Korean-isms 2.0: More Cultural Observations of South Korea
Welcome to part deux of my observations and interpretations of S. Korean culture. Hierarchy, collectivism and the hurry, hurry syndrome were explored in the first installment. Those were my initial impressions of South Korea, the ones that were hard not to notice. In the months after that post, I have discovered and gained an interest in idiosyncrasies that are a bit more subtle. In this follow up, I talk about S. Korea’s academic rigor, its drinking culture and obsession with physical appearance.
Since writing the first post, I have gained more experience in my role as an elementary school teacher. I still hold doubts about my skills in this field but I am proud of my observation skills. I have learned a great deal about my students’ intense academic careers through their interactions and behaviors. In each class, there are usually a handful of students that look beyond exhausted. Coming from the States, it’s easy to assume they probably stayed up late watching YouTube videos or playing video games or whatever pre-teens do these days. But when I jokingly ask why they are so tired, they usually give me the same answer: they were up doing homework or studying… How odd, huh?
To get you up to speed, South Korea holds one of the most rigorous education systems in the world. Year after year, S. Korea ranks in the top for best global educational systems, coming at #1 in 2015, based on international education tests and other criteria. The reasons behind S. Korea’s success stems from the support of the government (11B dollars are invested per year) and the students’ dedication. In S. Korean culture, higher education is a very serious matter and parents start preparing their children from a very young age. When South Korean students are in high school, they take a university entrance exam that will determine the rest of their lives. Graduating from a top university determines socioeconomic status, marriage prospects and coveted employment opportunities. Thus, the incredible pressure to succeed academically is instilled in children early on.
This means that although my students are in elementary school and won’t take this exam for years to come, they are already hyper aware of what is at stake. When I ask what they will do on the weekend or after school, their answer is a variation of studying and more schooling. In S. Korea, there are private cram schools called hagowns. These hagwons are specialized schools that teach subjects including English, science, math and art. Some students attend these schools until 10pm then go home to work on their homework and study for exams. The average South Korean student puts in about 13 hours a day, while the average high school student gets about 5.5 hours of zzz’s each night. Sometimes I think that the costs paid by students for the South Korean educational model might be too high. That their childhoods are sacrificed in favor of academic performance. But, as a Se-Woong Koo, a former fellow and lecturer in Korean studies at Yale, writes, “To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance and obedience.”
Dining and drinking is a major staple of Korean culture. It is a crucial way to strengthen personal and professional bonds. South Koreans work some of the longest hours in the world and going out with colleagues is considered an important way to decompress, connect and let loose. Because S. Korea is all about hierarchy, lots of things are usually left unsaid. Things like personal opinions, details about personal life and especially complaints about colleagues or the boss. Having drinks with coworkers offers the opportunity to talk a bit more openly.
South Korea definitely seems to subscribe to the ‘work hard, play harder’ mentality. According to Euromonitor, South Koreans drink more liquor than anyone else in the world. They consume about 14 shots a week! Contrast that to Americans who drink about three shots while Russians have six. The preferred drink of choice in S. Korea is the almighty soju. This 20% alcohol content beverage is made from rice and costs about $1USD. In case you’re wondering, it tastes like watered down vodka aka like shit. The bad taste doesn’t stop South Koreans from downing about 7 million bottles of it each night!
Since South Korea is heavily influenced by Confucian ideology, Koreans follow a strict set of rituals when they consume alcohol. Some of the drinking etiquette nuances include never pouring a drink for yourself, never drinking a shot by yourself, not staring directly into the eyes of elders while drinking, and the list goes on. Also, it is considered impolite to leave a friend’s glass empty so if you finish your beverage, expect it to be filled immediately. This leads to getting wasted real quicklyyyyy. Perhaps the most important feature of drinking in S. Korea is demonstrating respect. This translates into never refusing a drink offered by people older or higher in status i.e. your manager or owner of the company your work for. To top it off, being invited for post-work social outings is a big complement to a Korean employee. It is a way for superiors to show they care for their subordinates. Binge drinking is a crucial part of Korean culture but its consequences are quite dark. The Korean government estimates that 1.6 million S. Koreans are alcoholics. The costs of alcoholism result in increased domestic violence and having to pay a pretty penny to police drunks i.e. 20B USD in 2015.
South Korea is obsessed with looks, so it makes sense that it boasts the title of plastic surgery capital of the world.In this country, it is very common to get nose jobs and double-eyelid surgery (the insertion of a crease in the eyelid to make it look bigger), considered ‘the basics’ by many South Koreans. These procedures are often gifted to high school graduates by their parents. South Korea is a superficial country that typically judges men and women by their beauty and physical appearance. In a beauty-oriented society like S. Korea, looks tend to make a bigger impression than one’s character. Here, being beautiful can guarantee more personal and professional opportunities such as a wealthy or handsome suitor, a job and so on. In South Korea, being beautiful can be equated to success.