Tag Archives: Culture

Looking Past Korea: Series Wrap Up

Well, it’s time to wrap up the “Looking Past Korea” series. If you want to check out all the posts I did for the series, simply click the link on the top of the page. During this series I wrote about things that, although superficial, I thought were important; I wrote about things that I thought were overrated by foreigners living in Korea; I wrote about things that I thought were truly important cultural differences. I made lots of generalizations.

The one thing we have to remember is that, while I write about my time in Korea and about my observations of the culture, the people who live here are still people. As a whole they make up the culture, but as individuals they have hopes and dreams and love and hate just like any other person and they are uniquely themselves within their own cultural setting. This was the main purpose of the series. I wanted to finalize what I thought were differences so that I could finally begin to focus on what really matters, our similarities.

With that said, I have one more sweeping generalization of Korea. Korea is the middle brother of Eastern Asia. It is stuck between the power of older brother China and the baby brother celebrity of Japan. These other two countries are so powerful and noticeable that Korea, many times, is caught between them when it may be the most successful of them all given the circumstances. I’m not entirely sure.

Through this series, and this blog in general, I have tried to avoid telling people what to think with my writing. Instead of being a guide I have instead attempted to be a lamp. Hopefully I was able to shed enough light that you were able to find your own way.


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The Gum Lady

If you don’t concentrate enough the monotonous clunk of the tracks harmonizes with the sighs of the weary worker after a long day at work, melodies with the hum of the fluorescent lights, and is occasionally supplemented by the percussion of a door opening and closing as an elderly woman walks from car to car singing and selling gum.

A fluorescent light vibrates at a frequency that would make a hummingbird’s wings jealous. Their light reflected off of her and back into my eyes where my brain processed the primary colors. So it was that I saw her just an instant before I heard her off key wailing as she trudged through my subway car. She did not hear me, but she saw me.

Her eyes locked on me and I tried to look away. Her Medusa gaze was too powerful and I couldn’t help but look on, curiously stoned. The woman moved through the subway car the way a cherry rolls through honey. When she walked by me she stopped. She turned. She threw a pack of gum at me and stretched out her hand. Did I have bad breath?

She would not leave till I gave her money, even after I tried to give her back her gum she just sang louder and started to poke me.

This was my first experience with the Gum Lady of Line 1.

Since that first experience I am afraid to look at her, lest she notice me. My only hope is that she turns her attention towards some other unsuspecting bad breathed soul, because once she notices you, you will buy some gum. She usually only stops at one person per subway car. Sometimes I point to people who I think she should try to sell gum to, and sometimes she takes my advice.

Despite my fear of looking at her I’ve caught enough glimpses. Her face is weathered and tanned the way only fluorescent lighting can do. Her back is bent and arched from too many days of carrying bags of rice on her head to and from various locations before the creation of the subway. She may have been beautiful once. Can beauty ever die? Also, I’m pretty sure she wears the same thing every day.

The Gum Lady is always there, haunting the passengers of line 1. Always staring at you, singing off key, forcing you to buy her gum. Her life is intrinsically linked to the subway and the subway to her. It would not surprise me to discover she secretly lived there.

She is not a beggar. Beggars offer you nothing for your money besides a guilty shot at redemption. She offers you that and then some gum. I wonder how much money she makes in a day. Hopefully more than the cost of a train ticket.


Filed under Culture, Narratives

Deciphering Korean T-Shirts

We’ve all had a good chuckle at them walking down the street. Those seemingly crazy Korean t-shirts written in English that seem to not make too much sense to us not accustomed to the Korean way of thinking.

But I’ve had a recent revelation. The t-shirts do make sense. Of course Koreans know exactly what English words they are putting on their body. What kind of people would honestly cover their body with sayings they didn’t understand? However, we as foreigners are too close minded to the cleverness and sublime wit of the Korean/English t-shirt market.

So I’ve decided to help you decipher some of the phrases I’ve seen around town so that you too can be as enlightened as me. Slogans in bold, descriptions under them.

Die or surf

In the context of English conversation two options can be given in either order. For example the sentences “we could die or surf, it’s up to you,” and “we could surf or die, it’s up to you,” have very little intrinsic difference. However, when the phrase surf or die is taken out of conversational context the order of words takes on a new meaning. The specific implication being that the first option of the two is preferable and even desired, while the second is not just a secondary option but wholly unwanted. Based on this description we can determine that the wearer must enjoy dying, and consequently sees surfing as its despicable counterpart, brimming with existential and spiritual quandaries.

He Loves the Dick/ She Loves the Dick (couple t-shirt)

Pish posh on your initial middle schoolish laughter at the homosexual implications of these t – shirts. Sexual innuendo is often brushed off as taboo in Korean culture. These t-shirts are testaments to youthful rebellious masturbation. We should all be so bold to shrug off social taboos that hold society back and create stereotypes.

Remember the sisties

The Sisties were an underground popular punk rock group that toured around the greater Mason area during the late 90’s. Damn straight I remember them.

We hookied and had lunchboxes for lunch

Poetry, sheer poetry. If you can not feel the words then you do not deserve to understand their meaning.


Pee all that you can pee in the army

Trusty health advice for our soldiers on duty. I imagine that spending all day sitting in bushes with sniper rifles and exploring exotic world locations on an aircraft carrier can be difficult work that would afford few opportunities for bathroom breaks. It’s important to stay hydrated and go regularly. How many more kidney failures can we endure?

I love alcohol (my fifth grade student) –

No explanation needed. Drinking culture is strong in Korea. Who cares if they start a little earlier than kids in other cultures? We should learn to never question Korean culture in any way shape or form. As foreigners, we don’t understand anything.

Want to take pictures I’m a true modek

A clever play on words for those who design modeks for a living. A walking modek? How silly and clever.


Filed under Culture, The foreigner experience

Loud and Proud in a Society of Silence

South Korea doesn’t keep statistics on its gay community so it’s difficult to officially tell if it’s growing or shrinking. History seems to suggest that it’s neither. Instead it is simply “coming out,” for lack of a better term.

Korea has an overall “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to homosexuality. Sex as a subject in general is taboo, so it is no surprise that gay sex is even more so.

It is common for members of the same sex to enjoy physical contact such as holding hands and hugs. Living with a member of the same sex before marriage is also very common, but these are all seen as friendly gestures. The real difficulties come when marriage looms in a culture where marriage is not always an option so much as responsibility.

Although being gay in Korea carries no official legal ramifications, the societal ramifications are immense. Separation from family and friends, difficulty securing a good job and threats against a person’s life are obstacles to being openly gay. So while the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has not created any laws openly barring homosexuality, it has also not created any protecting it.

As of now, no mainstream Korean politician has advocated gay rights. The term “political suicide” comes to mind. However, there are indicators that the gay rights movement is gaining steam. As Korea continues to progress and the younger generation takes over more of the society that the starkly conservative generation before left them, gay rights is gaining a foothold. Albeit a rather small foothold.

A magazine has just begun that focuses on the gay and lesbian community in Seoul. Recently, a famous actor was tagged to play a gay man on a Korean historical drama. Indeed, there is even a park where gay teens go to congregate and be themselves. While these advances are few and far between, they are advances none the less.

Society in general tends to move two steps forward one step back in the direction of acceptance. To look at it from a different angle, ten years ago foreigners in Korea were not common. To see a westerner working and living in Korea was an anomaly. Today is different. While still a small percentage it becomes more common everyday to see a foreigner walking up and down the streets. The older generations may still stop and stare at an interracial couple but kids are more accepting, and it is the kids who are the future.

This trend mirrors that of gay acceptance. What starts as an anomaly eventually becomes more the norm. A yearly gay pride parade started 9 years ago and has grown every year. In fact, many of the aforementioned foreigners are vital cogs in the growth of the community. If Korea truly desires to enter into the world community it will eventually need to accept people of all differences, not just ethnic but religious and sexual as well.

There is a danger however in the quickly expanding gay community. People tend to think of it as a revolution, but it is not. Revolutions happen quickly and gay rights will not happen over night. The movement needs to come along slowly and surely or else it risks alienating the younger generations who will eventually become its lifeblood.

The day after the gay pride parade a friend of mine had this to say,

“In today’s world of controversy regarding gay marriage and equality, the celebration of anonymous sex, drug abuse, and irresponsibility has inspired me to stay at home. Certainly there are exceptions, but, sadly, they are few and far between…(giving) ammunition to bigoted preachers who, in turn, spew frighteningly-accurate stereotypes from pulpits. I refuse to participate.”

So, while there is progress there is also trepidation and caution to be had. Korea has been defending its culture and blood line for thousands of year and a magazine and televised drama are hardly the defining moments of a cultural shift.

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Korea Matters #1: Location, Location, Location

(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” Series, my general wrap up on Korean culture.  So far I’ve gone over superficial differences of Korea and cultural aspects that I think are over rated by foreigners.  In this part I talk about the things that I think make Korea unique and different to Western Culture)

I’m not a military strategist but I hear that peninsulas are important strategic locations. Korea is a peninsula. Not just any peninsula at that, it’s stationed between two of the world’s major powers.

Throughout its history Korea has beaten back numerous attempts at conquest. However, with its small size and limited resources this was not an easy task. Mongolians, Chinese, Japanese and even their own country to the north have tried to take over the Korean Peninsula. That they have emerged independent is a testament to their will power.

They did not emerge unscathed. The Korean psyche has been built by the defensive nature of their countries history. Since their leaders consistently abandoned the people during these times of war Koreans have become understandably suspicious of those in power and the reason why they protest and call for the resignation of those who they elected to power only months before. The Korean people have developed a defensive mindset. Korea vs. the World, and no one can blame them.

Their location affects everything about their culture in some way. Everything stems from this. The same way it does in most countries. Because of it Koreans have developed a cliquish nature with their close friends and a stern distrust of outsiders. The word for foreigner literally means “person who does not belong.”

It’s the reason why Koreans join so many after school programs even when they are adults. If you are in the same group as someone then you are friends. It’s the reason why blind dates are so popular. You can not meet someone at random, you have to be introduced. It’s the reason why CEO’s that graduated form a university tend to favor others who graduated from the same university. It’s the reason why Koreans take their history so seriously, it’s a common bond with all other Koreans.

Protect the bloodline. Protect original Korean culture. Because if you don’t nobody else will do it and Korea will be lost forever.

A common bond through school, activities, living area, employment and others is what creates social groups in Korea. As Koreans are a social people these groups are very important.

But woe to the person who does not belong. You are an outsider who does not belong. You have no ties and therefore you might as well not even exist.


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Korea Matters #3: Honorifics

(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” Series, my general wrap up on Korean culture.  So far I’ve gone over superficial differences of Korea and cultural aspects that I think are over rated by foreigners.  In this part I talk about the things that I think make Korea unique and different to Western Culture)

What is it:

Korea’s honorific system that is essentially a standardization of the way you speak to people. The form of honorifics changes from low forms, used for someone younger than you; middle forms, used for someone slightly older than you; and high forms, used for a person much older than you or for a superior at your job. Additionally there are different honorific words that should be used when speaking about someone who is considered above you in the social hierarchy. These words should be used whether or not the person you are speaking about is present. All in all it’s pretty confusing.

The odd thing with the honorific system is that while it influences respect towards elders, it does not stipulate it. This leaves open the possibility that younger generations might feel they could say anything to their elders, provided they use the right form of honorifics.

I doubt that will happen however as the honorific system has grown out of Confucian tradition which preaches a fervent respect towards elders and is fairly ingrained into the Korean psyche. I have seen very few instances where a younger person is telling off an older person, even if the older person deserved it.

Why it matters:

Those of you who have been paying attention might have noticed that I also mentioned honorifics as one of the cultural differences overrated by foreigners when they come to Korea. I am not back tracking, I think it is overrated. However, it is still important.

Honorifics are to Korea as Eminem was to hip hop circa 2002. Around that time Eminem was so noticeable that he was completely overrated by anybody who was superficially interested in hip hop, who thought he was the greatest rapper of all time. At the same time a back lash occurred in the underground against him because of his overrated popularity and the bandwagon fans he brought with him. Lots of people refused to acknowledge he had any skill whatsoever. This created an odd paradox where Eminem was simultaneously the most overrated and underrated rapper of the time.

This is what Honorifics is like. For any foreigner with a casual understanding of Korea, honorifics are the most noticeable difference so it is naturally deemed the most important. As is mentioned in my “Overrated Korean Culture” post, honorifics are not much different than how most people speak to other of varying age and status. We speak to our boss, our parents, our friends, our co-workers, everybody in different ways. Honorifics institutionalizes it. Besides, it is difficult for me to see honorifics as a too important when it is the result of a culture that preaches respect for elders rather than the cause of it.

But words can have power if we give them power and Korea has given them power. Korea has given honorifics the key to a hierarchical culture. Honorifics is the guard dog, it is the watchman, it is the spring loaded trap under a piece of Indiana Jones treasure. It guards and upholds tradition the same way a military guards and upholds a country. So while it is not the fundamental ideal of Korea it is its everyday application.

Existentialism demands that what we see is what is most important.

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Korea Matters #4: Lawsuits

(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” Series, my general wrap up on Korean culture.  So far I’ve gone over superficial differences of Korea and cultural aspects that I think are over rated by foreigners.  In this part I talk about the things that I think make Korea unique and different to Western Culture)

Undercooked meat and an open grill…my favorite type of restaurant.

I think of it every time I enter a kalbi restaurant. This type of restaurant could never fly in the States, the lawsuit potential is just too high. But somehow people in Korea manage and somehow children who can’t walk more than 3 steps without falling over on the street are suddenly gymnasts.

While The United States is lawsuit crazy Korea generally avoids lawsuits. They exist, but the culture has more of a “at your own risk” nature.  It speaks to an idiosyncrasy in Korean culture where a person may not be independent when it comes to societal roles yet will not accept the help or payment of others when it is needed or deserved.

Buy some crappy merchandise? Should have been more careful.

Get hit by a car? Should have looked both ways.

Get harassed and punched by a drunk old man? Should have been older than him.

I’ve never been a fan of America’s lawsuit culture. I hate ambulance chasers and will never support John Edwards for the sole fact that he made his money from a rich family and lawsuits. I just can’t respect that.

Settlements are popular in Korea as many people avoid the stigma that legal actions bring by simply buying off their would-be accusers. At least money is still in charge, that much hasn’t changed. The downside is that many things that probably should be changed or fixed don’t get the proper legal action it deserves; like taxis that constantly run red lights.

I bet that somewhere between money and a good old fashioned whoop ass there is a decent middle ground.

Also, I bet that just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean some Korean child hasn’t face planted directly into the middle of a kalbi grill. Too bad, I really like kalbi.


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