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What is it like being a foreigner in Korea?

Comparative geography with my fifth graders. They drew the Kim Jong Il illustration.
blue dot
Jul 14 2012

A while back, a friend asked me if I could write to someone she knew who was thinking of teaching in Korea, and tell her what it is like to come to Korea as a foreigner. This friend had taught in Korea herself, but she is Korean-American, speaks Korean, and the experience is very, very different.

This was what I sent her friend. It is primarily for someone coming for a public school position – the experience of teaching at a hagwon is different, and something I don’t know a lot about.

Anything specific? I spent a year with the TaLK program, never missed home, then went home for a year and missed Korea like crazy. Now I’m back with EPIK.

Before I came, my biggest fears were not speaking the language, living somewhere really isolated, and not making friends. Probably you’re worried about similar things.

None are things you need to worry about. Regarding language: nobody expects that you can speak a word of Korean. If you do speak a little Korean, they will answer you in English anyway, and tell you that you speak good Korean. They will say this even if you only know how to say hello. They will apologize for their terrible English. They will say this even if they speak English fluently.

If they don’t speak any English, or are embarrassed about their English, they’ll pantomime their responses. They will do this even if you do speak some Korean. If you ask them the time, in Korean, they may answer you by holding up fingers. For many Koreans, the idea that foreigners can’t speak Korean is immutable.

Having said that, you should make some effort with the language. It’s good for you, and besides that, coming to Korea to teach English without trying to learn Korean makes you look like a douche. It’s worthwhile learning the alphabet before you come. It’s very simple and you can learn it with a few hours study; or make yourself some flash cards and learn it leisurely over a week or so. It will help with menus and catching busses. Simple greetings also go a long way. After that, you can study the Sino-Korean numbers and 얼마에요 (How much?), which will make you less clueless when shopping.

You might end up somewhere rural; even if you’re assigned to one of the main cities, there are rural areas within those cities. But at worst this means a longer trip to school, and you might have to save your socializing with other foreigners for the weekends. It doesn’t matter too much; you’ll be working during the week. And it will encourage you to make friends with the natives. It’s impossible to be too isolated in Korea: the public transport is amazing, it’s very easy to take off for any city and meet your friends. There are also many benefits to being rural – the schools are more laidback and will be more appreciative of you coming to teach there. In regional Korea, you’re likely to be treated as somebody more special than you actually are; in my experience people in the city tend to be more blase, or ever-so-slightly prejudiced against, foreigners.**Quite understandably. They’ve seen more asshole foreigners.

And regional Korea is beautiful.†


†Seoul isn’t beautiful…

Korea is very densely populated, so even small cities and towns tend to feel much more urban than you’d expect based on their populations.

As for friends, if you have friends at home you shouldn’t have any trouble making friends here, and orientation gives you a great chance to meet people. The thing people forget is that there are several hundred other people whose greatest fear is also that they won’t make friends. A bigger problem is not just grabbing the first person you meet on the bus on the way to the orientation. There are lots of people to meet. Relax. Take your time. Get to know everybody.

There’s a lot more to being a foreigner in Korea, like the fact that you’re always on display, half-rockstar and half-leper, and you have to adjust to every interaction you have with a Korean being a novel experience for them, which can be weird at times. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Everything is heightened. The other day I saw a girl drop her umbrella, and she was with her friend, and it was kind of goofy, but then she picked up her umbrella, looked up and saw me, and her friend started laughing – the minor embarrassment of the situation was just heightened, because a foreigner – me – observed it. People will hesitate for a moment before sitting next to you on the bus. A hundred kids a day will say “Hello” to you, and you have to remember that every time, it’s a unique experience for them, even if it has become boring to you.

Another thing is that people tend to have the wrong idea about Korea – even if they know it’s a developed country, they tend to expect something more like South-East Asia – markets, thieves, panhandlers and chaos. Most of the people at my first orientation, including me, had got from the TaLK promotional materials an impression that we would be living in something like a Vietnamese rice paddy. It’s really not like that. Think of Japan – you’d be wrong, but closer.

You mind end up thinking that you’ve never lived in a civilized country before. Clean and fast public transport, universal politeness, and quality customer service are some things I missed desperately when I went home again. Korea’s a special country – if you’re inclined to it, I wouldn’t worry too much about the inevitable anxieties.

Trust that it will be good.

Waegukin wrote these 955 words on July 14th, 2012 | Posted in Living |


11 comments on “What is it like being a foreigner in Korea?”

  1. Julianna says:

    hello, i love all of your articles on korea! i was wondering if you have ever met an english teacher in korea that was korean or looked korean but couldn’t speak korean. i am asking because i am korean, but adopted, so i can not speak the language. would this lead to a lot of problems?

  2. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Julianna, Yes I have – one of my good friends here is an American adopted from Korea who came here not knowing the language.

    It certainly presents some challenges. When she first came and we were out together, people in shops and restaurants would insist on directing their conversation to her, even though she was completely helpless and my Korean was far better. Not just initially, but throughout the conversation, no matter how confused she looked or how many times I spoke to them in Korean. (Now her Korean is as good or better than mine, which I like to attribute to her hearing it for the first five months of her life, although it’s probably because she has studied harder than I have recently.)

    I’ve had a lot of conversations with her about it. I think a big difference is that you can immediately expect Koreans to start forcefully instructing you in the proper points of Korean culture and etiquette, where my transgressions are met with laughter and forgiveness.

    On the other hand, you are part of “our country” and in the club in a way I never will be – another thing I’ve talked to her about is that I will never be “oppa” or “hyeong” to a Korean, where she can be (or the female equivalents).

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nonsense on the 오빠/형 thing. If you get fluent enough where you have friendships or relationships that are either entirely, or mostly, in Korean, most people have no problem with it, in my experience. Now, if you start out the relationship in English, then it’s a bit weird for people to have to mentally reframe you, but (and I don’t know how good your Korean is, but) if when meeting new people you just speak Korean from the start, quickly establish ages, and then when mentioning your name quickly dismiss the name. (“Oh by the way my name is Tom but you’re younger right? 동생 right? If we’re speaking Korean just call me 형 then…!) Or for anyone who’s a little older than you (but met in a social, not work, environment), call them the same way…

    If that’s what you want, if course.

    Source : Personal experience. I’m a Caucasian guy, enabout30 years old, been intensively studying Korean for about a year and a half, and am half fluent (completely conversational. I have perhaps a dozen younger friends (though not 친구s, younger eh?) who call me 오빠 or 형 and a somewhat smaller number of older 형s and 누나s, who I don’t have as much chance to meet because they tend to be busier with work, children, etc. A few people have found it strange, but those tended to be people I either knew in English first, or just in general had some odd ideas about foreigners (we’re completely different from Koreans and I can never understand Korean culture despite having lived my entire adult life here, etc….) and ended up not being the best people to hang out with anyways.

    (Sorry for any typos. Writing on a phone…)

  4. The Waegukin says:

    Hi Anonymous,

    Opening your comment with “nonsense” isn’t super-helpful. I always acknowledge that I might make errors in my interpretation of Korean culture and language, and am open to correction, but I don’t think I often write nonsense – particularly with something like this, which I think even the rest of your reply (which is fine) argues is pretty nuanced.

    I would certainly agree that in the situation you describe, with a fluent foreigner who uses Korean relationship language from the start, most Koreans would not have a problem with it. However, as you acknowledge, a minority might still be hesitant about it.

    In my case this observation came firstly from an incident shortly after I arrived. At orientation my friends were mostly Korean-Americans and Korean-Australians, and though all were native English speakers, they referred to each other as 누나, 형 etc. So one day, I, in my ignorance, said, “What am I?” And my friend said, “친구” (we were not the same age, I should note). Another translated for me, and I thought that was quite nice at the time. And it wasn’t until much, much later that it occurred to me that they’d made a deliberate distinction there.

    I think your point is that it is based on language and cultural understanding, and not a racial thing. On your behalf I asked some Koreans “If you had an older friend who was a foreigner and spoke Korean very well, would you call them 오빠 etc?” One said, “Of course”, and another said they didn’t use the term because it was kind of 애교. A third then chimed in and said it was different for different people.

    I do think, say, a Korean adopted to America, even one who speaks little or no Korean, will be far more likely to be called 누나 than an equivalent Caucasian. And that was the context in which I initially made the comment. However basically I’m happy to acknowledge the point: it’s primarily a question of language and cultural understanding, not race.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Apologies for starting out my comment that way, but actually didn’t intend to aim it at you at all. Very much on the contrary, despite having just stumbled onto your blog yesterday, I’m quite impressed. I stayed up (way too) late last night reading nearly every post on the blog, and a lot of it was pretty great, quality writing, displaying a level of cross – cultural understanding that I didn’t possess after only a couple years here, for sure! I sometimes get pretty frustrated with foreign friends here for their lack of understanding and their constant complaints and stereotypes of Koreans, and over the past year have gravitated towards having mostly Korean friends. Your blog, then, is a breath of fresh air in that, while we may not agree on everything, fundamentally we’re on the same page, I think, in thinking that whatever cultural differences, people are just people and all deserving of respect and attempts to understand without generalizing or stereotyping. Anyways, well done, seriously, in the blog! If you ever write something longer form and throw it onto Kindle, I’d be a definite purchaser!

    My ‘nonsense’ comment, as I said, was not aimed at you, but in the sense of ‘if someone ever told you this info, they were wrong.’ Granted, the stuff you said is true: for Koreans or ethnic Koreans the 효칭 (titles like 누나 형 오빠 언니) come automatically or nearly so, where for people like us it’s more something that needs to be earned. (Incidentally it’s also true that there are some people who rarely or never use the terms, although I haven’t quite figured out how they communicate easily in that case, because there’s no second person pronoun in Korean for older people and calling older people by name is very disrespectful here. I digress…) But despite it being non-automatic and somewhat unusual, the idea that it’s impossible or you could never be someone’s honorary big brother here… No way! 🙂

  6. Anonymous says:

    I should amend one part of what I wrote earlier, for clarity. At the workplace, referring to older people without familial 호칭 is easy, because the proper thing to do is to refer to people by job title instead anyways. And for much older people there’s always 아저씨 아줌마 할머니 할아버지 선생님 etc. But for people met socially who are marginally older (1-10 years) these options aren’t available, so I’m not sure how people who don’t use 호칭 handle this situation.

  7. The Waegukin says:

    Yeah, we’re on the same page. No problem. I wasn’t sure how to take your comment, as the opening got me a bit defensive, while the rest of it was actually quite constructive.

    Another thought that occurred to me is that my introduction to this from Korean-American and Korean-Australian friends, as described above, may have been atypical. It occurs to me that those people, being basically bi-cultural, are probably far more inclined to think of and use Korean language to define inside and outside groups than Koreans themselves.

    I understand completely how you feel about foreigners here. I was lucky in my first year, because I was with the TaLK program and almost all my best friends were 교포, which is why I got schooled up really fast. You mentioned my language skills – basically I have conversational Korean, and do have relationships that are conducted entirely in Korean, but it’s conversational only with basic topics and requires the Korean to essentially limit themselves to baby talk. So I’ve actually found it quite difficult of late to make good friends, as the foreigners tend to just have banal conversations about Korea I’ve heard a thousand times before, and my Korean isn’t yet at a point where I can have fully satisfying relationships entirely in Korean.

    Final thing: this was one of the first things I put up on this blog, and was actually thrown on here just so that there would be something here. So I wouldn’t read too much into it – I’ve actually considered taking this down, but now this comment thread is actually interesting.

    Anyway, intelligent discussion is always welcome.

  8. Aragond says:


    A Chinese-Australian friend living in Incheon told me that he was frequently addressed in Korean by shopkeepers and restaurants though he couldn’t speak barely a word. And when we went out, the same would speak to him in Korean not me (big-burly bearded white guy) even though, I think it fair to say, he certainly did not look Korean. But, that said, there was a far greater chance he was and spoke Korean than me. 😀

  9. Aragond says:

    <> is meant to quote:
    It certainly presents some challenges. When she first came and we were out together, people in shops and restaurants would insist on directing their conversation to her, even though she was completely helpless and my Korean was far better.

  10. Leon says:

    Yeah, same experience here. I’m Caucasian and speak fairly fluent Korean (I’m the anonymous commenter above lol); my wife is Asian (but not at all Korean) and speaks bare survival Korean, but things always get aimed at her, even though I’m the one replying, until I specifically mention that she’s not Korean. I’m used to it by now though.

  11. Ellinor wah says:

    “A hundred kids a day will say “Hello” to you, and you have to remember that every time, it’s a unique experience for them, even if it has become boring to you.”
    This made me laugh so much, as it brought back the memories of my first trip to Korea, one summer. I had just turned 18, and had spent 5 years on studying Korean and working to save up money to go to korea. When I finally got the opportunity to go, I went by myself for a month, and thanks to the previous years of Korean studying – I could avoid English all the way through! Also, thanks to starting at an early age, I managed to obtain a fluent Korean accent.
    Anyways, so when I went, every time I opened my mouth to new people, they would gasp in shock for a few moments and all say the same thing “왜케 잘하세요? 한국인줄알았어요!”. When young kids met me – they would first be super excited and say “hello~!” Just like what you wrote, but when I had replied in Korean and asked them something, their faces would turn frightened and perplexed for a moment and asking their parents why the white girl talked Korean. It was really fun to see all the reactions, although it eventually started to get old and you just want to wished to talk seriously and not just about how I learnt Korean. Oh well, I’ve gotten used to it these days (“it is after all their first time”, like you wrote) and I have begun to find the delight in these situations, as I keep to develop new ways of shocking people to see their reactions to my Korean! 😀
    My favorite so far is (if situation allows,)to use small talk in English with the person, and after getting to know each other a bit, and then suddenly without warning start talking in Korean! Hahaha I could’ve almost learnt Korean solely for the fun of the reactions it creates!

    Excuse my rambling, you just made me think of my own memories! Thank you for all your articles, they are very well written and interesting to read! 😀

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