Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Korean Culture vs Southern Culture

First let me preface this with a disclaimer:
1) I am not Korean, nor have I been to Korea. My "insights" into Korean culture are merely observations I have made from observing JM's family and what I was taught at my Korean courses at school.
2) Furthermore, I am aware that there are MANY different facets of Southern culture: the Deep South, the Tidewater South, the Appalachian South, the Ozark South, the Country-folk-who-don't-live-in-the-South- but-are-often-confused-with-Southerners South.... etc, etc, etc. If anyone doubts the validity of this statement, I would refer you to this article on the various dialects of the South (which I find quite fascinating)-- and just imagine that for every dialect, there is also *at least* one distinct aspect of the culture. My comments on Southern culture are based on my own experiences with my family and the places where I grew up.

So with that disclaimer in mind, I will now continue. During my few years knowing JM I have noticed several similarities between Southern culture and Korean culture:

  1. Both cultures place an emphasis on food. JM calls my mother-in-law a "feast machine", and that's also a pretty accurate description of both of my grandmothers, and to an extent my mom as well. When we go home (either to my parents' house or his), we always eat a lot. My mom doesn't do the whole huge meal thing a lot, but I've noticed her making an extra effort every time JM and I go to visit. His mom is more like my grandmothers. We go visit any of them, and we'll be coming home with more food than we can manage and several extra pounds. As I mentioned in another post, the Korean church JM grew up in does the Sunday afternoon meal on the grounds, just like many Southern American churches do. This might just be me, but I have observed that women in both cultures seem to feel like cranking out monster meals is their way of showing someone that they love them.

  2. Koreans and Southern Americans both value the family. For more on this subject, see this post.

  3. Most everyone has heard of the famous "Southern hospitality", and it holds true from my experience -- Southerners like to know their neighbors and will help them out whenever the need arises. I remember when my family was going to move to Florida, my great-grandmother's sister-in-law (my great-great aunt, see above point on family) said, "I hear that in Florida they don't even say 'hi' to you when you're walking down the street!" She sounded quite affronted at the thought. I bet she wouldn't have hesitated at giving a neighbor any sort of help they required. Koreans don't wave to all of their neighbors (according to the Confucian model, strangers aren't very high up on the list), but they have their own ways of showing generosity or hospitality to those in their social circle. Namely, money. Koreans are extremely generous with their money. If someone gets married, they give them lots of money. If you have a baby (especially a boy), you get money. If you're visiting a relative, you give them money or gifts and they give you spending money. If a group of friends or colleagues goes out for dinner, ONE person foots the bill for the entire table. I get the impression that the way Koreans show someone they care (aside from feeding them) is to give their money away.

  4. Despite what I wrote in the previous point, Korean people are extremely frugal. In fact, if you read up on Korean American kids' blogs you'll notice a lot of them making jokes about the penny pinching "ahjumah's" (a general term for an older woman). A lot of the advice I get from my mother-in-law is exactly what my mom would have told me: "line dry your clothes, the dryer uses too much gas/electricity," "make sure you use up the very last drops of the food in the jar -- thin it out with water if you have to," and the like. I think this comes from the fact that both cultures were very poor farming societies just a generation or two ago.

  5. About 60% of Koreans would describe themselves as 'Christian'. They are by far the most religious group of people I have ever seen, with the notable exception of the Southern Bible Belt. In the South you cannot drive more than a block or two without seeing a church, and the phone book is filled with business with the fish symbol by their name. You will be hard-pressed to find a Korean house in the US that is not filled with scriptures on the wall (mostly in Korean) and maybe 80% of their children have Bible names for their American name. For example, I have known 3 different Esthers (Esther Kim, Esther Lee, and another Esther Kim), and that's not that common of a name. JM and I were walking around downtown once and he was stopped by a young lady who didn't speak much English who was on a mission trip from Korea. She asked him if he spoke Korean and gave him a tract about some sort of church event they were having. I find it interesting that Koreans feel they need to go on a mission trip to the US, but that's another subject.

Obviously the two cultures have a lot of things that are very different about them, but it was good to know that there was some common ground for me to build on.

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