Embarrassing Foreigner Moments in Korea

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Communication is key. I'm sure you've heard that one.

When I moved to Korea I knew things would be very different and as a language and culture fanatic, I was excited by the communication gap challenges to come.

I enjoyed piecing together basic sentences in Korean while a Korean stranger did the same in broken English. Sign language, body language, weird facial expressions, sound effects -- when you are abroad and have a need to communicate, anything goes!

But with language barriers and cultural differences you are bound to run into some awkward and embarrassing moments. You have two ways to react to these moments.

Negatively, you can shy away, flee, turn red and burst into tears OR throw an angered, offended tantrum. The other option is to react positively, even if you are thrown off, you can choose to adapt the "Korean way"or simply use the moment as an opportunity to discuss your differences in a civilized fashion.


Here are 3 REAL, personal examples of embarrassing cultural shock experiences.

1. At my first job in Korea, I worked in a small public elementary school on Ganghwa Island. I became very close with the librarian. She was the sweetest woman ever! She took me under her wing, filled me in on any news, information and gossip of the school. We even shared lunch together, exchanging food items we'd pack in our vegetarian-friendly lunchboxes.

One day she took one look at  me and pointed out the big, fat pimple hanging out on my cheek. "Stress?" She said.

Naturally, I was mortified.

As if I hadn't noticed the monstrous lump on my face staring at me in the mirror. I'm sure my face instantly turned red. I was so embarrassed. The thing is, I knew that Koreans commented on appearance often, I just wasn't used to any negative comments. Koreans love to compliment you on your makeup, outfit, weight, face size, eye size, the list goes on.

Although embarrassed and a bit hurt that my friend would point out my ugly pimple, I knew it was a cultural difference. In Korea, it is common to point out if someone has a pimple, dark eye circles, or a rough appearance and ask if it is "stress". It is a way of showing concern for the other person's well-being. Pointing out those huge eye bags shows that they are attentive to you and notice your changes.

To be honest, I felt fine and I wasn't stressed but I lied and said I was feeling stressed. This was me playing the "Korean way" as I mentioned before. In Korea, people see pimples as a direction reaction to stress. Where I'm from, this correlation isn't automatic. Sure acne could be stress related but we also think it could just be from certain foods, allergies, hormones imbalance, etc.

You obviously don't have to lie, and I think at the moment, I did so out of embarrassment and a loss for words.


2. In the second moment I want to share, I didn't react in a positive way. It was a late night after dance class and I was hungry. The area I lived in was about a 20 minute walk from the main street in Gangnam, however I had just walked 20 minutes from the opposite direction from my dance class. Most of the restaurants near my villa closed early. There was one kogi chib (aka Korean BBQ restaurant) open and I decided to go in and see if I could order a kimchi stew or cold noodles. As soon as I step foot in the door the ajumma (older woman) asked,

"How many people?"

Of course, I said I was alone. The ajumma burst out laughing, while the rest of the customers stared blankly at me.

I scooted out of the place as fast as possible and hurried to the local convenience store to grab a snack instead. I was angry, embarrassed and upset. I ranted to myself about how rude she was and when I got home I told my roommate about the "evil ajumma".

A few cultural differences pop up in this situation. One, the staring and laughter and two, the custom of not eating alone.

The staring was something I was used to at that point, people always stared, but having all eyes on me in that tiny restaurant was unbearable.

The ajumma laughing at me and denying service felt personal, I took it personally. I knew I obviously looked different, and probably sounded different speaking their language. I felt attacked and isolated.

The fact is however, in Korea you don't eat alone. And if you do, it is definitely NOT at a kogi chib.

The laughter? My guess is that the ajumma found it amusing that I'd even ask if eating alone there was an option. Koreans are very blunt and this can be a lot for someone accustomed to the "sugar-coating" we do in parts of America.

Handled better, I shouldn't have taken the situation personally. The fact is, that when you go to a kogi chib you cannot order a single portion of meat. The grill format and setup is a shared experience. Even though my intention was to come in and order a a soup or noodles (technically considered side dishes to the meat), that is not the way things work in Korea.

In America we are the "have it your way" kind of people. We customize, take out, add, and completely change the menu items to our liking. In Korea, for the most part, you get what you get. There is not a culture of customizing the food and there is not a culture of eating alone at a restaurant.


3. Last situation, it is time to shine light on some positive embarrassing moments here! Transportation in Korea is spectacular. You can fill a T-money card with cash at the convenience store, hop on a bus to work, take a taxi to run errands on your lunch break, and then subway to meet a friend for dinner, all using the SAME card. A lot of people fill the card with money at the beginning of the month and use it freely. Well, it must have been towards the end of the month, I hopped on a bus, scanned my T-Money card and the recording shouted something at me that meant "You're out of money biotch!"

Okay, no problem get off the bus, right?


In Korea you basically run and jump onto a moving bus or if the bus is fully stopped, the second you're in, the driver hits the gas. I sheepishly scanned my card a few more times and began to rummage through my purse for some cash. I had never actually used cash to pay for a bus ride so I asked the driver where the correct slot was. The driver mumbled something under his breathe and seemed quite annoyed with me.

I swear she must've been an angel... a young girl jumped up out of her seat with such a sense of duty and shouted,

"I'll take care of it!"

That has to be one of the most memorable moments for me in Korea. I gave her a full 90 degree bow and a million thank-you's.

She literally saved my day and made my day with her gesture.

Life in Korea will bring you tons of situations just like the ones mentioned above. Sometimes our reaction is uncontrollable and instinctive. Other times we have time to process and decide how we'll react. I strongly believe that one way to save yourself unnecessary stress is to learn as much as you can about Korean culture and the way the society functions. It is most likely extremely different from your home country.

Being aware of these differences can keep you from spending your evenings curled up in a ball of isolation or bubbling over with anger.


I created Hello Tonya Teacher as a way to reflect upon my experiences in Korea, dissect them and give back!

One way I can help you now is by helping you actually get to Korea!

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