Adjusting to a New Culture in South Korea

Authored by:
Kelly Z.

Kelly Z.

I have spent 6+ years building up to this moment—studying abroad in Korea. Since high school, I often dreamt of going to Korea to view the new sights, try new cuisines, and explore a new country. Upon visiting, my eyebrows furrowed at the indistinguishable sounds as I noticed my tenseness rise. I am in a new country separated by a language barrier between the one I know and the one I will spend the next 4 months living in.

Upon my second day in Korea, I felt neither ecstatic nor sad—although, I find it difficult to articulate my emotions. I was simply overwhelmed by the language barrier, which made it difficult to converse with locals. I felt rather disappointed for not enjoying my experience as much as I had predicted. While in quarantine, I took time to reflect on my frustrations and began to realize and understand the normalcy of cultural shock.

Of course, I am excited about my adventures in Korea! I plan to focus on the wonderful differences in this new environment. I have been taking small steps to refocus and adapt to this new culture by watching Korean dramas, studying some of the Korean language, and journaling my thoughts away. Day by day, I am learning to appreciate my abroad experience and about new things which include: abiding by new housing rules (gender divided floors), understanding currency exchanges, and worrying about the international calling plan.

"Hi, yes, I am charged per minute. Is it possible to expedite this call, please?" I noticed with these challenges, I find more efficient, creative ways to solve the problems, so I am always wearing my thinking cap. I also began noticing the differences between the US and Korea. Some of which Korea does, especially, better:

  • Dorm room situation: My modern dorm room has many storage spaces and a private bathroom — all of which are mine. I have a tiny balcony, which I do not have at my home university.
  • Netflix is definitely better: There are more Korean TV shows and American movies to choose from. Yes! Korea has Mean Girls, Parasite, and The Devil Wears Prada. Better Friday night movies! ;)
  • Restaurants specialize in particular foods: Each Korean restaurant has a small selection on the menu because it specializes in specific dishes, making each dish more delicious.  For example, Chisadduk serves only chicken and tteokbokki and minimal side dishes.

By accepting these new challenges and reflecting on my experiences and feelings, I am better able to explore more of myself and my adaptation to another culture. This does not mean changing my American values, but rather to accept another culture and add to my plethora of experiences. With that, I end with a saying Suzanne Crowder Han, the Seoul CIEE program director, shared with us: “The aim of your sojourn is not to lose your American identity and be assimilated into Korean culture, but rather to adapt to life in Korea, and in the process become a bi-or multi- cultural world citizen.”


Tips for New Individuals Before Coming to South Korea:

  1. Read the items CIEE sends you before traveling: This will help you mentally and physically prepare for your trip abroad and to understand the country you are traveling to.
  2. Connect with someone previously who attended the program: Doing this can help you feel better and might lessen your nerves before going abroad. It is helpful to hear about the real experiences past students have had to understand what to expect before going abroad. A CIEE staff can help you get in contact with previous students who travel abroad if needed.
  3. 1-2 months+ before leaving spend a few minutes per day practicing the language at your abroad country: Learning Korean has made me feel more comfortable when navigating Korea and has lessen the language barrier I originally felt. Duolingo (provides simple courses to practice learning languages and sentences) and Drops (a language learning guide which helps with simple survival guides & vocabulary) are two apps I especially love! If you do not have the chance to practice, do not worry! You will have a lot of time to practice while abroad.
  4. Last Thing, everyone’s experience abroad will be different. No matter how exciting it is, people might react different during their time abroad so reach out for help ASAP! The CIEE staff are here to support you along with your loved ones.



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