Koreans: An Attempt at Understanding

The Hermit Kingdom, the Land of the Morning Sun, the White Clothes People:

Local farmers around Chuncheon:

A guide book compared the Koreans to the Irish, since they both love to drink and sing. And one of my students told me that her favorite pastime was walking in the rain on a deserted beach.

I only had a part-time teaching job I Europe, so there was no pressing reason to stay. In addition, my wife came from a dysfunctional family, and she wanted to put some physical distance between her and it. We had traveled a bit I Asia, and I heard there were plenty of teaching jobs. I chose Korea, because it still retained its culture and the pay was good. I send out applications to approx. 15 universities in Korea and received three job offers.

It was an exciting time in Korea, since it was changing so quickly. We experienced the fall of the dictatorship with the first democratic elections as well as the Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Summer Olympics 1988

Many of my students in Seoul had grown up in the countryside with no electricity or running water, but were then living in modern high rises and driving cars. They had memories of shamanist ceremonies in their villages, but had not seen such again for years.

I had no email or internet access at the time (1986), so communication was difficult. I accepted a position as a Visiting Professor of English at Kangwon National University in Chuncheon, but hadn’t informed them of my arrival time. We reached Chuncheon late one September evening and booked a hotel room, since there was no one at the university that late. We went to the restaurant in the hotel and ordered something to drink first, little knowing that Koreans thought we only wanted to drink and brought us the obligatory snacks with the drinks. Despite my having tried to learn a bit of language before going there, we were unable to communicate to them that we wanted dinner and would up going to bed hungry.

The language is not easy, and we wound up eating the same thing at one restaurant the first two months, because we could not make the woman understand that we wanted something else. I had kimchi for the first time and initially thought it was quite strange, but soon became addicted to it and Korean food in general.

Some of my students in Chuncheon

Mr. Kim: one of my best students

Ms. Kim (not related to above): my best student

Picnic with students: even my poor playing was an excuse to sing

The country was changing fast, and it had modernized tremendously in the previous years. Looking at photographs from 1955 to 1957 by two great Korean photographers Choi Min-sik 최민식 (1928-2015) and Jung Bumtae 정범태, it was difficult to believe that it was the same country.

And one thing that many Koreans really wanted to consider as a relic of the past, which no longer existed in modern Korea (not true!), was a “kut”, a shamanist ceremony. It was very difficult to arrange finally to see one, because most Koreans at the time thought of it as primitive and did not want foreigners seeing something like that. I pestered my students long enough until one offered to take me to a kut taking place in her neighborhood.

The shamans, called mudang, are almost all women in Korea. Confucianism as a male-dominated system left no room for the spiritual needs of women, so they found such in shamanism. The shaman had just moved into a new house, and the ceremony was to drive out the evil spirits. The shaman, her assistants and all the participants greeted us warmly and provided us with one of the highlights of our stay in Korea (cf. my Mudang blog for a more extensive account).

We took a trip to a folk village near Seoul where people were dressed in traditional clothes working at traditional crafts. Some of the Korean visitors at the folk village were wearing the same clothes as the employees dressed up there, and we often could not tell who was an actor and who was just a visitor.

Generalizing about any group is a perilous endeavor, especially if it involves a whole nation. In addition, I made many friendships during my 2 ½ years in Korea, and many of these people do not fit such generalizations. In one of my classes, a student claimed that Koreans and foreigners were basically different, his example being that Koreans shit first and then pissed while it was the opposite for foreigners (or perhaps he said it the other way around). I countered that although I could not establish any rapport with him, there were others in the class whom I considered to be very similar to myself; we simply had grown up in different circumstances and had different opportunities in life, but our world view, thoughts about life style and general attitudes were the same.

I am not a scholar of Korean society nor do I speak more than a few words of Korean, which I consider essential to gain a deep understanding of a society. I would not attempt to make generalizations about Chinese, because they are far too individualistic. An American professor and friend I met in Korea, who had researched for six months in Taiwan and then six months in Korea, related how Taiwan had the most equal distribution of wealth in the world at that time, partly because everyone wanted to start his own business and not work for a big corporation. In Korea (and Japan for that matter), most wanted to work for a large conglomerate, a Chaebol, and fit in to a bigger group.

Before we left for Korea, I concluded a tentative agreement with a publisher for a book of photographs of the country. It was shortly before the Olympics, so interest in the country would increase and consequently prospects for book sales. Unfortunately, the publisher wanted to have the book in a series translated as “Longing for Nature” with only photos of landscapes. We had great photos of people, but they only included a couple of them at the end. In addition, they hemmed and hawed about the publication until two weeks before the Olympics, which was too late for selling many copies. The good part, however, is that we traveled to very many places in Korea to take photos even though we were often a bit tired at times and loathe to do so. As a result, we saw more of Korea than most Koreans I met.

We had met two Americans in India a couple of years previously, who had worked a year in Korea, but they spent their weekends hanging out in Seoul, where they worked, the guy playing basketball with GIs at their base. They hardly saw anything of Korea: what a waste!

Two facts have molded Korea thinking for approx. 2,000 years, the first being Confucianism and the belief that if the ruler is benign, his decrees should be followed and society will prosper. Society is governed by a strict hierarchy. North Korea is a pure Confucianist society, demanding unquestioned loyalty from its subjects despite the fact that the leader might not be considered benign. In Confucianism, one is to adhere strictly to a moral life, and hence any transgressions, i.e., compromises, mean that one is immoral. When South Korea became a democracy in 1987, I wondered whether it would succeed, since democracy requires making compromises.

The second element that has molded Koreans is that it has been invaded numerous times throughout its history, which has result in hatred of foreigners, i.e., xenophobia, while at the same time Koreans long to have foreigners appreciate its rich culture. The cultures of China and Japan are highly regarded in the West, but few know much about Korea located between the two and with a rich culture of its own, much of which came from China and was then first passed on to Japan. The result is a love-hate relationship with foreigners. The Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the last century created enduring hatred of Japan. Many Korean woman were forced into prostitution, and Korean men were forced to cut their top-knot (sang-tu) with punishment of death for refusing, which some preferred to suffer rather than obey the Japanese order. Strangely, Korean men comply with the Japanese decree today, and you only see top-knots on Korean men in films. However, this is a general trend in the world of fashion from the West dictating how people are to dress. Years ago, there was an article by a man from Asia complaining that young people in his country were dressing just like kids in the Western world, but with a picture of him wearing a suit and tie.

Koreans suffered tremendously due to the invasions, and I attribute this to the creation of the concept “han”, which is essential to understanding Korea. “Han” means suffering for a just cause, and the person who does this is morally superior. In other words, although Koreans suffered due to numerous invasions, they were still morally superior to their invaders. They turned their suffering into a virtue and consequently made it into something bearable. The proliferation of Christianity in Korea can be attributed to this concept, because they see Jesus as someone who had great “han”.

Acceptance of Christianity in Korean was precluded by a religion with similar claims. It was founded by Ch’oe in 1860, who became alarmed at the spread of Christianity and Western thought in Korea, although he was not totally against Western technology and its benefits. He founded the movement called Tonghak (“Eastern Learning”) and claimed that a supreme deity had revealed himself and the “Heavenly Way” to him to combat “Western learning”, i.e., mainly the Christian missionaries. The religion was a mixture of Confucianism, shamanism and other borrowed traditions as well as contained the belief that all people were equal. A peasant uprising against the ruling class developed, and farmers attacked landlords and foreigners looting their wealth. It culminated in the Tonghak Peasant Rebellion, which was finally put down with help from the Japanese.

The idea of Jesus fit well into this mindset, although early Christian missionaries also contributed some positive aspects such as the founding of the prestigious Yonsei University in 1885 and the first women’s university, Ewha Women’s University, in 1896. These days, many Koreans are fanatical Christians who derive their rigid moral stance from Confucianism and subconsciously equate the suffering of Jesus with the concept of “han”. This can explain why so many Koreans have embraced “Western learning”, i.e., Christianity.

Around the 15th century, Confucianists and Buddhists fought with each other, the Confucianists winning and the Buddhists mostly retreating to the mountains where most of their beautiful temples are located today. Women only have a subordinate role in Confucianism, and — at least when I was there some time ago — women paid a high price for divorce. The husbands retained all property and assets as well as any children. Women were left with nothing, and since most automatically lost their jobs when they married and few were willing to hire them subsequently, their only recourse was to selling vegetables at a market or prostitution. The fact that some still divorced says something about marriages, most of which were still arranged at that time. One of my students told me that he was going to marry in three years. When I asked him who was the lucky woman, he replied that he, i.e., his parents or relatives, had not found a suitable one yet.

One of the other two foreign professors where I was teaching the first year I was there, a sociologist, told me that 90% of Korean men frequented prostitutes. Many Korean men were very unhappy when martial law was lifted around 1980, because previously they had been able to spend the nights with their lovers, not being allowed out on the streets after a certain hour at night: a good excuse for their wives. Korean women related to me that husbands pretty much ignored them after their children had grown, although it seemed that most adapted a hairstyle similar to that of poodles in place of their beautiful, long black hair, which detracted considerably from their attractiveness in my view. We often encountered groups of older women, ajummas (aunties), traveling around together, drinking, laughing, singing and generally having a good time.

Ajummas on a boat ride back from Jeju Island

However, the strength and resilience of Korean woman should not be underestimated. There was hardly a single Western man who went to live in Korea who returned home single in those years. They imagined a complacent, pretty young wife, only to discover after marriage that was just show. One of my neighbors arrived in Korea with long hair wearing jeans and t-shirts, his apartment full of Buddhist statues. After marriage, the statues disappeared one after another replaced by Christian crosses. His hair became increasingly shorter and soon he was wearing suits and ties. He related that he did not realize how this happened. The Korean wives of two other friends divorced them after they had been in the States long enough to get permanent residency. However, I also read that Korean women who emigrated to the USA with their Korean husbands often soon divorced them for a less macho American. Korean students often spoke of their mothers when they talked about growing up, but seldom their fathers.

In recent years, foreign corporations have taken advantage of the fact that there are many well-qualified, older Korean women, whom Korean companies will not hire, and recruit them as highly capable senior managers. The Korean men working under them often have difficulties adjusting.

Korea does not have any minorities worth mentioning and is loath to accept any. A co-worker in Seoul, who had been in the Peace Corps in Korea previously and spoke Korean, related how he and another Peace Corp friend who spoke Vietnamese, had seen an interview with a Vietnamese refugee. The Korean reporter asked how he was being treated in Korea, and the Vietnamese listed one complaint after another. However, the translator said that the man related how good the Koreans were treating him and how happy he was to be there. Recently, Yeminis were taking advantage of traveling to the island of Jeju, since no visa was required in the government’s attempt to foster tourism. The Yeminis were demanding political asylum, and soon there were large demonstrations of Koreans protesting against them. I once saw a Korean film where an orphaned son was searching for his mother, who was slipping down the ladder of society. When he finally located her, she had descended to the worst possible level of society possible: she was a prostitute for Black American GIs.

After a year in Chuncheon, I decided to accept an appointment in Seoul at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, the largest foreign language university in Korea. I was no longer a visitor professor, but instead a simple instructor in the university’s language institute. I taught a lot more hours of classes, but I also earned a lot more. I taught government officials and businessmen in an intensive course lasting six months. Students ranged from KCIA staff to soldiers and bureaucrats all the way to businessmen sent by their companies and journalists. Some really wanted to learn, and some were just forced to attend. We were just too isolated in Chuncheon, and only two professors, Prof. Choi and Prof. Lee, made any effort at friendship. The department head played tennis and knew I would like to play, but never asked me to participate in games. Prof. Choi said it was because he was ashamed of his English. In Seoul, we were housed in an apartment complex for foreign professors, some of whom became good friends.

Group photo at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

It was difficult to undertake much with the students in Chuncheon, because they were rather poor and had little money for excursions or going out together. In traditional Korea, if you suggest doing something, it means that you will pay for it, something I could not do for 20 students. My students in Seoul all had enough money, but the great distances and time required to meet in Seoul kept this to a minimum.

I have difficulty associating these thoughts with the many wonderful people and met in Korea and will never forget the warmth and friendships I experienced there. Korea has become much more developed and richer since I was there, and I assume that many people have also changed their word views and lifestyles in the meantime. At the end of the World War II, economists predicted that Korea would remain a basket case and that the Philippines and Myanmar would be the richest countries in Asia. South Korea was desperately poor until the 1980s, and the fact that it became so developed and rich is certainly due to their hard work and moral character in addition to some far-sighted policies of the government. Wish I could meet many of my friends from then again, but unfortunately, I have been unable to locate any.

Students in Seoul: picnics were mandatory each semester.

And for a game of baseball

Traveling around Korean, we often saw people dressed traditionally. Somehow I doubt that this is still the case.


I tried learning Korean, but failed. However, when I left Korea, I understood words in a Korean song for the first time when I was in a taxi leaving the country after working there for 2 ½ years. A woman sang (with my poor transliteration), “gachima” or something like that, which means “Don’t leave.”)

(Any comments or corrections to my impressions are certainly welcome.)

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