What Foreigners Need to Understand About Korea (and Koreans) . (Update 6)

1.  Koreans don't like to ask questions if they do not understand something.
This can be seen right from a Korean's early years.  If you go to a Korean elementary school classroom, there is no time nor place for students to ask a teacher a question.  If a Korean student doesn't understand something, that is too bad, the lesson continues.  This type of behavior extends to the corporate setting as well.  In general, presentations go from beginning to end, without interruption.  The question and answer session is almost always silent.  I have given complex business lectures and there is almost no way that everyone understood everything, and there were literally no questions.  The idea of questioning a medical doctor?  Almost unheard of.   Why is this?  My view is that this dates back almost endlessly.  Korea has a history of a single leader, and a militaristic culture.  Even the way that Koreans speak is often similar to the command style of the army.  The way that Koreans say "yes" to an order is very similar to the way that you will hear an American soldier reply "Sir, yes, sir."   Look at this blog:  Not a single question or complaint.  Some of these articles have appeared in other blogs, and there has been plenty of discussion.  It is one small example.

2.  Frugal?  A Bad Thing.
Koreans cherish the idea of paying more for something.  The notion of buying something for a bargain price is not necessarily a good thing.  Some of that has to do with the extreme affinity that Koreans have for luxury goods.  “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some of the best and most diverse Ferragamo products, which respond quickly to changing trends, are sold here in Korea.” Norsa (Ferragamo CEO) said in an interview with Joong Ang Daily.  This doesn't only apply to imports.  It is perceived that if a service/product is more expensive, then it is more desirable/prestigious, and therefore often sells better.  Now, this doesn't only exist in Korea.  However, the extent to which it does exist in Korea is, sometimes, puzzling to foreigners.

3.  "How old are you?" is a Common Question Amongst People.  Why?
Koreans will frequently ask each other about age.  Outside Korea, particularly in the Western hemisphere, this is considered to be rude.  In a job interview, such questions can be illegal (as in the U.S.).  For Koreans, however, it is a common question.  The reason is because the Korean language is very hierarchical, and there are many, many rules.  Adhering to the rules will bring compliments, and not complying to these rules can bring arguments and insults (seriously).  To the strictest followers, these rules are used, even if the difference in age is a single day
Here are some of the rules.
a.  Younger people are expected to adhere to using a particular form of language (let's call it formal polite) to their older peers. 
b.  Older people should not use the same form to younger people.  It gets more complicated because there are subtle differences in gender (i.e. male to male in a business setting, female to female in a casual setting). 
c.  Younger people should not call older people by their given names.  Instead, terms that translate to "older brother" or "older sister" are used.
d.  Higher formal position (like a teacher) will always be addressed using the polite form, at the minimum.  Usually, the formal polite form is used.   
The analogy in English is that well-educated people might think less of a person that uses the word "ain't" or "youse."  That is, you may believe that the person using these terms is not well-educated or well-bred by their parents.  It is quite similar in Korean. 

4.  The impending war on the Korean Peninsula between North and South Korea?  On the Soccer pitch only.
Of course, this is the topic of books, and countless newspaper articles.  Here are the bottom lines.
First, there is no way that China or the U.S. would approve.  South Korea is the U.S.' 7th largest trade partner.  China relies on South Korean products and technology as it tries to lift the standard of living of its population.  It is a little-publicized fact that China is engaged in land stripping at below-market prices in North Korea as China tries to secure natural resources.
Second, the Korean people are Korean first, and differences in political ideology don't matter in comparison.  Many, many families remain divided by the 38th parallel, and are willing to do almost anything to reunite  Yesterday, a day after a few shots were exchanged at the DMZ, many people traveled from the South to the North for a reunion longed for in the souls of many. 
Third, the everyday lives of South Koreans is absolutely, positively unaffected.  The struggle of big city people is the most dominant factor in survival of everyday Koreans.  Daily routines changed as a result of potential North/South conflict?  Do not think that a single iota is changed. 
Fourth, would South Korea restart donating food, or consider a second tourist site in North Korea, if war was a realistic scenario?  Perhaps most importantly, South Korean President Lee has proposed a reunification tax in order to prepare for a potential North-South reunification because Korea has carefully watched the German case, to estimate the costs of combining two financially different countries.

No doubt there are counter-arguments to each of the points listed.
The first: a sudden collapse of the North Korean government, coupled with a rogue military leader who stages a coup, and erroneously triggers a conflict.  That scenario is scary, and in order to deter this, vast American and South Korean financial resources are spent every year.
The second: economic disaster in North Korea leads to critical nuclear technology sales to terrorist groups such as al-Queda.  That is a non-starter:  the US would not, and should not, tolerate this.  The buyer, as is well-known, is well-financed, and willing to buy.  The seller cannot be North Korea, simple as that.

While different opinions are continuously voiced on this matter, the four bottom lines listed above are true, and the smallest probability scenario cannot be assumed to be true.  That is why South Korean life is unchanged on a daily basis.

5.  Do you want to become rich in South Korea?  Forget banking or politics:  become a plastic surgeon.
Plastic surgery could almost be called a national hobby for the women of Korea.  Some will find this to be repulsive.  The Lost Seoul doesn't really have an opinion, but it is a mere fact of life, especially in Gangnam.  If you want to remove a freckle or sun spot on your face?  Costs less than $20 per spot (yes, that is the way that you get charged).  Every conceivable plastic surgery is available to the women of South Korea.  EVERY (you can insert your own vivid imagination here, and it is a type of cosmetic surgery available in Seoul). 
Just how popular is cosmetic surgery?  Well, women's noses in Korea are a very large deal.  In fact, in today's (November 26, 2010) Herald Business (which is published by the Korea Herald), which can be found at http://biz.heraldm.com/, has an article which basically asks the question, "What shape of nose is best?"  Here is the link to the article (in Korean).
The Wall Street Journal reported the fact that Asians from other nations outside Korea travel to Seoul, with a Korean Hallyu star's picture in tow, and request cosmetic surgery to make a selected body part resemble the trait of his/her favorite star.
The center of the cosmetic surgery industry is Apgujong Subway Station in Seoul.  If you exit at that station, and walk around for about 5 nanoseconds, you will easily be able to see at least 4-5 signs that read "성형외과." Each of those is a cosmetic surgery clinic.  Here is one sample of a cosmetic clinic's homepage near Apgujong Station.
The bottom line: Korean women are objects of beauty throughout Asia.  In order to keep up with the competition, women in Korea receive cosmetic treatments en masse.  With such high demand, many cosmetic surgeons are very, very wealthy.

6,  You Aren't in Kansas Anymore: Koreans Give a New Definition to the Word "Studious"
This begins at home from a very young age.  Much like India, Koreans have known, first hand, a life of poverty.  Older generation have known a war-torn land, and education has been used as perhaps the best chance to enhance a child's future.  As a result, advanced students in junior high school know calculus.  In Japan, China, Taiwan, this may also be the case, but in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and other countries that are the home to new teachers in Korea, this concept is almost inconceivable.  As a foreigner, you must understand this notion, that students have been pushed to this level at that age.  In addition, other fellow students who have not attained that level of achievement have been subjected to the knowledge that some people in their immediate peer group exist. 
That said, Korean children are not robots.  It is a misconception that they are know nothing other than studying.  While the pursuit of leisure activities such as art or music may be materially different than that of the Western hemisphere, Korean children do pursue these activities.  Furthermore,excellent instructors are abundant, and in most cases, within walking distance for Korean children.  Korean parents, in many cases, will conduct extensive research to find the best instructors if their child has promise.  This extends to academic hagwons as well.  You will find students in Gangnam hagwons who have travelled across the bridge in order to get to a hagwon in Gangnam.  It would be like living in Fort Lee, NJ, and going to Manhattan in order to study.  Please understand this: native Koreans reading this item are entirely unsurprised, and wondering why this is even a point.  Native Koreans are entirely used to these ideas.

Conclusions (for now)
These are changing as Korea, and Koreans experience more of the world outside its borders.  However, part of the beauty and the fascinating thing about Korea is the complicated combination of new and old.

This list is going to be expanded in the future.  If you have suggestions, complaints, or additions, please let me know.   If you have questions about something that you notice, please ask, and I will try to address.

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