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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Cultural Differences – Getting Aquainted Part II

Korea is a strange place. Expats who have lived here for years still find themselves constantly surprised. The culture is inherently contradictory of itself, and while deeply rooted in centuries old customs, also changes and adapts faster than any other culture I’ve yet experienced.

In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen some of the kindest, most generous acts offered by people, but I’ve also witnessed blatant racism and xenophobia, often back to back, and from the same people.

This is a technologically advanced country, with the fastest Internet in the world, wireless everywhere, cell-phone service underground, and yet you can’t flush toilet paper for fear of clogging the ancient pipes.

The inexplicable occurs regularly regardless of length of time in Korea

Women can sport skirts and shorts that barely cover their bums, yet showing shoulders or cleavage is frowned upon. Ancient grandmothers can barely stand up straight, yet they sprint past you as you climb a mountain trail, and then pound back bottles of makkoli (rice alcohol) at the top. Eating something with your hands is considered dirty, but selling shellfish that have been sitting in buckets of lukewarm water in the sun all day is not a problem.

Some of the differences between our cultures are easy enough to navigate, and cause little-to-no problem when trying to adapt to living here. Taking off your shoes going into a restaurant soon becomes second nature, and you quickly learn to wear easy-to-remove shoes, and socks with no holes, when eating out. But other differences cause a lot of friction, sometimes because it’s not just “different” from what we do at home, but it actually goes against everything we’ve been taught, and we see it as wrong.

The first Korean to eat these must have been near death from starvation

1) One of the biggest problems foreigners have here is the automatic deference to older people. In the West, elders are treated with respect, we offer bus seats to grandpas and help grannies cross the street. But if an older person tells you to do something that is incorrect or counter-productive, you can point out the error. Here, correcting someone who is even just a year or two older is considered the height of rudeness. Pointing out to your boss that he or she has made a poor decision, is akin to smacking them in the face, which is never a good idea. Right or wrong, if your boss tells you to do something, you are meant to do it, no questions asked. This can be a difficult thing to do for those of us raised to question authority, stand up when something is wrong, and speak out when you feel you’re being treated unfairly.

2) It’s also part of the corporate culture to consider staff as belonging to the company. Therefore if the boss decides you must now work Saturdays, this is what you will do. The Korean staff will accept this, even if it makes them angry and they have to rearrange their lives to accommodate that. They may grumble in the staff room, but it’s a rare Korean worker who will go into the boss’ office to complain. It’s just what must be done.

"... like, what happened to the road?"

3) Likewise with last-minute decisions and schedule changes. Since the company owns you, you should have no problem doing what you are told. Unfortunately, this idea that staff doesn’t need to be told any of the details until the last possible moment often means you don’t get told at all, meaning teachers end up in the wrong class, or getting a phone call at 2pm asking why you aren’t in class, when up until that moment you were scheduled to come in at three.

4) Many foreign women run into problems here with older Korean men. Due to the patriarchal, Confucian societal structure here, a young woman has basically no status, and Korean girls will not speak back to older men. For those of us raised in the post-feminist society prominent in the West, it’s difficult to watch and next to impossible to accept when the older man is trying to dictate to us. This dynamic can create a lot of friction in the workplace between Western women and Korean men.

5) Something specific to this region of Korea is what I refer to as the “Ulsan Accent”. There is a tendency in Gyeongsangnamdo (the province around Ulsan and Busan) for people to speak as though they are angrily yelling, even if they are just greeting you. “HELLO! IT’S GOOD TO SEE YOU!!”

Of course, when you don’t speak much Korean, (or even when you do), it’s easy to misinterpret this “accent” as being yelled at for no reason. This can lead to unpleasant altercations. An ajusshi walks up to you and starts angrily (you think) yelling at you in Korean. You either walk away as fast as possible, or you yell back. When alcohol is involved, this can escalate quickly.


Cat? Dog? A mythical Korean beast of lore?

6) There are other customs here that foreigners can find annoying and difficult to get used to. While they cause less outright problems than the others, these are the straws that build up until the camel’s back breaks. At the supermarket, ajummas love to see what you’re buying, even at times going so far as to rifle through your grocery cart. People encourage their small children to talk to you, and teenagers yell out, “Hello!” and “Nice to meet you!” and then laugh like hyenas when you respond, making you feel a little bit like a trained monkey on display. (“Isn’t it cute? It thinks it’s people!”)

And coworkers will tell you, “You’re getting fat” or “You look terrible today” without any regard for your feelings. No one lines up unless they are forced to by ropes or numbered tickets, and even then older people will just walk right up to the teller or cashier and force their way in front of you. Your coworkers will refer to you as “waygookeen” (foreigner) when they speak about you, even if it would make as much sense to use your name. At first it all seems funny, but part way through your time here, it starts to wear on you.

You might notice I haven’t said what you should do when you encounter these situations. This is because there is no right answer. Some people feel more comfortable just accepting the status quo and going along with it. Others feel the need to stand up and challenge things they feel are wrong and unfair. After all, that’s how things changed back home.