Overcoming cultural barriers as an expat (in South Korea)

Korean beach

Being an expat is fun. Being an outsider is tough.

It’s been ages since my last post. I lived in Europe for a few years, and returned several years ago to the same town in Korea, where I’m now raising a mixed-culture family. Now that we’ve got that out of the way… Let’s get down to brass tacks: cultural barriers,  making friends (?) and “being foreign” in Korea. At the beach this weekend, I took a picture of the barbed wire fencing, which stretches its way along most of the country’s coastline — a big fence to keep some people out and make others feel safe while keeping them penned in together. It seemed like an apt metaphor for cultural barriers.

Exactly a decade ago, I read that expats living in Korea will always be viewed as foreigners. As soon as I read it, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want it to color my experience in Korea. But many years into living in Korea, I can’t deny its truth. I know two women who have lived here for decades, speak fluent local dialect, married Korean men and have Korean passports. I attended a speech some years back given by one of the women on notable female figures in Korean history. A couple members of the local press approached nervously, not knowing that she was the keynote speaker, and asked her politely what brought her as a foreigner to the event. Despite actually being Korean, she will always be a foreigner.

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Korean conjunctions and interjections (그래, 그리고, 근데, etc.)

If you’re eavesdropping on the table next to you in one of Korea’s many posh coffee shops, you might wonder at all the times you hear “그” used as parts of other words.

그, 그, what’s your function? Often it’s a conjunction! 그 literally means “that”.  It’s useful as a pause in conversation that lets you think, like the English “uh” or “um”. It’s also used to make a lot of other words that are extremely useful (and common!) in Korean. But… however… and so… OK… so then… good job! 그…그…그…그… Continue reading

10 Great Korean Movies

1. Welcome to Dongmakgol *****

Welcome to DongmakgolEasily one of the best, most unique movies made about the Korean war for two reasons. First it shares a Korean perspective of the absurdity of this civil war with neither side certain who invaded whom or why. As one elder in the far-removed Shangri-La-type village of Dongmakgol puts it when he hears that a war is afoot, “Who’s invaded this time? The Chinese? The Japanese?” and the answer of course is “er… it’s not that simple.” Secondly, it’s not your typical war movie. This movie manages to be heartwarming, humorous and tragic, defying–as many Korean movies do–to be placed strictly within one genre. Continue reading

Google, South Korea Clash on Internet Censorship

I want to share good things about Korean culture with others. I want to tell the world, “Hey, Korea is a great place. You should really make the folks at Korea’s tourism agency happy and come and visit.” In general, I think there’s a lot to see, do and learn here.

So I went to upload a video the other day of a traditional Korean instrument. What did I find? Due to a new South Korean “Internet Real-Name System” nobody in South Korea can any longer upload videos or even post comments on YouTube. WTF? Continue reading

Similarities Between South Korea, North Korea and the Joseon Dynasty (Rant)

Why is Korea called the Hermit Kingdom?

According to the infallible Wikipedia, Korea was first called the Hermit Kingdom by William Elliot Griffis’ 1882 book, Corea: The Hermit Nation.


We can’t even rely on our trusty Wikipedia for information here because Koreans are so bent on keeping their history shrouded in the rosy imagery of popular historical TV shows that Koreans troll Wikipedia vigilantly and mercilessly edit anything that might reflect poorly on their country. (Keep reading the above link to the Wikipedia article and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s like China’s secret service, only the Korean government gets the services of its vigilante “netizens” for free.

Let me state clearly that I want North and South Korea to be peaceful as much as anyone and more than most. I live here, after all, and I sincerely love many Korean people and aspects of Korea. But a fuller appreciation of the peninsula’s history and commonalities is not always easy to find online, which is why I’m writing this. Other than my initial irritation at the defensiveness of Korean netizens about their country, I hope that I do not offend anybody with this blog. In fact, it’s an interesting subject. My understanding of the truth is that olden Korea (the Joseon dynasty of 100 years ago, say) in fact seems to have had much in common with modern day North Korea that is not generally made public. Continue reading

Pronouncing Difficult Korean Sounds

You’ve carefully perused the fantasmic page on learning hangeul, right? Excellent… [drums fingertips together]

But what Sejong didn’t tell you with that wise man / stupid man one-liner is that Hangeul isn’t perfectly phonetic. [Collective gasp!] Just like many other scripts, there are irregularities and pronunciation tricks that must be learned. I’ve adapted an excellent Korean grammar book, Elementary Korean by Ross King and Jae-Hoon Yeon, for this section. Continue reading

How to Conjugate Korean Verbs: Formal

Koreans use formal verbs in many business and public speaking situations. Newscasters speak in unremitting formal tones; business people and shop owners will often use the formal when speaking to clients and customers; people use it with those who are significantly older; public officials use the formal when campaigning; even friends and associates sometimes use the formal with one another to express respect, humility or deference to the other person. Continue reading

How to Conjugate Korean Verbs: Honorific Polite

The honorific polite form is used often in the Korean business world. You’ll hear it when from people speaking to business clients and customers, to teachers and elders, on semi-formal occasions and also from time to time among friends.  Continue reading

How to Conjugate Korean Verbs

If it sends chills down your spine to learn verbs in a language where the very word for verb (동사) also means death by cold (no kidding!), then take comfort. Korean verbs are actually not that bad. Not nearly as bad as death by cold, at least. The good news: you don’t have to change the verb endings (conjugate the verbs) depending on who does the action. The, er… other news: there are lots of endings, sometimes called “patterns” that change the verb’s mood and meaning and you’ll have to learn them. Cheer up, chum. The other good news is that you can start using verbs right away as soon as you know just one conjugation: the present tense polite form. Continue reading

How to Conjugate Korean Verbs: Polite

There’s nothing easier than making informal Korean verbs into polite Korean verbs. (If only making everything polite were so simple!) First, make the informal form. Then, simply add 요 to the end of the verb. Ta-da!

The Polite form is used most often in Korean. Commonly, it’s used among friends, especially acquaintances but sometimes also with close friends. It’s OK to use this form for almost every daily interaction you have, but you’ll need to understand the honorific polite when it’s spoken to you by business owners and you’ll also be appreciated if you use the formal with people much older than you as well as people in positions of authority.
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