Category: Cultural bumps & perceptions

Relationships between Korean students and American teachers

Here’s a Korean’s view on the cultural differences between dealing with teachers in Korea and in America.

One aspect of American culture I really cannot adapt to is the way students behave to their teachers. English has no honorifics so there is no way of speaking with respect to older people. I cannot call a teach ‘you’ or use their first name. In high school we say “teacher” and in university we say “professor.”

In addition, US students say hi to their professors by waving. In Korea we bow. In class, Americans interrupt the lecture with questions. In Korea we have to wait for the professor to pause. It seems that in Korea we really have to be much more careful to be polite to our professors.

I’ve noticed a difference in the concept of right and fairness as well. One of my friends goes to university in the US, and he told me a shocking story. He became really close friends with one of his professors. They went out for lunch, played tennis together, and the professor even invited him to his house. When the semester was over, he got a B. He thought he would get an A easily since they were friends but the professor just gave my friend the grade he earned. In Korea people expect preferential treatment when they know each other but in the US I guess opportunities and results apply to everyone the same.

Beyond culture shock: he blew his nose in class

A fun story from one of my students:

When I first went to America there were many things i wasn’t familiar with. The most shocking story of all happened during my first day in American school. A kid sitting next to me stood up in the middle of class, walked all the way to the back, took a Kleenex from the box, and he started to blow his nose.

It was beyond culture shock. I couldn’t even imagine this ever happening in a Korean school, but no one was surprised. It’s one of the most embarrassing things you can do and should never be done in class. Like farting real loud in the middle of class.

In Korea, people sniffle to avoid blowing their nose in class. It was the other way around in America. I got used to this pretty quickly and I started to love it. But one time I blew my nose in class in Korea. Everyone looked at me as though I had just farted. I learned it’s important to know when to switch my gear.

Toilet paper at the kitchen table

Here’s a cultural difference that a student of mine noticed:

I went to an American university for one year and lived in a dorm with my American roommate. I used to cook Korean food for us and we enjoyed eating together. However, he was shocked and disgusted when I wiped my mouth with toilet paper after the meal.

Interestingly, I noticed this when I came to Korea and saw toilet paper where I didn’t expect it. In Korea, people use toilet paper for all kinds of things. In a lot of restaurants you’ll see rolls of toilet paper on the tables. Koreans use toilet paper in the bathroom and in the kitchen or on restaurant tables. For some it takes a little getting used to.

Lunch with a Canadian friend from a Korean perspective

Consider this story from one of my students:

When I met my Canadian friend, I suggested we get lunch together. When she showed up for the lunch date, my Canadian fried had brought her friend along – a total stranger to me.

In Korea, this kind of arrangement is between the inviter and the invitee. However, in Canada it’s relatively easier to get along with strangers and make new friends so they easily bring their friends with them.

When I asked the rest of the class, about 50% said it would bother them if a friend brought a stranger along to this kind of lunch that was supposed to be between two friends. More Korean women than men said they would find it uncomfortable or offensive.

In America and Canada, I think fewer people would find the situation awkward, especially since this was a casual, friendly meeting as opposed to a business lunch. When we get together to chit chat or hang out, we often feel ‘the more the merrier’.

The contrast is that, in Korea, being placed in a situation where you have to socialize with strangers is fairly awkward. For an example of what I mean, one thing that surprised me about Korea is that on the first day of class, students would be quiet – as if they were taking the final exam. They didn’t want to introduce themselves to the strangers sitting around them.