A Way Out (Korean Society Pt 1)

Being in South Korea is awesome!  I am truly having the time of my life; this is such a great opportunity!  As a tourist, if I had stayed for only a week or two, I don’t think I would notice half the things I do.  However, as an exchange student, living in Korea for four months, I tend to notice the daily workings of Korean society.  There is several things I want to say about general society, so I think this will be put into parts.

First, when I arrived in this country, I was armed and prepared to take on all the stares thrown my way.  I am different, and staring was expected.  However, attending a school that emphasizes its global-ality, I wasn’t expecting so much stares from students my age.  Still they come, targeting me day in and day out and I want to say that I have gotten used to it.  For the most part, the stares don’t really bother me.  They are not hurting me with their laser beams so one just has to endure.  It is going to be different when I go back to the United States, where no one really looks at me twice.

Another thing I noticed, in the first few weeks I arrived, was the EXIT signs that adorn the underground subway systems and telling people where the way out is.  It is a picture of a person running out of the door.  I find this in the most comedic light because when exiting in America, those in charge always comment to make your way “calmly” forward and to “walk, not run.”

Still, my favorite thing about Korean society is the underlying emphasis on respect everywhere but with that comes its own problems.  I love it but realize the system is terribly flawed.  People give respect to those in a hierarchical sense, so it would always be the elders receiving the respect and they can either give you some too or act in any way they please.

I’ve heard that this is a common complaint among foreigners and no matter how much foreigners or even younger Korean people complain, I don’t think there is anything we can do to change the system.

Older people of Korea has superiority which is rightfully so, they’ve lived longer, they know more—in theory, giving them higher ranking than everyone else should be allowed.  However, some elders take this superiority to their advantage.  Just with any power, some people abuse it.

There are older people, surprisingly strong people, who will push and shove you forcefully out of the way (this happens mostly on the subway).  There are older people who even go as far to think they are above the law.  I’ve seen older people go through the subway turnstiles without paying the fare; the security guard looks on the scene with suspicious eyes but doesn’t dare to say a thing.

I was thinking, on the subway, once about what if WHAT WOULD YOU DO? aired in Korea—(1) there is no way the show would air unless the problem would consist of an older person, or elder to the bully, being the victim and (2) the “bullies” in the TV show could never appear as an elder person because of Korean society, because someone could always say, “Well. they should have been given respect.”  Elder people are always right—elder people will always have the right of way, so to speak.

I am, in no way, saying everyone is like this.  Actually, living here as long as I have, the older people of Korea are the ones who seem to approach me the most.  They don’t seem so timid to ask where I am from, how am I doing, or even just to practice their English.  The young people or even the students at college do not make the effort to try to talk to me, either out of being introverted or just because they don’t like me, I’m not sure.  I love the elderly people of Korea and I do respect them and I think the respect system at work here is definitely cool!

In general, the system of respect gives people power and in the words of Spiderman, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Some take that power and abuse it and that is why so many foreigners and young people complain.

If you are living in South Korea or have traveled here, if they were to air WHAT WOULD YOU DO?, what kind of scenarios do you think they would play?



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