Korean People and Culture
PEOPLE: The Korean people are descendants of several Mongol tribal groups who migrated around 4,000 B.C. from what are now Siberia and Manchuria. They eventually became a homogeneous race, independent of their neighbors, with unique cultural traits distinct from the Chinese and Japanese.
Two common observations about Korean people are their endurance and dynamism. Harsh weather, grueling negotiations and after-hours socializing are all taken in stride in a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture. The Korean sense of humor is readily apparent not only in daily interactions, but also in the nation's rich folk art. Favorite songs, often sung at the end of parties or dinners, have lilting sad melodies, pointing to the strong element of melancholy contained in the Korean character. Koreans tend to vent their feelings and emotions – be it exuberance or anger, delight or frustration.
SOCIAL STRUCTURE: In the Confucian tradition, Koreans have lived by an ethic based on five hierarchical relationships: father-son, king-subject, husband-wife, elder-younger and friend-friend. Age is the prime determinant of how one is treated and how one treats others; of course, position is also very important and commands respect. Westerners are sometimes annoyed by the oft-asked, “How old are you?” and other seemingly intrusive questions. However, from a Korean perspective, these questions are necessary in order to establish the newcomer’s position in the hierarchy.
In some respects, relationships are vertical s opposed to the horizontal “all people are equal” relationships of the West. The vertical aspect is built into and enforced by the language, which utilizes different forms depending on whether one is speaking to an older person, a friend (same age), a colleague or a child. Only when this is understood can non-Koreans begin to understand why they often encounter questions such as “How old are you?”, “Are you married?”, “From which university did you graduate?”, “What is your position?” or “What is your husband’s position?”, “How much you do you make?” Koreans place great emphasis on their social networks, based on family, hometowns, provinces, school and university associations, and these relationships play important roles in professional and social life.
LIFE EXPECTANCY: Until the middle of the twentieth century, life expectancy in Korea was low. Reaching your 60th birthday was a great achievement. Infant mortality was so high that celebrations and festivities attendant upon the birth of a child were not held until the hundredth day of the child’s life. Or course, medical advances have increased life expectancy and decreased infant mortality, but the traditional celebrations still continue making the 100th day and 60th year after birth the two most important birthdays in the life of a Korean, although given the improved longevity, an increasing number of people are waiting until their 70th birthday to celebrate.
FIRST BIRTHDAY: On the first birthday, the child is dressed in a traditional costume, seated amidst piles of rice cakes, cookies and fruit and then offered various objects that include a pen and a coin. The object that the child grasps first predicts her/his future career. For example, if the child picks a pen, he/she will become a writer; if it’s a coin, a businessperson, etc.
RETIREMENT AGE: In the past, a person was considered to have completed the cycle of an active lifetime at sixty years. Although this is no longer considered to be such an advanced age, mandatory retirement for Korean blue and white collar workers was 55 in the 1980's, then 58 and then 60 years of age. The Supreme Court, in March 2019, ruled that 65 is the retirement age for those performing physical work.
KOREAN AGE VS WESTERN AGE: Koreans are considered to be one-year old at birth and, traditionally, on the next Lunar New Year, the newborn along with all other Koreans, ages one year. So if someone is born in December and Lunar New Year is in February, he/she would be one in December and then two in February. This is why you often hear Koreans respond to the “How old are you?’ question with “36 Korean-age, 35 Western-age”.
GRAVES: Traditional Korean graves are mounds of earth usually on rural hillsides in scenic locations chosen as auspicious for the future fortunes of the family. At Chuseok, the fall harvest moon festival and at Lunar New Year, families go to the graves of their ancestors (male line) to continue the age-old custom of showing filial piety and respect. Nowadays, due to the lack of available land space, cremations are becoming increasing accepted.
WEDDING CEREMONY: Old-fashioned wedding ceremonies, with the elaborately costumed groom riding in a palanquin to the house of the bride to share ceremonial sips of wine at their first meeting are now seen only at the Folk Village. Instead, most Koreans have Western-style weddings. After the ceremony is conducted with the bride wearing a white wedding gown, the bride and groom usually change into traditional Korean clothing to pay homage to the parents in a separate, smaller room.
SELECTING A SPOUSE: Families used to select their child/children’s spouse, often with the aid of a matchmaker. This custom has since died out, and today many couples meet at college or at work and decide to marry on their own initiative. In such cases, however, parents on both sides must still be persuaded to approve. In situations where a Korean is marrying a non-Korean, this approval can sometimes be difficult to obtain.
Despite the romantic ideal that is increasingly prevalent, many young Koreans approach marriage in a pragmatic manner. If they have not met someone they wish to marry by their late 20’s (women) or early 30’s (men), they will, with the help of parents, friends or matchmakers, go on blind dates set up for the purpose of meeting a potential marriage partner. Women are expected to be married by the time they are 30, although men can wait a little longer, until their early 30’s. Following marriage, women are expected to stay home, bear and educate their children and take care of their husband. This social norm is changing to some extent due to various factors, including the growing need for two incomes, the unwillingness of young women not to use their education (majority of Korean women have a university degree with a very high percentage of those holding post-graduate degrees as well) and the preference of both partners to delay having children until a few years into the marriage.
DIVORCE: Divorce has become increasingly common in Korea, but it is still not the norm and divorced people, women especially, are seen as not being quite respectable. Parents are apt to refuse to let their child marry a divorced person. Divorce is relatively easy and quick to obtain if both partners agree to the split. However, should one of them object, the other must initiate a time-consuming court process that involves set waiting times. It is not uncommon also for the judge to refuse the divorce petition, especially in the case of older couples. Interestingly, it is older women who often initiate divorce proceedings in Korea.
K4E Editor: Korea4Expats.com tries to ensure that the information we provide is accurate and complete, so should you notice any errors or omissions in the content above please contact us at email@example.com.
Last Updated on 2021-02-08
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