I didn’t know anything about Korea until I was in my senior year of college. It is my birth country, after all; I should know something more than kimchi. My adoptive parents attempted to introduce me to Korean culture and enroll me in language classes, but I vehemently rejected my Korean ethnicity and wanted nothing to do with it. In my eyes, I was only American.
My perspective gradually shifted to curiosity and before I knew it, I found myself living in Korea. For the first year, I saw Korea in such a positive shining light. As time went on, however, some of the uglier sides revealed themselves to me. No country is without its flaws. In this post, I want to expose some things about Korean culture that I learned from living there. Again, not everything is peachy and I don’t want people to have a negative impression of Korea, but it’s just as important to highlight the good things and not-so-good things to enact awareness that eventually leads to social change.
1. South Korean terrain is 70 percent mountainous.
I love how no matter where you are in the country, you could find some nice trails to hike within twenty minutes (my favorite is Seoraksan National Park). With lots of mountains comes little land for living, so cities tend to be densely populated. Which brings me to the next fact.
2. About 50 percent of the population lives in the greater Seoul area.
Since about 25 million people squeeze in about 605 square kilometers, the population density is rather high. No wonder personal space isn’t really acknowledged there. But Seoul is a lively and energetic city worthy of exploring.
3. South Koreans don’t really worry about their northern neighbors’ threats.
If my family hears the news of North Korea’s latest threat, they understandably worry. In South Korea, though, people go on with their days as usual.
Speaking of North Korea, some people have asked me “do you live in the good Korea or bad Korea?”
Yes, the North Korean government is horrifically controlling and committing crimes against humanity in the present-day concentration camps (if you don’t know about what’s going on, I recommend reading this memoir of a North Korean who escaped Camp 14). But when most South Koreans think about North Korea, I don’t think they feel fear or hatred, but perhaps regret or sadness. They think about the citizens — the people who were robbed of freedom. The people who share the same blood and ancient history as themselves. There needs to be more awareness of North Korea. I don’t have the answers and don’t know what to do about the prisons, but being informed and raising awareness is something I can do and you can, too.
4. South Korea has the fastest Internet in the world.
With 20.5 mb/s, Korea’s internet is speedy quick (not in my apartment though…). PC rooms (PC 방) house dozens of computers in dark smokey rooms, mostly inhabited by young people playing games. I am not an expert on this topic, but Koreans are apparently the best Starcraft players in the world. Now, if Koreans would stop using Internet Explorer and horrible security software, their computers would be more pleasant to use.
5. The Korean written language, hangeul (한글), is one of the easiest writing systems to learn.
Hangeul was developed by a group of linguists and philosophers summoned by King Sejong in the 15th century. Most people can learn the phonetic alphabet in a few hours. I would recommend checking out Ryan Estrada’s quick hangeul guide and watching Professor Oh’s YouTube video for pronunciation if you’re interested in giving it a shot. The alphabet seems intimidating at first, but once you learn how it works, you will surprise yourself. Reading Korean is quite rewarding, especially when there are “Konglish” signs! This is what Korean looks like: 안녕하세요! 저는 리엔입니다. 한글을 쉬여요. 좋은 하구 돼세요!
6. South Korea has a heavy drinking culture.
Most people are surprised to learn about the drinking culture in Korea. Soju, Korean rice wine, is ultra cheap and business culture encourages employees to drink with bosses. It is believed that drinking promotes good fellowship and honesty. If one’s glass is empty, it is expected that another will keep refilling it and encourage drinking more. My school often had staff outings and lots of alcohol was involved. However, this obviously does not apply to all Korean people. Most of my female coworkers don’t drink and I never felt pressured to drink when I refused, but perhaps women are not held to the same standards as men.
7. The education system is extremely competitive.
As an elementary school teacher, I would ask my students what they did during summer vacation.
I studied. I went to academy. I took a test.
Hearing those responses made me feel guilty for telling them about my adventures in Mongolia or the Philippines. Korean society is highly competitive. Many young kids are put in private academies at a young age. Most kids dream about attending one of the top three universities and then obtaining a secure job in a good company such as Samsung or Hyundai. One important step for students is to score high on the college entrance exam, which is taken extremely seriously. High school students are in school from 7am until 10pm and some even go to academy or private tutoring after. They must be drained, but I can’t speak for them. Hear some students’ voices at Korean Students Speak.
8. South Korea has the second highest suicide rate in the world.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, there are 29.1 suicides for every 100,000 people. This morbid statistic is saddening and alarming. I remember hearing about high school students in my neighborhood jumping off of apartment buildings the day after the college entrance exam. Most of the deaths are among young people. A lack of mental health awareness in conjunction with the stressful life in the competitive culture could very well be a culprit.
9. Half of the elderly population is living in poverty.
Before visiting Korea, the top tip was to respect elders as the locals do and give up your seat for an old person. Respect for elders if still very much practiced, but according to the OECD, 50% of the elderly, the people who suffered though the war and built the country, are living in poverty. It is common to see the elderly cleaning up the streets and handing out fliers to earn a little bit to get by. Traditionally, adult children are expected to care for their parents, but nowadays, parents are putting their efforts and money into education for their own kids. With a stressful worklife, adults barely have time to take care of themselves let alone their parents.
10. It is acceptable to take naps at work.
At least in my experience as an English teacher in a public school, taking a nap indicates that an employee is working so hard that he is too tired to stay awake.