Functioning in a Korean Hierarchy

“You stupid idiot!” screamed the little Korean woman in Korean as she beat the young, strong Korean man around the head with her hands. I was walking in the parking lot at Korea Christian University. Witnessing this scene was too much, and I knew as a professor of a Christian university, it was my place to break it up. She was abusing him, and the young man was just unbelievably cowering down and taking it. I said, “Stop!” The young woman said to me, “It’s okay. He is my younger brother!” and continued to beat, but I told her to stop again and that it wasn’t okay. I explained that we were at a Christian university and that Christians just don’t treat one another that way. She argued with me still insisting it was okay saying I was an American, so I didn’t understand. However, when she told me he was her younger brother, I did understand why she thought it was okay to behave that way, but as a Christian, I still couldn’t condone what she was doing. I had to tell her what she did away from KCU was her own business, but that I was a professor, and she was not going to act that way at KCU, and she finally gave in and stopped abusing the young man. In America, this scene would never have happened. It is a difference in the way the society is put together. Both societies have their problems, and usually, unlike in this instance, the Confucian system is a very good answer.

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How many brothers are actually afraid of their smaller, but older sisters?

Don’t judge the young woman too harshly because you really don’t understand. When I first came to Korea, I was teaching in a public school, and one of my teacher friends was my neighbor. He was an extremely nice person and tried to help me with everything. He was married to a Pentecostal preacher’s daughter. When there was something going on down at the church, he wanted his wife taking part, so he spent a lot of his free time with his baby son so his wife could take part in all the daily activities at the Pentecostal church with her family. The young teacher was full of good advice for me about living in Korea and was extremely kind. However, when I met his younger brother, I met a completely different side of him. He seemed to be mean and abusive to his younger brother, and I was shocked. I asked his younger brother why he put up with it, and his brother said, “I have to. He is older than I am.” Even the kindest person in the world can be looked at as a tyrant to outsiders of this society, but does functioning the way you are supposed to in a society make you a tyrant?

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It doesn’t matter their size. If one sibling is older, that sibling is in charge.
What does this hierarchy do for the society? Who is really in charge? Is it the president? Is it the parents? Is it the grandparents, or the teachers? Actually, everyone is in charge in their own place. The only one not in charge are the babies. The only ones who don’t have to give in to anyone are the grandparents. It is the Confucian system. The older student has a responsibility to help the younger student. The younger student has a responsibility to listen to the older student. The grandparents are responsible for everyone. You see an older student or a teacher with a group of students giving out orders, and the younger ones are following the orders. Things are getting accomplished. The library needs to be moved from one building to another, so the professor just grabs the closest students, and the students obey, and al the books are moved. No one is paid, but the job is done. The festival needs to happen, so the oldest student among them starts barking out orders to the younger students, and the festival is organized and goes off well. Many churches think this is the way to get things done. They believe in the one pastor system, the one strong man who tells everyone else what to do and makes sure everything is accomplished.

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Koreans think they need one strong man in charge.
How does this translate on a larger scale into the society as a whole? What kind of effect does it have? Usually, the morals of the older ones in a society are more conservative than the morals of the younger one. The older ones have been through it all and understand what works and what doesn’t work. They have made their mistakes and had their triumphs. If they are who they are supposed to be, and usually are because they also came up through the society, they are going to give good instructions that have to be followed by the younger ones. This causes a lower crime rate. It causes less divorce. It causes a people who are more moral. Illegal drugs can’t flow freely. The older ones control the younger ones.
In America, in the end, Hollywood ends up ruling, and that is why many in Hollywood are rebelling against Trump now—because he outsmarted them to get into office. The Confucian society looks to the older people for guidance. The American society looks to the youth saying they have new and fresh ideas like Obama did sending text messages during his campaign and using a Blackberry. However, the youth look to Hollywood. In the past, in America, whoever was on the stage had a bad reputation. They all knew that the men and women who acted had to do things they wouldn’t normally do, and so they had to compromise who they were. In Greek times, actors were called hypocrites. That is how we got our word hypocrite. People in the past in America knew that it was only the actors and actresses who had been married and divorced several times. Compromising themselves becomes a way of life for many in Hollywood. However, things changed in the 1960’s in America. The young people decided their parents were hypocrites because the grew up and realized that no one was perfect and couldn’t forgive their parents for their mistakes, so rebelled resulting in hippies, gays, and illegal drugs flowing freely. Hollywood no longer looked so bad, and the young people followed their idols from Hollywood. Everyone wanted to be discovered after that because being a movie star meant you had money and power. Being on TV or in a movie meant that you were listened to by millions of people. Most of the older people were smart enough to understand not to let Hollywood lead them, but the younger people didn’t understand, and the older people let the younger ones lead them in America. It resulted in riots. It resulted in wide spread drug abuse. It results in a higher divorce rate and a higher crime rate. It resulted in a full breakdown of American society’s moral code. It resulted in a world financial crisis and a downfall in the American economy.


Drugs don’t flow as freely in Korea as they do in America.
The Confucian system has done just the opposite for Korea. In Korea, if you are an actor, actress, or singer, you must lead a good moral life, or you are blackballed by the public. There was a singer named G- Dragon of a group called Big Bang not long ago who made it to the top. He finally released his own album. Right after the album was released, he went to Japan and ended up doing drugs. People found out, and he was knocked right back down to the bottom. He had to start from scratch again and became one of a number of boys in a boy band, and had to climb again. He recently released his first single since the incident. He is not the first celebrity I have seen here who was demoted in the eyes of the public because of their actions.

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To an American, thinking that the older people must be in charge to stabilize a society sounds foolish, but this American has seen what the older people being in charge causes, and I can only say it isn’t bad. The Korean society isn’t perfect. There is fraud going on, but not as much violent crime as in America. There are gays somewhere, but they are not in your face trying to rule you and force you to say what they are doing is okay like in America. There are no gay pride parades in Korea. The only gay bars are in places where foreigners go, not where the average Korean goes. There are occasional protests in the capital, but not about being gay, but about political and moral issues, and they are not wide spread like in America. The Korean people can’t stand the idea of their presidents perhaps even being friends with someone who has done something immoral or dishonest. They threw their last president, President Park Geun Hae, out of office because of who she associated with. A president before that, President Roh Moo Hyun who was president from 2003-2008, killed himself because he had done something wrong and was disgraced. Divorce happens in Korea, but hardly ever. Society checks itself in Korea, so no one goes too far.



Korean weddings are completely romantic.
Arranged marriages still exist in Korea, but so does the system of finding someone you like and proposing marriage to them. In America, if you want to get married, it is every man for himself, but in Korea, they help one another. A student came to my office once telling me she wanted a boyfriend. At the time, I had no idea that she was looking to me as an older professor with good values to pick a boyfriend for her, so I just gave her good advice about the kind of boyfriend she should look for. I learned later she was wanting me to set her up with someone. Yes, they really do let older ones choose someone for them to date or marry. When my daughter married a Korean guy, his dad insisted that he was responsible, and that he had done the match making, but match makers are looked at as silly in America. I knew my daughter, and she and her husband matched themselves up. His father didn’t do it, but it would have been acceptable in Korean society for him to match them up. My son in law’s father and his wife knew one another for a very short time before they got married. The older people chose for them, and they have an arranged marriage. It is normal to go through a dating service here and to be matched up with someone who fits your profile through a computer, but usually, it is the parents who decided who you will marry here, and you don’t get a divorce. Blind dates are normal in Korea, and not looked upon as a disgrace like many people in America think of them. The younger generation, though, are watching American movies and taking notes and learning how to date American style.
In a Confucian society, the parents usually simply love their kids, and the grandparents and teachers are the ones who guide the children. The grandparents usually live with their grown kids and grand kids. The grown kids have jobs and still listen to their parents advice. The grandparents stay at home taking care of the kids. The teachers are expected to teach their students the difference between right and wrong. If the students mess up, the teachers don’t send them to the principal. It is the teacher’s job to be strong and teach the rules. In the past, it was acceptable for the teachers to spank the students with paddles, even in high school. However, there is a movement in the world starting in Europe or America for the teachers not to spank the students. This can result in chaos in a society like Korea where it is the teacher’s job to teach the students right from wrong, but the teachers are no longer supposed to spank the students because of pressure from outside countries who don’t understand their society. The parents aren’t going to teach the children the difference between right and wrong. What will happen in Korea?
I can tell you what I have already seen because of this movement for the teachers not to spank the students. In my early years in Korea, I was invited to teach at a middle school in the middle of the country in Chungnam Province south of Seoul. The Koreans are not all small Orientals like the Japanese, but they are tall, and many of my students were taller than I was, and I am 5’7″. Back then, the no spanking movement had begun in the cities, but it hadn’t made its way to the country, but we had heard the time was coming where it would be illegal to spank students. The English teacher before me was from England, and she had refused to spank the students. However, the students only knew how to act if they were being controlled by a strong hand. When I went into the classroom, the students were completely out of control. Remember, in Korea, you don’t send them to the principal. The teacher must deal with it. Upon entering that classroom, I found the students were jumping out of windows, starting fires in classrooms, cutting themselves with razor blades, smoking, screaming at the top of their lungs, and walking around the classroom like class wasn’t even in session. If I tried to correct one of them, the rest of them just went crazy. It was like a mob against me. There was a group of smart girls who said to me the teacher before me just ignored the mob and taught the students who wanted to learn, but I was being paid to teach all these students. My idea of correctness wouldn’t let me just ignore them all, and I figured out a way to get them under control. However, this classroom situation is an example of what can happen in Korea if the teachers aren’t allowed to spank the students, and there is now a law not letting the teachers spank the students thanks to pressure from other countries.
Every society is not glued together the way America and England are, but America and England want to force their values on the rest of the world. In Nigeria, it is not the parents who correct the kids and teach them the difference between right and wrong either. The parents have the privileged of just loving the kids like the grandparents do in America, and the uncles in Nigeria teach the kids the difference between right and wrong. In Korea, it is the teachers, the older students, and the grandparents who teach the kids the difference between right and wrong. The students spend most of the their time with the teachers because in Korea, the parents don’t go home in the evening, but send the students to a private school after school to study subjects like Math and English. If the teachers aren’t allowed to discipline students, what will become of the students? What will become of the Korean society in the future?
This hierarchy is written into the very fabric of their culture. The language even reflects it. The Koreans all feel responsibility for the younger ones. The older classmates are called sonbae, and the younger ones are called hyoobae. We don’t have those words in Engish. You see them together and think they are friends, but they will tell you they are not friends, but the older one is there doing their duty giving adivce to the younger one, trying to help them. The students find teachers they like and follow them hoping to learn something good from them. As a professor, I seemed to always have the same students taking my class and my office was full of students looking for wisdom coming from my mouth. Even though I am not teaching in a classroom now, students who were my students still hang around me. They attach themselves to teachers here. Teachers in a Confucian society can become extremely popular. I figured out that one of the reason my students liked me was not just because I knew my subject, but because I didn’t step as hard on them as the Korean teachers did. When I was teaching in the public school, the principal was allowed to take the teachers out and get them drunk, and the teachers couldn’t say anything about it, but I was allowed not to drink because I was a foreigner. Many young Koreans and Japanese look for universities where they won’t be forced to drink by the older students. This makes our Christian universities in America where drinking is against the rules very attractive to them. It also makes places like Korea Christian University a place where students who don’t want to be forced to drink attractive.


When the students talk to the teachers, they use the most respectful language that can possible be used. The levels in society also cause the language to be more difficult. We can talk directly to people and say “you” in America, but when you are speaking Korean, you can’t. If you use the word “you” in Korean, either you use “dangshin” which makes you very close to the person you are talking to to the point of actually sometimes meaning “honey” or “sweetie,” or you may use the word “no” for you which means that you are either talking down to the person or a peer with the person. It is very confusing for a foreigner to be told you can’t use the word “you” when you speak Korean without upsetting people, but you can substitute the word “songsengnim” meaning “teacher” for “you” and give them respect even if they aren’t a teacher or you can use their name if you know it. If you use their name, you must use the family name as well as their two given names or it is disrespectful.
There are also different verb endings according to who you are talking to. If you talk to your teacher or your grandmother or grandfather, you must use very respectful verbs. If you are a teacher and don’t talk down to the students, then people think you are crazy. There is a language only used with family and close friends that is considered vulgar to be used anywhere else. If you use the “yo” form, you are considered kind and soft, and it is a form that can be used with most people unless you are young and then you must use the “subnida” form with older people. If you talk to God, there is even a higher form. This hierarchy is just one of the things that has formed their language into one of the hardest languages in the world for English speakers to try to learn to speak. The American government classifies Korean as the second hardest language in the world.
Americans think age is just a number, but not so in a Confucian society. One of the first things people ask you in Korea is how old you are, but in America, we think it is impolite to ask someone we just met how old they are, especially if they are a woman. When a Korean asks you how old you are, they are not being impolite. They are trying not to be impolite because they must know your age in relationship to them to know what kind of language to use with you. I am a pain in all their necks because ever since I began dealing with Orientals, when they ask me how old I am, I have told them I am 100 years old. At first, I didn’t know why they are asking, but now a days, I know, and I am usually older than everyone I talk to, so I might as well be 100 years old to them. It takes time to figure the hierarchy out. Many foreigners coming to Korea never quite figure the society out, but what is expected is quite different here than in America.
There are young English teachers coming from Australia, England, America, or some other English speaking country into Korea who spend their whole time here drunk because they are disoriented culturally, can’t figure things out, and want to escape. They leave without really understanding what is going on around them. Their actions have caused the Korean government to get stricter and stricter on foreigners trying to get visas to work in Korea. At one time, you didn’t even have to have a degree, but just be from an English speaking country to teach English in Korea. Truck drivers, mechanics, and people who hadn’t even finished high school became English teachers in Korea, but they didn’t act as people with respect for anyone. The government figured it out and decided the English teachers from foreign countries must have a degree to be an English teacher. However, some of these people were staying drunk, fighting with employers, stealing, violent, etc. This caused the Korean government to tighten down even more.

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The highest crime rate in Korea is where the foreigners hang out. The Korean government not only asks for a degree now, but they also ask for a criminal background check for their foreign teachers. For me, that means, an FBI background check.
Somehow, people were also committing fraud and turning in false diplomas and false FBI background checks for their visas, and this has caused the Korean government to go further. They must not only have degrees and a clean FBI background check, but they must also have the degree and the FBI background check with an Apostile to prove both the diploma and the FBI check are genuine. The conditions have gotten tighter and tighter. For me, there should be no problem. I have two degrees in English and have never committed a crime. However, there is a problem because I have worked so hard that I rubbed my fingerprints off, and every time I send my fingerprints into the FBI, they send them back saying they can’t read them. I can’t teach in Korea anymore because foreign English teachers abused a system they didn’t understand. I understand the Korean system, and for most, it is very helpful to understand, but without that FBI background check, understanding the hierarchy and how to conduct myself in Korea isn’t enough. However, I hope this will help people who are thinking about coming to Korea.

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