History | Modern Korea | Eating | Housing | Transportation | Cultural Differences

Facts about Korea

Korea may sometimes be overlooked due to its magnetic neighbors of China and Japan, but it is truly one of the most fascinating places in Asia. Many consider it a mid-point or blend of the characters of China and Japan; however, this is an oversimplification since there are many elements of Korean culture not to be found in either of the other countries.

Historians estimate that migrating tribes from Central and Northern Asia first reached the Korean peninsula around 30,000 BC. They brought with them a unique language, myths, folk tales, and animistic religion.

By the third century three powerful kingdoms emerged: Kaya, Shilla, and Paekche. This 'Three Kingdoms' period continued for four hundred years and showed a remarkable advance in the arts, architecture, and literature.

By the seventh century- after many struggles for dominance- the Shilla kingdom succeeded in uniting the Korean peninsula. Buddhism experienced a flowering with a great rise in the amount of public funds appropriated for temple and image construction, and many monks were sent to Indian and China during this period. The hills in and around Kyongju (the Shilla capital) are still dotted with temples and monuments.

At the beginning of the ninth century with the Shilla Kingdom beginning to lose power, and the rival Koguryo threatening complete obliteration, the Ruler surrendered his Kingdom bloodlessly. He was able to live out the rest of his days as an 'honored guest' in the Koguryo capital of Kaesong, and Because of this many artifacts from the capital city of Kyongju have survived into the present day.

Buddhism continued to grown during this period and reached a peak in its development with much royal support and secular influence. The Koryo maintained power until Mongols invaded with superior forces in 1231. There ensued a period of treaties with the Mongols, tributes, and marriages of Koryo Crown princes and Mongol Princesses. However, the weakened Koryo was eventually overthrown by one of the King's former generals.

In the new Yi Dynasty (also known as Choson) Neo-Confucianism- which combined Confucius's original teachings with pseudo-religious ancestor worship- became the society's foundation. To this day Neo-Confucianism is at the root of Korean moral thought. This helps to explain much of Korea's reverence for authority, age, and hierarchy. King Sejong (1418-1450) is regarded as one of the greatest of Korean Kings, and ruled during this period. King Sejong commissioned the invention of the phonetic script for the Korean language (Han-gul). Prior to this time Korean was written using Chinese characters.

This peaceful period ended with the Japanese invasion of 1592 commanded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Korea continued to fight off various attacks of the Japanese and Chinese until a treaty was signed with Japan in the late nineteenth century. This eventually led to Japanese occupation of Korea beginning in 1904 and lasting until the end of World War II.

Since the end of World War II Korea has been divided at the 38th parallel. This came about as part of a treaty between the Allies (USA, USSR, and Britain). This precarious agreement came apart with the invasion of North Korean forces in 1950 and the beginning of the Korean War. The war, which lasted until 1953 left the country in ruins and still divided. Though North Korea's communist regime showed early promise and actually outstripped Seoul's economic performance well into the 1960's, South Korea has grown steadily into one of the most powerful and dynamic economies in Asia. North Korea, on the other hand, grew into one of the most closed nations on the planet. However, events of the last few years suggest that the north is becoming more willing to have a dialogue with the south and perhaps the rest of the world. South Korea's President Kim, Dae-Jung visited North Korea's capital city Pyongyang in the early part of 2001. Also, for his efforts at making peace on the peninsula Kim, Dae-Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2001.

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Modern Korea
Modern Korea is an amazing blend of the old and the new, with a penchant for anything hi-tech and a solid respect for tradition. The capital city of Seoul is modernizing at a rapid rate with two new subway lines, a new airport, and soccer stadium (built for the 2002 World Cup).

If you expect pagodas and rice paddies you may be in for a bit of a surprise. In popular shopping areas like Myongdong (in downtown Seoul) franchises of Starbucks, Seattle's Best, Pizza Hut, and Dunkin Donuts compete for customers from throngs of fashionable passersby. Young people may be sending Emails or playing video games in one of the numerous internet cafes. While, business people stagger out of 'singing rooms' after hours of drinking with coworkers or clients and belting out karaoke songs.

On the other hand, if you are looking for more traditional Korean experiences it isn't hard to find a Buddhist temple situated in one of the many mountain parks, which surround the city and are easily accessible by subway. Many also enjoy learning one of the popular martial arts of Korea such as Taekwondo or Kumdo (Korean swordsmanship), or learning the Korean language with weekend classes or a language exchange.

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Eating in Korea
Eating in Korea can be a real adventure and a joy. If you have never had Kalbi (Korean barbecued beef ribs), or bi-bim-bab (a vegetable dish with hot pepper sauce) you may be in for a surprise as to the variety and complexity of the local cuisine. And when you tire of trying something new at every meal, it isn't difficult to find popular western fast food restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. You can also find the slightly more upscale T.G.I. Fridays, Bennigans, and Chilli's in many popular shopping areas.

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Housing in Korea
More and more Korean families are leaving traditional homes, shared with several generations, in order to live in modern high-rise apartments within a nuclear family unit. This trend toward more 'western style' living arrangements only seems to be intensifying.

However, some of the advantageous features of Korean style homes have been integrated into the more 'western style' dwellings. For example floor heating (ondool) is common in modern Korean apartments. Also, a typical Korean bathroom includes a drain in the floor, no carpeting, and tile everywhere to make cleaning easier. Further, Korean families will always leave their shoes off inside the home. Slippers are often given in exchange for your shoes at the door. This is even true in the case of more traditional workplaces. So, be sure you are wearing clean socks when you go for a visit!

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Transportation in Korea
Those who have trouble with the thought of leaving their SUV behind, may be uncomfortable in Seoul, but for others who like the idea of humbler more economical transportation Seoul is almost paradise. Getting around in Seoul without a car (unlike many North American cities) is remarkably simple.

The subway system is clean, efficient, and well organized. Most signs are printed in English and Korean, so even if you can't read Korean finding your way isn't that difficult. It is already a vast system, but new lines seem to open almost every year. At last count there were seven lines in Seoul, which makes it pretty easy to get to most populated areas of the city and many suburbs and satellite cities. Most fares are around fifty cents!

There are also numerous bus lines that run inside Seoul and to all major cities in South Korea. There are many kinds of buses. There are highway buses (going outside Seoul), and there are many other types that run inside Seoul and to the suburbs and satellite cities. The fares vary depending on bus type, but most fares are around fifty cents.

As well as buses trains are available for trips outside Seoul. As with the subway, the train system is clean, efficient, and affordable. These vary in comfort depending on price. The fastest most comfortable trains are the 'New Village' or Saemaul.

Taxis in Korea come in three kinds. A "company" taxi is usually a small silver sedan with a blue streak up either side. These taxis are for the adventurous. They are usually clean and safe, but the drivers may make you feel like you are a passenger in the Dakar Rally! The "private" or kay-in taxis are similar in appearance to the "company" taxis, but the service and driving style is usually superior. This is because these cars are actually owned by the drivers. They are hard to recognize, however, unless you can read Korean. In blue letters (in Korean) it will usually say kay-in. Otherwise, they look just like the "company" taxis. The last, and most expensive, taxi is the Mobum or "Elite". These are easy to recognize because they are larger and usually black. They are sometimes easier to find because most Koreans don't want to pay the higher fare for them. The fare for the 'company' or 'private' taxis starts at 1,300 won (roughly one dollar) for the initial charge. It increases gradually from there, depending on time and distance. The "Mobum" or Elite taxi fares are roughly double.

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Cultural Differences
Living and working in a foreign country, though exciting and rewarding, can also be trying at times. One of the greatest challenges for most is the feeling of frustration that is often brought on by cultural differences. Some call this culture shock or cultural noise- when it includes communication problems. Whatever you chose to call it, it is not something that usually just goes away if ignored. Most people find that a little knowledge about the new culture helps them to handle the sometimes strange feelings caused by cultural differences.

Upon arriving in Seoul you may look around at the modern Inchon airport, the six lane expressways jammed with traffic, and skyscrapers in Youido and conclude that Seoul isn't really that different than a big city in your home country. Of course you would be both right and wrong in your conclusion. In many ways Seoul has become just another modern metropolis. On the other hand, Koreans are an ethnic group with a long, often turbulent history, that dates back several thousand years. Their culture certainly does not mirror western culture and in some ways is the antithesis of European cultural traditions. The sameness that seems so obvious on your first visit to Seoul is a thin veneer which quickly dissolves upon a longer look.

There have been many books written on this subject, and going into it in any detail isn't possible here. However, mention of a few common situations will hopefully help teachers to prepare themselves for what is likely to come.

1) Koreans may ask very direct questions, that seem rude to many people from North America. This may include inquiries about age, marital status, and comments about physical appearance.

Explanation: Korean society is still based largely on Confucian ideas. This means that Koreans focus a great deal on hierarchy and where one fits in this structure. To most Koreans it is important to know if a person is older or younger than they are, because this actually changes the way they address that person. Also, knowing another's job or educational level may help one to choose from the variety of linguistic levels. If one person is older than another or has attained a significantly higher social status, then the 'lower' person must use the formal level of language (Chondenmal) when addressing the 'higher' person.

2) Koreans may bump you in public and not say excuse me.

Explanation: Because Korean culture relies so heavily on the defining of the relationship, strangers are often not regarded at all. So, the person who bumps you in the subway and says nothing doesn't mean it as a slight. They simply don't acknowledge people they don't know, or can't place in the societal hierarchy.

3) Someone may answer a question with "I'm not sure" or "I don't know". Later you find out that they meant "No". You assume they were lying to you.

Explanation: In general Koreans don't like to reply to questions or requests with a direct "No". Therefore, someone will often simply say "I'm not sure about that" or something indefinite rather than a direct "No". Because of this Koreans will often understand you to say no when you say "I'm not sure" or "let me think about it". In the extreme (especially if the person is in a lower position than you) they may even answer yes in order to avoid any conflict.

Koreans feel it is fine do the following things. Westerners usually don't.
Tell another person about his/her own culture
Use the middle finger to point
Avoid eye contact when talking one on one
Ask personal questions on a first time meeting
Pull on someone's clothes or tap them to get their attention
Bump into others in a crowd and not apologize
Make very direct statements regarding another's physical appearance

Westerners feel it is fine to do the following things. Koreans usually don't.
Cross your arms when talking
Gesture with your index finger, to call someone to you
Gesture with your utensils (knife, fork, chopsticks)
Drink in front of a superior or older person
Smoke in front of a superior or older person
Give or accept something with one hand (rather than with both hands)
Wear your shoes in the house
Sit while addressing a group of adults (especially a teacher sitting on their desk)

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