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EDITORIAL/문화 & 예술 :: Culture & Art

Korean and American Culture: Differences I've Seen As a Korean American

Learning. That's what we come to college for. We pay an exorbitant fee in exchange for the distribution of ideas, theories, ways of thinking, for knowledge. But there is another sort of learning going on, another sort of knowledge acquired that has nothing to do with the tuition we pay or which college we go to. It is the knowledge of people, and how to interact with them. It is a kind of learning that isn't obtained from books or lectures, a kind of learning that is more subtle, but infinitely more useful than anything any professor could teach to his or her students. This is the kind of learning that we do on our own, through everyday interactions with friends and strangers, with adults or our peers. We learn by watching, by doing, by making mistakes.

I think I've learned a lot more about people, especially Koreans, in the few years I've been attending college than in my entire life. While growing up, I would always have to listen to my father, who would always speak ill of his fellow people, calling them inconsiderate, rude, narrow-minded, conservative, judgmental, never punctual, obnoxious, tactless, stubborn, proud, obsessed with dating and relationships, religiously fanatical, nosy, fair-weathered friends, etc. I was prone to accepting these remarks with a grain of salt, since I had grown up in liberal, free-thinking America, where it was almost a crime to attribute certain characteristics to a single group of people and act accordingly. However, I never thought to really refute him or tell him it wasn't so, since I didn't have that many dealings with actual Koreans from Korea myself. Being too lazy to might also have had something to do with it.

For years, I thought that Koreans that lived in Korea were the same as the ones living in America, only they spoke Korean fluently. I thought all Koreans had the same values, ideas, and preferences. In all honesty though, I never put too much thought into it. I finally realized when I came to college that such is not the case. Dragged by a close friend of mine to a club predominantly dominated by international students from Korea, I found that suddenly the majority of my friends were Koreans or, fobs, as referred to colloquially. Having always had been surrounded by second generation Asian Americans, I found the change new, exciting, and not a little befuddling. But not only was it that my group of friends had changed, I found that my values, my behavior, and my expectations of social norms all changing slightly as well. 

The major differences I noticed between American and Korean culture:


The first thing I noticed about the international students is their obsession with appearance. When meeting friends for lunch or dinner, when hanging out in the evening (which equates to drinking), going to class, going to the library to study, going out to buy something, going grocery shopping — anything that involves going out and meeting people calls the need for primping and ensuring that one is presentable enough not to be embarrassed if one so happens to run into someone one knows. Girls constantly check their appearance, especially when they go to the restroom. There seems to be a fear of going out and being seen without makeup, for which there even exists a word, ssaengeol, which is indicative of how big of a difference wearing makeup is compared to not. 

Another indication of the fixation on appearance is the existence and the use of the word imiji, which comes from the English word "image." Whereas in English, the word is defined as "a representation of the external form of a person or thing," "a visible impression obtained by a camera, telescope, microscope, or other device," or a "semblance or likeness," in Korean, it seems to mean more the outward appearance and image that a person projects to the world, whether that be genuine or not. What I dislike about the use of this word is that people say that so-and-so has such-and-such an image, instead of describing his or her personality or characteristics. This neglects the person's personality completely and instead focuses on what that person appears to be like and the very basic, shallow impression that one might get on meeting someone for the first time. A person is no longer a person but is instead characterized as cute, or chic, or cool, or however else they are described. 

What I am accustomed to is dressing comfortably among friends, and honestly, whomever. If I am comfortable with what I am wearing and what I look like, then it does not matter to me or the other person, as well it shouldn't. And when referring to others, I am used to describing his or her personal characteristics more than his or her physical appearance. To me, that is an indication of shallowness and focusing on what is not really important. 


Aegyo. A representation of a society's obsession with childlike behavior, which can also be seen as falling under the topic of Koreans' obsession with appearance.

Growing up as a Korean American, I never encountered this in all my encounters with people, whether they be adults or my fellow classmates. It was not necessary and thus, nonexistent, at least, not in the way it is in Korean society. Upon my arrival to Berkeley and my sudden and nearly complete immersion in Korean culture though, I learned about aegyo, what it means, when it is appropriate, and who it is appropriate for to use.

I remember being a bit disgusted by this at first, especially because girls seemed so fake when they acted with aegyo. I did not know why anyone would find such behavior appealing when to me, it was just another tactic for getting what you wanted. I especially disliked when, for example, during drinking games, people would make me act with aegyo. I didn't know what it was or how to show it and I was loathe to do so in front of so many people. Particularly disturbing was when guys did it, because my idea of normal male behavior definitely did not include acting like a baby, though that is probably due to a societal definition of gender roles that I have been brought up to be accustomed to, but that is a topic for another time.

The image of an innocent child is played up, and Koreans, obsessed with innocence and purity and the like go mad over it. From what I have seen, Koreans do not see it as being fake but as just displaying a certain trait that is desirable and attractive. The thought has crossed my mind at least once that this obsession with childlike behavior may be seen as suggestive of pedophilia, which may seem even more so to people unfamiliar with Korean culture. Thankfully, I do not think that such is the case but rather a cultural difference.

(Image: http://cafeblog.search.naver.com%26imgsrc=20110224_294/duddms369_12985468242681WCeT_jpg/%BE%C6%C0%CC%C0%AF1_duddms369.jpg // http://blog.naver.com/asa0809/150101502242)


What I was surprised at was how strongly I feel the difference between genders when with Koreans. I feel as if girls are expected to speak a little less, laugh a little quieter, act a little less boisterous, act more innocent, not be able to drink alcohol as well, eat less, be less athletic, among others, than Korean guys. This is less so when it is a group of friends, but it is definitely still there when groups are mixed or when one is with people one is less acquainted with. 

Among my American friends, everyone is just that — friends. It does not matter if you are female or male, you treat everyone the same, talk to them the same way, expect the same behavior and think nothing of it, which is infinitely more comfortable to me. Growing up in America where women and men are both expected to work and where both genders are given, or are supposed to be, equal opportunity in all areas of life, I had even for a time been sort of a feminist. Seeing the inequality between how the genders are treated grates on my nerves and goes against everything I have been brought up to believe. 


I always knew that bragging or displaying any sort of confidence in one's abilities is frowned upon in Korean society, but I did not know it was to the point that people had to apologize for doing so. After declaring that one is good at something, always in a joking manner so as to indicate that the speaker isn't serious, I noticed that people would apologize. For what, though? I wondered at first, not understanding. When I finally work out what they were apologizing for, I was more confused. 

Americans do not apologize for self-confidence or declaring they are skilled in something. In fact, having confidence in oneself and having enough assurance in oneself to do so is encouraged. But then, that might be the difference between a collective society and an individualist culture.


What Koreans focus on the most is dating and relationship and who is dating whom and who just broke up and is single again and why oh why can't they have a special someone of their own because they are oh-so-lonely. I have never felt the need for a significant other, especially not to the extent that I vocalize my need for one. I admit that having one is nice, but there are benefits to being single as well. This obsession is evident even in the music. A vast majority of Korean songs talk about love and either finding it or losing it. I first attributed this to a lack of creativity on the part of songwriters, but now I realize the obsession spills over into other areas of expression, and artistic expression is just one of many.

In high school, I had always regarded with disdain those who pined for a significant other, seeing their desperation for companionship as an indication of insecurity and the need to depend on the presence of someone else for happiness. I noticed with Koreans that having a significant other is something else to uphold one's image as well. While I still do not understand this fixation on the need to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, I suppose I must owe that to not fully understanding Korean culture. 


One last thing. There tends to be a tendency for girls to cover their legs when wearing short shorts or skirts with jackets or coats, or guys to provide their own outerwear for girls to do so when sitting down. Is it to preserve the girl's modesty? To prevent guys' straying eyes? I have never given it a second thought when with American friends, but I was made conscious of it after seeing it a few times when with Koreans. Just don't look, guys. 

I am sure that there are many aspects of American culture that still confuse Koreans and indeed, members of any other culture encountering it for the first time. Indeed, brushing against another culture has made me more aware that American values and customs are not universal and that people are much more diverse than I thought they could be. A people that I thought I knew turned out to be not so familiar after all. I also realized that culture is something that I definitely have to take into account when traveling to another country or dealing with people. 

I also realized that I display some of the very Korean characteristics that I mentioned above. My behavior at home and among my closest friends can very well be said to be aegyo, though I never thought of it as such; I had just thought of it as another part of my behavior. I also have a hard time proclaiming any skill at all in any of my activities, and feel quite uncomfortable when I do so. I still do not, however, find myself incredibly upset over the fact that I do not currently have a significant other because I believe that such a person will come when he or she is supposed to. And though I will cover my legs when with Koreans for their comfort, I still do not see the need to do so. 

But such is living in two different cultures. You learn to deal with the idiosyncrasies of both and appreciate them for the diversity they bring to your life, whether it be good, bad, or just plain strange.