Overrated Korean Culture

(Part of the “Looking Past Korea” series)

For some reason I can’t shake this feeling that I, at this moment, am like the stoner who looks at a tree and wonders what its metaphorical value is?

Sometimes a tree is just a tree.


When you get down to it Korea is not that different from everywhere else. People just like to think it is.

It’s the mark of any foreigner in any country who has become so overwhelmed by superficial differences that they begin to think this is what truly epitomizes the culture. I recognize the irony in that I just wrote five posts about how superficiality matters. However, superficiality is the consequence of cultural differences, not the difference itself. It’s easy to get the two confused.

So, here are what I believe to be the 5 most overrated cultural differences, by foreigners, between Korea and other cultures. The key word being “differences.”

One rule before we begin: overrated does not equal not important. Things are noticed for a reason, but it is possible for people to think something is more important than it is just because it’s noticed.

5: Honorifics

I speak differently to my grandma than I do my friends, I imagine most people do the same thing. Korea has simply taken something that happens in any other culture or social setting and institutionalized it.

Additionally, honorifics do not necessarily mean respect. I have seen younger people disrespect older people all while keeping to the highest form of honorifics.

Again, to say it is not important however is just naïve. Trust me, we are not quite done with honorifics.

4: Prejudice towards foreigners

Something that gets talked about lots by foreigners because at one point in every foreigners stay in Korea a drunken old man has told them to “fuck off.”

So some people in Korea are racist pricks, just like anywhere else in the world.

3: Klogic

Korean Logic. It has befuddled us all at one point. Why am I keeping the window open during the winter? Why can’t I have my fan on during the summer? Why can I walk down the street chugging a beer, but I can’t on the subway? Why can Korean-Americans eat American beef but not Koreans?

Societies in general have stupid rules. At some point some stupid person did something stupid and some other stupid person took a stupid response to it. Korea is not unique in this.

To put this in perspective, last year the school I worked at in the states allowed me to see the file on a student who was diagnosed with several learning disabilities and was a huge problem in his classroom. Pretty much any teacher who worked at the school was allowed to see this file if they wanted…except for the boys homeroom teacher. It might have influenced her negatively towards the student.

Whenever we talk to a Korean person I think we naturally assume they represent Korean culture and opinion. But have you ever stopped to think that maybe the person you’re talking to is simply an idiot?

2: Workplace efficiency…lack there of

I get to sit at my desk for a couple hours everyday after I’m done teaching. This seems brutally inefficient.

I used to work at a restaurant back in the states that at one point had fourteen waiters on the floor and three tables with customers. This continued for 3 hours.

1: Obsession with beauty, health and money

I’m constantly surprised how surprised foreigners seem at Korea’s obsession with such things. Have you so quickly forgotten what your own culture is like?

Maybe Korea’s more blatantly honest about it, but is that really a bad thing?


The point isn’t that these things aren’t important to Korea, it’s that these so called “differences” aren’t really differences at all. In our quest to understand what makes Korea so Korean we need to sift through the busted stones to find the proverbial diamond in the proverbial rough.


Filed under Culture, The foreigner experience

6 responses to “Overrated Korean Culture

  1. i love korea! nice post by the way..:)

  2. greenolive

    I haven’t been reading all of your opinion about my country, Republic of Korea, thoroughly yet. You must have been surprised, perplexed, even if you’d got a big interest and somewhat cherishing favor to South Korea. Considering Korea’s radical and very “compressive” economic growth and social change, however, it’s too harsh to condemn my nation’s popular culture although it have been causing so many real aspects of social pathology. Is it rather regardful that ROK has succeed in accomplishing nation-building and accumulating wealth of nation just only about 40 years? Including me, all of Koreans don’t concern about contemporary culture phenomena arising from these trend inquisitively. There’s always a slip between the cup and the lip. So it is advisable not to patronise my country, save I don’t approve of all Korean pop culture.
    Additionally, beef protest in these days is not just against presumptive conjecture. The real reason of protest turns towards today’s irresponsible and frivolous governance of Korea. I wonder We Koreans do not have responsibility to persuade our “klogic” to you.

    • hyunji.L

      hey there pretty greenolive. I’m Korean and am not one of your ‘we all koreans don’t concern…’ kind of Korean. Cause I’m very worried:p. Keep the love for the country. Kira, you took the point of article wrong.
      insightful post!

  3. greenolive, i think you mis-understood the point of this article

  4. Kira

    I 100% agree. Koreans are sooooo overrated its not even funny.

  5. jonholmes

    People tend to forget that until just a few years ago South Korea was a fascist disctatorship which imprisoned or executed freedom of speech activists, and a police state. Elements of that regime naturally linger.

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