An Expat Guide to South Korea

6 things I wish I knew before moving to South Korea.

An Expat Guide to South Korea

I moved to South Korea to pursue my Doctoral Degree last February 2015. I did minor research before coming in, since Philippines and South Korea are both Asian countries, I didn't expect there would be a need for huge adjustment. But in South Korea, prepare to be surprised! Here are some of the things I wish someone had briefed me about.

Korean table manners

Although we all have a "Foreigner Pass" a.k.a. an excuse why we're not familiar about Korean culture, it helps to know (at least) some of the table manners. Plus your boss and co-workers will surely appreciate the gesture.

  1. When you enter a restaurant, wait for your boss (or senior) to choose his own seat before you do. "Senior" here means anyone older than you or has a higher rank than you.
  2. The youngest person in the table is expected to lay down the chopsticks and other utensils for the rest of the group. They are also expected to pour water for everyone.
  3. Wait for your boss to take the first bite of the meal before you do, or at least wait for him/her to grace everyone with permission to start eating.
  4. Do not pour your own drink. Wait for a senior to pour it for you. And when doing so, you have to hold out your cup with both hands as your boss pours a drink for you. There are other ways to do this, but I'll be posting a more detailed blog about Korean table manners soon.
  5. When drinking, face opposite to the side of your senior. So if your senior is on your right, you must drink facing on your left. And vice versa. If you have both seniors on the left and right side, choose the side that has the senior with a younger age or lower rank than the other.

Welcoming fellow Filipino students with a Korean traditional dish called Kamjatang

You're older than you think

Koreans count the months when you're still in the womb. They believe that the moment you are born, that's your first birthday. So if you're still clinging on being 29 years old, well pal, you're already 30 to them!

Koreans and their Birthday cake decorating skills


As an expat, I think most of us will agree that at some point we hoped that as long as we can speak English, we'll get by. We hoped that somehow people will understand English along with some hand gestures or pantomimed clues. In Seoul or in major cities, you can probably pull these off. But in other areas, especially in provinces, prepare to be brushed off. Some will be sympathetic enough to find you a person that can help you, but some will be annoyed at you for even trying to communicate with them in the first place. I suggest you plan your trips carefully beforehand and equip yourself with Google Translate, Korean-English dictionary or even a Korean friend to do all the speaking for you. Of course, the best way to deal with this is to learn how to speak Korean, especially if you're planning to stay for long.

With our Korean Language Professor, Dr. Lee Sorim

Korean food

Korean food is awesome! I love it. But for those who don't like spicy food, Korean food could be difficult for you to adjust to. My general idea, to avoid food too spicy is to avoid any dish that looks reddish. But warn you, there are some dishes who doesn't look spicy at all but are actually spicy as well. Basically, Korean food is in the range of spicy, spicier and spiciest. You can ask a Korean friend about the level of spiciness of the dish before trying it, but you have to be careful because it's generally relative.

Korean side dishes

Seniority is very important

This is probably the hardest adjustment for me, which I will charge to cultural differences. In Korea, they take seniority and hierarchy very seriously. There are a lot of notions that involve seniority that could be a bit difficult for a foreigner to wrap his brain around. A few examples that I have personally experienced and gathered from other expats are:

  1. Juniors are expected to stay in the office as long or longer than their seniors do. You can go home earlier but this is highly frowned upon.
  2. When choosing a meeting schedule, a junior is expected to adjust to his/her senior's schedule even if it means meeting on a weekend or a holiday.
  3. Some seniors expect you to address them in a specific manner. The use of "sunbe-nim" (senior), Oppa/Hyung (older brother), unni/noona (older sister), seonsaeng-nim (mentor/teacher) are usual ways to respectfully address your seniors. Just to be more cautious, it would be better to consult them on how they preferred to be addressed.
  4. When you pass by a senior, you should be the first one to bow. This one's a bit tricky because seniority is dependent on so many factors like age, rank, years of work, etc. Just to avoid being labeled as a snob, I just greet anyone with a bow and usually do it first no matter what level of seniority is involved.

Drinking culture

Orange-flavoured Soju. If you can't bear the taste of plain Soju, maybe try the flavoured ones!

If your boss or your senior or an acquaintance offers you Soju or beer or whatever, take it! It's their way of welcoming you. More than an attempt to get you wasted, it's like a ritual that you're locking in your friendship with them as soon as you receive that shot they have poured for you. Yes, you need to up your drinking game pal!

If you're not a fan of drinking, you can either start learning how to drink or you can nicely explain why you don't. As much as they would appreciate that you try to drink with them even if you don't, they will also appreciate your honesty when you have to decline a shot.

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Cil Borlaza

Environmental Scientist | Yoga Enthusiast | Creative Writer

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