I spent a year in Korea, from February 2000 to February 2001, teaching English at a university. I have a few tips for women who plan to do something similar:
Lose ten pounds. Everyone in Korea is thin. Trust me. No matter how normal you are here, you will feel fat in Korea. If you’re really thin, you might be able to skip this suggestion. Really thin.
Bring slip-on shoes. This is so important. Whenever you go to a Korean person’s house or apartment, of course you will take off your shoes at the door. And you will also have to do this at restaurants. This is trickier, because you are in public, and there might be people waiting behind you. If you are with a Korean, he or she will nimbly step out of his/her shoes while walking, and continue on, while you struggle to get yours off. It’s even harder getting them back on-especially after a big meal, trying to bend over and get them on. Bring clogs, or something really easy to get on and off.
Learn how to use chopsticks. You’ll be sharing bowls of food with a group of people and you’ll have to reach across and pick up your portion with your chopsticks, then return it to your own bowl, without spilling it en route. This takes skill. In Korea they use metal chopsticks, just slightly different from the wooden ones.
Get in shape for mountain climbing. Koreans love to climb mountains, and the Koreans I knew were really good at it. I used to occasionally hike up a small mountain near my apartment, and I got so that I only needed to stop once on the way up. But the Korean women practically ran up and down, putting me to shame. Even if you don’t like mountain climbing, you will probably find yourself doing it at some point, if you are at all sociable-so get ready.
Try the baths-but don’t wash in them!! There are public baths all over Korea, and everyone uses them. It’s not that they don’t have bathtubs at home; of course they do. But they still enjoy going to the baths, spending a relaxing time in various pools of water, ranging from very hot to very cold. Make sure you shower when you enter. And wash again before you leave. But never, never take any kind of soapy cloth with you to the pools. I was roundly chastised once by a Korean woman for doing so.
There are specific places to wash; you’ll see people doing it. You can also enjoy a sauna and a massage in most of these places. Everybody is naked and un-self-conscious, women with women only, men with men. But as your skin and coloring are different from Korean skin and coloring, some people will stare at you. Oh well. It’s a small price to pay for this relaxing and inexpensive pleasure. You’ll feel great afterward.
Be polite, not demanding. Be assertive but not aggressive. Be deferential when required. I guess I’m saying, don’t be an ugly American. Respect the Korean culture. On the other hand, be yourself; they love Americans.
Learn some Korean-especially if you’re teaching. When I finally used one Korean phrase after battling all year to get the attention of my freshman English class, they were suddenly all smiles, and ready to do whatever I told them. It was like a miracle. I also gave them English names, which my students loved. (One asked if he could be Bruce Willis. Of course he could, and that’s what I called him.) It was a lot easier for me too.
Start being very clean. Clean seems to be a really important Korean value. When people come to your apartment to visit, for example, they’ll compliment you by saying it’s very clean-not cute, or big, or anything else, just clean.
Get your hair done in Korea. It’s inexpensive-at least it was in the town where I lived–and good. They could make my dry, frizzy hair straight and smooth like a Korean’s. I loved it. Of course, you should bring a picture of what you want, since it’s hard to explain hairstyles in a foreign language.
Take public transportation. Korean trains are inexpensive and on time. Bus service is good. And these are available all over the country. If you have a lot to carry, take a taxi. They too are plentiful and inexpensive. And there’s no tipping in Korea. Amazing.
Eat their food. Korean food is both healthy and very good, something we Americans don’t often expect. You might learn some new ways of eating, some new attitudes toward food from observing Koreans. I tried to. I tried to adopt what I perceived as their love for fruit, for example. A couple of strawberries would be a lovely dessert in Korea. People enjoyed drinking fruit juice more than soda, it seemed.
Bring some conservative clothes for work-professional and low-key. Most of the Korean women I worked with at the university wore dark-colored pants suits every day. That was ten years ago, so I’m not sure if they still wear those. But it’s probably still true that you don’t need a great deal of variety in your wardrobe, or a lot of colors, for work.
Outside of work, you might want to dress up a little more than you do at home, though. I found sometimes, when I went out on Saturday in my jeans and T-shirt, that I resembled the boys more than I did the girls, who tended to wear skirts, and ruffles, and ornaments in their hair-and oh, pretty, pretty shoes.
For more information, get yourself a copy of Lonely Planet Korea. It covers pretty much everything-Korean culture, a bit of the Korean language, the best places to visit in Korea. I found the book at the wonderful Kyobo Bookstore in Seoul about a month before I was to leave the country. Oh well, better late than never. And I can use it when I go back-which I will. South Korea is an interesting combination of the old and traditional, and the new and high-tech. But more importantly, the people I met there were down-to-earth and kind.
Source: personal experience.