I am an American I am going to be living in Korea for a year. I don't want to be the arrogant American. I would like to learn and respect the local culture. What would you say is some of the most immediate things to know about the culture to get me started?
The Frenchman of Ask a Frenchman! was asked the exact same question, and his answer is excellent. Here it is in its entirety:
Let’s start with American students in France, especially in Paris…
First of all, let me insist on one point. Like in any other aspects, what you do gives a reputation to everyone in your country of origin, and sadly, the bad things you do always have a stronger impact than the good things you do. For example, if there’s a guy who’s a complete jerk in the metro, if he’s French, people will think “this guy is really a jerk” but if he’s American, people will think “this American is really a jerk” and that will be one more nail in the coffin of America reputation’s abroad. This obviously works in any country, America included, not just France.
If I took the example of the metro it’s not random. For some reason, most of American student jerkiness I witness in Paris happens in the metro, which is also the place where most French people will encounter American students in their daily life.
That being said, and like many other things in life and on this planet, it’s always the loud minority that’s going to give a reputation to the silent majority, because of course most Americans students in Paris (and more generally, abroad) are decent people, but it’s the few jerks that give a bad reputation to all the rest. Locals won’t even notice the other decent ones or will consider them as decent people, not decent Americans. Life is not fair, I know. So if you’re a student abroad, be aware of that, of your own behavior, but also of your friends’ behavior. If they start doing something stupid in public, don’t just laugh, but try to prevent them from doing it.
Why is it Americans students (even a minority) that always behave stupidly in public places though is still a mystery to me. Other foreign students usually behave normally most of the time. But yeah, for some Americans, abroad, especially Paris, is some sort of Neverland where nothing is real and everything is designed for their own entertainment, as if the US was an island floating on a planet-wide Disneyland. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to change that, at least not until most Americans realize that they’re no different from anybody else and that their country is just one among more than 200.
Substitute "Paris" with "Seoul", and the vast majority of the Frenchman's advice applies to Korea as well.
So, how do you do not to be stigmatized as a “stupid American student”? It’s not that hard really. Of course, not wearing sweat pants is a good start, but unless you have a good sense of (international) fashion, chances that your clothes give you away as American are pretty high.
The answer has to lie elsewhere. It simply is in your behavior. I dropped a few hints in the previous lines, but basically always remember that:
- You’re in the real world, not some sort of fantasy world.- You represent your country, whether you like it or not.- Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home.- Don’t do many of the things you would do at home.- Basically do as Romans do, but also as Parisians do.- But don’t try to appear or act French, you’ll fail (one of the funniest thing I can see in Paris is American students sitting at a café terrace, with a glass of wine and a cigarette just waiting as if something magical was gonna happen… hints: if you don’t smoke at home don’t pretend to do so in Paris, don’t drink wine in a café, wine is mostly consumed during meals, not in cafés).- Be respectful of people you know, but also people you don’t know, you’ve never seen and you’ll never see again.- Be respectful of yourself, don’t make a fool of yourself… ever…- Don’t speak that loud. Americans don’t always realize that the “normal” volume of their voice is considered “loud” according to French standards. I know it’s hard to change such a thing that is so unconscious, but try nonetheless.- Be friendly but not too friendly.- And finally and most important, don't see the place as "abroad" but as "your current home".
The Korean will add one thing. Do as the best Koreans do, not as any Koreans do. One of the most common misguided complaint by an expat in Korea is: "Koreans do it too! Why can't I do it?" For example, there are plenty of Korean young men who get plastered on weekends, yell and pass out in the middle of the street. But that is not an excuse for you to do the same. Like it or not, for every negative action, you will be judged more harshly than Koreans who engaged in the same negative action. That's what it is like to live as a minority and an outsider. Your fellow Americans of color have been dealing with the same thing for years and years. Remember that, during Hurricane Katrina, black people "looted" food while white people "found" food? It is not fair, but it is to be expected.
But this post is categorized as a Wiki, and for a good reason. At the end of the day, the Korean has never really been an American in Korea in the truest sense. Therefore, he does not know the most common pitfalls that someone who is visiting Korea for the first time.
Readers, please contribute. Any small thing is fine.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.