By: Heather Eubank
This is my last week in South Korea. I’ve been here for the past four months, living what seemed (and still seems) to be a very surreal life. Having been interested in—if not obsessed with—this country and its popular culture for years beforehand, I came into this study abroad experience with a positive attitude and good expectations. Surprisingly, almost all of those expectations have held up, but of course I have encountered things I never even thought to expect. I thought I knew all about Korean food, music, TV, etcetera, but I realize now that I had so much more to learn, not only about these subjects but also about the aspects of Korean culture that I hadn’t been previously been interested in! Before living here as an exchange student, I knew very little about this country’s rich history and culture unrelated to the popular music and television industries. One of the things I didn’t expect was how many new things I would learn about Korea! Better than that, I was able to personally experience this amazing culture, which before I could only experience through television, the Internet, and the occasional trip to the Korean restaurant about an hour away from my hometown.
The great thing about Korea University, one of the top three universities in the country and the school I had the honor of attending, is that it offers a variety of courses taught in English (which was wonderful because my understanding of the Korean language is less than basic). In fact, students and faculty alike generally seem to be quite adamant about learning and understanding English. In Korea, students start learning English in elementary school and continue throughout high school, and apparently college as well. Korea, in general, is a very globalized country and teaching English is one of the most important aspects of the education system. Almost every person I’ve encountered here, excluding the older generation, of course, knew at least a little bit of English, and that made communicating with others incredibly easier. I studied a foreign language in high school, but I never really understood how valuable common language is in communication. Having expected to have more than a few communication issues, and then experiencing just a small number, really made me appreciate English and spoken language as a communication tool! It also encouraged me to study Korean more seriously, since it seemed as though everyone spoke my native language well but I hardly knew theirs.
There are many differences between Korean culture and American culture, as one would expect. Honestly, I could spend days writing out all of the culture differences, big and small, that I’ve observed over the past four months and still be nowhere near finished, so I’ll try to pick the ones that left the biggest impact. For one, the United States is a country full of people from different ethnicities, but Korea is a homogenous society. This in itself is a major culture difference, but it spurs an uncountable number of other differences. For example, we Americans tend to value individualism, uniqueness, and nonconformity. Koreans, on the other hand, generally feel that it’s better to blend in than to stand out. There is one standard of beauty here, and it seems as though every female Korean is trying to reach this unattainable image. Plastic surgery is incredibly popular in Korea, especially eyelid and jaw surgery, and one of my Korean friends estimated that over half of the women in Korea have had some type of plastic surgery in their lives. As an American, I was outraged by this concept. In the United States, there is a very obvious and well-spread perception that everyone is beautiful the way they are and one shouldn’t have to change herself to meet the outrageous beauty standards created by the media and fashion industry. However, I saw no evidence of such a notion in Korea. In fact, there were plastic surgery commercials on the university’s own television channel!
While I disliked some aspects of Korean culture, though, I found other aspects amazing and coveted them in my own culture. For example, Korean culture has its roots in the principles of Buddhism: education, familial piety, and respect. Koreans tend to value education above anything else, which, as a future educator, I agree with wholeheartedly. They also believe in being a good child and taking care of their parents as their parents had cared for them. Not only that, one cannot deny the amount of respect people in Korea generally have for each other. In fact, respect is built right into the language! There are two ways to speak Korean: with the formal language, called jondaemal, and using informal language, called banmal. One can speak to his or her friends or peers in banmal, but when speaking to a stranger, a superior, or anyone older than oneself, he or she must use jondaemal. Therefore, respect is a part of the Korean language itself and is thus immersed into the culture.
As I mentioned before, I could write a hundred pages about the culture differences between Korea and the United States, and that might not even be enough to adequately express everything I’ve experienced, learned, and felt. Nevertheless, I truly believe that both Korea and America have a lot to learn from each other, and as I analyze the differences between our two cultures, I can’t help but think, “What if we were to put together the all the good aspects from both of these cultures?” I know that learning about and actually experiencing another culture has made me recognize the good and the bad in my own, and I want to use this knowledge to become a better person overall.
Personally, I feel that I have already grown immeasurably as a person throughout this whole experience. Knowing that I only had four months to experience as much as I could, I took on this new outgoing personality that was quite unlike my usual self. I believe that I’ll come back home carrying this new trait with me, not just for the rest of my college career but also for the rest of my life. I also find myself feeling more comfortable in situations that I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable in, like when meeting and interacting freely with people I am unfamiliar with. I believe that my positive perspective throughout this entire experience has helped me enjoy myself more than I ever could have otherwise, and as much as I miss home, I’m not ready to leave Korea. But, of course, I’ll never really leave this; the memories will stay with me for the rest of my life.