Common Misconceptions about Korea


When I tell people I lived in Korea for almost four years I tend to get a lot of questions and I’ve noticed a couple patterns in the kind of questions I get. Some people have a passing familiarity with the country, but others really don’t know the first thing about it! Here are a few common misconceptions I’ve identified from these conversations.

It’s tropical or the seasons are reversed. I suppose there are a couple reasons for this one. When people think about Asia as a continent, they might be thinking of Southeast Asia, which does tend to have a tropical climate. And I suppose, some people think because it’s in a different hemisphere than North America, the seasons must be opposite, like Australia. They don’t realize that east/west has no effect on the timing of seasons, it’s north/south. Brazil has opposite seasons even though it’s on the same side of the world.

It’s still an impoverished, war-torn backwater. This misconception is getting a little less prevalent now that media from Korea has taken off in popularity. I typically just tell people: “Haven’t you heard of Samsung and Hyundai?” And I let them know that Seoul is a bigger and better-connected metropolis than NYC. American history classes don’t mention Korea after the 1950s, so that’s probably why most people think it hasn’t progressed since then.

Everyone is beautiful, skinny, and short. Every country has unattractive people and overweight people. Of course, your personal taste might change your perspective about how a place’s attractiveness numbers skew. Overall, Korean people tend to be slimmer– a combination of genetics and lifestyle, but there are heavier and out of shape people, of course. Plenty of people also assumed that I “towered over everyone” at 5’7″ and that’s just not true. While I am taller than the average height for women there were some who were as tall as me, some even taller. And plenty of men were taller. There are quite a few men over 6 feet tall as a matter of fact.

Everyone loves Kpop, singing, and dancing. Do you adore pop music from your home country? Plenty of people do, but certainly, not everyone does. It’s the same in Korea. And though you may adore tons of musicians from Korea, there’s not a secret gene that all Koreans have to make them musical. Plenty of people have no musical ability, though many will take instrument classes as an extracurricular activity. Also, dancing in public isn’t that common. Unless alcohol is freely flowing or people are performing a choreographed dance at an event, you never see people dance. Not even at weddings.

Koreans are very reserved and polite. Plainly, no. While some personality traits may seem more prevalent in certain regions due to a number of factors, individuals always vary. There are plenty of Korean people who are outgoing, love to party, and love to drink. Also, it’s hard to be polite in a very crowded street or train– most people resort to pushing through. Elderly ones expect to be given precedence and will often push and shove the most to ensure they get it.

Korean students are all smart and diligent. Some people assume that teaching in Korea must be a breeze because they believe in the stereotype that Asia kids are all smarter and harder working than their counterparts in the rest of the world. Education is taken very seriously in Korea and taking extra classes, having tutors, and studying second or even third languages is pretty normal. Compared to the American education system this probably seems very intense, but kids are still kids. No matter where you are, some students are going to goof off and skip their homework, start fights, say inappropriate things and some kids just aren’t going to be that bright or grasp concepts easily. I did a post digging into some of the different educational philosophies between Korea and the US here.

Most of these misconceptions make the mistake of thinking you can generalize a whole group of people under one heading. Some traits and behavioral patterns can be more common in certain countries due to culture, infrastructure, climate, and other factors. You’ll just have to keep an open mind and see for yourself! What misconceptions have you had or heard? Or what stereotypes do people always assume about you?

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