What Korea has taught me (Or rather…Is teaching me)



I was asked recently by Holistic Wayfarer what things I appreciate about Korean and Korean culture. I wasn’t sure how to respond in a comment. There’s too much to say. My feelings for Korea are complicated. I both absolutely love the culture and at times find it incredibly frustrating and confusing. Korea’s both wonderful and challenging. The people are spirited and warm, kind and humorous yet simultaneously abrasive and tough. It’s a very dynamic place, so I can’t say I can do justice to the country or the culture in my post. I also am a relative newbie here, going on my first year, so most of what I say needs to be taken as a grain of salt, as someone whose still learning everyday. Yet, here’s my attempt at giving a thoughtful answer to her question.

Life abroad can be a creative opportunity. At least it has been for me. Being so far away from the familiarity of home can be jarring, it can be lonely and frustrating. Yet, it can also be liberating. When you’re far from familiarity, there’s two directions to go, leap into the discomfort or settle into what’s familiar and comfortable. Constantly seeking the comfort and reminders of home will not allow room for a lot of environmentally influenced personal change to occur. On the other hand, I feel it’s important to find a level of familiarity and comfort abroad to support the transition and your well being.

The creative opportunity, however, lies mostly in the unknown. In Korea, there’s so much to learn. It’s endless. Considering I’d only consider myself a high beginner, low intermediate in the language, I still lack access to most of what is occurring around me. I experience the effects of this confusion through learning how to interact with the local people. It’s a different dynamic in Korea than back home. People don’t quite relate in the same way. For example, Americans, I’ve learned, often love to talk. We’re an extremely extroverted culture. Korean people, while often very outgoing, animated, honest and loud also have a greater tolerance for quiet and space in conversation. There’s less of the nervous fidgeting and filler talk just to fill the space. Another thing is that Koreans seem to understand each other best nonverbally, whereas in America we often rely on words for understanding. There’s a great deal of non-verbal exchange that occurs here, and people, both men and women are often highly intuitive about their surroundings.

While a generalization, there’s some truth that Korean people are highly emotional people. While American people can be highly emotional as well, our primary way of relating to the world and each other is through our thoughts and words. While I’m still learning, what I’ve noticed is Korean people are much more bodily and emotionally focused. This doesn’t, however, equate to always being warm and gentle. In America, when we think “emotional” we think often very sensitive and timid. While Korean people can be incredibly warm and sensitive, there’s also a warrior mentality here, an intensity and passion. If a Korean gets mad, watch out. While emotional, Korean people are also strong. The older men when they yell, will bellow from their bellies like a lions roar. When groups of young people are laughing together, it often sounds like a full body experience. Korean people can be incredibly warm and kind yet also at times abrasive, demanding and tough. It’s not to say the intensity is not valuable. The difficulty comes when emotionality overrides reason and empathy – a problem that can be seen across all levels of Korean culture.

As an America person, I’ve learned from both the warmth and humor and joy of Korean people and their intensity and aggression. I’ve learned as well from the forthrightness and directness the culture brings to relationships. My life in Korea has taught me many things and helps shed a light on the cultural landscape I grew up in. I find Korea to be a very rich, passionate and deep culture..Especially a loud and very alive one. Whether it’s the local woman down the street smiling widely and warmly greeting me when I enter their restaurant, the older woman physically pushing me to get on the bus, the man shaking my hand, deeply looking into my eyes and saying “friend, my friend” repeatedly, or the taxi driver grunting and glaring at me throughout a ride, it cannot be denied this is a very emotionally alive culture.

I’ve had to explore my inner landscape, my emotional world, to find my way around in Korea. While men are taught not to show and display emotion, I see it here as a practical need to get around. I need to feel and intuit to know my way to relate. I spoke through blog recently with blogger Authorbengarrido whose lived in Korea for 4 years now. He mentioned the importance of 눈치 (nun chi) in korean culture, loosely translated to “intuition” and described as the ability to read and adapt to the people around you. Talking with him was interesting and sparked some insights for me.The creative opportunity I’ve found in Korea is to work on developing this intuition and ability to assess my environment. As people here often relate nonverbally, the intentions and true feelings in a situation often are revealed through this process of assessing and “reading” the people around you.

This brings me to another point. There’s a particular need here to develop this 눈치 (nun chi), or intuition, in Korea, due to the stratified, hierarchical structure of society. In the states, with our Christian history, there’s generally a sense of equality between people. This is seen with how we small talk amongst strangers, and how bosses and employees can interact in a friend-like manner. In Korea, society is ordered vertically through roles and ranks, and the concept of superiors and juniors. First, this begins with age. As an older person, you are the senior and must be spoken to with the proper language and etiquette. As as the senior, you may speak casually to those younger than you and without the same etiquette. As a boss or a teacher, you also demand a certain level of respect and obedience from those you lead. All of these rules apply to those you have a relationship with. So, when in relationship, you most first assess what the relationship dynamic is, what language and behavior you must use and interact with the person in the appropriate manner. Failure to address your senior in the appropriate way has sometimes led to altercations and fights.

As a foreigner in Korea, I’m given a pass to a lot of these things. I’m grateful for that. I personally have a lot of problems with the confucian, hierarchical structure. I don’t particularly like it. Yet, living here, you can’t avoid taking it into consideration and it’s something that demands thought and attention. In terms of danger, you must be aware of the tendency some have to use their senior status to their advantage and abuse the power they feel they have to treat people “lower” than them with disrespect and rudeness – or simply use them to their personal gain. While I wouldn’t say it’s something to be too worried about, it’s an aspect of the culture worth being aware of.

Korea has taught me the value of boundaries, of knowing when to say no, when to say yes, when to be quiet and when to speak up. It’s taught me to be aware of my relationships, both the feeling quality of the relationship and the unspoken intentions. A lot of relationships in Korea are built upon give and take, as a means to an end. This is especially true as a foreigner who speaks english. Many of my Korean relationships are built around my wanting to learn Korean and them wanting to learn english. What you gain from each other is not so hidden. It’s just how things work. I’m learning how to assess what I’m gaining and what I’m giving in relationships, to keep this equal and fair. Life here always encourages me to grow and strengthen in some way, and Korea’s a culture that seems constantly committed to growth and change. There’s no sense of lethargy here. Actually, the opposite. There’s so much effort and hard work, that rather than lethargy, I see fatigue. Still, to this day, Korean people push themselves to the brink, and push each other as well. While there are downsides to this, there’s a spirit of fighting and growing that I’ve been able to embrace to my advantage. I’m learning, most of all, determination, strength and simultaneously joy and humor from the people here. While there’s a lot of competition and struggle, there’s also so much joy and humor. The people here have an incredible capacity to find humor in hardness and joy amongst struggle. I’m both continually frustrated with, challenged by and in great admiration of the people and culture of Korea.

13 thoughts on “What Korea has taught me (Or rather…Is teaching me)

      1. Evan Blittersdorf

        Right! That’s been the hardest thing for me to get used to here, but also one of the most fascinating pieces. I’m impressed, you seem to really have taken out a lot of time to learn about Korea.

  1. Holistic Wayfarer

    Hey, I’m afraid I’m forgetting a lot of the feedback brimming in my head. You got it. Your feelings are complicated bc the culture and people are, as I first said to Ben way back. Even I myself find natives and first generationers (in the States) too complicated.

    “My feelings for Korea are complicated. I both absolutely love the culture and at times find it incredibly frustrating and confusing. Korea’s both wonderful and challenging. The people are spirited and warm, kind and humorous yet simultaneously abrasive and tough.”

    This is so interesting seeing Koreans through the eyes of someone in training. =) How they have greater tolerance (and so I’d say appreciation) for quiet and space in conversation. I always said Korea (and Asia in gen’l) are not verbal cultures like America. Rather, not vocal. Meaning, a lot of upset/indignation gets vacuumed up by the disapproving body language and cues people give off.

    I really appreciate how you’ve had to explore your own inner landscape on this journey and can see how you’ve had to figure out the the hierarchical protocols as an outsider making his way in. You know, Evan. I’ve written about how hard-working native Koreans are on immigrant soil but you just gave me a precious gift of a glimpse into how how they are on their own land. Yes, this is a trademark attribute I am proud to wear though I know it is not a healthy one. Koreans are CrAzY! We will work ourselves to the ground. To this end, tell me…do you see cycles of rest/play and work there? My understanding has been that workaholism and studyholism rule.

    Sorry if you caught this. You reminded me of it:


    1. Evan Blittersdorf

      Wow, thanks for the response Diana. That means a lot that you can validate some of my thoughts as resonating with you and your experience. I don’t want to make any claims about Korea or the people here unless I’ve thought considerably about what I write. I realize as an expat and an American, I have my own perspective and my perspective can be off, so it’s great having some exchange around these topics.

      As to your question about the rest/play work cycles in Korea…I absolutely see it. I’m currently studying Korean, so I’m not employed at the moment, but still I can’t help but feel and notice that aspect of Korea everyday. It’s a very very fast paced culture, especially in Seoul. People work themselves crazy here and the night life is impressive. Not for everyone, but for a lot of people, it’s very much a culture of work excessively and play obsessively. Korean people can drink a lot. Coffee as well. I was shocked at first how many cafe’s there were here. They’re literally everywhere, and mostly coffee.

      I also worked for a while at a hagwon (private school) for kids, so I got to experience how busy even the young ones are. My 6 year olds I taught were on a similar schedule I was as a teacher. I asked them what they do after school and all of them said piano lessons and some sports…So they would go to school at 9, finish at 3 and then do extra curriculars till around 6-7PM everyday, as 6 year olds. The workaholic aspect of Korean culture is huge and important, but probably the aspect I struggle with most.

      Also, I read the post you linked me to. I’m really impressed with your writing and what you wrote makes sense to me having lived here for a year. I’ve also been with my Korean girflriend for almost 2 years now, so I’ve seen a lot of these cultural traits in her and her family as well.

      One more thing, I messaged you back on my “Dynamic Seoul” post, but I thought I’d mention it again. I’ve re-edited the post to include both your name and ben’s name (plus links). Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I’m still learning this whole blogging thing so I appreciate it.


      1. Holistic Wayfarer

        Hey, you did a great job w/ the links. You’re way ahead of where I was w/ the tech stuff early in the game. Again, I feel sheepish, as I wasn’t looking for promo. Had just wanted to toss out the unstated protocol bc you had mentioned Ben as well. You can link directly on our usernames (so they are what you would grab and highlight in the drafts page). You don’t need to add our blog URLs in parenthesis, though you don’t need to edit them out here either.

        I’ve taught in hakwons here =) and I’m aware of the (unhealthful) long work cycles for kids over there. That’s interesting that Koreans will play obsessively, too. I’m sure it’s more the younger generations (those in their 20s, singles in their 30s?)

        Your take on boundaries was interesting. I always said Koreans and the gen’l Asian culture don’t know boundaries in the way Americans do. With the latter, a yes is usually a yes, a no NO. With Koreans, the lines blur bc people don’t always mean what they say. You have to figure their real answer w/ noonchee. I hear people don’t really stand in line in Korea. In America, you wait your turn. We also honor the price tag. In Asia, you bargain (readjust boundaries).

      2. Evan Blittersdorf

        Hey Diana,
        My apologies for the late response. Been somewhat off the radar with WordPress this past week just enjoying my break, but thanks again for the lengthy response, and yes! I’ve really had to learn that about boundaries in Asian culture. It’s really a very new way of communicating for me.

        And, well….”play” isn’t exactly the right word. Younger people here 20’s/30’s definitely drink and party a lot, but it’s not nearly as much of a “hookup” culture. In general, people don’t really interact with strangers and especially not when going out at night. In America, I feel there’s more mingling with strangers at bars/clubs, etc. In Korea, people of all ages go out and drink together often, but usually within formalized settings…So either a group of close friends, a group date, company workers doing work bonding or sometimes teachers and their students. Some young people will “play” as in going out looking to hook up, but I don’t think that’s a common thing here. For dating and meeting people, it still seems to be highly formalized for the majority of people, but of course, there’s the club-goers and there is definitely a wild night life in Seoul. The main thing i can tell is that it’s a serious drinking culture. It’s hard to live here and not drink. It’s just something that has a lot of social significance in a variety of situations.

      3. Holistic Wayfarer

        The contrast with the American way of socializing is so interesting. I’ve never heard it spelled out like that. Remember, I left when I was four. Thanks for filling me in. =)

      4. Evan Blittersdorf

        I’m glad you found this interesting 🙂 Yea, it’s a very different approach to socializing amongst locals here. Still takes some getting used to. You may also know this, but there’s largely a distrust of strangers, or general disregard of strangers. I think it’s changing a bit, but in general, unlike America, you don’t small talk with people you don’t know here. Everyone keeps to themselves in public unless you already have an established relationship.

        Thanks again for all the responses, you’re providing me lots of ideas for future posts 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s