As wired and westernized as South Korea may seem, there’s no doubt that the country’s society and culture revolves around Asian ideals and tradition. The Korean peninsula runs from the northern section of mainland China and stretches toward the southern tip of Japan. This area has long been a cultural and economic bridge for the rest of East Asia.
Korea’s first kingdom was established around 2300 BCE. Since then, Korean kingdoms have come and gone. The two other modern day Asian superpowers, China and Japan, have often struggled over the peninsula, but Korea remained culturally distinct and successfully avoided assimilation.
Still, though, Korea has a lot of things in common with its neighbors. Confucian thought remains heavily influential, if not as academically relevant, in Korea’s strict hierarchal society. Buddhist temples crop up in both the cities and the countryside, though Christianity has become increasingly popular in modern day Korea. The numbers suggest that about 26 percent of the population is Christian, 26 percent is Buddhist, and most of the remaining majority have no strict religious affiliations.
One major situation that students need to be made aware of is the tense and often times hostile relationship between South Korea, North Korea, and the US. During the early 1950s, the Korean War split the Korean peninsula in to two halves: the democratic south and the dictatorship in the north. Somewhere between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died during the war and many of Korea’s older citizenry remember the conflict and its aftermath vividly. Though a armistice was signed, the Korean War is technically still ongoing since the North Korean government withdraw from that pact in May of 2009.
Many in South Korea see the US’ presence as harmful to the peace process. With roughly 40,000 U.S. military personnel in Korea, and the negative stereotypes associated with a significant military presence, some Koreans may see US citizens as an extension of the government. The US’ sweeping economic influence is also a common point of contention. Many large protests unfold in Seoul and are aimed at highlighting both of these controversial topics.
Over 49 million people live and work in South Korea. The vast majority of these people are Koreans though there many Chinese, Japanese, and other ethnic communities. Much of the country is mountainous and difficult to live on so the cities are densely populated. Skyscrapers are the norm in major metropolitan areas, but there are small parochial towns and farming communities scattered across the country.
Koreans are particularly proud of their language and writing system. As with most other Asian languages, the grammar and pronunciation may be difficult for a native English speaker to pick-up, but most students have the basic greetings and shopping vocabulary down by the time they leave the country. In addition, English is compulsory for most Korean students. Children usually start studying English during middle school and takes classes all the way through college.
Students will also find that Koreans are intensely proud of their food. Though influenced by Japanese and Chinese cuisine, as those countries were influenced by Korea, the edible fare in the country is incredibly distinct. Korean cuisine often mixes chili peppers, garlic, and other ingredients like raw fish into unique combinations. Students will not be able to avoid kimchi: fermented cabbage mixed with chili spice. Most find it an acquired taste, but it’s perhaps best to get used to eating it since it’s served with almost every meal. Bibimbap and bulgolgi may be words most can’t pronounce the first time they hear them, but are definitely more Western friendly dishes.
Life in Korea will feel rather comfortable for students from the US. First world facilities that rival anything in America are available. The cities and Korean society are both very modern, a striking contrast from much of the rest of Asia. There are some major differences between life in America and life in Korea, particularly the cuisine and hierarchal culture, but Koreans are warm, friendly, and very welcoming.