Ten ways to Integrate Into South Korea

by Claire Hennon

The Land of the Morning Calm is a paradox of ancient temples and towering skyscrapers, with a vibrant and fast pace of life. There are numerous characteristics that make Korea stand out from other Asian nations, especially when choosing an internship abroad. To get the best experience possible, follow the ten tips below on truly integrating into the society while interning abroad in South Korea.

A South Korean Buddhist Temple in the middle of an intersection.
A South Korean Buddhist Temple in the middle of an intersection.

Eat Kimchi

Kimchi is the national dish of Korea and a national treasure. There are over 150 varieties of the spicy, fermented cabbage condiment and it is currently being considered by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage asset. Eaten at almost every meal (including breakfast), Koreans are fiercely proud of this dish. Whether you like it immediately or you have to acquire the taste, mention that you love kimchi and you will instantly gain respect. If you are in Korea long enough, you may even begin to crave it. There are various festivals and classes around the country that teach you how to make kimchi, or you can do as the Japanese and Chinese tourists do, and buy in bulk at the supermarket.

Head to the “World Kimchi Festival” to taste all the varieties and make your own. Held every October, there are regular trains and buses from Seoul to the southwestern city of Gwangju.  

Sing

Karaoke is a national pastime in Korea. There are thousands of Noraebangs (singing rooms) all over the peninsula where you can rent clean, personal, and luxurious booths by the hour. Most are open 24-hours and serve food and drink at extra cost. The Noraebangs provide a wide selection of songs from all over the world, K-pop, of course, being the most abundant in choice. This is usually where work night outs end up, with employees and bosses bonding over a duet of Bohemian Rhapsody. There are tambourines for the singing-impaired. You won't be able to finish your internship program in South Korea without singing at least one tune. 

Cost: from 10,000 won per hour depending on how luxurious they are, but some establishments require you to buy food or drink.

Learn a Korean Word

Say a single Korean word and reap massive praise; it doesn’t even have to be pronounced correctly. String a coherent sentence and you will be lauded as a genius. While most Koreans know many English words (see #4), a foreigner speaking Korean is almost always met with shock. Learn the most common before you arrive including: hello (an-yong-ha-seh-yo), thank you (Gam-sahm-ni-da) and please (Ju-seh-yo).

If you want to learn Korean there are numerous language courses provided by the major universities throughout the country. Sookmyung University in Seoul also provides free Korean classes at 3pm on Saturdays for all levels.

Food market in South Korea

Sookmyung Women’s University: Sookmyung Station Exit #2. (You have to register for 1,000 won and buy a textbook 4,000 won)

Compliment Their English

Thousands of foreigners come to Korea each year to teach English. English has become a major element of Korea’s education syllabus and it is taught in schools, hagwons (private academies) and in after-school programs. From toddlers to CEOs, Koreans love to practice their English with a native speaker, and may engage you in conversation out of the blue. Be courteous and patient and enjoy a couple minutes of friendly conversation, and maybe even get in your own Korean practice too.

Respect your elders

Korea is a traditionally Confucian society where younger generations are taught to respect their elders. Though this principle is slowly being eroded, being polite and courteous goes without saying in any country.  Give up your seat to an elderly person on the bus or subway. There are a whole host of terms you use to refer to your elders (you rarely call Koreans by their names). For example, middle-aged women are called adjumas, but if you want them to be nice to you call them eemo (which means aunt and denotes they are younger).

Climb a mountain

Hiking up a mountain is another national pastime of Korea, with mountains covering 70 percent of the country’s landmass. Step on any subway or bus in the city and you will be guaranteed to see a middle-aged man or adjuma dressed head-to-toe in full outdoor gear. Clothing is almost as, if not more, important as the climb; hiking fashion is taken very seriously with serious cash spent on top-end outdoor labels in bright and matching colours. It is best to climb during Autumn when you can witness the fall leaves, and to climb at off-peak hours. During the weekends, expect to wait in a traffic jam at the summit.

It takes half an hour from Seoul Station to Bukhan Mountain, one of the most popular mountains in the country. Take line 4 to Gireum Station, exit 3. Follow the droves of hikers onto bus 143 or 110B to the end stop.

Drink

Koreans drink a lot. You will see more than one businessman in his suit sleeping in a bush in South Korea. The reason is primarily Soju- a distilled rice spirit that is cheaper than chewing gum. In 2011, soju was the world’s best selling liquor, with Jinro Soju selling over 61 million cases. To put this into perspective, Smirnoff vodka came in second with a paltry 25 million cases. Most of the 61 million cases were drunk by Koreans in Korea.

If you intern in Korea, expect to be taken out for a night of heavy drinking with your boss and colleagues. They don’t care if you don’t drink. Or if you can’t drink. You will end up sleeping in a bush.

Namdaemun Market, South Korea

Strike Cute Poses in Photos

Once you’ve been in Korea (and Asia) a while, the ‘peace sign’ will become your go-to pose in photographs; it is inevitable. Alternatively you can try out a number of gang signs or, if you truly want to integrate into Korean culture, try aegyo. Mostly for women but men have been known to give it a go, aegyo is the process of ‘being cute’. Puff out your cheeks, widen your eyes, and pretend you’re a cat. Or a bunny. Or both.

Drink Coffee and Lots of It

Green tea usually springs to mind when you think of Asia, but Korea is predominantly a coffee-drinking nation. There are dozens of coffee shops on each street, many neighboring each other. Head away from the numerous chain stores and try instead, a small independent coffee shop or a theme café for a more unique experience. Themed cafes range from Hello Kitty to knitting cafes to numerous dog and cat coffee shops, where you can play with kittens and puppies till your heart’s content.

Needle Story Knit Café: Edae Station, exit #6, straight down and on your left.

Get Scrubbed

This is a great way for interns in South Korea to unwind. A jimjilbang is a sauna with a whole host of rooms, including ice rooms, coal rooms, and salt rooms. The bathing areas are designated men and women as both are no-clothing areas. Here you can dip in the various pools from -15 degrees to 40 degrees in your birthday suit before being scrubbed clean by an equally naked middle-aged man or woman. They are open 24-hours a day and are used by some people as cheap overnight accommodation. The Siloam Sauna near Seoul Station regularly sees tourists stay overnight on the heated floors before catching their early morning train.

Entry ranges from 6,000-12,000 won while scrubs are upwards from 15,000 won.