Reflections on South Korea

So we’re leaving Korea in a week. The year here has sped by so fast–we can’t believe it’s over. In between all the packing and sorting we’re doing, we’re also reflecting on our past experiences. I don’t think we’ll fully know how we felt about our time in Korea until everything’s settled and over, but a few thoughts have come to mind already.

No cultural practice is wholly good or wholly bad. Culture is created by and for society, which is a tricky little monster in that society is just one great, aggregate lump up the most inconsistent, confusing things in all of creation: humans.

While there are definitely practices that are not beneficial or healthy to society at large (racism, for example), often the ideas and values behind them are perfectly amoral or helpful. Culture is also a conundrum because what is good in some circumstances isn’t so good in others. What I’ve found helpful in my own understanding of different cultures is careful language in framing the differences and similarities. For instance, a die-hard New Yorker once told me that Southerners are “dishonest” and that the phrase “Bless your heart” should die out and was only hurtful to people. I heartily disagree with everything he told me about my own subculture, and it showed me how important understanding value systems are. American southerners aren’t dishonest, but they do often prioritize keeping the peace over bluntly speaking one’s mind (unless you’re family–then you can be blunt).

Value systems, I believe, are where it’s all at. Hofstede thought so also. My theory that it isn’t personality so much that causes a person to like or dislike a culture, but the value system. While my personality is similar to the esteemed and exemplified personality (introversion, compassion, quietness), my value system is different. In this sense, I’m pretty Western (honesty over harmony, etc).

I didn’t get to know Korean culture as intimately as I had hoped. Part of that was my fault (I didn’t self-teach Korean). I also lived in a rural village of about 80 people, most over the age of 60. I interacted with very few Koreans regularly. Most Koreans I interacted with on a regular basis (at my job) were not people I wanted to befriend, and they were not interested in showing me their culture. Looking back, I’m not sure what I’d do differently (besides learning more Korean). My situation was pretty weird, even compared to other ESL teachers in Korea.

Still, I did fall in love with some things in Korea, and I’ll always have fond memories of those.

Without further ado, here’s some things I’m going to miss:

  • The bright yellow ginko trees. There’s rows and rows of them near where we live, and they’re so cheerful in the fall.
  • The mountains. Korea is 72% mountains, and I just love that so much.
  • The politeness of Koreans. It’s so refreshing.
  • The friendliness of Koreans.
  • The kids I taught. Most of them were angels, and I am so sad to leave them.
  • Samgyeopsal (Korean bbq). It’s basically pork belly with all sorts of sides. Delicious.
  • Our expat church in Daegu. It was a lifeline when things were bad in our work situation, and I felt supported and loved there.
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Morgan S Hazelwood

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