Koreans Returning from a Childhood Overseas
I recently had the good fortune to meet a 19-year-old Korean citizen who is a student at Columbia University and has spent half her life living in Canada. She made an anecdote about the social structure here I found interesting. She said that she sometimes has a hard time because older Korean men whom she does not know will request or order her to do things for them, like “Hey, hold that door open while I get these bags out of my car and take them in,” or “Take this 1,000 won and go get me a Coke.” The problem is that her cultural experience doesn’t fit that situation. She said that in the beginning she used to say “I don’t know you. Why can’t you get your own Coke?” but that they would get really angry and yell at her, so it became easier to just comply. She doesn’t like it, though.
I used to work with a Korean guy who was in his mid-twenties. Did high school and a Georgetown degree in the US. He once told me a story about how he gets into arguments with older Korean men sometimes. One taxi driver in particular angrily protested his use of an informal register when getting into the cab. “I’m old enough to be your father! You should treat me with some respect!” the man said. “My father doesn’t drive a taxi,” my former coworker retorted. Every last person (Korean and Western alike) I’ve told this story has remarked with surprise how rude the final retort was. I completely agree, but what is really notable is what a disconnect this person has with the social norms and mores of their culture of origin.
These anecdotes make me wonder about the cultural adjustment issues of Korean citizens who are primarily acculturated to Western culture while studying overseas. Equally interesting is the reaction of Koreans and Korean society to them once they return.
A good Korean friend who has never traveled outside Korea told me that many Koreans view Koreans who have lived abroad as different. “A lot of them think they are better than us because they’ve got an outside perspective. But they aren’t better, just different. But we know they think they are better, and sometimes there are social problems with them because of this.” Remember that this is one man’s interpretation of his entire culture’s reaction, but even that is informative.
Further, as thousands and thousands of these students return from overseas and take up positions in business and government, what parts of Korea will they transform and what parts won’t they? I’ll be interested to see.