It should go without saying that Korean culture is not like anything we experience at home. For those of us who grew up in the western part of the world, Asian stands as one of the ultimate foreign frontiers to explore, and Korea represents one of the many unique cultures Asia has to offer.
Without going into too much detail of Korea’s history in this article, be sure to do a little homework before your trip here. As helpful as it can be to be able to speak Korean when you come here (although DON’T let your lack of Korean ability deter you from coming), being culturally aware during your time in Korea is even more important. I contend that the same should be said of any country that you find yourself travelling in that has a culture different than your own, however it is especially important here because no matter how you feel inside, on the outside you still look Korean; and this makes all of the difference.
This in no way means that you need to be a master and an expert on all things Korean or related to Korean culture prior to coming, however a little effort and a little care goes a very long way. After all, Korea is a proud country with a rich history based on Confucianism, traditional values, and respect. The latter is especially important when meeting people who are older than you. In Korea, age matters. I’m not just talking about respecting your elders, I am talking about how a few years difference in age can change the dynamic of the relationship you make. It sounds complicated, but actually it is a matter of simple math and then treating the person with the higher number with more respect. This more respect usually comes in the form of Korean that you are using — Korean has different sentence and word endings that denote a varying level of respect. How you would speak with friends is not how you would speak with your elders, seniors, or strangers.
Gestures are also important in Korean culture, although to many foreigners they may seem subtle. Whereas at home it is likely you are used to a proper handshake as a form of introduction, a bow here will do (sometimes supplemented by a handshake). When in doubt, bow, bow, bow. Most of the time a slight bow will do such as when you see a friend or when you enter a restaurant. Generally speaking, the deeper the bow the greater the amount of respect that is shown. I am sure many of my friends back in America would just assume I was nodding my head a bit. Also, in terms of gestures, do your best to give and receive food, drinks, and gifts with two hands. This is especially true for any circumstance where you find yourself younger than the other person, but it is a good practice to get used to. The act of doing so shows respect for the person you are meeting with. Once you do this a few times it is not uncommon for the person to tell you it is okay to stop after a relationship or friendship is established.
If it is a little difficult to remember these things or even a little awkward just keep at it. Remember, you don’t have to try and be someone or something you’re not, just do your best to be culturally aware and open minded. I have met many different people in restaurants, in bars, and even in subway stations who were curious as to why I could speak English fluently and yet appeared to have act in a manner befitting of a Korean. It can be a conversation starter that leads to great memories and new friendships.