My family and I are moving to South Korea within the next month to teach English. Someone told me that they do not pierce the ears of young children and that my 2-year-old daughter's earrings would be offensive or, at best, looked down upon. Do you have any insight into this matter? If they are offensive, we will remove them. Otherwise, they are staying put.
It is definitely true that in Korea, ear piercing for girls does not happen for young children; it usually happens around middle school and high school, and sometimes as late as college age. Earring is like makeup in Korea -- if you put them on a little too early in a girl's life, it's considered trashy.
But that's not your question. Your question is -- will Koreans look down on your daughter's earrings? And that question implicates an important, general point that all non-Koreans who are interested in Korea must know.
You just won't find this in Korea.
In general, Koreans do not expect foreigners to follow Korean custom. In fact, Koreans don't even expect that foreigners know anything about Korean custom. If a non-Korean displays even a tiny bit of knowledge about Korea and Korean custom, Koreans generally find it surprising. Call this "the Foreigner Rule" -- i.e. Korean customs do not apply to foreigners. Hence, Koreans are not likely to look down on your daughter's earring. They would just think, "Those crazy foreigners, they will do what they do," and move on.
Of course, this is just a general rule and there are always exceptions. If you are more integrated into Korean society (e.g. being married to a Korean spouse and living in Korea,) you would be expected to follow more and more Korean rules. As Korea is becoming more prominent around the world, fewer Koreans find it totally surprising to find that non-Koreans know a great deal about Korea. So if you are trying to make Korea your long term home and live in Korea like a Korean would, the earrings would have to go. But regardless, the Foreigner Rule is still very much alive in Korea.
This means that if you are a non-Korean, you don't have to worry so much about offending the locals. Of course, you have to use your common sense -- if you are drunk in broad daylight and pick fights with anyone who passes by, that will still be pretty damn offensive. But you don't have to worry much about unknowingly violating small obscure rules. Koreans know you don't know those rules, and they will let it go.
But one demographic presents a tricky problem -- Korean Americans, especially second generation and beyond, or adoptees. How do Koreans react to people who look like Koreans, but know little about Korea's manners? That will be a topic for another post.
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