Sunday, August 2, 2009
South Korea: a unique study for Cultural Geography
Left Image: The clash of the old and new.
Right image: Banging the drums in the Buddhist Temple.
Seoul, South Korea: N: 37º 01' E: 126º 36'
So what is different about Korea from a westernised country such as Australia? Has South Korean culture been lost in this frenetic rush for economic development and the associated demographic changes? When we travel to other countries as tourists it is often difficult to see beyond our own cultural norms and expectations because of limited contact with the people of the country. The great thing about the Korean Studies workshop was that we were able to mix closely with South Korean people (albeit University educated) and get an insight into what being South Korean meant. As enlightening was our frequent wanderings around Seoul and the fact that South Korea’s tourist industry is relatively small compared to other parts of Asia and hence we were often seen as a novelty (particularly out in the country on the field trip). Before making any comments on the characteristics of South Korean culture as a unique entity compared to other Asian countries, the following experiences and observations we (I say we because I had some great traveling companions who were with me most of the time and we frequently asked questions of each other as we observed what was going on around us) experienced on the trip will give an insight into the nature of modern South Korean. Most astonishingly, a South Korean culture which seems to be maintaining its cultural integrity despite the onslaught of modernization.
* The people are incredibly helpful. Time and again we were asked if we needed help and people went out of their way to take us to where we wanted to go.
* The calmness of the society. Unlike other parts of the world we heard no horns honking or road rage. A classic experience occurred in a lane when a vehicle knocked a meal from the tray a women was carrying on her head. No histrionics but calm discussion to resolve!
* The hand gesture of receiving with both hands and giving with one with the other touching the elbow is widely practiced.
* The honesty of the society was evident with merchandise often being left out in the streets overnight with no fear of thieving.
* The Korean smile was evidenced as you went about your business, whether at the university, school, streets or subway. The smile seems to be sincere and really is one of welcome.
* It was astonishing when on the subway train that perfect strangers would grab the grey haired members of our group and make them sit down. They insisted our members sit and they stood. Sometimes they were even older than the forced sitter! What was that all about? Respect for the grey haired aged foreigners? We really were quite bemused. On top of that one of the gentlemen who forced us to sit, then gave us all lollies. Not normal behaviours on the train in Australia, even to visitors!
* There is an incredible respect for education and teachers (teachers are quite well paid). When I spent time with the student’s family in Seoul the mother continued to address me as teacher rather than by my name. Observations at the university in relation to the interaction between the lecturers and students tended to reinforce this deferment to educators.
* Males seem to still have considerable influence over females in the society. Whether this is in status, privilege or just prestige I would need more time to determine. Again the obvious demographic evidenced preference for boys would tend to confirm that the society is still rather male-centric in attitude.
* The society has an amazing attitude to cleanliness. This is evidenced by the removal of shoes when entering a living space or restaurant. As well as a preference of sitting on the floor for meals, which is alive and well in the society, South Koreans insist on no footwear in restaurants. Even in some of the hotels and in the homes it was insisted that the shoes were removed. Linked to the cleanliness is the immaculate nature of their toilets. Not only are they all clean and pleasant, they are also decorated by flowers, pictures and even perfumes. The best toilets I have visited in the world!
* The society is remarkably organised. Everything seems to work with a minimum of fuss and all just happens. My experiences in the subway (amazing organisation) or in the hospital, everything was efficient and “fuss-free”.
* A weird aspect of Korea is that the shopping is different. No-one bothers you to buy, haggling over price seems to be uncouth and if you don’t buy there is no animosity. Again a very different experience for a visitor of Asia (if not most parts of the world)
* There seems to be great civic pride in the society. This is evidenced by the proliferation of beautiful statues/artwork everywhere in Seoul (every business seems to have an artwork to be proud of). Such civic pride is also evidenced by the lack of graffiti in South Korea and the provision of complex exercise equipment in parks and streets which would be vandalized in most western cities.
So what can be made about this culture from these random observations? Undoubtedly the society is clean, calm, community based, respectful, pleasant and organized. As one of our lecturers quoted:
“Korea has an “us” culture
Korea is a great place to visit and my observations confirmed the “us” culture view but again various questions are posed by the cultural geographer.
* Is the respect for education, males and educators based in Confucian traditions?
* Is the reference to Korean Jeong a reality? Is this Jeong still alive and well in South Korea? From my observations, seemingly so.
* With the likely influx of migrants (rapidly “ethnocising” society) to redress the low birth rates and sexual imbalance, will the traditions of the culture be maintained. Will the “us” culture be maintained.
* What will be the impact of rapid economic development on the South Korean culture? Will it be maintained with the onslaught of western values and culture?
* As a visitor one is always aware of falseness in smile and demeanor by those you come across. The pleasure shown by Koreans in being involved with visitors was overwhelming and hard not to be seen as sincere. Are Koreans as happy as they seem?
* What are the social controls in place to encourage people to maintain Korean cultural customs? In view of the low religiosity factor for Korean religion (religion often being the cultural glue for conformity), what is the glue which keeps the subtleties of Korean culture together. The cultural observations discussed in this blog are not social norms requiring law but rather the goodwill of the population to be Korean and be part of the “us” culture.
* What does it mean to be Korean? Are they proudly nationalistic and what is their attitude to people from other countries migrating to South Korea? I found it hard to answer this question in my time in Korea. Is their desire to be Korean homogenous and pride in their “Koreaness” a healthy scene? Apparently there have been only 5 refugees admitted into Korea in recent years. Begs the question, how difficult is it for a non-ethnic Korean to settle in the country? Even the international brides being allowed to enter Korea to redress the sexual imbalance tend to be ethnic Koreans.
* How difficult is it to be a Korean woman and reach the heights of Korean society? Is it a male-centric society, being difficult for Korean women to be leaders in the society?
* With education being so important is the society an “edutocracy” with the only way to advance and be respected is to be highly educated. Or does money talk as in all societies.
* Is there a difference in the “Koreaness” of the people between Seoul and the countryside?
Again, these are just questions, not meaning to be judgmental on Korean culture. What the questions do show is that South Korea is a fascinating study for the cultural geographer, with more questions of a cultural nature posed than answered after a quick visit to this beautiful country and people.