Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Korea: the primer

My cousin asked me to help out a coworker of hers by offering him basic advice about Korea. This coworker is going to be staying in Korea for a two-month training program, and he's apparently very interested in learning something about the culture. So I wrote the following:

Thanks for the email! I hope you have a wonderful time while in Seoul.

I suspect that, if you're already approaching your upcoming trip abroad with a respectful mindset, you'll do just fine by relying on your own common sense. Koreans appreciate it when people take an interest in their culture and make an effort to eat their food, speak their language, etc. Since you're going to be in Korea for only two months, I imagine you're looking primarily for the basics, so I'll give you a bit of background on the culture, some tips for Not Doing the Wrong Thing, and some parting advice.

Part I: Culture

Modern South Korean culture is heavily influenced by young and old historical forces. First, there's the original, native peninsular culture, which has always been rather primitive and shamanistic (its influence is still around today). Next, there's Buddhism, which still accounts for almost half the believers who are religious. Alongside Buddhism is the heavy influence of Chinese culture: Koreans didn't have their own writing system until the 1440s; before that time, Koreans spoke Korean but wrote in Chinese. The Korean language is also about 70% Chinese loan-words, but pronounced the Korean way. China's influence on Korea is mainly important because of Confucianism, i.e., the social ideology and ethos of Confucius (I'll talk more about this in a second). More modern influences include Christianity (which has had a foothold on the peninsula for more than a century) and capitalism, which South Korea inherited when the peninsula was divided after World War II.

I mentioned Confucianism. It's important to understand that Confucianism (called yu-gyo in Korean) rules the way Koreans interact in all social situations. While modern South Korea may be a bit more democratic and egalitarian than it used to be, the old ways still prevail. What does this mean for you?

1. Respect all elders. This can be taken to absurd extremes in Korea, but because the culture is so hierarchical, it's not a good idea to disagree openly with a boss or supervisor. If you feel you need to discuss something that the boss has gotten wrong, either do it humbly-- and in private-- or do it via a third party who will intervene on your behalf. If you hear the boss tell you all to do something that sounds stupid, don't announce your thoughts to the world: "This is garbage! I'm outta here!" Even in America, it's a bad idea to act that way, but in America we've got more leeway to openly question something the boss has said.

2. Respect the older. This may sound like "respect all elders," but in this case I'm talking about people closer to your age, but who are still older than you. By Korean reckoning, if a person is even one day older than you, then that person is your "big brother" or "big sister." For Koreans, this means listening to what Big Bro or Big Sis has to say, and offering them the same sort of deferential respect that should be offered to a boss or a grandparent. Many Americanized Koreans hate this aspect of the culture: if hyung (i.e., "Big Brother" for a guy) decides he wants to go out drinking, and he wants you to come along, then you can't say no. (Of course, if you're into drinking, then this shouldn't be much of a problem.) Non-Koreans, however, occupy a weird place in Korean culture, because they're considered outsiders. You, as a foreigner, might be able to get away with saying "no" to certain social demands. "Nah, sorry, guys, but I'm feeling a bit under the weather tonight" could work as a strategy for not going out. Just don't use it too often!

3. Respect the group. Korean Confucianism is group-oriented, not individualistic. Koreans see themselves as part of a large social web. Americans, by contrast, often seem selfish and cold to Koreans, whereas Americans themselves would say they're merely exercising their autonomy. One example of this contrast is in how parents view college-age kids: in Korea, you're not a true adult until you've been married. In the US, parents can often be heard to say, "Boy, I can't wait until the kids are all out of the house and on their own!" It's a question of Korean interdependence versus American independence.

My cousin tells me that you'll be over in Korea on business, so I can imagine a lot of team-building exercises and activities in your future. Just go with the flow and work with your team, unless your conscience tells you that what you're doing is wrong. That sort of awkward situation won't happen to you within the context of work, but if your male coworkers decide to go to a strip club one night, for example, you might want to ask yourself whether you really want to join in. Even if they don't do the strip club thing, they may want you to go drinking with them.

4. Respect relationships. Confucianism talks about the so-called Five Relationships: (1) ruler/subject, (2) father/son, (3) husband/wife, (4) brother/brother, (5) friend/friend. These relationships still play out in modern Korean society, albeit in relaxed form (especially siblings and friends). Koreans can form friendships with foreigners pretty quickly, and they take friendships seriously, so be careful not to hurt anyone's feelings by turning down too many invitations to do this or that. You might get away with being introverted and aloof, but in Korean society it's hard to do things alone. In fact, as a foreigner, you'll probably need a friend or two to guide you through everyday basics like shopping or ordering at restaurants or catching a bus somewhere.

I think you'll learn the ropes pretty quickly. I have the feeling that you're young and open-minded. OK... let's move on to...

Part II: Survival Tips, or How Not to Do the Wrong Thing

Every culture has its quirks, and foreigners don't always know they're doing something wrong. I can't go into every little detail in this email, but I'll try to hit some of the major stuff (which you may already be aware of).

1. Shoes and socks. Make sure you wear respectable shoes and socks. Make sure the socks don't have unsightly holes in them, because you're going to be shoeless a lot-- maybe even in certain public places (e.g., restaurants where you sit on the floor at short-legged tables). Remember to take your shoes off before entering anybody's residence. Koreans' heads will explode if you step on their nice, clean floor with your shoes on. This particular custom should be treated as absolute law.

2. Finger-lickin' good? It's rude, in Korea, to lick your fingers when eating fried chicken. Even though KFC is popular in Korea, the slogan "Finger-lickin' Good!" is conspicuously absent from the advertisements.

3. Gotcher nose! The "gotcher nose!" gesture-- where you jokingly grab at a kid's face, then pull away your fist with your thumb sticking out between your index and middle finger-- is the most obscene gesture you can make in Korea. I lived in South Korea for eight years, and I still have no idea why the gesture is considered obscene. Maybe you should ask someone while you're there. (Heh.)

4. Proper bowing. Don't make a big deal when you bow. The bow is simply the Asian version of a handshake. No need to incline your upper body too deeply to show respect. In fact, as one of my friends says, if you bow too deeply, people might think you're a gangster (because gangsters bow deeply to their bosses). Just keep your hands at your side, palms facing into your legs, put a smile on your face, and bow from the waist, no more than 30 degrees. NEVER BOW FROM THE NECK!! This is considered arrogant. Only the President of South Korea, or the powerful CEO of a major conglomerate, or someone else of equivalent stature, can get away with that gesture.

5. Table manners. There's more to Korean table manners than not licking your fingers. Koreans consider it dirty to drink straight from a bottle or can. Think of it this way: even in the States, we joke about "backwash." It's a gross thought, and for Koreans, leaving backwash is a cultural faux pas. Koreans, when they drink beer or soda or whatever, will always have some cups handy. If someone pours for you, hold your cup with two hands. If you're doing the pouring, pour with both hands. If you need to blow your nose, step away from the table to do it. Koreans think it's rude and unsanitary to blow one's nose while at table.

6. Remember to stand up. When the boss enters the room and you're with your coworkers, you'll probably need to stand up out of respect. Remaining seated would be rude. Come to think of it, this isn't so different from how it is in America.

There's more, but I think you can rely on your own common sense to get you through most situations. Remember, too, that there are always exceptions to the above advice. When you're dealing with Koreans who have lived in the West or who have Western friends, you may find that they're relaxed about the rules of etiquette.

Part III: Other Considerations

Last thing-- you may need to be prepared for what Koreans might inadvertently do to you. Koreans are expressive, and they can also be blunt to the point of rudeness, despite having so many social rules about being polite. Expect the unexpected and keep an open mind. But watch out for these situations:

1. Rude, probing questions. Koreans might ask you things like, "How old are you?" or "How much money do you make?" They're not actually trying to be rude; they're trying to determine how they should address you, per their Confucian way of thinking. The Korean language contains many different sentence endings to indicate one's tone and one's level of respect; this may be one of the most complicated aspects of the language, and I wouldn't expect you to master it in only two months. Let your Korean coworkers and friends guide you as to what to say and how to say it. But yeah, you might get asked some uncomfortably personal questions, including the classic, "Are you married? No? Why not?" The women in your conversation group will be especially interested to know why you're still single. (Yes, there'll be dating opportunities aplenty.) You might also be asked how much you weigh, if you look beefy from a Korean point of view. (This is a culture that thinks Bruce Willis is fat.)

2. Anti-Americanism. It may come out at some point during an alcohol-fueled conversation: Koreans are obsessed with America, and they both love it and hate it. They hate the fact that American troops are stationed inside their capital city. (How would you feel if Korean troops were stationed in DC or Houston?) They hate the way America seems to bully other countries (whether this is true or not is a topic for another email!). At the same time, Korean pop culture is heavily influenced by American culture: the jeans, the soda, the rap and hip-hop music, the increasingly American-style movies. Be careful about being sucked into a political discussion, and don't be surprised if you hear occasional derogatory remarks about the US. At such moments, it's good to keep in mind that we Americans often say critical things about other countries and cultures. It's also good to remember that Korea's been opening itself to massive global influence for only a little while, so it's still not used to living in a globalized world. Inside Korean culture, there are many mixed signals about how much or how little foreign influence to let in. As a result, there's a lot of insecurity as Koreans try to figure out where they fit in the global scheme of things.

3. Racism. Koreans can be almost casually racist. They can say stupid things about African-Americans, Jews, or whomever. They can see themselves as cleaner, smarter, and more hard-working than people of other ethnicities. They tend to judge a group of people by its individuals, so if you appear at work looking unshaven and stinking like someone who hasn't showered, they'll judge your race as being that way. It's unfair, but that's how it is.

OK... that's a quick survey of what you'll need to know to survive for two months. I had mentioned to my cousin that you might want to get busy learning hangeul, the Korean alphabet. Luckily, unlike Japanese (which uses syllabaries) and Chinese (which uses tens of thousands of characters), Korean uses a 24-letter alphabet, which is very easy to learn. For navigation purposes (menus, subway signs, etc.), it might be good for you to be able to sound out words, even if you're not sure what they mean.

Obviously, I can't cover everything in a single email, but I did want to cover as much ground as I could, even at the risk of boring you with too many details. Feel free to email about any specific questions you might have, and I'll do my best to answer them. If you're looking for useful Korean phrases, you might want to try some online resources, such as:


(They have a little fun at the end, and offer you the useless but hilarious expression, "My hovercraft is full of eels.")

If you're serious about learning from Square One, starting with hangeul, then Sogang University has a self-paced program you might want to try. See here:


Good luck!


1 comment:

John McCrarey said...

Excellent advice, Kevin. Even after 6 years there I'm sure I didn't always get things right.

Once Jee Yeun had her family over to my place. I replaced the water cooler bottle as they watched. After lifting the heavy bottle onto the cooler I turned and made the "I'm strong" gesture (hand on the bicep, arm raised). The look on their faces! Jee Yeun said "oh no, don't do that, it is very rude!" I told some Korean friends about it later and afterwards they'd greet me that way. Fun times.

Supervising Koreans was also interesting. They'd come in with a problem to be solved and I'd say "okay, do this". There was just the slightest hesitation before they said yes sir. I learned quick to say "Mr. Kim, what do you think we should do". When you are about to screw up, an American won't normally hesitate to say boss, that's a bad idea. Koreans would dutifully follow you into failure if you don't sound them out for better ideas.

I always loved watching two Korean women meet for the first time. That whole "can I call you onyi" ritual is priceless.

Good stuff, good memories.