Top Ten Culture Shocks in Korea

or Nine Other Ways Korea Blew my Mind

Jiacheng Ye
Sep 12, 2017 · 8 min read

Since I’ve started writing about my experiences coming from the Philippines to Korea as an exchange student, I’ve only focused on the language barrier and the ways I’ve struggled to adapt in terms of using Korean daily. This time, looking back at my first two weeks here, I’ve decided to list down nine other ways I’ve experienced culture shock in Korea, specifically in Seoul, aside from the language.

Not sure if this counts a culture shock, but I was shocked all the same. Welcome to the Skyrestroom, where you get a view of Seoul while doing your business, hopefully not vice-versa.

Seoul Subway System

I used the Seoul Metro Subway System for the first time on my second day, and while I still need to get used to the different lines, locations, and exits, it has definitely been a change from the Ubers I would order or taxis I would hail in Manila whenever I had to go out of my way for a meeting or event. There is a network of lines and exits that go even beyond Seoul, and the trains arrive every 10 mins or so, reducing the possibility of a stampede, an inhumanely long line, or impossibly crowded trains during rush hour. There’s nothing the subway can’t reach, and if there is, there are always buses on the go. Of course there’s a lot of walking that goes with using the subway, but that’s part of the adventure — or you can think of it as an exercise.

From inside a train parked at Incheon Station, at the end of Line 1, waiting for more people to board before leaving.

The Night Life

On the way back home from a concert that ended 10 pm in a stadium 2 hours away from your dormitory? No problem, trains are still running on schedule and you’re travelling with a whole bunch of fans are others going home. On the way back home after drinking with friends and feeling a bit tipsy? No problem, you can grab a cab or commute home with a friend. On the way back home and feeling hungry? No problem, there’s a street food stall or convenience store open.

Just as Seoul is accessible when it comes to distance, it’s also accessible when it comes to time. There’s a shared sense of security round the clock, more so in the areas that are known to be party or nightclub districts. It extends beyond the police — citizens are a part of the effort to keep the city safe for everyone. While Seoul is not immune to accidents and crime, with the right precautions and company, I’ve been able to enjoy the life and scenery at night (for others, the early mornings too) and always safely come back home. It’s amazing how maintaining a secure and safe environment has allowed people living in Seoul to maximize their time, work, and play.

No problem! There’s the Namsan Tower to light the way.

The Internet

It’s everywhere! Thanks to 24 hour stores and the Seoul Metro, there are wifi networks in nearly every corner of the city, powered by various service providers. Some networks require a purchase or an account, while others are free for public use. Then there’s the option to avail of a data plan that connects to the Internet from anywhere — as long as there’s signal.

It’s fast! I’ll let the numbers talk.

That’s just in my dormitory.

The accessibility and speed of the internet here has helped me a lot with navigation. When I got lost on the trail headed for Haneul Park near the World Cup Stadium, reliable data and GPS got me back on track. When I meet up with people in places I’ve never been to before, all I have to do is look for a wifi network, connect to it and contact the person I’m meeting up or look up our meeting place.

You know you’re lost when you have no idea where this leads. Thankfully I made the right decision and took the roadside instead!

The Terrain

Stairs in Ewha Women’s University.

Seoul is a mountainous city with a very rugged landscape, so much so that a lot of the infrastructure in Seoul has been built to adapt to the landscape. Add to that a lot of underground infrastructure and skyscrapers, and all in all you have a lot of uphill roads, downhill roads, and my personal favorite, stairs. Everyday is a leg day.

The university where I’m studying right now, Sogang University, is no different. I go to my classes up and down slopes, and if there are too many people at the elevator, I take the stairs. I’ve never been used to this many ups, downs, and stairs, but I really like that Seoul is a walkable city. There’s a lot to see, hear, and learn from walking. Sometimes I just walk around a certain area with no specific destination in mind to relax.

The Food

I eat kimchi everyday now, and while most of my fellow exchange students are not yet used to the Korean flavors (or refuse to get used to it), I’ve enjoyed the food I’ve been able to taste so far — jajangmyeon (black bean noodles), samgyeopsal (literally three layers of fat) and other meats on the grill, chicken bokkeumbap (fried rice), chimdak (steamed chicken with noodles, red pepper, potatoes, and stir-fried rice cakes), gulgukbap (oysters in a rice broth), and bingsu (flavored ice shavings).

Korean Meal 101: Meat with vegetables, a side dish, a broth, rice, and kimchi

There are lot of Korean cuisine restaurants and even fast food in Manila, and I’m no stranger to them. It wasn’t hard to adapt to the spiciness, vegetables, and sauces, though the dishes I’ve been able to taste in Manila still taste different here in Seoul. What’s been more of a culture shock is that I’m no longer eating what I used to eat back home. So when I was able to take a trip to Hyehwa on Sunday to visit the Filipino market, it was nostalgic to see and smell the food being cooked. I had barbecue on a stick, dinuguan (pork stew in pig’s blood), sisig (grilled and seasoned pork bits with egg and sometimes coconut), pancit (noodles), and turon (spring roll wrapped banana and jackfruit)— it felt like I was at a birthday party or a family reunion.

Even then, I’m still excited to try out more food here in Korea.

Meat grilling restaurant with a buffet of side dishes, meats, and other food

The Weather

Coming from a tropical, monsoon-ridden country, my fellow Filipino exchange students and I are grateful to have been greeted mostly by cool breeze and sunlight for the past two weeks. It has rained on occasion, but nothing compared to the typhoons back home. The friendly weather has allowed me to enjoy the views and locations I’ve been to so far in Seoul.

Perfect weather to go to the park — which my friend and I did.

It gets especially chilly at night, and it’s probably a sign of the seasons to come as summer draws to a close here in Seoul.

The chill in the night air still can’t cool down the lovebirds here in Namsan Tower

The Fashion

While I’m no fashion expert, I’ve noticed that Koreans really put considerable effort into how they look, as reflected in their OOTD and makeup, and that they generally follow similar patterns when it comes fashion. For girls, casual outfits range from long sleeve shirts or blouses with prints topped with an apron dress to oversized polos donned with a denim mini-skirt. For guys, they range from shirts with polo-like jackets and fitted pants to long sleeve shirts with prints paired with above knee shorts.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, where you will find a lot of people in the latest or alternative fashion

In general, Koreans show more skin with their bottoms than with their tops. They also like to wear white a lot — white polos, white shirts, white sneakers. It’s exciting and even amusing at times to observe, and I wonder how these patterns will change as fall and winter set in. Makeup is a whole other topic to tackle.

The culture shock isn’t so much these fashion patterns but that I started to become conscious as well of what I wear. While I’m limited to a number of articles of clothing, and I would want to avoid shopping too much, I’ve found myself spending time to look at what I’m going to wear and rationalize my outfit with what I’m going to do that day.

The Fans

I stumbled upon a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Seoul Biennial for Architecture and Urbanization at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and actor Lee Je Hoon, well known for his role in the movie Signal, was there as an ambassador. As soon as the ribbon cutting ceremony was over, all the girls — of all ages, and perhaps even nationality — who knew who he was started racing to the front to take a shot with him. I managed to get up in front and see the action. It was like watching a scene from a zombie movie from Train to Busan, sans the gore.

There are fans to take photos, then there are fans who manage to get in the photo.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how intense fans can be. In the past few days, I’ve had the privilege to attend the 2017 Seoul International Drama Awards and the 2017 Incheon Kpop Concert, and Hallyu fans (including myself) just continue to surprise me every time.

The Couples

During our trip to Haneul Park, there were so many couples around so my friend and I decided to play a game and take selfies with couples that we would spot right in the moment of PDA (physical display of affection).

‘Nuff said. Here are some of the shots I took.

HHWW (holding hands while walking)
HWOE (Hugging while on escalator)
HWTS (hugging while taking selfie)

Even with the culture shocks that I’m getting used to, I enjoyed experiencing and observing all of these because I’m not alone. As my friend said, “Adventures are best enjoyed with a friend.”

Exhibit A on things that are difficult to do if you’re on a solo trip

Find out what else we got ourselves into in our trip to Haneul Park in this vlog:

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