“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.
This week’s post is written by Katy Weyforth of Fallston, Maryland.
After graduating from college with a degree in geology, I interviewed all summer for jobs that I didn’t even want to do. With college loans looming overhead and credit card debt accumulating up to my eyeballs, I decided to do what I thought any normal 22-year old would: apply to teach English in South Korea. In truth, I had been insanely jealous of my many friends who had studied abroad during high school or college, so I wanted my chance to shine — my chance to get out into the world, to learn a completely new language, to become a pro at traveling alone, and to grow outside of the comfortable bubble of Bel Air, Maryland, that I called home.
Though I had soaked in every word of the 20-page information packet given to me after I was hired as a teacher, I didn’t do much research about South Korea prior to my arrival. I expected that Koreans would stare at my long red hair and that I’d have to learn to bow to others instead of shaking hands. But what I didn’t expect was to become puzzled, confused, embarrassed, and even disappointed about some aspects of Korean life only to find myself later admiring the very things that frustrated me in the first place.
1. Embracing the future means respecting the past. The first thing that amazed me was the vibrant and progressive nature of Seoul. Having been born and raised in the suburbs of Baltimore, I was enthralled by the stunningly-designed high-rise buildings that were interlaced with traditional Korean houses, farmers markets, and historic Buddhist temples.
This intermingling of modern and history is a theme visible in all aspects of Korean culture. On a normal subway commute to work, I would often see groups of aged adjusshees (old men) in the subway station playing ancient Korean board games, oblivious to their contrast to the hurried women clad in fur, heels, and Louis Vuitton handbags. If there was ever a collision between a woman and one of the adjusshees, the woman would quickly bow to the old man, humbly assume responsibility for her error, and continue on.
This modern city simply respects the role of the aged. Instead of demolishing or redesigning their country to reflect South Korea’s growing place in the global economy, Koreans embrace the history that built their nation and honor those that came before them.
2. A large population requires a large effort. After about a week in Seoul, I noticed that there were no public trash receptacles in the city. I had thought that a bustling city with so many people constantly getting quick bites to eat should absolutely have public trash cans; however, I was wrong! The population density of Seoul, when combined with the global initiative to “go green,” translates into a high level of environmental responsibility from its residents.
I absolutely cannot tell you how it worked, but the city expects all residents to separate their home trash into a billion different colorful bags categorized by type of waste. You are then supposed to find the correct dumpsters in which to dispose of it all. I could figure out the bags, but I could never figure out the pick-up days — anytime I noticed bags accumulating on the sidewalk in front of my building, I’d tiptoe downstairs and add mine to the pile.
However, in my 27 months of living in Seoul, I never saw a rat or a mouse, even during the year in which I lived above a restaurant. The subways were nearly spotless, streets were generally litter-free, and the only pest was the occasional stray cat. The extra communal effort of cleanliness and ‘green living’ made Seoul one of the cleanest cities in my book.
3. The peace of public safety. As ominously vast, busy, and crowded as Seoul was to me, I felt safe in every location and at all times of the day. I noticed police cars on only three occasions: first, when half a park bridge fell into a stream; second, during a highway alcohol screening when every driver was given a breathalyzer test; and third, when masses of young officers were bussed in to prevent rioting on Buddha’s birthday. The only time I saw a gun was on the belt of a bank officer inside my bank on the day I set up my bank account. This was a whole new world for me, a girl who had lived in the suburbs of Baltimore and whose father basically hides an arsenal of weapons around the house! Despite my limited understanding of Korean and my anxiety when following directions in unfamiliar locations, I had peace wandering around Seoul, learning that it can be fun to explore when lost and that back alleys hold the best tea shops.
Rooted deeply in the Korean psyche is the desire to act for the sake of the family or a group instead of one’s self. Many times I found I had to sacrifice my own desires and accept what my friends wanted instead. I had a difficult time adjusting to this, but after some introspection and a few conversations on Western and Eastern cultural differences with a dear Korean friend, I realized that I was being stretched out of my independent “every-man-for-himself” ideology to become someone who was more selfless and others-aware.
This understanding and respect for those around you, woven like a thread through Korean culture, is what surprised me most about living in Seoul. Even though these aspects of Korea were tedious at first, I eventually learned to step out of my limited zone to appreciate the larger picture of involving others beside myself. When I returned to America, I returned with new insight about how all our actions, no matter how large or small, impact those around us — those of the past, the present, and the future.