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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Culture 101: Part 1

I started writing about the differences in Korean and American culture and realized that the subject can fill volumes.  This is Part 1 of the series.

When I decided to move from the United States to South Korea I thought I knew what I was doing.  I had read about Korean culture in a variety of books and websites.  I have been to a local Korean restaurant and tried several dishes to see if the food was pleasant to my palate.  I researched many blogs of Americans and Canadians who live or have lived in South Korea and worked as English teachers.  In fact, I was pretty proud of the knowledge I had acquired.  Turns out that I had no clue as to what life really would be like.

First of all, let me say that I generally enjoy living in Busan.  Working as an English teacher is not a bad job, and I earn a satisfactory amount of money for the work that I do.  Please remember this as read my comments.  My goal is not to complain about Korea or Korean culture.  Instead, I hope to delve into some of the many differences I have noticed.  My genuine belief is that being different does not make something wrong.  At the same time, it is really hard to always understand an issue from the perspective of the Koreans I know.  After all, I have not lived in Korea my entire life.  So my views are constantly influenced by my personal history.  Ok, this is probably enough introduction.  So lets just jump right in.

1.       We are different

It sounds simple enough, but sometimes it is nice to remember this little tidbit of information.  Personally, I think the primary difference between Americans and Koreans is the concept of self.  For the most part, Americans have a strong attachment to our individuality.  We are a me culture.  Koreans tend to identify themselves by group rather than self.  Want examples?  Myspace.  iPhone. Youtube. Easy enough, but it goes much deeper. 

We move out of the family home usually around the time of high school graduation and go off to college.  After college, I got my first apartment and eventually bought my own house.  In Korea, people tend to live in the family home until they are married.  It is not uncommon to see a 30 year old man living with his family.  In fact, it is normal and is a large factor in group identity versus individual identity.  I cannot begin to imagine how my life might be different if I lived at home until I was 30.  As we explore the different ways that we view the world, give some consideration to this concept. 

Going forward, I will simple point out the differences.

2.       Personal Space

I define personal space in many ways.  First, it is the invisible area around my actual body that is under my totalitarian control.  If you breach the boarders of my space without an invitation, I am going to notice and usually not be happy about it.  More specifically, my concept of personal space extends from my skin to a distance where I cannot smell you.  Also, if we are having a conversation and a little bit of spit flies from your mouth as you say a word with a P or TH, the spit should not be able to land on me. 
In Korea, I have found that the concept of personal space either does not exist.  I get it.  Korea has a tiny livable land mass and a lot of people.  But I still dont like being bumped into, shoved, or touched at random.

3.       Food

I have found that most Korean people enjoy and eat most Korean foods.  In fact, I rarely hear a Korean friend mention that they dont like the taste of a specific local food.  I think this is because food is considered to be part of the group identity.  And no one wants to disrespect the group.  It may be me or my American-ness, but the deciding vote in what I eat usually goes to my nose and tongue.  Sometimes my stomach gets input on future meals.  Accordingly, my concept of eating does not revolve around location and culture.  If it tastes good, I will probably eat it.  (insert whatever jokes you see fit).  Now grow up.
Things I dont eat:  Mustard (allergic makes me vomit on site and have trouble breathing), Mayo, black olives, eggs, sweet pickles, raw onions, most sweet sauces when applied to a savory dish. 
Having a personal preference for certain tastes can be offensive to some Koreans because it could appear that you are rejecting their Group.  There are many ways to deal with this difference.  Some expats I know only eat western foods.  Others, like myself, eat the things I like and dont eat the things I dont like.  Sometimes I try to explain why and often I just ignore strange looks.

A side note to this:  Personally, I love the taste of kimchi.  I eat it often and sometimes crave it.  Over the last 9 months, I cannot count the number of times that I have been asked by a Korean if I like kimchi.  Yes.  I like it.  Stop asking.  At the same time, I never eat the egg laden dishes in my school cafeteria.  Remember, I dont like eggs.  But in this case, I get the same surprised look.  What, how can you not like eggs? 

4.       Social Order

This topic is intense and deserves a separate essay, so I am only going to say a few words.

Korea:  Small country, many people, no personal space, live with family.  In that setting, having a rules system about who out ranks who goes a long way in keeping the peace. 
America:  Lots of land mass, many people, but spread out a bit.  We get in the habit of doing what we want to do.  Sure, we know how to follow rules, but when the rules seem to interrupt our personal goals, we examine the rules.  Sometimes we break them.  Sometimes we change them.

What happens when an American lives in Korea?  First of all, you are not really part of the Group.  So you dont fit into the social order.  In some ways it is a free pass.  At the same time, a lot of conflict can be generated.

Notes:  I prefer to use a persons name instead of their job title, age derived position.
I dont pretend that you are right because you are older than me. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting observations. I'm sure you're quite right. I have heard Europeans say Americans require more space, need more privacy. Someone told me that, and I thought I was bending over, doing my level best to go along, get along, do things their way. Good blog and I enjoyed reading your comments. Thanks for tagging onto my blog.