The Seoul Diaries: Culture Shocks

Hello! Welcome back to my blog posts! It already has been almost a month of me living in South Korea, so I thought I would quickly discuss some of the culture shocks that I have had and helpful information or skills that I have learned so far! These things would be good to know if you are planning on studying/traveling to Korea in the future!


I would like to start by saying that what Americans call “casual styles” of clothing has a whole different meaning here in Korea. Every day I walk down a sidewalk, it is like a fashion show full of dresses, skirts, formal wear, and sporty casual wear…. but fancier. Clothing and first impressions here is something that is highly valued so everyone always dresses a little bit more business-casual than what I was used to seeing in the States (i.e. a t shirt and shorts). However, I really like it and I think that fashion styles here are on the more “simple is better” side with lots of neutral colors. I would highly recommend upgrading your closet while you are here or pack some more formal-looking clothes before coming so that you don’t feel underdressed every time you go outside like me on a daily basis 🙂

American Food Cravings

Even in quarantine, I had the hankering. The hankering for some American snacks. I luckily packed a huge bag of Cheetos for this reason, but after finishing that, I am sad to say that Korean Cheetos do not hit the same way 🙁

I have found that, when people ask me what we should eat for dinner, I find myself saying “Hamburgers” and ‘Pizza” way too often. I know. “Faith, you are in Korea! Why aren’t you eating the local cuisine???” I knowwwww. I knowwwww. I am fully aware of this and I do go to places for the local cuisine, but every now and then I get the cravings for American food….

Tip: If you have garbage in your hand as you walk down the streets of Seoul, you will have to hold onto it for a while. In order to keep the streets cleaner, there are hardly any garbage cans or bins in reach.

Unspoken Subway/Bus Rules

Omg. There are so many unspoken rules. Don’t be like me and embarrass yourself on the subway and/or bus your first few times. Here are my spoken rules:

  • When you enter a subway car, DON’T sit in these yellow/purple seats (see below)! You will get odd looks from others and it is because they are designated for the elderly, handicapped, pregnant women, and parents with small children. I sat down there once and immediately knew that I was in the wrong. Instead, try to sit in the middle seats or stand (if you have good balance!). I have now mastered the art form of leaning near the doors against the bars as to not fall on my face when the subway jolts!~
  • If your stop is coming up next, people will get up beforehand and stand in front of the subway doors if it is their stop too. In theory, if you are exiting the subway, you have the right of way getting off, but that isn’t always the case, so just be careful when exiting and don’t drop your phone or AirPods into that space in between the subway and the platform area if you bump into someone!
  • On the bus, there are red stop buttons on the sides that you need to push to indicate that you are leaving the bus at a certain stop. The bus driver will not stop if you don’t tell him that you want to get off; he will just keep driving. Speaking from experience, the best timing for pushing this essential button would be, right after you hear the announcement go off saying “The next stop is __(your stop)____. ____(your stop)____” in Korean. Push the button! You may need the Kakao Bus app and know a little Korean to understand and hear the name of the stop for some buses. Trust me. I learned this the hard way…
  • Get this subway app (see below). With it, you can plan how long it will take you to get from station to station. Once you input your from and to destinations, it will show you this picture (2nd picture). The highlighted area is the quickest transfer point for you to stand at so that you don’t walk all the way across the subway station to transfer or arrive at your destination. These numbers are consistent with the numbers written on the platforms of the subway (see 3rd photo). Standing here will give you the shortest distance to walk to your exit/transfer areas. I know. Pretty efficient and amazing right?

Tip: DON’T get stuck in the afternoon/morning work rush on the subway. Just don’t. I made this mistake and it was the most uncomfortable and sweaty 3 stops of my life. I felt like a sardine in a sardine can (see photos below for a reference) and it was so humid that day… ugh. When in doubt, leave early or schedule your adventures at a different time. If you do get caught in it, politely force you way out of the subway car at your stop.

Cafe Culture

Where I grew up, it went without saying that leaving your stuff alone anywhere was a bad idea. Why? Because anyone could (and would) touch your stuff and steal your belongings. Maybe it was just how I was raised, but I always keep a close eye on my stuff going to public places like the library, cafes, or even restaurants. In Korea, the culture is just different. In America, it is common to order your food at a cafe before finding seating. In Korea, it is the exact opposite. At cafes, I have walked in with friends and they head straight to finding seating, place all of their belongings on the tables and chairs, and then walk to the counter to order. During my time here, I have seen people get up, walk out of the cafe, and not come back for 40 minutes; all while leaving their laptop, i-pad, backpack, technology, and even wallet on the table. Just sitting there, Out in the open. I was shocked.

“But, can’t anyone just steal their stuff?” I asked a friend.

“Yes, but it is normal to leave your stuff around here. There are also CCTV cameras everywhere so, if someone were to steal something, they would most likely be caught.”

This is one of those things that I am still not used to. I feel very protective of my belongings (especially as a foreign student traveling abroad), so I still take mostly everything with me if I were to go anywhere or at least pack it up beforehand. I’m trusting, but not that trusting I guess.

Tip: Trying to get money from ATMs on the weekends is not the best idea! Especially from banks like Hana Bank or KB Bank using a foreign card. ATMs here actually have working times during the week. To my knowledge, these types of ATMs don’t have working hours on the weekend (because I tried – and failed several times to withdraw cash doing this). Try doing this during the week instead~

Plastic Bags/Recycling

Lastly, two of my biggest culture shocks of them all. Recycling and plastic bags. Even in quarantine, I had to dispose of my food waste, general trash, and cans into different containers or in the toilet. If you don’t dispose of your trash correctly, you can and will be fined. At fast food restaurants and cafes, there are areas where you can dispose of liquids, trash, plastics, and your trays and I think it is brilliant (see photo below). I wasn’t expecting to see these types of stations here so, when I saw them for the first time, I was in shock – in a good way. I never expected to see a bucket with the sole purpose of holding thrown out liquids, but it does exist.

A trash area at a Starbucks!

With this, plastic bags cost money here. In the States, they are free of cost. I often stocked up on them from my trips to Walmart and many other households often have a few piles of unused plastic bags that they reuse as trash bags or for other things. However, in Korea, if you go to a convenience store or Daiso, they automatically don’t give you a plastic bag. If you need one, you have to ask them for one and doing this will cost you 100 won (roughly 10 cents) per bag. I remember the first time I told the guy at my dorm’s convenience store that I didn’t need one for once and he sounded so happy to hear that. Now, I feel bad every time I do ask for one… but – hey – I’m trying to cut down on the number of plastic bags I use… Save the environment!  

These are some of the culture shocks that I have experienced so far in my journey in Korea. I hope you learned something new!

See you in the next blog!


*The writing and photos here are meant for use on and are not to be copied or redistributed by other entities without permission from the author.

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