All the stuff I’ve learnt about Korean culture

Last month at the library a book called The birth of Korean cool practically jumped into my hands off the “new and noteworthy” shelves. I have been fascinated with Korean culture from my very first encounter – I can’t even quite explain why, but I find it so interesting that I just have to share.

Seoul a decade ago – my first encounter with Korean culture

Growing up, I had very little knowledge of Korea. I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s in a part of Asia that was just a bit outside the radar of Western Australians, caught up as we are in south-east Asia and going on endless holidays to Indonesia and Thailand. When I moved to Japan, I realised that one of the closest neighbours was South Korea, but I certainly didn’t learn a whole lot about it from my students, because Japanese and Koreans are traditionally basically enemies (although a lot of my students confessed to loving Korean food and enjoying shopping trips to Seoul).

Being so close, it was super-cheap to travel to Korea and when I had a week to spare, I flew from Osaka to Seoul to check it out. I accidentally did this during the same time as the FIFA World Cup was being held jointly in Japan and South Korea, but luckily for me – because, as usual, I hadn’t booked any accommodation before I arrived – there was still some room at the inn, in a tiny hostel in the middle of Seoul.

Enjoying some Korean food and soaking up Korean culture near Seoul

Enjoying some Korean food and soaking up Korean culture near Seoul

To be honest, what struck me most then about Korea was that there were so many similarities to Japan. A lot of the food was similar – just that the Koreans had spicy versions. A lot of their cultural traditions were similar, too. There was one key thing difference though – as much as I loved the Japanese people (and still do), they were sometimes frustratingly shy and therefore harder to get to know, whereas the Koreans I met as I wandered around Seoul were more confident in speaking English and more eager to make friends. Where a Japanese person would help you find a place you were looking for by going out of their way to lead you there, a Korean person would do the same but would chat to you the whole way. I actually said at the time that if I’d known what Korea was like, I would have taken a teaching job there instead – which is a huge statement considering just how much I love Japan.

Teaching Koreans in Perth – the most honest students in history

My next encounter with Korean culture was back in Perth, when I was teaching English as a second language to classes of (mostly young) people from all around the world. There was a big contingent of Koreans in my classes and they were fun students to have. I loved seeing them get to know people from other countries – seeing their wide-eyed looks when they first encountered the bold, loud South Americans, and their curiosity about fashion and culture when they met Europeans. I enjoyed watching them explain to people from other countries that they have a totally different system for figuring out their age. Oh, and I also loved seeing that they often made friends with the Japanese and realised that the traditional enemy feeling was no longer necessary.

Learning about Korean culture from my students

Learning about Korean culture from my students

But the funniest part of teaching Koreans was their outstanding honesty. Honesty that I didn’t always love, I have to tell you! You see, a number of the Koreans I met were so honest that they would tell you anything they thought (and they seemed to have a different filter for what should or shouldn’t be said, compared to most other cultures). If I put on a bit of weight (which I did from time to time) they would not hesitate to mention it. One time one of my eyebrows had ended up a little crooked, and a (male!) student pointed that out to me and tried to give me some eyebrow plucking tips. And so on …!

It’s just the way Korean culture goes, it seems. A friend of mine who travels the world setting up human resources software systems was in Korea recently, and she mentioned that their client had some (to her) unusual requests for the data fields they’d need. She’d never before encountered a company that “needed” to know a potential employee’s religion, height, weight, blood type, parents’ history, hobbies and more before they’d even interview them. (And of course in many countries it would be illegal to ask most of that!)

“Korean cool” – twenty-first century South Korea takes over the world

And then there was this book. Basically, The birth of Korean cool talks about how the Korean government systematically supported pop culture (TV, music, movies, computer games, you name it) so that they could create a massive worldwide industry out of it. And while we here in Australia might not know much more than Gangnam Style, we’re not really the intended market – South Korea is taking over the popular culture of the developing world, and a friend who was recently in Myanmar commented that she was amazed at how much Korean influence she saw there.

But the reason that this has become popular, the book suggests, is because of the way Korean society works. There’s a huge expectation to work hard and there’s no expectation of a utopian happy life. Most Korean pop stars are recruited by record labels and then trained for five or six years before they even perform once.

There are all kinds of parts of Korean culture that seem unusual to me, as an Australian. For example, corporal punishment in schools was only made illegal in 2011. I can believe this, because when I taught a bunch of Korean school kids on an English study tour to Australia back in 2007, I had some issues with their behaviour and asked their tour guide to accompany them to lessons to help out – if they misbehaved, she just hit them, and I was shocked (and felt terribly guilty for inflicting that upon them!). On top of that, their education system seems so intense to me, so competitive and so pushy, and I wouldn’t like to put my son through such a school system no matter what.

There’s also this weird concept of han, which is this uniquely Korean concept of “unavenged injustice” because they’ve been invaded so many times in history (and it’s worth reading more about han because it’s really unusual!).

Korea is coming, are you ready?

I’m not sure that Korean culture is about to take over the Western world, but it is definitely spreading to other places. And I’m very curious to see what happens.

I’m also keen to go back to Korea and spend more time looking around. Seoul is a really cool city and I only got to spend four or fie days there – I definitely have heaps more to see. And after meeting so many students who lived in other parts of Korea, I’m keen to explore the rest of the country. One day, I’ll be back!

Comments

  1. Whilst Korea has really entered my radar for travel just yet, I do love their food and Korean people are always so well dressed compared to other Asian natinalities

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