It is hard to believe that only 63 years ago South Korea was a completely devastated country. During the Korean war over 2.5 million people lost their lives and many more ended injured. The “Hermit Kingdom” has a long history of invasions and war but it is this last Korean war, the one that has critically carved and shaped the modern-day South Korean psyche.
In every country you will find people who can be described as “nationalistic”; in fact I find Spaniards and South Africans quite nationalistic, but it is difficult to match the South Korean national sentiment. This special feeling of affection and attachment to their home country can be seen in any aspect of their lives. The "T'aegukki" or national flag is absolutely everywhere symbolizing common growth with perfect harmony between the elements of the universe and the South Korean people. While living in Seoul I couldn’t help the feeling of sadness thinking of my own and other countries like Germany where the use of the national flag is associated with passed history and right wing tendencies.
This special feeling of affection and attachment is known as “jeong” and affects, not only the national feeling of belonging but any other aspects of Korean life such us loyalty and commitment in society. Koreans are interdependent and work extremely well collectively. Obviously, urban speed of life has an impact, but still, for Koreans warm and rich interpersonal relationships are common in their daily lives. In most of the modern western cultures, (luckily not that much in S.A. and Spain) people have been forced to be autonomous and independent. While living in Austria, if I had a problem, the problem was mine and only mine; I had to solve it on my own as it is not socially acceptable to bother others with them. After almost ten years there, I developed a fine sense for autonomous problem solving. Koreans have the ability too, but there is still a strong family and friendship bond and support structure.
However, there are some harmful sides to “jeong”. Very often, community leaders or company CEOs tend to look after those within their circles purely because it is their duty to fulfil “jeong”; often times duty overrides reason, logic or even genuine affection. Consequently, people are put into positions or their opinions are respected - not because they are best suited for the job. They are forced by the same “jeong” to not let down those leaders or CEOs, that is why Koreans spend more time trying to please their senior workers than getting the job done properly. The result is that Korea’s work efficiency during working hours is one of the lowest in the OECD countries. Koreans spend their entire lives in their work places which is not the same as spending your life working efficiently. As it happens in Spain, you have to wait until your boss goes home before you can, and extra time (without pay in most cases) is expected from everyone regardless of whether your daily load is done or not.
Koreans are out on the streets every night of the week. We were always impressed by the swarm of office workers filling the local bars and restaurants at very late hours on weeknights. They are forced to eat and drink until their bosses decide to go back home which is normally in the wee hours. (I still wonder what is going on at home that bosses don’t want to go back home earlier!) You can see hundreds of Koreans in their suits in the subway at night commuting after a long day. I can recall the strong smell of kimchi and soju in the wagon. Those not on their devices, are asleep. It is not uncommon to see some sleeping while standing up which is a phenomenon for me.
Another national obsession, of course, are smartphones. Koreans are addicted to smartphones. Connectivity is everywhere; subways, highways, mountains and even in elevators. It is ironic to see how this highly socially sensitive people, young and old alike, do not pay any attention to anyone or anything around them but their smartphones.
Western influence, especially American, can be seen everywhere. International chains, specifically food and fashion, have mushroomed all over the country and seem to be extremely popular among Koreans. One of the best examples is the coffee houses; our friend J.P. told us that fifteen to twenty years ago people didn’t even drink coffee and it was really difficult to get a good one in the streets of Seoul. Nowadays, Koreans drink coffee like maniacs and it is difficult to make up your mind about what your next coffee house is going to be. There are coffee houses – usually French themed – on every corner of the city. You can find 3 or 4 directly next to each other, even sharing the same patio. Not a business model that would work in South Africa or Spain. Teenagers, working people, students and tourists alike indulge in coffee at all hours of the day while the older generation still prefers tea.
This need for caffeine doesn’t surprise me at all looking at the most popular sport of Korea. Are you thinking of baseball, football, gaming? Try again. The national sport of Korea is called ppalli-ppalli (빨리빨리) or “hurry up, hurry up!”. Getting things done asap has a different meaning in Korea than in Spain, South Africa or any other place in the planet. If It is internet what you need, you go to the shop around the corner and sign up in twenty minutes for the 20$ monthly standard 100Mb broadband connection. You will get an appointment for the next day and the internet guy will be there punctually. It will take him 20 minutes to finish the installation and you are ready to roll. Koreans’ tolerance to low internet speeds is 0 to put it mildly; if the connection is slow, they get a better one straight away. If they order any product online and the product has not been delivered in one day; a complaint will be sent, the order will be cancelled on the spot and another company will be chosen to deliver.
Ppalli-ppalli culture has it’s inception in the days when Korea was in ruins and the human resource was the only resource available. Korea didn’t have any natural resources and had the urgency of rebuilding a country reduced to ashes. A national fear of being left behind grew among the majority of Koreans and companies and governments agreed on a policy of making things happen really quickly. This phenomenon resembles the German miracle of the post World War II period except that it happened much faster. The same haste and pressure can be seen nowadays in the millions of Korean children and teenagers. Parents spend astronomical amounts to give their children a step ahead of everyone else. Children are enrolled in English kindergartens from as young as age 2; young children and teenagers are sent off to private English schools or after school hagwons. It is a common picture to see lethargic teenagers (who sleep an average of four hours a day or less and are hooked on coffee and energy drinks) dragging their feet at night on the way to hagwons. Content is hammered into their heads, later they will memory dump this at school or when sitting for the standardized exams such us the SATs or CIEs. Every bit of free time not invested in studying is spent on gaming or hanging out with friends in coffee houses. It would be very interesting to see Korea in 20 years from now when a generation of English speaking, coffee drinking, traveled Koreans are in charge of Samsung, LG & Hyundai.
After all is said and done, I find Koreans extremely pleasant human beings; they are kind, polite and very curious about us foreigners. I love the fact that in a megacity of twenty five million like Seoul, a person approaches you and asks you if you need any help. I love how graciously they react to foreigners when we make atrocious cultural mistakes such as touching them or talking openly about sex. We have wonderful, lifelong Korean friends who allowed us into their inner circle and were patient with all our questions about their culture. For me Koreans are the Latinos of Asia - deeply conservative, yet spirited. Traditional yet free. I will always look back to our time there with a feeling of nostalgia and gratefulness that I could experience something so completely out of my frame of reference.