Little Cultural Differences

When I first started watching Korean dramas it was the little things that threw me. I can handle the foreign language and reading subtitles just fine, I expected not to know the history or legends, but sometimes the little things took more time and effort to get used to. Even though I have been watching Asian dramas regularly for around five years there are still sometimes cultural differences which confuse or surprise me.

Here are some of the things that made me realize I was watching something from another culture.

  • Piggyback Rides-I could probably count on one hand the times I’ve seen adults give each other piggy back rides in American shows.
  • “Come here” hand motion- In America if we want to motion someone to some over we do so palms up, while in Asia they do it palm down. A little thing, but it still looks so strange to me.
  • School Age– Initially I didn’t know that the age to start school is different in Korea than in the US. It made a world of difference once I found out high school seniors in Korea are 20 instead of 18 like in America. This makes a huge difference in the ability to live alone and have romantic relationships.
  • Hospitalization– Why does no one go home for something as simple as a leg in a cast? Hospitalizations are treated so differently that I wonder how much is drama magic and how much is based on reality.
  • Nightly showers– Every show shows its characters taking a nightly shower. This was strange to me for two reasons. Firstly, American shows don’t have the same obsession with showing the personal cleanliness habits of their characters. Secondly, most people I know take showers in the morning.

  • Multiple Generations in One Home-The expectation to live at home even once the children are grown and working on their own is completely different.
  • Food– So many different foods we don’t have and the way of eating is different. We tend to have a main dish and then several sides. Everyone has their own plate and the food is passed around for people to serve themselves. People all eating from the same dish and serving each other with their own chopsticks wierded me out a little the first few times.
  • Karaoke– Not very popular here, and half the time done as a joke. We also don’t have dedicate Karaoke stores/venues.
  • Driving-They park ANYWHERE they want with no regard for little things like laws and the ability of other cars to get around them. I wonder how much is reality and how much just drama laziness. Don’t even get me started on the middle of the road U-turns.
  • Importance of School Rankings– I’ve never heard of an American school posting the actual school rankings for everyone to see. It was on our report cards, but that’s it.
  • High School Classes– Students sit on the same room and the teachers rotate, which is completely opposite to how it is done in the U.S.
  • Statute of Limitation on Murder– This one really blew my mind. There is no statute of limitation on murder in the US, so the first time this was a factor in a show I was shocked. I’m still occasionally surprised by how short the statute of limitations is for many crimes in Korea.
  • Sleeping with the Lights On– Especially prevalent in Taiwanese shows, but so many characters sleep with the lights on. Not just one lamp, but a whole ton of lights. I understand wanting light so you can still see the characters, but American shows have different ways of getting that additional light.
  • Sleepwear-I mean really, khatkis and a button-down shirt are appropriate sleepwear? I do not get the sleepwear choices a lot of the time.
  • Changing clothes– I swear people change their clothes excessively, especially the wealthy who go through like five sets of clothing in a day. Half of the time when they change out of their work clothes into something more comfortable it’s the same level of formality.
  • “Have you eaten?”– Asking if someone has eaten a meal is a sign of care and affection that is prominent in just about every show. We don’t attach the same significance to this phrase, or to having someone who would care enough to ask us.
  • Confessions– The elaborate confessions of love are on par with how we handle wedding proposals. American shows make less of a production of the actual romantic confession.
  • Job Hunting– The mass interviews and hiring practices are different. I still get confused sometimes, especially with Japanese shows, on how exactly the interviewing and hiring process works.
  • Men’s Fashion– One of the first Korean shows I watched was Boys Over Flowers, and boy was that a shock to my fashion sensibilities. Asian men’s fashion blur the lines between gay and straight dressing styles significantly more than in America.
  • Resignation Letter and Taking Responsibility-This happens a lot easier and for less significant reasons than in American shows.
  • Cellphone Nicknames– I rarely see people stores contacts in their cell phone under a nickname in America, and you especially don’t see the constant changing of the name as the relationship changes like we see in some shows.
  • Substitute Drivers– I don’t even drink I wish these were in the US!
  • Titles– The first few times I was confused by the use of titles like sunbae, hyung, etc. Asians use titles instead of names on a regular basis, and there rules as to when those are supposed to used.
  • Talking Up versus Down-The first time a character in a Korean drama chastized someone for talking down to them I was really confused since what the other character had said didn’t seem disrespectful. English doesn’t have levels of speech like Korean does, so there are still a lot of social cues I miss.
  • Drinking While Turning Away– When people drink alcohol they sometimes turn away as a gesture of respect. I get the feeling there are subtleties of personality and relationships that I am missing since this is a foreign custom.
  • Physical Punishments– Hitting a rebellious child or grandchild is much more acceptable than in American. Plus the two most common form of physical punishment I have never seen elsewhere: holding hands in the air and head on the ground with butt in the air (I’m sure there’s an actual name for this position but I don’t know it).
  • Tech– Sometimes I really covet the tech, and not just the stuff of the rich people. Even normal people have cell phones with features we don’t have. It’s interesting to see something in a drama and then see it available in the US a year or more later. Examples include a fridge with a small door to access drinks and a washing machine with a sink in the lid (I want this one so badly!).
  • Sitting on the Floor– We don’t sit on the ground much unless it’s kids or teenagers lounging about. Plus the ability to squat even in the really old sometimes amazes me.
  • Headaches– In America we touch our temples indicate headache pain. The first time I saw someone grab the back of their neck I was incredibly confused.

That is everything I can think of right now, though I am sure there are things I forgot. Notice I didn’t include things like mandatory military service or the obsession with first loves since those topics are way too big for a brief list like this. What little things have thrown you for a loop?


One thought on “Little Cultural Differences

  1. Correction:the actual age of Korean high school senior is 18-19 at most. Because Korean count the birth year as 1 instead of zero. If you’re 18, it became 19 in Korean age.


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