The One Month Mark In Korea

For those new expats who moved to Korea with the August 2014 intake, the one month mark of your big move is only days away. The whirlwind of your new adventure is only just beginning, and although it may seem like you’ve just begun to learn about the new culture in which you’re now immersed, there are some cultural changes you’ve already undergone without noticing to better blend into your new surroundings.
South Korean flagI found at the one month mark that I had already picked up and perfected a few gestures, words, or phrases and used them in everyday life without even realizing that I had adopted them. Perhaps you too have begun to emulate these habits as well. If not, grab a pen and get to studying, my friend, because adopting these small little changes will definitely make the next 11 months of your life in Korea go so much smoother.

1. The Correct Way To Call Someone

Hopefully you’ve picked up on the correct way to call someone over in Korea quickly because if not, I guarantee it’ll be trouble for you. In America, if I needed to talk to a student privately or called up a pupil to the front of the class to present, I’d call them over with my palm face up in a “come here” gesture. Calling anyone with your palm face up is a huge no-no in Korea because it’s how you call animals. Unless you want your Korean students to get the impression that you’re calling them all little beasts, turn your hand over so your hand faces down and scoop your fingers toward your body to call someone over.

This palm down gesture is also used to call taxis. More than one time after a late night of drinking downtown I was passed over by taxis because I didn’t realize I was hailing them incorrectly. After drunkenly stumbling 3 painful miles in high heels with streaky mascara stained cheeks, I finally remembered I needed to change my hand gesture and was able to call a cab. My feet were blistered and I’d learned my lesson. I had to throw away my worn heels that sad, dramatic  night. Save your shoes from the sad fate that mine endured, and learn this lesson from me as well. It’s become such a habit to call someone over in this manner for me, in fact, that I was given strange looks when I hailed cabs during my 2 week visit home last summer. Better to be safe then sorry, though.

2. Jinja?!

If you haven’t started saying this yet, then it’s a sure sign that you’re hanging out with only expats. Either go and find yourself some Korean friends to learn from, or start watching K-dramas. Yelling “jinja” at the top of your lungs when you hear interesting news is a great way to ask “really?!” Most Koreans prefer this word over any other to show excitement. It’s basically like taking the word “wow” and putting it on steroids – that’s the level of surprise that jinja conveys. This is one of those words that will stay with you long after you leave Korea because for some reason using it is strangely addicting. Try using it just once, and I guarantee you’ll be annoying everyone back home when you return with your obsession over the word.

3. Passing Money

Yes, there is a wrong way and a right way to pass money to someone. Using just one hand to fork over cash is considered rude. If during your month in Korea you haven’t learnt this yet, you might have had a few Korean store clerks give you the side eye while hissing at you under their breath. Don’t worry, they don’t hate you because you’re buying yet another bottle of soju and beer when clearly you’ve had enough. They hate you because you’re handing your hard-earned dollars over in a rude manner. Instead, hand over cash with both hands or hold one hand over your tummy like you have a belly ache (which you probably will later anyway if you keep downing soju like that, newbie).

4. Addressing Elders

Respect is valued above all other things in Korean culture which is best conveyed by the Korean language which has a special way to address elders. My first few weeks in Korea I was excited to practice the few words I had learned from K-dramas. I’d happily call out “Anyeong!” when I climbed into a cab or walked into a restaurant. It wasn’t until a particularly grumpy cabbie told me off that I realized I was addressing my elders like they were children. Oops. Adding “yo” to the end of certain words changes the level of formality. If you aren’t sure whether someone is your elder or not, add the formal ending just to be safe because chances are one of the questions a stranger will ask to get to know you will be “How old are you?” so they can establish the social hierarchy by learning who is the elder.

5. Deduct Three Zeros

So, the Korean money system is quite easy to understand, especially if you’re from America. All you need to do to roughly translate won into dollars is cross out three zeros. 1,000 Won is about 1 USD, and so forth. When getting used to the bills in the first month, don’t let anyone intimidate you into hurrying up to pay for things. I once accidentally was so nervous about a long line behind me at the 7/11 counter that after fumbling with my cash for a minute, I panicked and handed the cashier a 50,000 won bill for an energy drink that cost 1,000 won. Needless to say the cashier wasn’t too happy to break my large bill, and neither was the looming line behind me that had to wait even longer for me to get my change.

For more tips on how Korean gestures will sneak into your everyday mannerisms, check out my article The 10 Cultural Differences That Still Shock Me. If you’re a new expat, what mannerisms have you picked up so far? Tell us in a comment below! We’d love to know. 

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