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Culture shocks I've experienced as a Korean exchange student

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MARCH 22, 2023

POV: You’re an exchange student from Korea and it’s your first time visiting the United States. Whenever I introduce myself as an exchange student, the conversation starts with this question: Have you experienced any culture shock? Well, most of the time, I’m not prepared for the answer. I just put my fingers on my chin, make a ‘hmm’ gesture, and splutter some random answer. So, back in my room, I’ve been contemplating: What is my culture shock? After living in the United States for three months, and finally feeling “settled down,” these are the major culture shocks that I felt. 

Never walk alone at night

I came to the United States knowing literally nothing about culture, food, public transportation, sunset time and safety. Three hours after my arrival, I was in my hotel room alone, struggling with jet lag, craving dinner and thinking, “What should I do tomorrow? Should I go to the grocery store right now?” And when I looked at the clock, it was still only 5:00 p.m.!

But when I looked out the window, it was extremely dark (It was December). Lights were off and there was no one walking down the street. So, I immediately took off my coat and went back inside my room. Even to a foreigner, it was obvious: It’s not safe to go outside at night. Later, I realized that it’s important to stay vigilant during the night in the United States. 

In Korea, you can walk alone at night without much concern. Without alcohol, I usually stay outside until 11:00 p.m., and when I do go out, I stay outside until 2:00 a.m. If I have enough energy to do so, I spend the whole night outside, taking the first morning bus to come back home. Of course, the possibility of being exposed to crime is higher at night in Korea as well. But the night culture is much safer and normalized. I usually summarize this culture shock in one sentence: There’s no WarnMe in Korea.

Talking to a random person

I was definitely shocked by the small talk culture. In Korea, we don’t talk to random people in the dining hall, on the bus or in the line waiting for hamburgers. People are indifferent to strangers and not willing to talk to strangers. It’s not that people are hostile — we’re just not used to it.

The only situation when we force ourselves to talk to a random person is when asking for directions. In that case, people will respond friendly to your needs. The problem is when you start to have a conversation or “small talk” with a Korean out of nowhere; they will stare at you in a different manner with suspicion and vigilance. They perceive that you might have a different intention, questioning “WHY are they talking to me?” 

Waiting for the check at restaurants

I was already familiar with the tipping culture of the United States, but not with waiting for a check at a restaurant. In the United States, except for fast-food restaurants, most restaurants request after-meal payment. While we do both before and after payments in Korea, we don’t wait for the waiter to bring the check. After we finish our meal, we stand up, go to the counter, give the cashier the cash/card and pay. I remember when I finished my first meal at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, I walked toward the counter without thinking. I was just staring at the cashier, thinking “Why has he not asked for my card?” The cashier probably thought, “Is she leaving without paying?” Of course, I went back to my seat, waited for the check and made a payment, but it was a learning experience. 

Daylight saving time 

I’ve never even heard of daylight saving time before. I learned what daylight savings is, why it exists and what’s going to happen just a week ago from my friend. Many Asian countries don’t do daylight savings. I was so confused, asking my friend over and over, “So, what’s going to happen next week?” The time difference between Korea and the United States suddenly became 16 hours. Thanks to daylight savings, the sunset time is now 7:00 p.m., which allows me to spend more time outside. 

This is a summary of major culture shocks from a Korean point of view. If you’re planning to study abroad, be prepared before you leave. I learned that it’s important to understand the culture, daily life patterns, transportation and safety of a new country.

Contact Sojeong Mun at 


MARCH 22, 2023