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Koreans Returning from a Childhood Overseas

June 30, 2009

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.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2009 1:56 pm

    One of my friends (Korean) has had the interesting cultural experience of being raised in Korea until late elementary school, and then sent to America until early highschool. In highschool she came back to Korea and stayed until she finished her undergrad. At *that* point she moved to the UK to do her Master’s degree and PhD and then finally came back to Korea for her post doc. Whew. Anyway, I’m always amazed at easily she slips between the roles of polite Korean academic and Western/English hipster. She said that Korea is actually not that difficult for her because when she refuses to do something that feels unfair or unjust the people around her just rationalize or excuse her behaviour by saying something like “oh, she’s spent so long overseas that she’s not really like Korean-Koreans …”, etc. She told me one time that it was good (because she is excused from doing some uncomfotable things that her peers have to do) but that it is also “a lonely place”.

    Just some thoughts …

  2. June 30, 2009 6:47 pm

    The adults that I teach often find themselves between two worlds as well – especially if they’ve spent any amount of time in the Western world. While I can’t speak for most of them, most seem to have the ‘when in Rome…’ mindset. Yes, it’s ironic that Koreans should have to fit into Korean society, but I do agree that Koreans that have lived in the Western world are definitely treated differently. I think there’s two reasons:

    First, they don’t have the same connection to Korea the country. The Confucianism, the top-down mindset, and so on and so on are things they haven’t been surrounded by. They haven’t had to give up their seat on the subway or had some old person push them out of the way. In short, they’re not accustomed to the ‘old way’ of Korean culture.

    Second, they’ve not been raised to think they have to put up with it. Americans by nature are immature, resistant to more institutional ways of thinking, and definitely prone to insubordiation if they think something is BS (and yes, I am an American). They’ve not been expected to follow the social order of things simply because that’s what everyone else does.

    I tend to have a bit more sympathy for these Koreans, since they’re often stuck in the same way we are – a world apart from their own world (or at least the world they’re more comfortable with).

    • Youngjik permalink
      May 19, 2011 12:34 pm

      Two thumbs up

  3. June 30, 2009 9:42 pm

    Regardless of what his dad does or doesn’t do, that guy was an ass to the cab driver.

    This is slightly unrelated to your point, but I’ve found that students who have spent a lot of time overseas are, well, rude, much ruder than the students who’ve never left Korea. Maybe they misunderstand the teacher-student relationship, maybe they’ve come to believe English-speakers are relaxed and informal, but they are generally among my least favorite students. It’s one thing if you have a whole class of them in a hagwon, but their behavior certainly stands out in a public school.

  4. June 30, 2009 11:24 pm

    Another very good post, and I also feel that I’m in agreement with all of the comments before me! I do think that some Koreans who have spent time abroad are sometimes rude, obnoxious or arrogant, but that certainly doesn’t go for all of them in my experience.

    What I really wanted to comment on was the new levels of multi-culturalism in Korea, and that doesn’t necessarily just refer to the number of people from other countries living in Korea now. In the examples in the original post and in the comments, the Koreans who haven’t been abroad make it clear that when the Koreans who have been abroad come back and act differently or against the traditional social norms, they are not fitting in with Korean culture – they have changed or are just different. It’s quite clear that many Koreans who haven’t been abroad for long periods feel like this. My point, however, is that this is not the case. These people are Koreans, and we are talking about when they return to live in Korea. Therefore, they way they behave, the social norms they adhere to, are actually now a part of Korean culture and society – albeit a small one. They may not be “traditional,” and some people may not like it, but a society and culture is what it is now. These Koreans who have lived abroad may have picked up new ways of social interaction from outside Korea, but once they bring them into Korea and maintain them there, they become part of Korean society, an that just means that the society is changing, as these students are growing in number.

  5. Jae Young permalink
    July 1, 2009 6:22 am

    Hum, I always find these questions of culture and authenticity interesting. I was born in the US and have lived here all my life, with only two fairly brief visits to Korea. I am solidly Korean-American, so I don’t know that my position would be relevant per se. I will note that when I was back in Korea recently, like last year, people would marvel over my English and be impressed and then look down on me because my Korean is conversational but broken. I’ve always thought that Korean-Koreans looked down upon Korean diaspora because we’re not “authentic” enough and sullied by the other culture. It’s sort of funny that Koreans who have not been abroad would then think that Koreans who have lived abroad and returned have a superiority complex.

    Of course I am just bitter because Koreans have a tendency to treat me like a 학생, even in the US, and I am Korean enough to be insulted. (I am a professional with a graduate degree and I have been working for 6 years now. Definitely far removed from 학생 territory, but I look young for my age.) It doesn’t bother me quite as much when non-Koreans misjudge my age but oh well. I clearly need to just wear more suits and makeup or more LV. I guess my lack of proper Korean socialization is seriously showing.

    Dunno, I definitely think there is something of a class issue with people you’ve mentioned specifically who went abroad–you have to have money to send your children to study abroad and then attend university abroad. Various Korean folk told me that the fact that I would speak English in public while in Korea could be perceived as me showing off. I know of quite a few working class Koreans who would not necessarily consider themselves “better” because they lived in the West. Different yes, but not better.

    Anyways, interesting post. It’s sort of like the more subtle affects of globalism, no?

  6. July 1, 2009 10:27 pm

    That’s another good point by Jae Young there, that those who have been abroad tend to be richer anyway, and therefore you’re right, there might be a sort of built-in class difference, regardless of whether or not they actually use that money to study abroad.

    I have to say though, that in my time living in Korea I have definitely noticed that there are some Koreans who view using English in public as showing off, even pronouncing Konglish words with the correct pronounciation is sometimes seen as showing off.

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