Here, I describe the things that make Koreans Korean.
I won't speak much on the history of Korea here, except to point out two very important things:
- Koreans have adopted Confucianism universally.
- Koreans feel somewhat inferior to China, and now, the West.
These two facts affect a lot of their culture. First, Confucianism.
What is confucianism? This is really hard to define. I will explain it simply as, "The correct way of doing things." Confucius ideals, as they ended up in Korea's society, dictate how we are supposed to play our roles in society. If everyone plays their role well, then things go smoothly. But if too many people begin perverting their roles, then things go poorly. This should sound really, really familiar.
At the heart of Confucianism is the concept of the family. This is identified by relationships. Each relationship carries a responsibility on behalf of both sides. Ring some bells?
- Husbands should love, protect, and provide for their wives.
- Wives should love, obey, and support their husbands.
- Fathers should love, discipline, provide for and teach their children.
- Mothers should love, nurture, and raise their children.
- Children should devote their entire lives to father and mother. They can never repay the debt.
- Siblings should look out for and protect each other. Older siblings lead, younger siblings follow and get protected.
This doesn't look to unfamiliar. It may seem a little extreme, and as practiced in Korea, it is. Although this generation doesn't adhere to the strictness of Confucianism, it is still practiced in spirit. The remnants of Confucian thought live on in Korean culture, just like the influence of Socrates and Plato lives on in ours.
This concept of the family applies to all other areas of life. In school, your teacher is the father, and the children are all siblings. At work, the boss is the father and the employees the children. In street gangs, the leader is the father and the followers are the children. In government, the president is the father and the people are the children.
Keep in mind that this cuts both ways. Note that the father must provide for, love, and teach the children. This means that teachers will go to great lengths for their students, bosses have a lot of patience for their employees (but are unusually strict), gang leaders love their followers, and so on.
Now, a lot of this has been watered down over the past few generations. There are limits to how far Confucianism goes. For instance, ignoring clear warning signs because your boss tells you to, protecting a sibling from the consequences of criminal action are areas where modern society conflicts with Confucian values.
It is important to be aware of this pattern and identify it.
Most Obvious Things
The most obvious things that you will deal with constantly:
- The level of speech changes depending on the environment (formal / informal) and the relationship (superior / peer / inferior). You will also have to bow or receive a bow depending on the situation.
- As an elder sibling, the younger siblings look to you for leadership. Assume the role of leader without hesitation or reservation. But keep in mind their wants and desires. Act in their interests, not yours.
- As a younger sibling, follow along and hold up your elder sibling. Feel free to express your confidences in him publicly. Let him know, privately, when you disagree. If he fails, you fail. If he wins, you win.
Another part of Confucianism is ancestor worship. I was told once that the reason why people worship their deceased ancestors was to show the younger generation how the older generation should be revered. If this practice were to cease, then the younger generation wouldn't have an example to follow, and the older generation would be abused by the younger.
This practice is taken to an extreme. Since ancient times, Koreans and Chinese and other Asian people have believed that their ancestors can change their fortunes. Thus, they pray to their ancestors and ask for favors or divine intervention. They keep their graves clean to ward off any retribution for negligence. And they offer food to satiate their earthly desires.
Ancestor worship is forbidden in the LDS religion. However, ancestor reverence is not. As long as it is done in a spirit of showing respect, but not worship, then it is ok. Of course, we do not pray to our ancestors or pretend that our ancestors can intervene on our behalf. We look, instead, to Christ and pray all the way to the top.
The culture of religion is very different in Korea than in America. In Korea, family comes first. You don't do something as drastic as join a religion without bringing your entire family with you. If someone is planning on joining a new church, expect a long family discussion before the person makes a final decision.
For the most part, I think most people really don't care about religion in Korea. They aren't really Atheist, but they aren't really sure what they believe in. In every family, there are a few outspoken representatives of the family faith. If you can convert them, the entire family will follow.
What are Koreans looking for in a religion? Doctrinal purity is not a big issue. I think this is because Koreans really don't like the fighting. I think they are looking for what everyone is really looking for: peace and happiness.
Some people will come to you trying to join the American religion. Be careful of these people. Make sure that they are sincerely learning the gospel, not just because it is American but because it is in their heart.
Confuscianism isn't really a religion; it's just a systematic way of organization society. Think of it as the American state religion. Yes, we have a religion in the US, a religion that believes every person has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and so forth. Confuscianism is the state religion of Korea, more or less.
Confuscianism doesn't demand much, and it governs the words you use and whether your bow or not. It also governs how some decisions are made. It really doesn't require a lot of belief in anything more than having an ordered society.
I would say about half the people are Buddhist in Korea.
I don't really know much about Buddhism. This is what I see, and what I think people see it as.
- Reincarnation. Yeah, all Buddhists get this.
- God? Buddhists don't think about a God running the universe. They instead focus on the principle of eternal progression.
- Family? Buddhists teach that family is central to everything. If you can't treat your family right, what good are you? If you can't be a good son / daughter / husband / wife / father / mother, then you'll be reincarnated as a bug.
- Worship: Most people simply don't do anything to worship for Buddhism. Sometimes the like to go up to the temple, pay some money, ring a bell, or do some other things. But it really doesn't demand much beyond simply living right moment-to-moment.
- Monks: You'll see monks all over the place. The way I understand it is this. If you are having a rough time, or if you feel particularly inspired to, you can decide to live like a monk. You basically swear off all the things you shouldn't have been doing in the first place, dress up in grey, drab clothing, shave your head, and spend all day praying and bowing and reciting chants. You spend some time soliciting funds for your physical support. Some people do this for the rest of their lives, but most people only spend a few years doing this once in their life if they do it at all. By the way, the rules for living in a temple are very, very strict. Ask a monk what their day is like and what kinds of things they do every day.
- Similarities to LDS religion: You're going to find a lot of common ground between Buddhists and LDS members. Pay attention to them. Ask people that converted from Buddhism why they did so, and write things down so you remember them. Think deeply about what Buddhism means to Buddhists and why they would ever think of adopting the Savior into their religion.
I break these into three groups:
- The Catholics. The Catholics are a huge, dominate force in Korea. They are organized, they have their act together, and they are effective. A large number of Koreans are Christian because they were taken care of by the Catholic church. Most Catholics in Korea behave much like devout Catholics in America. They get along fine with the Mormons.
- The mainstream Christians (Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc...) These guys are roughly comparable to the evangelicals in America, except they don't seem to be so political and much more evangelical. They really don't like Mormons. If you have a friend who served in the South (of the US), ask them what it was like and get ready for much of the same. I will say this: the educated Christians are far better educated than the Southern Christians. Prepare to read your Bible.
- The fringe Christians: Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the LDS. These are the Christian sects that don't seem to go away. These people are generally much more devout than any other sect of religion, and they have a personal connection to their religion. Most of the others are connected solely because their family is connected.
Korean culture still embraces is Pagan roots. These are the sword dancers, the soothsayers, the false prophets, the fortune tellers, etc... Some people genuinely believe this stuff is real. It seems a lot of the pagan religion still survives in every sect, even in our church, although I think the fringe Christians do a better job of identifying and stamping it out.
My recommendation: Talking with people who are deep into this stuff is like talking with ghost hunters or UFO believers. At some point, you'll have to explain to them that there are things called "false prophets" who are not influenced by God and who cannot be trusted.
I think most people realize that this is a poor man's religion, and that practitioners are generally from the lower class and generally cannot be trusted. There is a sense that something is dangerously wrong with this aspect of Korean religion.
When I left Korea in 1997, I was one of a handful of non-Koreans living in the country. I came back in 2003 and saw that there were larger and larger populations of foreigners living in the country, many from Southeast Asia, Russia, Africa, and the Middle East. These people will bring their religion, language, and culture with them. Be prepared to be surprised by the diversity you will see in Korea today.
Politics: Feelings of Inferiority
Koreans naturally feel like the shrimp on the whale's tail. This means that they are quite proud of the achievements their culture has made. This is sometimes taken to an extreme.
Koreans seem to be, universally, intent on meeting or surpassing the living standard of Japan and the United States. They want to prove that they are a better race of man than other races. This is a feeling that was common in Europe not too long ago, but nowadays seems out of place. Yes, Koreans generally are racists of the worst sort: they believe they are better than everyone else.
You can quite easily offend any Korean by pointing out their inferiority or question their progress. Please don't do that. Treat the Koreans as peers. That's the American way.
I would fiercely avoid political discussions with Koreans, particularly the college students. The college students are generally communist, and find American attitudes to be very grating. I would decline knowledge of political issues, or explain that you're not here representing America, but your church.
The older generation is very conservative, of a sort of degree you would probably find only in the South. They will probably put you on a pedestal. Graciously accept this, but be sure to treat them as your senior and return two-fold any praise you get!
Families live together often with their extended relatives. Thanks to Confucianism, the eldest son is responsible for taking care of his parents in their old age. It is not uncommon to have grandma and grandpa living with their grandchildren.
The husband is responsible for affairs outside of the home. Inside the home, the wife rules. The husband is to stay out of the way in the kitchen and child-rearing areas. Even home finances are often relegated to the wife. Husbands bring their paychecks home, spending some of it on worldly pleasures, and then deposit the check in the Bank of Mother.
The Korean women are remarkable at managing money. Their long-term vision combined with their willingness to sacrifice a few pleasures for future prosperity mean that a good wife can turn the poorest man into a property owner. Of course, if the husband exerts too much control, or is lazy, or otherwise delinquent, he'll waste the money on scams and excess.