After about 2 1/2 months of living in Korea, it’s about time to start thinking about what it’s done to me. Life in Korea has truly opened my eyes to the world – not just Korea. The global mindset is dominant in talking to people who have traveled to multiple countries – compare that with America, where (depending on which statistic you read) only 7%-34% of American citizens even have a passport.
I’ve also paid a lot of attention to the fundamentals of culture – and I’m beginning to think I should’ve been a Sociology or Psychology major in college. As one example, Koreans traditionally live with their parents until they got married and started a family themselves. This is changing slowly, and is no longer the hard-and-fast rule it used to be. Another interesting mindset has one of seriousness – Korean culture expects one to work hard and take life seriously 24/7. Everything is a competition, from getting on and off the subway to playing a pickup game of basketball. Having fun, while not a bad thing, may be seen as a sign that you’re not taking life seriously enough. This goes double if you’re viewed as having too much fun.
There’s also a certain ‘mob mentality’ or herd behavior that comes out to play every so often. It goes beyond simply following the crowd – it’s as though one turns off their individual brain in favor of following what the collective intelligence of the larger group is doing. The most recent (and quite prominent in Korean news) is the widespread protests against importing American beef into Korea for fear of mad cow disease, but I’ve saved that subject for another blog article.
The unspoken rules of conduct throughout the culture interest me – even though there’s no easy way of learning them. Thus far I’ve found myself conforming with the conduct I see around me – walking in the flow of traffic, doing as the Romans do, etc. – or possibly asking a Korean teacher for details. However, their ability to help has been limited by the attitude of ‘that’s the way things are’ with a dash of helplessness / apathy.
Most of the Confucian beliefs / mindsets you’ll read about are still alive and well, although you may not even realize it at first. In this Confucian order, men are above women, older is above younger, employer is above employee, and so on. When you first strike up a conversation with a Korean, you’ll often be asked several questions about yourself. ‘Where are you from?’, “Are you married?”, “How old are you?”, and “What do you do?” are common – and frequently used to size you up on where you ‘rank’ compared to them. A ‘senior’ or ‘junior’ is determined through these things, and one looks up to the other. It’s only with someone your own age and standing where equals emerge – even one year older or younger makes a difference.
For better or worse, many Koreans are still enculturated with the ‘top-down’ mindset – the leader gives an order, and the subordinates are expected to follow it without question. To question a boss / ‘senior’ is a big no-no here. Offering ideas is allowed, but it first must be submitted to the boss, who may have to submit it to his boss, and so on. To change something by yourself? Again, a big no-no. I’ve been told it’s not unlike the military in some instances. It’s this mindset that makes creative thought a bit of a problem for some Koreans. ‘Thinking outside the box’ is not yet a popular term, and although many people own small businesses here (convenience stores, dry cleaners, etc.) there isn’t much that distinguishes one from another.
After 2 1/2 months, life has quickly become normal here. I go to work, come home, ride the subway when meeting a friend or traveling elsewhere in Seoul, and make dinner (or go out to eat with a friend). What makes South Korea very different aren’t the routines – I imagine those are similar almost anywhere in the industrialized / service-oriented world. It’s the people, the mindsets, the thought processes. Life in a foreign country can only be described as very different – it definitely breaks you out of your comfort zone, and requires you to use patience, discretion, and calmness in ways you never expected. It got on my nerves at first when people didn’t understand English as much as I expected. It could’ve got on my nerves when people stared at me all the time (they still do). However, with whatever you do and whereever you are, you take the good with the bad. Life here may not be perfect – see the recent posting about the beef protests – but I enjoy it.