2.5 months in Seoul, South Korea
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Cultural lessons from my Sogang language teachers
---------------------------- Sogang University campus in Sinchon, Seoul

For the most part, on weekday mornings I look forward to walking to Sogang campus, grabbing some breakfast, and going to Korean class. We're always discussing an interesting topic--today the issue was genetic engineering. We started off by watching a clip of The Island in Korean. I didn't know, but the Island was really popular in Korea, much more than it was in America, because of Korean scientists' research with cloning. We ended the lesson with an hour-long structured debate on the societal pros and cons of genetic engineering (with many of the Japanese students being confused--they said that they hadn't had any experience with debating in high school).

It's really nice how my Sogang teachers are always willing to explain aspects of Korean society to us. A couple things that I've always wondered about, that my teachers have given me some insight on:

1. What's up with "Korean time" (being soooooo late)? I often have to add 30 minutes to the time that I was supposed to meet a Korean person... and when I'm late they don't seem to mind at all!

My question was prompted by a lesson that we read on old Korean customs. In the past, Korean government workers were whipped 20 times if they were LATE arriving to work or left work early. However, they were only whipped 10 times if they missed work completely that day. This resulted in many Korean government workers not showing up to work at all. (The reason for this seemingly unreasonable law was to maintain discipline by not having stragglers show up late.)

Anyway, after I read this fact I was confused by the apparent contradiction... I'd always seen Korea as a culture that didn't place particular value on punctuality. My teacher agreed with me about "Korean time"--although Seoul society is often 빨리빨리 (fast fast!), Koreans generally have a relaxed attitude towards meeting times. This is what she said:

"A long time ago when Korean farmers said that they'd meet, they told each other, 'I'll come over to meet with you when the sun hits the top of that tree.' Of course, the time that the sun hits a certain tree is different depending on where your vantage point is. The meeting time was subjective. And so the farmers got used to sitting outside relaxing and waiting for their neighbor to come over.

Objective ways of keeping time were first made by Western society. Westerners started using clocks widely before Koreans did. So they got used to setting an exact time to meet and keeping their appointment. So even though now we have had clocks for a long time in Korea, I think that the traditional attitude about time as a subjective concept still remains."

Thanks 말하기 선생님! Thinking about it this way actually makes me less annoyed at having to wait a little--I'll chalk it up to tradition rather than inconsideration.

2. Why do Koreans like sad movies so much? And sad dramas--the hero or heroine always seems to have an incurable disease or a tragic secret.

In video class we started to watch a movie called 팔월의 크리스마스 (Christmas in August) where the hero suffers from a terminal illness. While watching the movie, video teacher advised us to look for the deeper meaning in all of the scenes and dialogue. Don't just take the lines at face value, she told us, because everything contributes to the theme of the movie.

In the same way, she told us that many foreign students studying Korean complain about how melodramatic Korean TV and movies are. "Why is everyone crying? Why does everyone have a disease? Why is there so much tragedy?" they always ask her. "Korean movies are too sad!!"

"There is a lot of sadness in the Korean people. It is because of the division of the country--because of the creation of North Korea and South Korea, many people were separated forever from their families and home towns.

My grandfather was from North Korea but he was in Seoul when he found out that he would not be allowed to return to North Korea. I remember how he used to cry every New Years when others would return to their homes to celebrate, because he could never return to his home. He never saw his mother, father, or brothers and sisters again.

The sadness in Korean movies expresses the deep sadness of the Korean people. Next time you complain that Korean movies are too sad, think about how you would feel if someone told you that you could never return to your home country."
-- 비디오 선생님 (who is, by the way, also an amazing actress!)
posted by Jane @ 10:26 AM  
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Name: Jane
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