Being an Introvert in Korea

Every now and then, I come across articles about which countries are most suitable for introverts. Japan is often listed high on those lists, though I would disagree about its placement. Not many people cite Korea as a place where introverts should live, but the longer I stay here, the more I think that Korea is a kind of introvert-heaven.

In Japan, I was a student for over a year and then I worked as a teacher. I experienced the woes of the open-office plans in the schools and at the board of education, and I was thrilled to leave the noise of the teacher’s room behind.

Customer service in Japan is wonderful, and so much is automated nowadays, from movie ticket machines to ramen shop menus, that introverts rarely have to worry about speaking up when they go out shopping. However, I wouldn’t say that all introverts in Japan consider the country a paradise. Just look at the thousands of people who choose to stay indoors for months at a time – hikkikomori. Men in Japan are especially expected to be slightly extroverted. Otherwise, you won’t be in line for promotion, and you will be thought of as strange by your coworkers.

Women who work in Japan are also expected to be gregarious. They have to answer the phones with the utmost cheer, and in many workplaces, they are still expected to bring their bosses tea and flowers. Whenever I had a bad day at work, or even when I failed to smile for most of the day, I was asked if I was okay, but many times I felt that they were only asking in order to get me to fake it.

For example, I biked to school every day, even in the extremely hot summers, the freezing winters, and yes, even in typhoons. No matter the weather, though, I was expected to come into the office with a smile on my face and a loud greeting. At the beginning of my contract on JET, I tried to greet everyone as loudly as I could, even in the hallways during or after class. However, I was often met with no response, and after months of this, I stopped giving my greetings so often.

If anyone ever caught me tired and red in the face after my bike ride to school, they’d demand eye contact from me and tell me good morning, expecting me to smile back and yell an “Ohayou gozaimasu” at them in return. I understood that greetings were important, but either I greeted people first and got ignored, or I was recovering my breath and sanity, and was expected to immediately be able to tell everyone a good morning as they ran past me.

I was also expected to go to company dinners, pay tons of money for food I could barely eat, talk with drunk old men, and have no way to get home until the party was over. If I ever refused a school or company dinner, I would be thought of as anti-social, even if I had already made plans and was only informed of the dinner the day of. At one of my schools, one such situation happened, and I was never again invited to dine with my fellow teachers. I felt a little peeved by that, but I guess it got me out of a lot of obligations, so in the end, I can look back without too much bitterness.

In Korea, my jobs have all been similar. I’ve taught at private schools where we have a mix of Korean and foreign teachers. We exchange a polite “good morning” and then settle in before chatting it up. Of course, these are just my experiences. I know for a fact that Koreans also love their greetings, but personally, I feel more comfortable than I did in Japan.

My husband goes out with his coworkers a few times a week, which doesn’t bother me, because I’ve started making friends and I’m often busy on week nights now. It’s actually helpful that I’m an introvert with a husband who works crazy-long hours, because I can entertain myself for long periods of time. Sometimes, he’ll invite me to dinner with his friends or coworkers or band members, and I’ll tag along. After sitting at home most of the day, I feel refreshed enough to socialize, whereas in Japan, the company dinners always immediately followed the end of the work day.

Let’s look at shopping as another example. In Japan, if go to a big mall where there are lots of stores within the same building, you will hear thousands of workers shouting “irasshaimase” from every direction. They will also follow you to the store entrance, should you make a purchase, before handing you your bags. It goes along with their goal to project good customer service, but it always made me feel shy and strange.

In Korea, you can get everything delivered, no matter where you are. If you want to eat fried chicken by the Han river, you can ask them to drop off your order to you where you and your friends are sitting. You can even get groceries delivered to your house, along with any kind of food you could ever think of. Our fridge is covered in delivery place ads, in case we ever want to order in.

You can also use Kakao taxi to tell taxi drivers where you are and where you want to go, and once you are in the car, you don’t have to utter a word. Most of the time. Unless your taxi driver looks back at you and realizes that you are a foreigner and decides to ask you where you are from and what it’s like and how you like Korea.

One major difference for introverts, though, is eating out. In Japan, it’s totally normal to eat alone, and there are seats for single-party diners in many restaurants. In Korea, though, it’s seen as odd to eat alone, though I have seen people doing it. Personally, I like to eat at home, so I just get whatever I’m having to-go, which is something I was only able to do at places like McDonald’s and KFC in Japan. Japanese restaurants also rarely allow customers to get doggy bags of their leftovers, which bothered me, since I don’t eat much in one sitting, and usually always have to take home leftovers. In Korea, though, they will package up your food if you didn’t finish everything (unless it’s a buffet) without batting an eye.

I recently saw an article about Innisfree, a Korean cosmetics store, that started making it easier for introverted shoppers who know what they want to buy. I hope more stores start doing this, as well, because Korean cosmetic stores intimidate me. The staff members will often follow you around and continuously ask you if you need help, making it impossible for me to test out things or feel comfortable buying new products. It really depends on the store, though, as I’ve had pleasant shopping experiences in Korea where no one bugs me and I have plenty of time to mull around.

In Japan, I felt that I always had to be presentable, happy, and smiling, whereas here in Korea, I can go to the store in my pajama pants and no one will care. As an introvert, I hated all the fake smiling I had to do in Japan. Although Japan is known for its nice people and its hospitality, I’ve seen it from behind the curtain, and I can tell you that most of the time, the good moods that people project are often for show.

In Korea, I feel less pressured to be in a certain mood, and I feel that people are more honest and real. Of course, some people prefer the fake niceties of Japan, but as an introvert who loathes fake conversations, I’m glad to be out of Japan, where the main topic is the weather.

As a foreigner, though, I’ve come across many people in both Japan and Korea who are curious enough to break the general no-talking-to-strangers custom. People who usually ignore others in public will come up to me and ask me questions about my hometown and why I moved abroad. Thankfully, I have a native Korean husband who helped me through my first year and gave me a good base knowledge of the culture and how to behave. Being in a new country is stressful for many an introvert, I think.

Both countries offer a lot to introverts. If you’ve ever been to one or both, let me know your thoughts. I am somewhat of an ambivert, which means I’m in the middle of introversion and extraversion. I can get my energy from being alone and from being with people (depending on who they are), so the talkative store clerks in Korea don’t bother me that much, especially after being raised in the gregarious Southern U.S.

Are you an introvert? What country or city suits you best?

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