Moving to a new country where I didn’t know the language or anything about living here, and I’m obviously different than everyone else, has been a beautiful struggle.
Despite some of the older ladies on their Confucian power trip, the Korean people that I’ve come across have been incredibly nice, respectful and welcoming to me as a foreigner. South Korea isn’t a diverse population like the US, so as a blonde, wide-eyed woman, I stand out like a sore thumb. Some of the natives have even seemed excited and curious to see me, which is kind of a neat feeling.
I can’t imagine what it would be like if the natives had acted in an opposite manner and constructed an environment for me in which I constantly felt unwelcomed and pitiful.
I actually purposely play the “foreigner card” by reminding people that I’m not a native, and they’re very forgiving of some of my cultural ignorances. For example, my co-teacher just showed up to my door and asked (very concerningly) why I had so much trash in my entry-way. I told him I didn’t know how I’m supposed to recycle and dispose of trash here, and he just nodded and said I didn’t have to worry about the trash separation this time; he just thought I should get rid of it.
My city, Sunchang, has like 8 different bins for separating trash in the middle of the city, and those are the only public recycle/trash bins. Every city does it a little differently, so Google won’t help you if you don’t know how to do it. You’re supposed to put your food waste in a special container that is emptied on Tuesdays and Fridays, and you need a plastic chip for your container; if you put your food in the normal trash, they won’t take it. The Sunchang trash services are so particular that they won’t even take it if you use an incorrect type of trash bag. I think Korea’s stance on recycling is a pretty spot-on representation of the country as a whole, actually!
As you may see with their recycling, South Korea is an incredibly progressive and innovative country. A lot of little things are different here than in the States, like the fact that school hallways are often times unheated but the classrooms can be toasty. Instead of just writing things off as “weird,” I made an effort to understand why things are the way they are here. It’s blown my perspective to new levels because I’ve realized how efficient and effective so many Korean practices are in comparison to the States.
I think the country’s abilities to develop so quickly is partly due to what’s been woven into their culture for centuries: a deep sense of curiosity and a genuine yearning to learn to do what’s best for their surroundings because that’s what ultimately improves their own lives. (I could write about King Sejong here, but that’s a long history lesson.) It was founded on a principle of “Living for the Benefit of all Mankind,” which requires effort at improvements that reach beyond oneself. Although many people might be hesitant reading this, I’ll spare you the statistics for now and just say that this mindset works. Just like the “American dream,” there has been a huge rise in Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants coming to Korea in recent years for the “Korean dream.”
Fun fact: an estimated 80% of Koreans go to college. Higher education is directly linked to a higher status because it is so valued. Students typically go to a full 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM school day in public school, and then head to a hagwon (private school) until 10:00 PM or midnight; after that, they do their homework and start all over again the next day. They’ll typically spend Saturdays at the hagwons since public schools are closed. If your family can’t afford hagwon tuition, you will be home-tutored. When does this start? As soon as a child can start speaking. I was told not to be alarmed when I see little children walking home with their backpacks at, maybe, 11:00 PM. With all of this education time, you can imagine why teaching English is so popular here for foreigners: there are a lot of jobs, and Koreans will pay for the value. South Korea used English to expand their business and economic opportunities after the war, so the English language is especially valued for these reasons.
Reading about children walking home late at night might have worried you. South Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, partly due to CCTV; Koreans are comfortable giving up some privacy in exchange for the safety that these crime-monitoring cameras all around the cities provide. Crime is so rare that some buildings have “conscience umbrellas” for people to take in case it randomly starts raining, trusting that people will leave the umbrellas back outside for someone else to use. If you’re from the States, you probably feel a little paranoia reading about CCTV. It’s important to know that South Korea has a strong democracy (especially due to the whole North Korea thing) and just impeached their President after nationwide civilian protests to her government leaks to her best friend for business gains.
Still unsure of how sternly Koreans tend to stick to their values and how evident these values are in their culture? Japan has invaded Korea over 700 times. Korea has never invaded another country. Japan and Korea still don’t have the best relations, but Koreans stick to their nature of virtue and civility no matter what; despite the inevitable struggles, look at where these values have taken them today. While being the size of Indiana, South Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world.
Like the fun facts? Here are some random things about Korea that were amusing to me:
- Korea has the highest amount of alcohol consumption per capita in the world, more than doubling Russia in second place. Yes, “work hard, play hard” is the mantra here.
- McDonald’s and KFC serve beer. They also deliver for free, just like most other food joints… so yes, you can call up McDonald’s and order some beer and fries anytime.
- The best place to drink some soju outside with friends in the summer is at the neighborhood 711; it’s just like any other local bar with an outside picnic table set-up.
- “What’s your blood type?” This is a common question Koreans asks strangers. Just like the horoscope concept, Koreans believe that blood type can predict personality. Every Korean knows their own blood type, and if you don’t, make one up so you don’t have to deal with the shock of the person asking you. It’s also not fun to disappoint a Korean, and with questions like these, you will be able to tell that they really want to get to know you.
- Your rice bowl is always on the left. I haven’t figured this one out, yet. But if you don’t keep it on the left, your server will keep coming back to subtly move it to the left.
I could write so much more about the Korean culture, but I’ve got people to see and places to go right now, so I’ll save it for my next post.
Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. – Albert Einstein