Oops, meant to post this a while back--
A smattering of interesting bits I've learned lately about Korean culture:
A High Context Culture: Koreans have a reputation for not complaining and engaging in the practice of being indirect, called "noon chi". Instead of being straightforward about a problem, Koreans will express themselves in subtle (and sometimes passive aggressive) ways, and you'll have to read in between the lines. Considering that we're being told time and again that the quality of our year depends on a good relationship with our co-teacher, this makes me rather nervous (our co-teacher is the native Korean teacher at our school who has been assigned to be our mentor/handler; we may have up to eight different co-teachers we teach classes with, but there's one in particular who's supposed to take care of you).
A Drinking Culture: A vodka-like liquor called soju is ubiquitous here, and the Koreans are happy to drink it, make you drink it, and leave the idea of moderation at home. The pouring and serving of drinks is pretty ritualized (receive everything with both hands, turn your head away from your elder to drink, don't pour your own, etc.), and empty glasses that hit the table are invitations for a refill. We were told that it's not uncommon for your principle to take you out and for all the teachers to take turns buying rounds for everyone; depending on the size of the group, you may not be able to leave the table under your own power. At orientation we were coached in how to say no without offending people. It's a tricky thing.
A Recycling Culture: It's a small, resource-challenged country, so Koreans are careful with their waste. You have to buy special trash bags and separate trash, food items, and recycling. There are fines for not following the protocol, and it may be just a rumor, but we were told that the government pays people who tattle on offenders. Garbage snitches.
A Competitive Culture: Most of the families who can afford it send their kids to private English academies, or hogwans. Some families view public school as a formality and the hogwans as the real education; students go to hogwans after school, sometimes until 1 in the morning. Apparently there are some new laws restricting the late hours, but hogwans get around them by bussing kids to the teachers' apartments. Crajy.
Bias: The rumor is that schools prefer blonde-haired, blue-eyed American females as native English teachers. The hair and eyes advertise "foreign!", and the American and Canadian accents are preferred over English or Australian, etc.
Greetings: Koreans don't greet a stranger on the street; someone they know must introduce the third party. But, once you've been introduced, this person becomes a part of your circle, and it's rude not to greet them. When you do, use both hands (shake their hand with both of yours, or shake their hand while touching the crook of your arm with your opposite hand)-- or, if you're bowing, the younger person must bow first and more deeply. Age is a really important consideration here. It affects how you speak to others, and sometimes, whose fault something is.
Superstition: In most buildings, there is no fourth floor. The number four here is associated with death because, I think, the word for four sounds like "death" in Chinese. Thus, in my building, I take the elevator past floors 1, 2, and 3, and live on F. Also, Koreans are superstitious about writing names in the color red, because it's like sentencing that person to death, or inviting death to find that person. Rather than write his name with the only pen in the room (red), my coteacher left the classroom to go back to his office to get a black pen. He's safe for another day.