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.