Category: Cultural differences

Culture shock when traveling in Japan

Another travel experience from one of my students:

In Japan, people were prohibited from smoking on the street, whereas in Korea men often smoke on the street. When I saw their little smoking areas, i was shocked to see so many women smoking because in Korea you usually see men smoking in public. But then I went to a fast food restaurant and people could smoke in there. I was shocked again.

Then I could barely find anybody who spoke English. Tokyo is a major city but they don’t know the international language.

Then I learned that taxis have automatic doors and drivers don’t like it when passengers touch the door. And taxis are about three times more expensive in Japan than in Korea.

Then I went to a bar. First I was surprised that I had to pay for my beer in advance. In Korea you pay when you leave. Then I was shocked that they wanted 500 yen for a water – it should be free in Korea. Then they closed at midnight. In Korea, we start drinking at midnight and many bars will just close when the last customer leaves – maybe 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning.

In conclusion, my first day in Japan shocked me four times and surprised me a few more times (the huge gambling halls, people riding bikes to work, paying for side dishes, eating ginger like Koreans eat kimchi, people dressed up like animation characters, and people being extremely polite).

Cultural difference – meeting a US cop

A story from one of my Korean students:

Last semester, I went to the University of Arkansas in America as an exchange student.

During fall break, 2 friends of mine and I decided to go to Dallas for 4 days.

Because Dallas was the first big city I visited in the US, the trip was fun and we had a great time there except for one thing that happened to me.

I got pulled over on the highway.

On the way to Dallas, there was a construction zone on the road and every car should slow down in the area.

Even though I had to reduce my speed to 40 miles an hour or less, I slowed down just a little bit like I was driving 80 miles an hour. Right after I passed the area, a police car started to follow me with its siren on.

At first I just kept going. No one gets pulled over in Korea so I didn’t know why he was following me. But after a while I figured something was wrong. After I pulled over, the cop said to me “Show me your license”. He sounded angry. Korean police are usually polite – not angry or intimidating. Plus they are never that big.

Because I had it in the trunk, I tried to get out and open it without saying anything to him.

Actually that made him so upset and surprised, he shouted “STEP BACK!!, What are you doing?!!” He put his hand on his gun. I’ve never seen a Korean cop put his hands anywhere near his gun. Not all police even have guns in Korea. I learned later that I was supposed to stay inside the car with my hands in plain sight.

And I replied “I’m just trying to take my license out from the trunk”.

After taking it out, he checked my license and asked me some questions and when I put my hands in my pockets unconsciously, he yelled at me again “Don’t put your hands in your pocket when I speak!!” He had his hand on his gun again. I was so scared. I’ve never been scared of a police officer before.

At that time, I was so scared for the possibility that I might get a ticket from him but luckily, he just gave me a verbal warning.

I felt so relieved, but when I got back to the car, I was kind of upset again because my friends, they were all Korean girls, only talked about the cop’s muscular body, not about my security.

Afterward, I think it was a very good experience since it made me drive so safely. And I really miss road trips and driving in America.

Culture shock in Germany

Here’s a story from a Korean college student who went to Germany as an exchange student.

My first culture shock came on my way from the airport in Frankfurt to the train station. I saw so many people riding bicycles. There was a road only for bicycles and they even had their own traffic lights. In my country, bicycles were ignores. Bikes were just for sport but here they were transportation. Later on I even found out there were rules for bikes – like they had to have lights when it was dark.

When I reached Leipzig, everything was beautiful. My second cultural shock was my first Sunday in Leipzig when I wanted to buy the stuff I needed to get settled, starting with a bottle of water. The first shop was closed. I thought it was strange. The second shop was closed. Everything was closed. I couldn’t buy a bottle of water in this rich country. In Korea, most shops are open Sunday and do most of their business on weekends.

I had to take a long ride to the train station to shop for water. I stopped at McDonald’s for a burger and my third cultural shock. I asked them why they didn’t give me ketchup and they said it had to be ordered separately. No free ketchup? I couldn’t believe it. It’s like being forced to buy a cube of sugar after you order an espresso.

But those cultural shocks really helped me understand German culture, which helped me learn German language much faster.

Cultural difference 2: Korean wedding culture

One nice thing about slow travel is you get to see various special events. Tomorrow I get to go to another Korean wedding.

There are far too many differences for me to get into them all, but some major ones:

Most weddings happen at wedding halls, though church weddings are common among religious people that seems to be a minority of the people I know. The wedding hall will have several rooms for westernized ceremonies, which last about half an hour. Then there will be a smaller room for Korean-style ceremonies which I’ll describe below. Then, the wedding hall will have a buffet, which is also worth mentioning later.

The westernized ceremony has some pretty big differences from what I’ve seen in the US:

First, the audience doesn’t take it seriously. They don’t turn their phones off, they chat with each other, etc. My wife didn’t even want to watch her brother’s ceremony because she was hoping to get her picture taken with one of his friends (a big celebrity but still).

Also, the man who does the ceremony (and it’s always a man), is the most important person the couple can get. So a high ranking government worker, a professor / dean, a lawyer, etc.

This person always gives a boring speech. This speech always includes some funny stuff about the couple and how they’ve accomplished much in life and are destined for great career success. It might include how each went to a good school, has a good job, etc.

Once the ceremony is over, the bride tosses her bouquet. You always know who will catch it because one of the bride’s friends will be standing about 10 feet in front of all the other women. Then the bride tosses her bouquet right at her friend, looking over her shoulder or turning slightly to make sure she doesn’t miss.

Then there’s the Korean wedding ceremony. This one is family only so most guests don’t see it. The couple wears the traditional Korean hanbok and the groom will have to carry his mother-in-law on his back to prove he’s strong enough to provide for the family. Then the grooms parents will throw first some jujubes and then some walnuts. As the parents toss the nuts and fruit, the couple tries to catch them in a little cloth (the bride holds one side while the groom holds the other). Catch walnuts and have sons. Catch jujubes and have daughters. The idea is to catch as many of each as possible. When I got married no one told me this so I didn’t move the cloth at all and caught nothing. They made us try again.

And I think I promised to talk about the buffet. When you arrive at the wedding hall, you give some relatives of either the bride or the groom (whichever side you’re on) an envelope with cash in it. They count the cash, write down your name and how much you gave, and then give you a buffet ticket. No wedding gift means no lunch for you.

Then after the westernized ceremony all guests head to the wedding hall’s buffet. After gaining entry by handing in your ticket, you join the crowd. Guests from the other weddings are there too. The food is typically OK but the buffet is always crowded. I personally hate it as crowds in Korea often mean people bumping into you and stepping on your feet. Each table will have some bottles of beer and soju. You don’t get to drink anything else (they do have water and possibly soda but no wine or cocktails or anything).

After the ceremony and buffet, there might be a party for the couple’s young, cool friends. Most guests will just go home so attending a wedding Korea might only waste a few hours of your Saturday (always Saturday) depending on how far from your home the wedding hall is. I’m told these parties are pretty crazy – my students said it’s not uncommon for the groom’s friends to drop a live (little) octopus down the groom’s pants, which the bride has to remove as the sea creature tries to hang on with all it’s little sticky tentacles. Sounds crazy to me but when I showed students a Youtube video of a garter toss, they were all shocked – what an amazing scandal that would cause in Korea. Of course, in America everyone gets to see the garter thing, in Korea parents never see the octopus thing.

May be of interest: Thai wedding culture, cultural difference 1, men sitting

Cross cultural difference 1: men sitting cross-legged

One of the reasons I didn’t post much last week is that I was coaching a pair of students for our college’s academic conference. Naturally, my team won.

One of the things they mentioned was a personalization that really grabbed the attention of the audience because I have this male student who spent three years in Boston in high school. He would often sit cross-legged, the way American women but very few American men do.

I know that it’s common for men to sit this way in parts of Asia, certainly in Korea and Vietnam. I’m told it’s common in parts of Europe as well. In America and Venezuela it’s feminine – seeing a man sit like that means he might be gay.

This made for an interesting cultural difference for my student visiting America. The way he sat told people he was feminine or gay in America but it didn’t say anything back home in Korea and he didn’t want to communicate that he was feminine or gay in America.

Anyway, hopefully some of you found this little cultural difference interesting. I’m starting a new category here on the blog so there are more cultural differences coming. For now, if you’ve experienced this cultural difference or have anything related to sitting style to share, please leave a comment.