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An American Woman in South Korea


Visiting, another country naturally invites comparisons:

  • How is it different than your home country?
  • How is it better? How is it worse?
  • How the hell do Korean women walk around effortlessly in stilettos while pushing a baby stroller?

But what happens when you find these differences fundamentally upsetting?

For example, differences in the way a country treats women.

I know a lot of cultures have pretty antiquated views on how women should act, dress, etc., and for the most part, I’m happy to say that South Korea is not one of them.

In Korea, women are given all the same opportunities and rights as men – on paper. My irritation stems from the subtleties – all the unwritten rules about acceptable female behavior.

First and foremost, Koreans believe that women should be quiet.

Whether on a public bus, the sidewalk, or a bar, a woman should not be heard by anyone not immediately next to her.   There are countless other silly rules Korean men try to place on the women here (like always doing your hair and make up) but this is the one I find most offensive.

Probably because I can’t seem to follow it.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sebastian Anthony

The other notable culture clash I continue to be reminded of, is their treatment of children.

On one hand Korean parents, both male and female, tend to be noticeably more affectionate than their American counterparts. On the other hand, these children are more disciplined than most American adults twice their age.

  • These children attend school 6 days a week.
  • They attend 3-5 after school academies (like the one I work at) where they are given extra homework.
  • And when these children screw up, they are hit by both their parents and teachers.  (to clarify, the hitting is generally just a small tap on the arm or leg, nothing serious)

These kids don’t have much free time, if any.

And I routinely feel guilty for contributing to that. I have also been asked by my boss to give out more homework to certain classes, per the parents’ request, which I find unfathomable.

But in instances like these, where I’m visibly stressing out 10 year-olds, or when a 65 year-old man tells my friends and me to be quiet, despite the fact that we are in a loud, crowded bar, I have to bite my tongue (or just curse in English under my breath).

As much as it  goes against every modern woman and modern American belief I have, I constantly remind myself that this simply isn’t my place.

I voluntarily moved to this country, knowing it would be different, and knowing I should do my best to blend into that. I also voluntarily signed a contract saying I would follow my school’s rules, even if that includes taking away my a part of my students’ precious free time and overworking them.

Unless it is absolutely necessary to stand up for yourself or assert your rights, a traveler must do their best to blend in and accept the fundamental differences of their new country.

After all, you sought this out.

So think of it as an opportunity to challenge your own beliefs.  Or if nothing else, just think of it as a social experiment. But whatever you do, don’t try to push a baby stroller in 5-inch heels, because that is just damn near impossible!

What cultural differences have you encountered while traveling? What has been the most shocking?


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