Every so often, this subject comes up at my house because I came here when my kids were still pretty young. I saw it the first year I was here, but I never realized the Koreans would try to force my kids into the roles of the Korean young people because we are not Korean. The Korean young people accept it because they realize they will get older and while they are young, there is nothing they can do. However, my American daughter who is finally getting old enough that some people have to begin giving her a little respect would like to change the whole culture for the young people in Korea. The young people in Korea are on the bottom and at the mercy of society even more so than in other countries because of the way the society is set up. Parents may not put the kids in line in Korea, but the whole society will because of the Confucian rules for society.
The first year I came to Korea, I saw it when an otherwise really nice guy’s younger brother cam e to visit, and I got to know his brother. The older brother was a teacher friend of mine that I hung out with a lot. When his younger brother came to visit, he ordered his younger brother around like a slave and actually even got mean with him. I had never seen him act that way, and I was amazed. I asked his younger brother why he put up with it, and the younger brother responded that he had not choice because he was younger. This is what makes the young Koreans seem so humble to the people from the outside. They are forced into being that way from the older people in the society, but as they get older, they will be less and less humble.
An older girl tried to put my daughter into place when we first came to Seoul. The older girl had green hair. We were staying in the student dorm waiting for our house to be ready. The girl was the oldest girl in the dorm. Every girl in that dorm was under her control. At the door of hallway where all the girls lived in different rooms up and down the hallway, we always took our shoes off, but my daughter had seen some of the girls not take their shoes off. I sent my daughter on a errand into the dorm to get something. She was in a hurry, so she figured since sometimes those other girls didn’t take their shoes off, she wouldn’t to save time. The rules are not so hard and fast about shoes in Korea as they are in Japan even though the custom is to take your shoes off at the door. My daughter didn’t take her shoes of and ran into our room quickly. The green haired girl caught her. She screamed her head off at her, and then she came to me screaming saying, “Get your daughter under control!” I calmed her down and resolved the problem.
My daughter had another problem. The young people are supposed to bow when their teachers go by. My boss went by, but my daughter really didn’t know her. My daughter just kept walking. My boss went berserk with her screaming! She thought my daughter was very rude and should be taught to bow to her. My daughter had no relationship with her, but since she was my boss and knew who my daughter was, she wanted to force my daughter into subjection under her too. My daughter was learning that she had to act like everyone’s servant and they were kings and queens, and she didn’t like it.
I ran into another pair of siblings. They were in the parking lot of the school. The girl was screaming and beating on the boy, but the boy was physically bigger than she was. He was just putting up with it. I was the professor, so I intervened. I told her to stop, and she said, “Oh, it’s okay. He is my younger brother.” I let her know in no uncertain terms it was not okay. I reminded her that she was on the campus of a Christian university, and that Christians didn’t act that way. She kept trying to insist she could do it, so I told her.,”At least don’t do it here. If you are going to act like a heathen, at least do it in the privacy of your own home.” She obliged and quit. When I discussed this with my Korean son in law, he completely agreed with me. He thought her behavior was appalling and that Christians should never act that way, but he knows that it happens sometimes because of the Confucian system in Korea.
As a professor, I could have demanded a lot of things out of my students that I just didn’t demand. If other professors needed something done, they grabbed students and insisted they do it. I saw students being treated like slaves and didn’t feel I could ever do that to someone. In America, I know the students might have done those things for the professors, and the professors would pay them a little for doing it, but because the professors were in charge here, they could ask the students to do anything they wanted, and the students felt compelled to comply because they were younger. The university students often become slaves of the professors. I didn’t teach long in the lower grades in Korea, but I could see it happening there too. It is just the way the society functions. There are no school janitors. Teachers are responsible for cleaning their own classrooms, and often, those teachers have the students doing it. At least that is a bit more understandable since they all used the classroom. In the middle school where I taught, I saw a teacher having a girl in a dress kneel with her bare knees on a cold concrete floor. They were always doing things to students I just wouldn’t have done. The students can’t say, “No.” In times past, there was a lot of spanking going on even in high schools, but the Korean government has outlawed the spanking. Parents don’t discipline their kids, but teachers were doing it until it was outlawed.
Yesterday, my daughter was very unhappy at the school where she teaches. There was a very sleepy 16 year old kid going through his backpack early in the morning. A teacher walked by that wasn’t even his teacher, and he really didn’t even notice she was there because he was busy and sleepy. The teacher thought he should have bowed to her. When he didn’t bow, the teacher began screaming at him telling him how disrespectful he was, and he sleepily bowed to her and apologized. Later, the teacher went into the main office and was complaining about the boy, ranting on and on about how disrespectful he was. She acted like she was a queen and the boy was one of her subjects, and my daughter was ready to stand up and lecture the whole culture for the way they treated young people, but she was smart enough to keep her mouth shut until she got home. She knew what it felt like to be forced to bow when she didn’t even know the teacher, and she empathized with the boy and wanted to abolish all this bowing to the older people.
I told my daughter that she just couldn’t change the whole culture. It is a Confucian culture. The older ones step on the younger ones. The younger ones are treated like the subjects of the kings and queens who are the older ones around them. If a teacher doesn’t want to carry their books, the students must do it. They don’t ask, they demand! The older Koreans get, the more in charge they get, and the younger they are, the more in subject to every older person in society they are, even if they are only two days older. Older women in Korea have a terrible reputation. The are called “ajuma.” Everyone is afraid of the ajuma! If she speaks, you better listen because she may scream and beat you up if you don’t. She is top dog, and she knows it, and she is going to force everyone into letting her go first, into letting her have whatever seat she wants on the subway, into carrying her things for her, into bowing low before her, etc. There are older men who act like that too, but it is the women who got the reputation. The young people are usually humble because they have no choice because of the way the society is set up. Culture is what it is. If someone inside the culture wants to change it, it is up to them, but foreigners just have to accept the way it is and learn to function within it. My daughter wants to give a lot of older people in Korean psychological counseling. She is actually pretty funny. One of the reasons my Korean son in law turned out so sweet and humble is because he was pushed around by his older selfish brother. Parents don’t put kids in their places, but someone does. That is just the way the society works. It is not all bad because it keeps the society running on the morals of the old people, so keeps the crime rate low.