Reflections on the Korean Condition

Busan Harbor ViewThe school year is drawing to a close. Books are being checked for completion, students are practicing dances to inappropriate American pop songs they will perform at graduation (Gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight), and the gray in everyone’s hair is starting to show. The students have none of the ‘school’s out for summer’ attitude popular in American high school movies, instead they know that they will leave Friday with one set of classes and Monday they will resume with another. How I just want to steal them away to an outdoor park for an hour. Teach them what ‘feeding the birds’ is like. They were confused by the idea when I mentioned it in class. I figure my dad will forgive me—he always said it trains them to expect food from people. Maybe they, like these kids, could use a little help.

The Korean condition. The more time I spend here, the more I discuss with colleagues and Korean acquaintances (and students), the more the culture shock becomes apparent. Surviving in a big city is a skill you acquire quickly—dodging old man loogies and standing your ground as the subway doors open become second nature pretty quickly. The little things take more time, and burrow in deeper. Granted, with two months under my belt I have barely scratched the surface and my opinions are primarily based on observation. As I make more Korean friends and push past the cultural boundaries, I’m faced with as many questions about my surroundings as answers.

Last weekend I spent time with two native Seoulites who did their best to appease my stored-up slew of inquiries. I met Hyunjoon at a dinner party and we immediately hit it off, talking about his time spent in the States and his interest in American culture. Often I find Korean interest in my culture as strong as mine in theirs, making for an excellent start of a friendship. He found it hilarious that he had visited more American landmarks. I admit that the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty are on the list, but I’ve always assumed that they’ll still be there when national adventure takes priority.

Hyunjoon is a graduate student in Economics and about to start at Korea University, one of the largest post-secondary schools in Seoul. His attitude is laid back but still very Korean, rigid social conformity showing around the edges of his converse and NorthFace jacket. When I saw his Facebook post re: contemplating eating live octopus again, I jumped at the chance to go back to the Noryangjin Fish Market with a native speaker. We never made it there, but our Saturday did consist of various local sightseeing. From walking through an extensive outdoor market (ginseng! Dog!) to exploring the Children’s Grand Park Zoo, it was a day filled with good conversation and interesting cultural discussion. He even stopped into a few mobile phone shops to help me figure out a phone plan. So much easier when you speak the language. We ended our time by meeting up with some American and Korean friends, having a rigorous debate over the meaningful classification of languages, and playing King’s Cup in a hof until the language barriers had completely dissolved. (Hyunjoon remarked at some point that King’s Cup is like all of the complicated Korean drinking games rolled into one).

On Sunday, I meet with Eun-mee. She is a 27 year-old graduate student studying Lifelong Learning (adult education), and a friend of a friend of a friend in Seattle. I really like her. Quiet and patient, we sit down over coffee and just talk, haltingly at first. Her English is good, but we both have our smartphones out on the table with translators ready. We discuss Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and the cultural differences that are most apparent to me. The concept of Jeong immediately strikes me as the word for what I’ve been experiencing, the air of collectivism and conformity interlaced with support for your fellow man. While there doesn’t seem to be an English equivalent, the closest definition I’ve found online is “affection”, the “feeling or connection that you feel toward something or someone.” Broadly, “a culture-bound Korean concept of love.”

There are two kinds of jung, goeun-jeong and mieun-jeong. Goeun-jung is a love-love affection, like a husband and wife relation, or just simply, love. Mieun-jeong is a love-hate affection, like you’d have towards a best friend you’d give your life for, but occasionally want to punch in the face for being so annoying. You can also feel jeong  for things, for instance a ring that your grandmother wore at her wedding then gave to you. She dies, and you feel jeong for this ring like you would for a person. It’s complicated. Eun-mee also describes jeong as the communal commitment to one another, like the ‘ship’ in friendship or kinship. It makes people care for eachother, whether on the street or at home. And it’s very apparent here—never mind the elbowy old Korean woman pushing past you, there is another in the jjimjilbang who will come over and just start scrubbing your back (with painful vigor) if there is no one else there to do it for you. Based in Confucian principles, jeong is both a working concept seemingly not found in general Western society and what seems to hold Korean culture together. When you tap into it, it’s beautiful.

Hierarchy, and the acceptance of your role in society, is another Confucian principle predominantly displayed in Korean culture. Most westerners I’ve talked to have a problem with the concept of being born into a certain role in life. Our cultural history of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ make us want to know that there is no limit to our social ladder, that we can rise from rags to riches or flip burgers if that’s what our calling is. Koreans see hierarchy differently. You know your place, and you must work the system in order to move up. At work, you are completely subservient to those above you. Never contradict or criticize, what your boss says goes. What his boss says he does without question, and you support him. Both in the office and out, you are required to be present for every social function, to keep up with your boss’s drinking habits, to never leave before a supervisor does. To be sober when your boss was drunk would be shaming him. To leave early would be incredibly rude. Two examples:

A friend told me he was on his lunch break at work when a supervisor called, saying he needed some numbers crunched and rushed over in a hurry. In a flurry, he dove into the paperwork until a second supervisor showed up at his desk and asked him to come out for lunch. Unable to say ‘’no” to either, he went to lunch and came back to slew of demoralizing and angry emails from boss No.1. My immediate reaction was Well, why didn’t you tell boss No. 2 about the first request, crunch the numbers, and meet up with him? Seems legitimate. Impossible, was his answer. If a supervisor asks you to do anything, anything, you do it. Caught between two impossible situations, he chose the one that was standing in the door. His other boss now won’t speak to him at work, and makes snide comments when he walks by.

Example two, same person. At six o’clock one evening, he started packing up to go home when his boss came in and told (not asked) him he needed to stay until nine. Unpack, sit back down. At nine, the same boss appeared and said there was a corporate dinner he was needed for. Off to dinner, then drinks, back home around two AM, to be up and at work again at six. The next night, the same thing happened. With less than nine hours of sleep in a 48-hour period, he was exhausted but uncomplaining. You just have to do it.


Capitalism has blurred some of the financial strata, but there is still the familial expectation to know your place. Those millions you make with your innovative business will more than likely go to your parents, to care for them, to repay them for when they cared for you. Expectations and hierarchy play an enormous role in the family dynamic. Most women live at home until they are married, which by that time is both a blessing and a curse. The subservient role you play towards your parents for the first third of your life is then transferred to your husband for the rest. Korean women are seemingly vicious creatures because of this, in my outsider opinion, yet some of the most beautiful women on the planet. The control they may lack in their destiny they make up for on the street, which is where I encounter them. Fierce, ruthless, determined, these women would be the last you’d want to meet at a free-for-all clothing sale. Yeeowch.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a story about raising children the Chinese way in America. In short, Chua discusses the differences between Chinese and Western parenting. While Western parents give their children the ability to choose for themselves, Chinese parents decide what is best for their children. What instrument to play, whether they can go to sleepovers, that they can never be in a school play… these all fall under the jurisdiction of the parent. The child’s desires are not part of the discussion. The child will grow up talented, skilled, ripe with knowledge, and will be expected to make his parents proud.

I do hope I have made my parents proud, but sadly I know it would be my strength of character rather than my achievements that would cause such an emotion. True to Western style, my parents have always been incredibly supportive. Allowed to make my own important decisions, be they class subjects or who to be friends with, I was given (comparatively) a lot of control over my young life. In my mid-twenties, when the really hard decisions begin to present themselves, my parents continue to be supportive and kind. Sometimes—only sometimes, mind you—I wish they had made more decisions for me. It would be great to be able to play the piano now, even though practicing made my mom and I scream at each other. It would be great to have a business degree instead of one in Art History. Instead, my parents relied on my ability to make my own choices, chose to support me instead of control me, and ultimately produced a soft-around-the-edges but generally well-read, well-mannered, capable and accepting human being. I can handle that.

My time in Korea is teaching me (schoolin’ me is probably more accurate) many things. My life has been easy so far. If you want the reward, do the work. Shut up and put on a sweater. The West Coast is where I’ll end up. I saved way too many things when I packed up my house; I can live on much less. My parents are wonderful, supportive, curious and remarkably individual people. Putting on make-up and heels to go to the corner store still feels like overkill, but how you present yourself does make a statement on your opinion of yourself and those around you. Teaching is a job I enjoy, but I’m not convinced it is what I want to do with my life. Cooking is a job I really enjoy, but I’m not convinced it’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. Loving and being loved by someone you respect, learn from and are supported by makes you capable of just about anything. Peet’s coffee and dark chocolate are amazing, and worth having imported. Being absent for the death of a family member is complicated. I’m really all I have when it comes right down to it. While I’m not convinced that everything happens for a reason, my life being what it is makes me confident in my decisions and my future. Despite a large part of my heart still residing on the West Coast, I know I’m where I need to be.





Concentric Life Equation… none of this linear mumbojumbo

As a self-proclaimed ‘child of nature’, I am drawn again and again to the image of concentric circles as a delineation of time. For some reason, this visual approach makes much more sense to me than a standard linear illustration, especially when used to portray the development of a specific individual. In one concise image you can see the beginning and the end and, in every artist’s dream, it also fuses the subject directly into the message.

I’ve often thought about tree rings as a visual metaphor for the phases of my life. Thinking back, certain years, phases, influences, relationships, interests, living situations, etc., fall into groups and make comprehending my own passage through time a visual affair.

What would you put in the empty boxes to represent your own life?

… His way of coping with the days was to think of activities as units of time, each unit consisting of about thirty minutes. …” –About a Boy, Nick Hornby.

Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching countdown: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully disheveled: four units. It’s amazing how the day fills up, and I often wonder, to be absolutely honest, if I’d ever have time for a job; how do people cram them in?” – Hugh Grant as Will, in About a Boy the movie.

Title: In Tree Years

Inspiration: a late-night talk with my mom; nature; Nick Hornby’s idea of life as a series of units of time 

Medium: Foam-block print on paper

Dimensions: 6″x9″

Price: $40; seven (7) varied prints available. 

This item is available on Etsy!