Understanding Koreans - Five Things That Define Korea

by John Huer, Korea Times Columnist, 10/08/2009


The following excerpt from this somewhat controversial columnist is worth a read by new arrivals to Korea. While some may not want to swallow it whole, it does provide some useful insights and parts of it did resonate with many long time foreign residents.

".... The 5 Things That Define Korea:

1. KOREA IS A TRIBAL SOCIETY: Tribalism, as it is used here to describe Korea's brand of nation-based ideology, predates the nation-state concept. In fact, Korea is not quite at the stage of modern nation-state in the way its behavioral guidance is still shaped by its inner factors, such as tradition, kinship and shamanistic beliefs.

In short, Korea is still a society made up of tribal consciousness, where bloodlines, language, subconscious and unconscious are interwoven to form the basis of its daily thoughts and actions.
Along with Korea, we may name Serbs, Greeks, Russian peasants, American Indians, Kurds, Gypsies, Armenians, most Arabs, among others, as having variously displayed behavior traits largely based on tribalism and tribalistic characteristics.

First and last, all Koreans are identified among themselves by their ``Korean-ness'' ― the accidental nature of having shared their ethnic commonality ― not by another achieved factor such as education, class, universal humanity and morality, or rational agreement on ideas or philosophies. Being Korean overrides all other considerations. This Korean tribalism, different from nationalism (although they are often used interchangeably), is what most Americans notice when they first encounter Korea.

2. LINGUISTIC EXCLUSIVENESS SHIELDS KOREA: What makes the Korean brand of tribalism possible is their language. In their national language of communication and consciousness, more uniquely Korean than any other cultural factors, most Koreans find it impossible to think objectively or rationally about themselves or others outside their society.

The Korean language makes it impossible for them to think outside that linguistic-cultural orbit. The language is not just a tool of communication for Koreans. It is the subconscious, even unconscious, chain that binds Korea's hearts and minds and souls.

Once you acquire the language as a native, you can never escape that orbit. This may not be wholly unique to Korea, as other old tribal societies with their uniquely tribalistic language systems are often characterized by this exclusiveness. Still, the degree and intensity of this exclusiveness, tied to their linguistic heritage, is quite remarkable for Korea.

3. KOREA BELIEVES IN ITS SPECIALNESS: True, every society, in its myth-making and tribal lore, feels special in some ways. But for Korea, this specialness is also one of its defining characteristics. In the deepest core of their emotional and tribalistic being, Koreans cannot and will not accept any outside critique of their culture and personality. Koreans cannot think objectively about themselves, their culture, or their place in the world.

Ignoring the surface sophistication of foreign cultural imports, such as fashion, which they freely imitate from other cultures, they are forever locked into the mode of thinking ― and conviction ― that Korea is infallible, unique and destined for greatness. Even surpassing the Arabs and Central European nationalists in their intensity of passion and messianic conception, Koreans are nothing if they are not convinced of this providential endowment of specialness and uniqueness.

4. KOREA IS IMPENETRABLE TO WESTERNERS: Corollary to the above, Koreans will never change their core beliefs and habits of mind, no matter what. They are already famous for rejecting anything they regard as a criticism toward Korea, even if made in a friendly manner.

In spite of the easy adoptions of technical or fashionable artifacts from other cultures, mostly from the U.S., Japan and Europe, Koreans are constitutionally incapable of change on the deepest level of their existence and consciousness. Americans are easily lulled, by the numerous signs of Americanization or Westernization ― witness McDonald's, automobiles, high fashion, trips abroad ― to think that Koreans are or can be just like them. They are soon surprised and frustrated to discover that, at the core, Koreans are impenetrable and immune to change.

5. KOREA IS CONSTANTLY IN CONFLICT WITHIN ITSELF: Because of such a state of existence and consciousness, Korean society remains in a constant state of conflict: Between the pressure from globalization and internationalization that demands rationality and Westernization, on the one hand, and the impenetrable and unchangeable core of Korean-ness that is primeval and blood-thick, on the other. Nothing illustrates this confusion and conflict more dramatically than college students who shout anti-American slogans during the day but dream of going to America to study or to live after the shouts have died down.

Even during the height of anti-American protests, a survey of Korean college students showed that a majority preferred ``American citizenship'' to their own Korean nationality. ......Individually, Koreans are some of the most self-diffident, friendliest and generous people on earth. Few nationalities take strangers into their midst and hearts as readily as individual Koreans do. As a tribe, more than as a modern nation, however, Koreans change their character dramatically. Together as a ``Korean Tribe,'' they are as unreasonable, irrational and rude as they are sweet and generous as individuals.

For the column in its entirety, go to http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2009/08/272_49833.html

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