An American Woman in South Korea

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Visiting, another country naturally invites comparisons:

  • How is it different than your home country?
  • How is it better? How is it worse?
  • How the hell do Korean women walk around effortlessly in stilettos while pushing a baby stroller?

But what happens when you find these differences fundamentally upsetting?

For example, differences in the way a country treats women.

I know a lot of cultures have pretty antiquated views on how women should act, dress, etc., and for the most part, I’m happy to say that South Korea is not one of them.

In Korea, women are given all the same opportunities and rights as men – on paper. My irritation stems from the subtleties – all the unwritten rules about acceptable female behavior.

First and foremost, Koreans believe that women should be quiet.

Whether on a public bus, the sidewalk, or a bar, a woman should not be heard by anyone not immediately next to her.   There are countless other silly rules Korean men try to place on the women here (like always doing your hair and make up) but this is the one I find most offensive.

Probably because I can’t seem to follow it.

Hush... hush? (#62/365)

The other notable culture clash I continue to be reminded of, is their treatment of children.

On one hand Korean parents, both male and female, tend to be noticeably more affectionate than their American counterparts. On the other hand, these children are more disciplined than most American adults twice their age.

  • These children attend school 6 days a week.
  • They attend 3-5 after school academies (like the one I work at) where they are given extra homework.
  • And when these children screw up, they are hit by both their parents and teachers.  (to clarify, the hitting is generally just a small tap on the arm or leg, nothing serious)

These kids don’t have much free time, if any.

And I routinely feel guilty for contributing to that. I have also been asked by my boss to give out more homework to certain classes, per the parents’ request, which I find unfathomable.

But in instances like these, where I’m visibly stressing out 10 year-olds, or when a 65 year-old man tells my friends and me to be quiet, despite the fact that we are in a loud, crowded bar, I have to bite my tongue (or just curse in English under my breath).

As much as it  goes against every modern woman and modern American belief I have, I constantly remind myself that this simply isn’t my place.

I voluntarily moved to this country, knowing it would be different, and knowing I should do my best to blend into that. I also voluntarily signed a contract saying I would follow my school’s rules, even if that includes taking away my a part of my students’ precious free time and overworking them.

Unless it is absolutely necessary to stand up for yourself or assert your rights, a traveler must do their best to blend in and accept the fundamental differences of their new country.

After all, you sought this out.

So think of it as an opportunity to challenge your own beliefs.  Or if nothing else, just think of it as a social experiment. But whatever you do, don’t try to push a baby stroller in 5-inch heels, because that is just damn near impossible!

What cultural differences have you encountered while traveling? What has been the most shocking?

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About Author

Claire is a recent college grad turned expat, who is currently teaching English in South Korea. When she's not exploring Korea and writing about it, Claire enjoys fantasizing about future trips, shopping, dancing, and drinking dangerous amounts of caffeine. She plans to move to Buenos Aires in 2012. You can follow her adventures at www.sokogigglygirl.wordpress.com.

9 Comments

  1. Kaleolani Schuman on

    Hi Claire!
    I found you through some “googling” because I am preparing to move to South Korea for a year to teach English as well. I am just wondering what program you are working through, and where in Korea you are placed? I am with the American TESOL Institute. You’re blog is very insightful. Any more tips would be so great! Thanks!

  2. Hi! You’re going to have so much fun, where will you be living? I work for SLP Dongbaek (a private academy), which is part of Yongin City. So I’m in the Gyeongi province that surrounds Seoul, and I’m about 40 minutes away from the city.
    When are you arriving? Let me know if you have any questions, it’s going to be so much fun!

  3. Hi Claire! I am a linguistics major with a concentration in TEFL. I will be graduating in a year and I am keeping my options open and looking at every country. I talked to someone today about the Fulbright program and they want me to consider South Korea…what can you tell me about South Korea? Culture? Safety? Ect… If you could email me that would be great ev279908@ohio.edu

  4. South Korea is a great option! Very, very foreigner-friendly, and a great mix of tradition and modernity. OK, i’m sending you an email now!

  5. Hey, Claire, I’ve just read this blog entry and I found it really useful! The thing is, I’m trying to write about modern women’s role in society inspite – or because – of traditional confucianist values for my Korean History class. If you have the time, would you mind sending me an e-mail on how women should (and do behave), despite having the same legal rights as men? It would be a great help 😀 bilathompson@hotmail.com

    PS: Read that you’re coming to BA in 2012. That’s great! I’ve lived in Buenos Aires all my life, so if you’re ever in need of help while here, I’ll be glad to assist 🙂

  6. Hello,
    I am a missionary wanting to go to south korea but I fill I need a job and was woundering if you have any thoughts las to what would be my best avenue. I do not have a degree so ESL is out I guess unless you can tell me somthing helpful. I am from the USA and speak english. I would like to hear what advice you may have for me and was very greatful to run across your webpage…looking foward to hearing from you…

  7. Angel, good news: You don’t need an ESL degree to teach in South Korea. Many other countries require it, but to teach here you just need to be from the USA or Canada, and have a college degree.

    If you have that, you can teach kindergarten or elementary students at a public school or an after-school academy. To teach university students you need a Master’s degree, however.

    A good first step would be to sign up with a recruiting agency. I strongly recommend Pegasus. It’s free, and they will help match you with schools, set up interviews, and go through the visa process. Their website is here: http://www.pegasusteachers.com/

    Feel free to contact me with any more questions! Good luck!

  8. Hey Claire,

    I know this entry was posted a while ago but I was just wondering if you still work for SLP Dongbaek. I will be joining SLP Dongbaek at the end of February and it would be great to meet you!

  9. Pingback: How to Beat Travel Burnout and Culture Shock

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