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3 Cultural Characteristics That Define South Korea

3 Cultural Characteristics That Define South Korea

I’ve been exposed to South Korean culture for a couple of months now and during this time, I’ve noticed certain qualities that are a stark contrast from American or Mexican cultures. Before getting on a plane to South Korea, I did research on the country’s history and culture to gain basic knowledge of the new place I’d call home. Collectivism, Confucianism, nationalism and hierarchy are some of the words that can sum up this fascinating country. Since living here, these seemingly abstract notions have become my new reality. Before, I had an intellectual grasp of these ideas but witnessing them firsthand has led to greater understanding. In this post, collectivism, hierarchy and the hurry, hurry syndrome are explored. It should be noted that these observations are my mere perceptions and interpretations.  

Hierarchy (Respect)

Due to the influence of Confucian ideals, S. Korean culture places great importance in showing humility and respect to elders or people with higher titles. Respect and humility are evident and expressed on a daily basis through a variety of ways including head bows, hand gestures and social etiquette. Age, social position, title, economic status and gender play an essential role in establishing one’s standing within the social hierarchy, which in turns dictates how one should behave. S. Koreans are expected to defer to those in a position of authority deriving from the aforementioned factors. This explains S. Koreans’ tendency to ask seemingly direct personal questions such as one’s age, salary and romantic status upon first meeting people. This information determines one’s social and generational status.

The significance of hierarchy was extremely apparent the first day I showed up to my school. Meeting the vice principal and principal was a big deal in which I was expected to show the utmost respect towards them. This seems logical. Of course one wants to leave a good impression on the new boss. But this kind of pressure was different. The ‘from the top down’ leadership style was extremely evident. The amount of deep bowing my co-teacher did that first day left me feeling dizzy as I imitated her every move. At some point, I was even bowing to my students, as I wanted to avoid coming off as a rude and ignorant foreigner! I’m sure I haven’t succeeded in this quest but one can try. As time has passed, the subtleties of a hierarchy system continue to emerge. My co-teacher summed up what this meant in our school as soon as I arrived. She told me that our principal was like the queen and whatever she decided was the law, no questions asked. 

Collectivism

In Western cultures, specifically the US, independence and individuality are highly valued. Individualism promotes the needs and desires of individuals with little to no regard for others. I’m clearly generalizing here, but this is why most American families aren’t that close. This was so obvious to me when I first moved there. It seemed all everybody cared about was me, myself and I. In Hispanic cultures, the importance of family is stressed. Members of the family unit are to respect each other but particularly the elders as well as hold the interests of the unit above one’s own. In Eastern cultures, including South Korea, collectivism reigns supreme. Collectivism emphasizes the needs of family, work and community above the needs or wants of a single person. Each person works for the greater good of society. Cooperation and consideration are pillars of S. Korean society.

In the late 90s, during the Asian Financial crisis, South Korea was on the brink of bankruptcy and was granted a loan of $58 billion dollars from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) to keep the country afloat. The government asked S. Korean citizens to donate their gold jewelry to help repay the loan more quickly. Um, hell no! Would be most people’s response but not the S. Koreans’. Millions of citizens lined up for hours outside of banks to donate their precious gold to the government. Within months, tons of gold valued at about $3 billions USD were collected! This incident is the perfect example of how collectivism works – enduring personal sacrifice for the benefit of the one’s country.

The effects of collectivism are quite obvious on a day-to-day basis. S. Koreans tend to move in groups and do things together. For example, eating out alone is very uncommon in South Korea. Most traditional restaurants do not cater to that. The tables are big and sit at least 4 people, not to mention that the portions are large and meant to be shared. In a culture that emphasizes togetherness, dining out alone is plain weird. When it comes to ordering, food is brought out and placed in the middle for everybody to share. No individual plates are served. Even when S. Koreans eat out at Western restaurants, they still share each plate ordered. Each time I’ve gone out with my school staff to a non-Korean restaurant, we eat this way

 Rocking out the 'couple look'

Rocking out the 'couple look'

An immediate observation I made is that S. Koreans go out in groups and stay with those groups. What I mean by this is that it’s rare to meet other S. Koreans randomly out and about, say at the bar or a coffee shop. There is little to no mingling. Even though it’s a collectivist society, each person belongs to a certain social group. In the dating scene, this translates to a lot of blind dates and dating apps/services. I’ve asked my co-teachers how they met their significant others and 3 out of 4 told me they were set up on blind dates. One of them even asked if I was interested in being set up with her boyfriend’s friend!

Don’t judge a book by its cover says the old saying. But it’s hard not to while in South Korea. There is a strong uniformity element to Korean’s outer appearance. If a trend is in fashion, EVERYBODY is rocking it. Right now a white pleaded skirt and beige/light pink top is all the rage. I’d say 80% of the girls wear this on a daily basis. There are also groups of girls rocking the twin look but my favorite is the ‘couple look’. This is when a boyfriend and girlfriend wear matchy-matchy outfits! It’s really funny and I reacted in a cynical way when I first encountered it but it’s kind of grown on me.

Hurry, Hurry Syndrome

After the Korean War, South Korea was destroyed almost entirely and left poverty-stricken. However, in over 50 years, the country has managed to transform itself into the 3rd largest economy in Asia and the 13th largest economy in the world. The freaky fast economic growth is extremely rare and often attributed to the country’s “pali-pali” (빨리빨리) or “hurry up” culture.

This mindset permeates most aspects of society. On a daily basis, “pali-pali” translates into a fast-paced lifestyle. People rushing off or walking in haste to make their appointments on time or catch a bus. The most obvious symptom of this phenomenon to me is in the infrastructure. In the past two months, 3 of my favorite little restaurants shut down and have been replaced. Each time, only a few weeks passed before a replacement restaurant popped up! Change here happens very fast. 

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