CNNgo just published an embarrassing article dripping with white bias and loaded with outdated stereotypes about expats, Koreans, and life in Korea. You can read it here. Or just go there to leave a comment that the article’s off the mark. A lot. And even a little insulting. It’s titled 12 Rules for Expat Life in Korea, and it’s entering Jon Huer territory (Who’s Jon Huer? For those of you who are new, or have short memories…)
Here are the 12 rules from CNNgo’s article: (with subtexts in parenthesis)
1. Learn to drink like a fish. (because Koreans are alcoholics and will force you to drink)
2. Try not to get celebrified. (because Koreans are provincial tools who have never seen a white person before, and every reader of this article will be white)
3. Bring your own clothing. (because there’s “no big size” mart, dongdaemun is the only place to buy clothes here)
4. Learn to dance K-pop. (because that’s the only culture Korea has. bubblegum K-pop)
5. Put the gay away. (I’m not even going there on this one)
6. Buy good face cream. (wtf? THIS goes in the TOP twelve? Maybe in the top 100…)
7. Embrace your inner diva. (noraebang… meh. I’m OK with this one. Spell Norae-bang correctly kthx)
8. Don’t tip. (still probably true)
9. Don’t have a coffee addiction. (because Korean coffee culture hasn’t changed since 2002)
10. Take pictures of your food. (this is way more important than that list of online info resources I could have put in spot ten on the list. After all: the headline says this list is definitive)
11. Adjust your diet. (there’s a sleuth of international restaurants? Don’t you mean a slew?)
12. Strike an Asian pose. (because even though in rule 3 I told you not to try and DRESS like Koreans, you won’t look stupid when you try to ACT like Koreans. And all Koreans do Asian poses, btw. No exceptions.)
In point form:
-you CAN find good coffee if you know where to look
-you CAN find larger-sized clothes if you know where to look
-you CAN find good versions of food you knew back home, if you know where to look (and are willing to make regular trips to Itaewon, in some cases)
-queer culture in Korea is WAY more “out” than it used to be. Did you know there’s a pride parade in Seoul on Saturday? You should go!
-Asian poses look silly, no matter who you are
-people in other countries also take pictures of their food
-people in other countries use face cream
-there are strategies for avoiding drinking like a fish without losing face in a social situation, and using those strategies has become much more acceptable in recent years.
Enough of that.
A while ago, I wrote an article titled, “How to Love the Heck Out of Korea” — that’s still not a bad page to go read. Some of my older blogging is kind of embarrassing to me now, but I’m still generally proud of this one.
So here are my 12 tips for ACTUALLY getting off on the right foot in Korea: One or two repeat from “How to Love” or are similar to CNNgo’s list, or Chris in South Korea’s response list, but I think this one’s worth the read.
1. Get online.
Korea4Expats, Galbijim, AFEK, ATEK, a sleuth slew of Facebook groups, Meetup.com, HiExpat,, Royal Asiatic Society Korea, Seoul Global Center, KOTESOL, 10 Magazine, Groove Magazine, Busan Haps, and a sleuth slew of blogs (blogs come and go, so look on my sidebar) all have information about programs communities, events, online discussion pages, collections of advice, or experts waiting to give advice.
Also: if you don’t want to get swallowed up in the void of expat negativity, avoid every part of Dave’s ESL cafe except the job listings.
2. Learn Korean. This cannot be emphasized enough. Here’s a great list of korean study books, with reviews. Galbijim’s list of online Korean study resources. I like KoreanClass101 (but the best stuff takes a paid subscription) Their Youtube Channel. Sogang’s program comes highly recommended. Learn Korean Now.
3. Find a community, and a hobby not associated with drinking. Drinking opportunities have a way of finding you: there’s no need to go looking for them. Volunteering is one of the best ways to do this. ATEK’s webpage has a helpful page to find volunteering opportunities in your area. That failing, try the Seoul Global Center, and that failing, community centers, cultural centers, and churches can usually get you in touch with that stuff. Go to the train station near your house, and look for a tourist information center nearby. Ask them about cultural centers or community centers near you.
4. Pick an aspect of the culture, and dig in. There is so much to Korean culture, so many areas you can get into. K-pop is just the candy-floss tip of the iceberg. Korean film, dramas, old songs, traditional entertainment forms, cultural centers, cooking. history, philosophy – there are websites, online communities, and real-life meetup groups and organizations just waiting for you to find them, and learn about different aspects of Korea. Don’t sell yourself (and Korea) short by thinking that leggy girls or boys with sixpacks moving in unison in front of pink backdrops while making asian poses is the extent of Korean culture. It’ll be your own loss.
5. Have a few songs ready for the Norae-bang… and try to learn one in Korean. Yep. If you’re hanging out with Koreans (as you should) things are going to end up in the singing room from time to time. If you have a few songs ready to sing, you’ll be a star. If you can sing one or two songs in Korean, you’ll be a superstar. Learn to read Hangul, and pick a few songs you like.
6. Learn about nunchi, saving face, and age and status deference, and how the Korean take on these issues applies to your workplace, social situations, and especially drinking situations. There ARE ways to deal with workplace issues that don’t involve shouting, and there ARE ways to avoid getting forced to drink off your gourd in social situations… but they require a delicate touch and some cultural sensitivity. When in Rome and such. You can do the Waygook Headbutt – (see Gord Sellar on the japanese equivalent – “Gaijin Smash” – my new phrase for trying to get away with things because you’re a foreigner). A good way to do this is by befriending an expat who’s been here for a very long time, or reading blogs by expats who have been here for a very long time, or whose writing demonstrates evidence of trying to thoughtfully and sensitively negotiate cultural differences. Email them questions, too.
7. Try your darnedest to get adopted by a Korean family. If you haven’t had close interactions with an entire family unit, and seen how families get along here, you’ve missed a huge part of Korean life. Koreans can be quite cold toward strangers, but incredibly warm and hospitable to friends: once you get inside that circle, you’ll be amazed at the warmth, kindness, helpfulness, and loyalty you’ll encounter. Ten years down the road, you’ll still get invited to important family rituals like Chuseok, and they’ll feed you till you burst, and you will, literally, get a set of friends for life out of it.
8. Hang out with a variety of Koreans, and a variety of expats. If almost all the people around you look simliar to you, have similar backgrounds, similar jobs, similar education levels, and similar ages, you’re missing out. See the community lists above. Hang out with people whose English is poor, and try to speak Korean to them. You’ll get a look at Korea that you can’t get from Koreans who speak English, if you’re patient.
9. If you’re here short-term, try to make the most of it, and have an exit strategy. You can spend two years here paying down your student loans, and finish with a list of facebook friends who’ll drift apart after you go home… or you could take that time and earn a masters’ degree, or other kinds of accreditations that will help you find work back home, through distance learning. A lot of HR people in your home country know that years teaching English in Asia can (for some) be a way of extending college life for a few extra years before getting serious, and will count that against you. Instead, getting involved in communities, or building your credentials, will help you to answer that tough question, “How did you make the most of your time in Korea?” with something other than “I hooked up at least once at every bar in Hongdae, and I earned a plaque on the ‘Shots Around the Clock’ wall at Sketchy’s in Itaewon.” Have a plan you’ve already started for what you’ll do when you get back to your home country, BEFORE you go.
10. Get out of the city, and off the beaten track. There’s tons to see and do in Korea, and almost every region and town has something they promote as their “claim to fame” – try the local specialties, seek out the ones that are famous for things that interest you. Avail yourself of the convenience of love motels (almost always a few of those near the bus terminal).
11. Climb mountains. Korea’s 70% mountainous… there are so many peaks to climb it’s not funny, and many are accessible by public transportation – bus, subway, or train. It is so worth it, and Koreans are never friendlier than when you encounter them on the mountain.
12. Learn to use Korea’s transportation infrastructure – this is getting easier by the year, with tourist help lines and English signage, but the whole country opens up to you if you know how to read a train or bus schedule, and can communicate basic needs in Korean, for getting a place to sleep, and finding transportation.
I took this so much as a given that I didn’t make room for it in my first 12: Get a Cellphone as soon as possible. So many aspects of social life in Korea are facilitated by cellphones, you really can’t get on without one.
and… Read Up before you come. Here’s a good start, just from Roboseyo.
1. Open letter to new teachers in Korea.
2. How to love the heck about Korea.
3. Top ten things expats love about Korea
4. Thinking about coming to Korea?
Hopefully, THAT will actually get you ready to hit the ground running if you’re starting out in Korea.
In conclusion, Korea is a land of contrasts. Thank you for reading my essay.
You can read Roboseyo’s original post here.