10 American Misconceptions about South Korea

The American Misconceptions from Back Home

After returning home from teaching in Korea for four years, I’ve fielded a few questions from friends and family.  I appreciate the honest questions and curiosity.  Unfortunately, this has not been my common experience when out mingling or in the workplace.  Once people learned I lived overseas, they were typically more interested in informing me of their “correct” misconceptions about Korea despite never owning a passport.

I can’t blame Americans for their attitudes.  To a large degree, they don’t know any better.  America is a large country.  Most places in America are isolated from international travelers.  It’s more affordable for families to travel to different states than leave the country.  Furthermore, Americans have a sensationalized media that would rather talk about Donald Trump’s hair or prowess for insulting people instead of reporting on real issues and events from around the world.  

So, I don’t want to bash Americans.  I’m certainly not better than people with real careers in Jacksonville because I decided to be an ESL instructor for a couple of years.  Nonetheless, I  thought it would be fun to correct a collection of common American misconceptions about Korea.  Keep in mind, I’m not claiming to be an expert.  These are merely my opinions after living in Korea for almost half of a decade.   

10.  Koreans are short.

At 5’9 (175 centimeters for the rest of the world), I couldn’t wait to begin teaching in Korea.  For once in my life, I could reap the benefits of tall person privilege in both dating and monetary earnings.  When I finally arrived in Korea, I quickly learned my hopes were out of reach.  Koreans were tall.  And skinny.  The skinny thing really enhances the height thing.  I attracted no Korean women and I often stood on my tippy toes to peer over my middle school students (the girls) when walking through the hall.  

While the average height of Korean men is 5’7 to 5’9 depending on the online source, it’s impossible to argue that younger Koreans are not significantly taller than older Koreans or peers in China, Japan and most of Southeast Asia.  This is likely due to a greater access of calories and overall living conditions in Korea over the last thirty years.  Sorry short white guys, you aren’t impressing any Korean girls with your towering statures.

Check out this great video by Korea Junkies.  The whole thing is worth watching and they discuss height at 1:16. 


9.  Koreans have small penises.


This is a “big” myth.  There is a common perception that Korean men aren’t packing much heat.  While I never intimately encountered a Korean penis during my four years in Korea, I probably saw more than most expats.  Korean gyms have huge locker rooms and I often showered in close proximity with many different Korean men several times a week.  It’s not like I was sneaking peaks, but you can’t avoid seeing so much genitalia hanging around.  I mean, Koreans have a second blow dryer for their nether regions — it’s impossible not to see anything.  Although my observations were not scientific, nor did I ever hand inspect the erect state of my shower mates, I have to conclude Korean penises looked pretty normal — bushy, but normal.

A penis cannon at Penis Park in South Korea

Here is a more accurate portrayal Korean penis size and the link also explains where the false penis size information came from.

More anecdotal evidence of fairly average sized Korean penises from the Kimchi Queen (A great LGBT site) and the very honest Waeguk Tom.

8.  Koreans will eat your dog.

There are plenty of pooch advocates in Korea


It’s true that Koreans eat dog.  According to a national survey in 2006, 56% of adults in Korea have “tried” dog at least one time in their lives.  Even that trend, however, is sharply on the decline.  While many older Koreans still desire dog soup during the three hottest days (sambok) of summer, the Korean government has steadily guided their country away from eating man’s best friend since the 1988 Olympics.  Furthermore, pop culture, animal rights groups, and Korea’s expanding culinary scene have created a distinct generational gap between dog consumers and non-consumers.  I’m not saying I would want to lose my dog in the streets of Seoul; dog meat vendors are real and slaughter between 2 to 2.5 million dogs every year.  Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that most Koreans do not snack on canine anymore.  I promise you can let a Korean safely pet your dog. . . If they’re not afraid of it.

While dog meat is on the decline, pet ownership is on the rise.  Unfortunately, pet abandonment is a growing concern since Koreans are still learning pet ownership is a huge responsibility. You can read about the sad life for dogs in Korea as well as help underfunded no-kill shelters by clicking on this link, Dog and Animal Rescue in South Korea: A Dog’s Last Hope.  

This is a great article by USA Today regarding thThe Decline of Dog Meat Popularity

This is a great read!  Check out Dog —  It’s What’s for Dinner.

7. “Confusionism”

Confucianism is much more practical than westerners typically portray.


When something goes awry in South Korea, you can count on American media to chalk it up to Confucianism.  If a plane crashes, blame Confucianism.  When the Sewol ferry sinks and hundred of students lose their lives, blame Confucianism.

Let’s get real for a minute.  Planes and ships also crash and sink in America.  Generally, the same bad **** that happens in Korea happens in America.  However, when tragedy strikes America, Koreans don’t walk around saying, “blame individualism” or “blame Judeo-Christian” values.

Despite learning a few facts in a survey course in philosophy or civics in college, most Americans know nothing about Confucianism.  Having an overview on a topic does not impart an understanding of how a complex philosophical system of thought is applicable to a foreign culture in everyday life.

When students died in the Sewol ferry incident, Western journalists quickly attributed blame for the accident to the Confucian principles of hierarchy, group orientation, and respect for age and tradition.  They portrayed Korean students as brain-dead zombies who allowed themselves to be entombed in the name of tradition.  Somehow, these journalists believed that American teenagers placed in the same situation would obstinately ignore orders from the captain of a sinking ship and save themselves.  After all, American teenagers value individuality and disobedience — the two hallmarks of disaster management.  Instead of blaming Confucianism, the journalist should have checked out the Wikihelp article (Method 2, Step 4) on how to survive a sinking ship.

Follow directions. This may be the most important step of all. If you don’t know how to get to safety, the captain or one of the crew members will tell you how. Ship’s crews are highly trained in rescue operations on many ships and will have a better understanding than you about what needs to be done to ensure your safety

I’m certain this Wikihelp entry was not written by Confucianist and it clearly states passengers should obey authorities to ensure personal survival. Let’s be clear, obedience to authority during a disaster is generally better than 400 panicking adolescents acting independently regardless of their cultural milieu.

The Sewol tragedy occurred due to faulty ferry construction, inadequate ferry inspections, poor regulation of cargo limitations, amateur navigation, an atrociously late call for help, substandard responses from emergency services like the Coast Guard, and the captain’s fear of passengers swimming in cold water with dangerous currents — students could have died very quickly in the frigid water.  The Sewol ferry incident was an amalgamation of bad luck, poor timing, incompetence and poor oversight.  These things represent the opposite of Confucianism, not the personification of it.   

Even in America, we give reverence to pilots and captains during emergencies.  We understand that large groups acting in harmony can help save lives during disasters.   Blaming Confucianism for disasters in Korea is simply lazy and irresponsible journalism.  As a general rule of thumb, any Western article that pins Confucianism as the primary culprit for a disaster should be scrutinized.    

The following are examples of blaming or questioning Confucianism for disasters in Korea:

Culture of Obedience

Texan High Schoolers are Smarter than Korean High Schoolers

A Cockpit Culture Problem

Here are a few excellent and insightful rebuttals:

Don’t Blame Confucius

The West’s Confucian Confusion

6.  South Koreans fear North Korea


This is another sensationalized story often propagated by American media.  North Korea has made so many continuous threats of destruction that South Koreans are often less aware of the threats than most foreigners living in Korea.  Why?  Because South Koreans have better things to worry about like what flavor coffee should they get at Tom&Tom’s or what facial pose they should strike for their next selfie.  Every time North Korea threatens South Korea, the American media overreacts for ratings while attempting to convince viewers the world is on the brink of WWIII.  In South Korea, however, it’s business as usual as threats are common and often meaningless for Koreans outside of the military.  To be clear, I’m not saying South Koreans on the street don’t worry at all about North Korea, but it’s a different universe when compared to American media.  Check out this video filmed by my friends at Eat Your Kimchi.  If you are not familiar with Simon and Martina, give the video a minute to get past their peculiar personalities — their information and analysis is worth it.     

 5.  Korean Women Love All White Men

American Misconceptions about Korea and Asia - White men
These are Japanese women, but it’s a similar stereotype.

I covered this topic extensively in the Myth of White Men and Asian Women.  Korean women don’t like white men; they like attractive men.  Some of these men just happen to be white.  Ugly white guys make out worse in Korea for two reasons:  Korean girls are more selective about physical appearances than Western girls and adding cultural and language barriers make dating more difficult, not easier.  

I hate to say this, but the white guy who brags a lot about hooking up with a lot of Koreans is typically the very attractive, baby-faced, light-haired, tall white man with a crappy personality.  While the Western girl would quickly uncover a defective personality via conversation,  the language and cultural barriers of talking to Korean women afford these men some insulation.  Thus, these men go off about dating in Korea because it helps cover their flaws.    

As a general rule of thumb, however, most Korean women and men still prefer to seriously date within their own culture.  While they may spring for an exotic fling, dating Koreans long term can be a serious challenge for all foreigners.

Obviously there are plenty of exceptions and success stories.  If you’re in Korea, follow your heart!  However, if you live in America and you think wielding your whiteness will help you conquer Korean women, please stay at home.     


4.  Western Women Don’t Find Asian Men Attractive

There are three types of Western women: the few who will never be attracted to Korean men, those who come to Korea knowing Korean men are hot, and the converts.  Trust me on this, the converts are becoming a very large group.

Korean men pissed me off during my time in Korea.  They kept quite a few western women infatuated whom I would have loved to date.  Plus, competing with them is nearly impossible.  They were always stylish — matching and layering their pristine outfits flawlessly.  Most of them had perfect, thick hair that looked so fun to style.  They were far more aggressive in social situations than advertised.  Finally,  many Korean men were thin, tall and aged slower than Melisandre from Game of Thrones.  It’s only a matter of time before all women in the world unlock the joy of Korean men.

Western to Korean Men Conversion Tools:

Shattering the Stereotypes of Asian Men

The Sexy Korean Man Tumblr

Why Western Women Love Korean Men


3.  Koreans are quiet and don’t drink.  

Sorry Koreans,  you aren’t quieter than foreigners just because you’re mesmerized by your Galaxy cell phones or iPads on the subway.  Whether it’s a group of ajjeosis gathering for a hike or college students drinking soju, Koreans are just as loud if not louder than foreigners.  Have you ever seen groups of Korean tourists outside of Korea?  LOUD.  I recommend watching the entire video, but check in at thirty seconds.


Granted, the key amplifier for Korean volume is soju, a fermented rice liquor that’s likened to poor man’s vodka.  For those who are not aware, the average Korean drinks 13.7 shots of hard liquor per week, doubling the average Russian who drinks 6.3 shots per week.  Seriously, Koreans go into a CU (convenient store) and down soju like it’s water.  When inebriated, Korean men fight and aggressively pursue women just like drunk men in all parts of the world.

Drinking is part of Korea’s “work long, play hard” culture.  Koreans work long hours and follow a rigid hierarchy.  Management and employees are often required to drink together to show and give respect to each other.  Additionally, drinking is often needed to release the steam and bond with coworkers in a way that can’t be accomplished in the Korean workplace.


2.  Koreans Speak English.

This is partially true.  Koreans spent 15 trillion won on English education in 2011 — 1.9% of the GDP.  During middle and high school, Korean students typically study English for 15,548 hours.  Sadly, Koreans ranked 21st out of 54 countries in English proficiency.  Countries like The Philippines are far more fluent in English despite Korea’s huge financial investment.

Even though this is a broad topic, most students whom I taught were not interested in learning English.  Korea is a competitive society and English is often used as a metric to qualify for a school, university, or employment opportunity.  Therefore, most students study English to become proficient on tests as opposed to becoming fluent.  Since Korea possesses a strong culture (Kpop, Kdrama, online communities, gaming communities), there is little motivation for many students to embrace English.  As P. Tabors notes in One Child, Two Languages,

A child must want to communicate with people who speak that language if acquisition is to occur.  Research suggests that students who are in a second-language learning situation have to be sufficiently motivated to start learning a new language.

(Take note ESL teachers in Korea, it’s your job to make learning English fun so students want to learn, not to kill them with mundane grammar, speaking, writing, or listening exercises.)

Unfortunately the proclivity for proficiency tests as opposed to fluency means a large portion of the Korean population understand some English, but struggle with practical communication.


1.  Healthcare in Korea must be scary.


If there is one thing I want Americans to learn about my time in Korea, it’s that South Korea and many industrialized nations have better health care than America.  Although Korean health care is about equal in quality, it surpasses American health care in the areas of affordability and accessibility.  

Surgery in Korea

When I had my first sinus infection in Korea, I visited a general physician.  I was expecting a lazy response of antibiotics, but he immediately referred me to a specialist after I disclosed my lengthy history of sinus problems.  I was able to see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist on the same day, although I was not prepared for what would follow.  My ENT discovered a tumor behind my nose that was effectively blocking 90% of my nasal and sinus drainage.  There was a small chance the tumor was malignant, but I later learned the tumor was an enlarged adenoid from my childhood.  

Despite suffering from intense sinus infections and seeing countless doctors and ENTs in America, Korean doctors were the first to use an endoscope to actually inspect the inside of my nose.  Apparently, general practitioners back home were complacent to treat me for chronic problems by merely guessing the cause of general symptoms.  They avoided sending me to specialists or running extra tests because they were so expensive.  For 29 years,  doctors in America told me I had allergies (Korean doctors disproved this by actually testing me for allergies instead of guessing) and a weak immune system.  Contrarily, Korean doctors discovered the tumor during my first visit and removed it a month later.  My health has never been better. 

An Anecdotal Cost Comparison

My adenoidectomy cost 500 dollars without insurance.  The same surgery would have cost between 5,000 to 7,000 dollars without insurance in America.  If I had insurance in America, a 10% co-pay would have been roughly 500 dollars — the same amount of the total cost of surgery in Korea.

I also stayed in the hospital for a total of four nights.  I received IVs, pain killers, and received other treatments and procedures associated with recovering from surgery.  When I walked out of the hospital, my total bill was 1600 dollars and my insurance company covered 50% of the cost.

Comparatively, a single night in a hospital in America costs an average 2,092 dollars. That does not include any treatment, care or tests.  My insurance company in America would have been billed at least 13,000 dollars for my surgery and time in recovery — a price disguised by a co-pay but likely passed on through insurance premiums.  

It’s the Profit in Health Care, Stupid

The National Health Insurance Corporation controls prices for common procedures and medications in Korea.  In other words, they limit the amount of profit for health care.  This is why health care is so affordable in Korea.  Supposedly, controlling prices should lead to shortages or doctors seeing too many patients, but I never experienced these problems in Korea.  Actually, the diagnosis, treatment, and quality of the health care I experienced in Korea was superior and far more thorough than America.

Korea taught me single payer health care systems are not the devil.

Perhaps exorbitant profiteering is. 

If you’d like to learn more, Ask a Korean does a great job explaining the ins and outs of the Korean health care system.

Click on the graph for info ranking America’s Healthcare System


Did I miss something? Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!  And remember, I even take my opinions with a grain of salt, especially since I’m back in America :) 

3 thoughts on “10 American Misconceptions about South Korea

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