When traveling to a new country -especially one that’s in a whole other continent- you have to adjust to cultural differences. In South Korea, these differences are numerous and can be challenging, but most of them actually come with a very positive side! Here’s the second part of my list of culture shocks that I have experienced as a French intern in South Korea!
7. Going to the hospital is normal and common
In occidental countries, going to the hospital usually means something pretty bad has happened to you, whether you broke a bone or are feeling deadly sick. This is the case especially in countries where hospital fees are debt-inducing, like the United States for instance! However, in South Korea, most doctors work in unities generally called hospitals. You can go to the hospital for a simple cold, and you don’t even need to get an appointment beforehand! Therefore, you shouldn’t worry too much immediately if your Korean friend tells you they’re going to the hospital, it might not be that serious!
Since I got here, I have had to go see a doctor several times for a tonsillitis and an otitis, and let me tell you, it was quite a struggle when you don’t know how hospitals work here or how to speak Korean. I spent hours trying to find a doctor, going through the streets of Seoul with a raging fever!
To spare you the trouble, I’ll give you some advice: if you don’t have a serious illness that requires intense care, avoid big hospitals. You’ll often see people recommending them because some doctors can speak English there. However, the staff does not speak English in most of them, and you might end up getting misunderstood. They put me in the emergency room when I only had to see a doctor for a simple consultation. The waiting time was above 5 hours, and the price was extremely high (400,000 KRW) so I ended up leaving. After another long search, I stumbled upon a small otorhinolaryngologist hospital that had very nice reviews. I went there, only waited 5 minutes, the doctor spoke perfect English and I only paid around 17,000 KRW! So, look for smaller hospitals and read their reviews!
8. The language barrier is intense
In South Korea, most people can’t speak English. You’ll be okay when going to very touristic places such as Myeongdong, Hongdae or Itaewon as most workers here speak basic English, but in other neighborhoods it might get tricky. You shouldn’t worry too much though, you can use a translator like Papago and it will work just fine! It’s also a great occasion to practice your Korean if you’re learning it. People tend to be very happy and impressed when they notice you trying 😊
9. Cafes everywhere!
In South Korea, coffee shops are basically around every corner. The Korean social culture prefers outings over going to each other’s places, and Koreans love caffeinated drinks so cafes are a must. In Seoul you’ll be able to find so many different cafes all with very unique themes and decorations! Usually, they’re not that expensive compared to cafes in Europe. If I use Paris as a comparison, the difference is insane!
10. Toilet paper being used for everything
This is one of the things that surprised me the most: in South Korea, toilet paper isn’t only used in the toilet, in fact it’s used for everything! Forget about paper towels when you get here and be prepared to see people clean surfaces or blow their noses with toilet paper. You’ll often see toilet paper rolls sitting on people’s desks, or a bunch of them scattered around your Airbnb (which happened to me when I first arrived). When you think about it, paper’s paper so why not!
11. Efficient services in every aspect of life
People often say that South Koreans live by the “pali pali” (“quick”) lifestyle, and this is most visible through their services. For instance, you will never wait long for your food delivery to arrive, the same way most subway lines run extremely frequently! One time, my shopping bag broke while I was doing groceries. A lady who worked there ran fast to get me another one as if I was going to disappear! That’s because Koreans tend to always be in a hurry. As we often say, time is money, but here it seems that time’s even more than that, it’s success!
12. Clean places everywhere, even public bathrooms
To go along with the efficiency of services, it seems coherent to mention the cleanness of public areas. Never in my life have I experienced such pleasant subway rides and public bathroom breaks! Hygiene is a priority in every public space here. To give another example, I visited the National Museum of Seoul last week, and the window displays were so clean they looked invisible… This is life-changing for a Parisian!