Culture and Society in South Korea
Korean culture is certainly a world away from that of the west, but as the country continues to mobilize itself for domination in the global economy, the culture has shifted tides towards more western ways of thinking. When you travel to Korea you’ll find that many elements of “traditional” Korean culture have relegated themselves to just that: tradition, either forgotten or the mere stuff of tourist attractions and tacky themed gift shops.
Many traditions in Korea, which have roots in Buddhism, have been forced out by the growing Christian presence among the population as they have been deemed too pagan or sinful by the fundamentalist churches.
Nevertheless, major holidays are when you’ll be most likely to find the remnants of the days of old in Korea. Chuseok, otherwise known as “Korean Thanksgiving,” is one of the most unique and prominent holidays. It even has some more modernized elements which are continually recognized by Koreans of all religions. Unlike what we know in the West to be Thanksgiving, Chuseok is a more somber, austere holiday without the couch-surfing or senseless engorging on food. While many Koreans do prepare foods and have up to a week-long vacation for it in the fall, they also visit the graves of relatives to pay homage and prepare food — including a type of ricecake called “songpyeon” (송편) as a sign of respect to their ancestors. It is, like most strictly Korean holidays, a day to spend in with family.
Other holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween have been carried over to Koea, but are considered fun holidays to spend out with friends or significant others. While Lunar New Year celebrations run in line with those of Chuseok: calm and modest, much the same as the culture itself has displayed in other aspects of daily life.
Much about Korean culture can be understood by first understanding the basis of Confucianism, the residuals of which continue to run through the veins of Koreans both young and old. In other words, when you meet anyone in Korea, you might not find them to be much different from you except in terms of modesty. The working world, especially, is still dominated by hierarchy and seniority — not necessarily on how hard someone works or what qualifications they have. You will probably be looked down upon if you do not give up your seat to an elderly woman, and will certainly be persecuted if you outright refuse.
Although many Koreans feel it’s losing its strength, the atmosphere of mutual respect and collectivism are certainly still present in Korean culture. For example, it is impolite to accept something with only one hand from a superior, those of the older generation will refuse a gift three times by default before accepting it, and blowing your nose is public is considered taboo. Many of these surprising and sometimes humorous cultural differences have been captured in the book “Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans” by Min Byoung-chul.
At times, people have defined Korea as a nation of contradictions. While Koreans appear soft-spoken when in a professional environment, they are noxiously loud when grieving. While it is considered inappropriate for women to show their shoulders in public (girls, no strappy tank-tops allowed here), young Korean women can get away with wearing shorts that virtually disappear up their hips. While Koreans work 12 hours a day on average, they play hard late into the evenings. These contradictions are not so hard to understand when you realize that the country has been hit by an intense blow of rapid economic development and ultra-modernization in recent times. The richest Koreans enjoy lives equivalent to New York City socialites, but still spend time with their families on Chuseok and enjoy uniquely-Korean delicacies such as pig’s feet and blood sausage.
Many might argue that Koreans also have a steadfast sense of patriotism, which is best evidenced by frequent commercials and promotions declaring that the controversial island of Dokdo “belongs to Korea” and that the “Sea of Japan” should legally be renamed the “East Sea.” A country that has historically been a consistent stepping stone for invasions and also prey to Japanese colonization, Koreans now pride themselves in their rampant economic and cultural recovery.
Some attention should also be paid to the role of women in South Korea. The country has yet to have a “women’s movement,” and some authors have compared the role of Korean women to those in Islamic societies. As mentioned, modernization has eased conditions for women significantly in the past decade, but, in general, women still have a lower societal status than men and a great majority of them stay home rather than work. Very few men see household tasks or childcare as their responsibility and childcare outside the family is not at all common. So if women do work, they must find themselves committed to the dreaded double shift.
Excruciatingly high standards of beauty and youth are placed on women in South Korea, although more and more men have been shown to invest in appearance as well in the past few years. Therefore, the country has some of the highest rates of plastic surgery and cosmetic industry in the world (no doubt that this is in part due to the fact that a photo is required on job applications).
Lastly, concepts such as sexual orientation (LGBT), drugs, sex, and even psychological disorders remain behind closed doors in South Korea, and are not openly discussed unless between close friends. The country is just now starting to accommodate a wide variety of multiracial, multicultural immigrants, and some Koreans, especially those of the older generation, do not quite know how to deal with it in what would be deemed as a “politically correct” manner. If you are, for example, African-American, you should not feel offended if people act strange around you or feel uncomfortable.
As with all forms of assimilation, Koreans are still in the process of adjusting to the enormous changes their country has undergone since it’s restrictions following the Korean War. As is the case with travel to any country, if you keep an open mind and perceptive attitude towards how others are acting around you and respond with humility and respect, you will find yourself feeling welcomed warmly by others who want to learn a great deal about you. For those from English-speaking countries, Korea is still amidst a sort of “English fever,” and many Koreans seek to practice (or show off) their English skills to the passing traveler.
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