left. So, you need fast internet and to be completely prepared for this class selection period. In my experience, it was really hard to select classes that I wanted to enter the most, but I was able to enter four, respectively three modules, each semester.

The competition does not end there; it continues in the classroom. The students are not only marked on how well they did. The grade mainly depends on the score that the rest of the class has achieved. For that reason, the professor sets benchmarks for the grading system. For example, only 20% of the students can get an A, 40% a B, 20% a C, and the lowest-performing students get a D or a FAIL. It can be good at times if the test was really hard, and you and your peers have performed not so well. As in this case, you could still potentially get an A. However, the negative side of this grading system is that even if you did well,  you are not guaranteed to get an A if others did better.

someone doing math on a notebook, view from top
Korean University Life

Korean Couple Culture

What has surprised me about Korean culture is the ‘couple culture’, since many celebrations and commercial activities are aimed at couples. That includes ‘couple items’ such as matching clothes, accessories, etc., as well as celebrations such as Valentine’s Day, White Day, Pepero Day, Hug Day and even Christmas. The most surprising thing for me was that Koreans traditionally celebrate Christmas with their partner and not with family. So, I would say that Korea is a ‘couple country’, and not having a significant other in Korea can be lonely at times. Trust me. But having a partner may be a little burden as well, as in Korea couples always plan their dates carefully. Therefore, before each date, Koreans spend a lot of time searching for nice date places and buying each other gifts.

couple holidays in a drawing
A few highlights of couple of holidays in South Korea

Korean Fashion Style

Fashion style and following the trend is essential for South Koreans. Meaning that Koreans will always try to look their best wherever they go and make sure they are in line with the current trend. That’s why, on the streets, I can see many fashionable Koreans following a similar style. Especially in winter, everyone is wearing either black or white padding coats. I had to buy one to fit the trend, but that was mostly due to the cold winter, and this coat kept me warm.

The effort to look good continues in university as Korean students turn up well dressed even for a 9 a.m. lecture. This has influenced my daily routine in Korea, considering that, for the 9 a.m. lecture, I would always wake up 1 hour earlier to get ready and fit the cultural standards. I guess culture has influenced my behaviour, as I also continued doing that back in the UK.

Girls in padding coats
Padding coats in winter: trendy style in Korea

You can see that there are quite a few cultural differences that I have experienced in South Korea. I have enjoyed learning and experiencing the Korean culture. However, there are few things that I missed back in the UK, such as having my own room and being graded on my own effort rather than being compared to others. Overall, this experience has taught me a lot, so I would like to encourage everyone to study abroad and experience different cultures because it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will widen your horizons.

Written by Aiste Razmaite