Korean Culture Tips [Classroom material]

I remember reading once that it is far more important and useful for EFL (yes I mean EFL in the traditional sense) students  to be able to explain and talk about their own culture in L2 than to be experts in the culture of the target language. This makes a lot of sense to me and is something that I try to keep in mind. While obviously knowledge of the “target culture” can be helpful and at times needed I think that the aspect of students talking about their own culture is often neglected. With that in mind, I am always on the lookout  for interesting texts related to Korea and Korean culture. When I discovered the tips below (here is the original source)  I knew I needed to use them in class someday. 

I find it interesting to note that the list is not always in what I would call standard English. I also think it is interesting to consider the impact that this list might have on the intended audience which is presumably foreign teachers coming to Korea. I am also interested in the the image of Korea that the author seems to want to portray. I’d be curious to see your thoughts and reactions in the comments. 

See below for how I used/might use the material in class.

Korean Culture Tips
From: Center for Global Education, Gyeonggido

1) Most of Korean foods are very spicy.

2) People are usually kind, but sometimes not to African Americans and South-east Asians.

3) Speak slowly and clearly to people you meet because most Koreans, especially elders, cannot speak English well.

4) You may be disgusted by some food such as dog meat or dog soup if you keep a dog as a pet but they do not eat every kind of dog.

5) Age is an important factor in Korea, so that you may be asked of your age because Koreans respect elders.

6) Take your shoes off when you enter usual Korean house.

7) Asking about age and marriage are not seriously personal questions.

8) Koreans sometimes share food in the same bowl or plate.

9) Individualism is not preferable. Community spirit comes first.

10) Schedules and plans are often subject to change.

11) You may be insisted to drink alcohol beyond your capacity.

12) Korean men like going to a public bath (spa/sauna) together for friendship.

13) You may be bothered by children and youngsters who want to speak to foreigners, now and then with bad words which are not intended badly.

14) Koreans are against America politically, not socially.

15) High school students are focused on reading and listening because of the Korean SAT.

16) Some schools have very strict discipline, where students are given corporal punishment.

17) There are often traffic jams on the roads during rush hours.

18) You can’t find easily where you want to go unless you remember landmarks because maps are drawn out in terms of landmarks not address-based.

19) You can take a walk at night more safely than western countries because guns are not allowed to possess according to law.

20) Blowing nose is not polite while eating.

21) You’d better not start eating before the eldest does on the dining table.

22) Girls and ladies walk sometimes hand in hand or arm in arm. But they are not lesbians. It means kind of affection.

23) American brands will be much more expensive than in the US.

24) You don’t have to give tips except expensive hotels.

25) Taxes are already included. Pay the price on the price tag.

26) You can ask for more side dishes anytime because they are free.

27) Small store owners are sometimes reluctant to refund or exchange items you buy.

28) You have to recycle according to instructions (esp, food waste) So you have to buy designated plastic bags at a grocery store near your house.

29) Korean English can be heard frequently such as a meeting as blind date.

30) Some Koreans are less punctual than Americans but they are more tolerant than westerners.

31) When you drink alcohol with seniors or elder persons, you’d better turn your head around.

32) There are rarely polite ‘excuse me’s when people bump into you on the street.

33) Koreans sometimes say yes, when they are confused in speaking English.

Using the material:
There are certainly many ways that the material could be used. Today, after asking students to share some of their own tips for non-Koreans in Korea  I asked students to look through numbers 1-11 with a partner and ask each other “Is this true?” and “Is this useful?” Next week I think I will give 12-21 to one group and then 22-33 to another group with the same questions. This would be followed by the additional task of sharing the tips they have just discussed with a new partner. I am also interested in hearing students’ experiences with similar things either in or out of Korea. I think the final stage will be creating/compiling their own list of tips. 

How might you exploit this material in class?


  1. Manpal

    It seems like a majority of the “tips” are in direct response to complaints that I’ve heard from newbies in Korea.

    I think I would do similar activities as you described. I would first have students create their own tip lists in groups and have them share with other students (probably through a jigsaw activity). I would then have students look at #1-33 and discuss which tips they agree with and which ones they think don’t belong on the list. I would then get them to discuss the following two questions:

    1. What do you think were the intentions of the people who made this list?
    2. If you were travelling to a new country, what types of information would you want to know about?

    I would then have groups revise their tip list they made from the beginning of class and have each group present their updated list.

    • mikecorea

      Good points about the direct response. I felt the same way. I also felt like there was some hidden meanings in some of them. For example the strong insistence that the girls are just girls holding hands and are not lesbians and that dudes go to the bathouse for friendship (leaving out what they don’t go to the bathhouse for). Alas, that is part of the reason that I like this list so much.

      Thanks for your ideas on how to exploit the material. I like the idea of revisiting the previously made list after thinking about what info is helpful.

      Thanks very much for the comments and sorry for the delay in responding.

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  2. breathyvowel

    Not really much to add, except for this list contains one of my favourite pieces of what I might call non standard English translations in Korean: “You’d better…”. The air of menace it conveys is rather wonderful “You’d better turn your head around… lest a mob of elderly gentlemen rip it off as punishment for your insolence”.

    • mikecorea

      This reminds me of a story of a friend/mentor who lived in Japan in the 80’s/early 90’s. He went to the department store with his boss to pick out home furnishings. He was a bit surprised with the boss said, “You’d better buy this VCR.” He did and only much later did he realize he was a victim of a non standard English translation.

      Thanks for the comments!

      I just used this list last week and it made for some good times and interesting discussions.

  3. purpleHand

    Yes, I would do the same activity including Manpal’s and ask how ss in advanced class could rephrase the language (taking breathyvowel’s suggestion).

    and I love the list. Why didn’t I have this when I had to train new teachers!

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  5. expatseek

    It seems to me to be an unusual combination of helpful tips on culturally unique etiquette and some rather divisive commentary on Korean culture. Leaving aside the problems associated with the use of generalizations, my general feeling is the author is saying, ‘Here are a few useful things to know for those planning to live in Korea, (but if you read between the lines you’ll get that I’m advising you not to.’

    • mikecorea

      I can’t believe I didn’t respond to these great comments before. Darn it.Anyway I like your point about reading between the lines. Thanks so much for reading and commenting and sorry for the over a year delay in responding!

  6. Bryan

    I know you’re looking for ways to use this list in the classroom, but I can’t resist pointing out that some of these are, at best, only true in certain contexts. For example:
    – “Age is and important factor in Korea, so that you may be asked of your age because Koreans respect elders.” True, but there’s also a lot of (negative) discrimination against the aged. Emart, for example, won’t hire anyone over 50 to be a cashier.
    – “Asking about age and marriage are not seriously personal questions.” Marriage is a very personal question to a lot of single women once they hit 30. Try asking one, “So, why aren’t you married?” and see the response you get.
    – “Koreans are against America politically, not socially.” Some are. Maybe even most, but the way this is phrased implies uniformity. I don’t think you can generalize like that about ~ 50 million people.
    – “You may be disgusted by some food such as dog meat or dog soup if you keep a dog as a pet but they do not eat every kind of dog.” Not true. I knew a woman who lived near a dog meat market just south of Seoul, and she said there were all kinds of dogs there, even the beloved Jindo.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Bryan. These are all part of the reason behind why I love this list so much. It is like they rounded up a bunch of complaints they’d heard and whipped up an answer immediately.

      Thanks for the comments!

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  8. Ben McBride (@BenMcBrideEFL)

    Now that it’s been a few years since this list was created, I’d ask my students in which year they think the list was created and why. It might help to put a little distance between the list and their own culture so there is less risk of defensiveness. I sometimes find that students are uncomfortable riding the line between discussing/critiquing their own culture with me.

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