Misconceptions About Korea

I was reading some articles today written by young people who spent a year or two teaching English in Korea, and there was one major thing they had in common.  They were judging Korea on their own cultures.  One girl actually said that she really didn’t know, but she thought the divorce rate was probably high, and another said there were no signs of the Confucian system. I have been here 13 years, and I speak Korean, and I can tell you that those two statements are dead wrong.

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In Korea, everyone will listen to this woman, and if they don’t, she will demand they listen!


Korea is very much a Confucian culture.  It is even embedded in their language.  They have words in Korean that we don’t have in English that come because they are a Confucian culture.  If we are talking about our brothers and sisters in English, we might talk about them being younger or older, but not always. However, in Korea, they are all about age.  They have special words for older sisters, younger sisters, older brothers, and younger brothers. They also have special words for classmates or friends who are older or younger.  The older ones are in charge, even if it is one older by a minute. The younger ones feel compelled to bow their heads to them, and the older one glory in being in charge.  I make friends with people who aren’t my age all the time, but that is because I am an American. Koreans don’t do that. They feel they can only be friends with the ones who are their age.

When I stayed in the dorm for a month with I first got to KCU, the Confucian system was very evident.  There was one student in the dorm who was older than the others.  She made those girls get up early every morning, go to chapel, and clean the dorm. No one could go against her except me because I was a foreigner and a professor.  She left me alone.  My daughter stayed in the dorm with me, and the girl even tried to boss her around, but I learned how to stop her from causing trouble with my daughter without causing trouble myself.

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As far as the divorce rate, it isn’t high, and the Confucian system is probably a big reason.  The older people are in charge.  What they say goes.  These young Americans who come to Korea probably don’t remember a time in American where people who were divorced were shunned in churches and considered bad, but I do.  In America, Canada, and probably other English speaking countries, there is a lot of social freedom that just doesn’t exist in Korea.  Korea is not as progressive as America in their attitude about divorce because the old people are in charge, and it is still frowned on.

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The older people in Korea got together through arranged marriages.  They didn’t choose who they would marry. Their parents did.  They may not have known that person long at all when they got married.  In fact, I have seen marriages arranged since I have been here even though the Korean young people are learning how to date like westerners now.  Some of these people went ahead and became friends with their husband or wife, and some of them didn’t.  They are just married, but may not even like their significant other. However, they don’t divorce. They live in the same house, but they don’t spend any time together. They even have kids together, but never liked one another.  They make friends outside of their marriage and spend all their time with other people, but always go home at night to sleep and never get a divorce.  They even pool their money, but they are not even friends even though they are married.  Koreans get married to have babies, not because they are in love like people from the west.

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My daughter and Korean son in law are envied by other young people in Korea because they are actually married because they love one another, and not because someone told them they must get married.  There are young people like my Korean son in law who are embracing the new way that has come from the west.  However, my daughter and Korean son in law still struggle because it is normal here for the husband and wife not to go home in the evenings after work in Korea, but spent their evenings at work, but my daughter and Korean son in law want to be together in the evenings. Their bosses just don’t get it.  One of the reasons they are talking about leaving Korea is so they can have a more normal working schedule and be together in the evenings after work more.

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When I taught in a Korean public school, there were two teachers across the hall from me who spent all their time together. They never went home in the evenings after school, but hung out together.  They each just went home to sleep. She did his banking and other business for him like she was his wife.  They went to workshops on holidays so they could be together, but they would never have gotten a divorce. Married is married in Korea.  I know a preacher who I have seen out having lunch with a woman he isn’t married to from time to time, but it is platonic, and he would never touch that other women. However, not so far back in the history of Korea, men at times had two families who lived separately. The man would be married to one woman, but keep another on the side.  Even if he loved the one on the side, he would still never divorce his wife.  However, I have heard that the idea of two families is part of Korean history. n
When my old missionary friend talks, I listen because he has been here since before I was born, and I have learned a lot about Korea from him. He is the one who explained the bit about two families in the history of Korea.

Now a days, the Korean men just don’t go home, but spend all their time with other women, and then go home just to sleep. I have known women who do this too.  I couldn’t believe it when a teacher friend was telling me about having a date with another male teacher for dinner, and her husband was going to go out with another woman teacher for dinner. It is part of the non-Christian culture that exists in Korea. However, Christianity is still strong here with a church building on every street corner. Most of the Christian men would not be hanging out with other women, and their wives wouldn’t be hanging out with other men.

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These young people who come to Korea from America, Canada, England, and other English speaking countries have a lack of experience and knowledge.  They come into another countries and look at it with their lack of experience and knowledge, and then get on the internet and try to explain what they see.  However, they probably only speak a couple of words of Korean and don’t have deep enough relationships with any Korean to really know what is going on in their lives.  They probably spent their time in places like Itaewon where it is full of bars and the crime rate is the highest because of all the foreigners there.  There was a young Ethiopian woman who was trying to talk me into going bar hopping with her over at Itaewon, and I told her that I was a Christian, and that Christians didn’t do things like that.  She tried to tell me that Korea was different and that Christians did go bar hopping in Korea. She was very mistaken.  Christians don’t go bar hopping in Korea.

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There are lots of young people who come to Korea for a short time and then leave. They don’t read books about the culture or history. They don’t study the language.  I have seen many of them who come and are so upset by the culture because they don’t know what is going on, so spend the time they aren’t in class drunk.  Korea has more conservative values than the countries in the west because the old people are in charge. It is a Confucian culture. You can find the more seedy side of life if you are looking for it, but the culture as a whole is controlled by the old people. It is Confucian.



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