I was born and raised in the United States but from a Korean mother. She didn’t teach me the language but I did learned a bit of the culture. I consider myself completely American but found myself in a unique position after living in Korea for several years. I feel like I can understand (finally) both sides of my family.
Korea kind of comes in phases. There is the first phase that is when you first get here and everything is great. You are welcomed by very kind customer service trained people. They tell you exactly what to do and help you get to where you need.
Phases of Korea
This phase also goes all the way to moving into your apartment, finding the local grocery store, learning how to navigate the city, and getting settled in your job. For most people I feel like this phase lasts up to about 2 months. Kind of the honey moon phase.
The next phase is the realization phase. This is where you start to see that customer service is much more of a trained surface level gimmick that doesn’t seem to run deep. You realize that people don’t actually think you are all that funny, that half of the time people don’t really understand what you are saying, and that you can constantly surprise people by doing simple tasks such as taking the bus or eating with chopsticks.
This is the important phase. I feel like this is where people either give up and say, “Ok, these Korean people are dumb and I don’t like it here” or they say “alright things are a little different then what I thought but I want to dig in and see if there is more to it.”
You hear things like “keep an open mind” but that really doesn’t mean anything until your core values are tested.
Digging Deeper into Korea
I’m glad to say that I chose to dig in a little deeper. And here are a few things I found:
- Korean people will judge you upon appearance. I am actually getting use to this. I realize that it is honest and genuine. I haven’t found very many people with bad intentions but they will say something like “oh your atmosphere isn’t good today” or “it seems your condition is bad” meaning that they can physically see that something is going on with you today that might be different from normal. And unconsciously they point it out. For some people that is it. They just see and say. For others they are genuinely worried about you.
- Tradition is respect is communication. For a lot of people the traditions they grew up with (using two hands, speaking differently to older people) are ridiculous. They realize this but can’t change the fact that it is how they communicate their feelings. If they don’t want to upset you and are trying to impress you then they won’t give you a direct answer. So if you ask a direct question like “Can I get an extra vacation day?” they might answer “uhm, maybe”, but what they are actually saying is “No… but I like you as a person and I want you to know that”
- Expressing intention is often as good as doing. We grew up with ‘actions speak louder than words’ but here often I feel its “do what you want as long as you can talk a good one” I know that this exists in the US but we don’t explicitly say it. We naturally want to believe people who can use their words to convince us but we train ourselves to ignore it and look at the facts. Korean people just never got that training. And they don’t seem to want it.
- Loneliness is the devil. I love my space and my personal time. But I feel that people here in general love to be around others. If you are thought of as a loner its a very bad thing. People don’t respect individuality but they believe there is a right way to do things and if you are a good person then you will do them the right way.
- Age and respect work both ways. As a university student in Korea I was a bit older than most of the other kids. I never thought of age as having any sort of affect on friendship except for some obvious things like ‘oh I remember that tv show but you are too young to remember it, etc’. But here I was always treated with so much respect simply because I was older, that I actually became a more respectable person. I ended up living up to their expectations.
I’m glad I didn’t brush off Korea right at the beginning. I can’t lie I have had some troubling times here. But I have similar problems with people in the US. Its just easier to blame people I don’t like here because they are Korean and I am not. But all in all it’s not that different.