As a Korean American student, I never really felt like I belonged to a single community. As a student of the 1.5 generation, I was stuck in-between the fresh-off-the-boat “fobs” and the “white-washed” 2nd generation students. I constantly felt torn between the two labels. It is precisely because of this “in-betweenness” that I developed an ambivalent identity as well as perception. My values and ideas about Korean and Korean-American culture also remain “in-between.”
One of the most ambiguous elements of the “Korean-American” college life in the US is the 선후배 culture from Korea. 선후배 culture refers to the relationships between those who are older or more experienced (선배, sunbae) and those who are younger or less experienced (후배, hoobae). This means that while age is an important factor, one’s rank in a particular setting is important as well. I will be focusing on the 선후배 culture in school settings, though it is not limited to such settings.
The 선후배 culture in Korea has been around for a very long time. In my opinion, Korea tends to be a society that definitely promotes, if not forces, obedience. This is rooted in Korea’s history of Confucian culture. Moreover, the Korean language, which includes a system of honorifics, almost makes it inevitable for Koreans to disregard age and status; it is natural for them to call and treat those who are older with more respect.
As I mentioned before, in Korea, many emphasize the year you’re born as well as your rank, sometimes even over your character. In the US, on the other hand, many emphasize fellowship and friendship, regardless of age. For Korean students, this could pose a problem since Korea has a system of hierarchy and places great importance on “respect.”
I asked two UC Berkeley students- one who had been born and raised in the US, and one who had been born and raised in Korea- what they thought of the 선후배 culture.
Shin, a sophomore, said, “I like the fact that sunbaes look after and take care of their hoobaes and guide them, but I don’t really like the [mandatory] respect system… like bowing, calling people ‘hyung’ and [speaking formally]. I don’t like that especially in college, cause we're all students. There shouldn’t be a degree of hierarchy.”
My guess is that this is what most kids who grew up in the US would think. The notion that “we’re all students” is far from uncommon, and it is quite a reasonable one too, especially in America where we emphasize equality. I also found that most 2nd generation students dislike or feel uncomfortable when others bow to them or speak to them using honorifics.
Shin, a senior who has experience going to a Korean university, said, “In Korea, hoobaes bow more respectfully [90 degrees] and this is even more apparent for sunbaes of the same department. However, sunbaes really care for their hoobaes and help them with their academics as well as their overall campus life. The US doesn’t have a sun-hoobae system in middle or high school so it makes sense that there is no such concept in universities here. I think it is a cultural difference. There are obviously some bad things about the sun-hoobae culture, like group punishment, but I like the tight bonds that sunbaes and hoobaes are able to form. I went to a Korean university for only a year and I still talk to my sunbaes.”
“한국에서 후배들은 과 선배들한테 좀더 깍듯이 인사하고 그런게 있지 그게 학과 동아리나 동아리 들어가면 더 심하지. 그렇지만 미국보다 더 끈끈하게 선배들이 후배 챙겨주지 학업으로도 그렇고 대학생활도 그렇고. 미국은 중학교나 고등학교에서부터 선후배란게 없으니까 있을 수가 없지 한국은 중고등학교 때부터 선후배관계가 확실하잖아. 문화차이겠지? 물론 [한국 선후배 문화의] 안좋은 면도 있어. 기합 같은 것도 있고 나 대학때도 선배들이 정 쌓기 라고 기합도 줬어. 하지만 [한국] 대학생활 1년밖에 안 했는데 동기 선배들 아직 연락하고 평생 갈 것 같아. 끈끈하고 그런 관계가 좋더라고 말 그대로 앞에서 끌어주고 뒤에서 받쳐주는 관계?”
As expected, there was a clear cultural difference in the ways the two students thought. As for me, I have to say that I agree with both of them. Everyone knows that there are both pros and cons to this 선후배 system; if only we could, we would take only the good things from it.
The question, then, is, should this 선후배 culture transfer over to universities in the US? There is a saying- when in Rome, do as the Romans do- but I think that it is only natural for Koreans who went to school in Korea or grew up in a highly Korean setting to continue the cultural practice of this sort of system. However, they should not force it upon others who are not as familiar with it or who do not want to take part in such a culture.
To address another issue, once, while I was at a Korean restaurant in Berkeley, I overheard someone saying something along the lines of “I was in elementary school when you were born” while scolding someone else. One can only imagine my repugnance at this utterance; abusing your status as a sunbae or using it as a threat is possibly the lowest thing you can do as one. The 'I'm right because I lived longer than you' mindset is not only illogical, but it is also contradictorily immature. I personally think respect is important, but if you don’t deserve it, why should I give it to you? While I believe that some respect is common courtesy, some respect should be earned, too.
While respect is universal in all relationships, it is another thing to take part in this 선후배 culture. I think the best solution is to consider the individual attitudes and values of others before we try to impose this type of culture on others. Once there has been a mutual agreement to participate, then one can begin to exercise his or her duties as a sunbae or a hoobae, or both, and realize that if done right, it can become a cycle of mutually beneficial relationships.
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