I have struggled with the topic of this blog for months; carefully choosing just the right words to explain my point. These observations about modern day Korean culture are very hard to encapsulate in text without experiencing them first hand and synthesizing how they all coalesce. So, here goes…

Nations rise and nations fall. They experience periods of economic growth and of recession. Even the greatest empires are much more fragile than people realize, some only lasting a short handful of years. The empires influence most of the civilized world, including many countries that aspire toward great civilizations.

Developed/Developing

Our great empire, the American Empire, had it’s peak just after World War II. Since then it has been in a slow decline, with only sporadic periods of boom. One boom accompanied the defeat of Hitler and ushered in the Cold War, spurred the economy between 1946 and 1963 – affectionately known as the Baby Boom.

Was life during this pinnacle of time perfect for the citizens? Not even kinda. There was plenty for people to be upset about, particularly if you didn’t have white skin and/or lacked a penis. But economically, the nations of the world suffer through ebbs and flows regardless of social upheaval.

The many developed, or industrialized, nations have economic dips due to a variety of factors including:

  • Low Birth Rates
  • Over-inflated Economy
  • Over-extended Military Presence Overseas
  • Crumbling Infrastructure
  • Wide Income Gap between Wealthy and Poor

Additionally one major reason for the decline of developed nations is due to the natural economic progression of developing nations. Around the world, many countries work hard to bolster their economic livelihood. Looking back through American History, one can make comparisons of many modern day developing countries to America at various stages of our developing history.

Some countries like Thailand and Saudi Arabia are where the United States was during the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century. While others, like China and South Korea, are hitting their respective peaks in stride symmetrical to the post-WWII U.S. Now that I’ve been living in a developing country for five months, similarities have been springing up. The economic path of a country moves through the stages of growth:

  • Non-developed
  • Developing
  • Developed (industrialized)
  • Decline (or recession)

South Korea is, like many of its Asian neighbors, a developing country and as such brandishes certain likenesses; likenesses to America circa the 1950s. These are by no means scientific observations. They are but a few simple quirks that I’ve noticed since living here and I believe countries like Korea will continue to grow as they develop; their cultural path will follow that of their many predecessors – America included.

What gave me the idea to write this article was when I first noticed a difference in the students at school. Recently in America there’s been a growing trend of parents who side with their children in classroom conflicts. The call into school and scream at the teachers because, “not MY kid…” However, in Korea, the parents side with the teachers. When the student is reprimanded, the parents give them another punishment instead of calling the teacher to complain! It’s just like America was when I was in school, or when my parents were in school. So it got me thinking… how else is the up-and-coming nation of Korea, like the United States in it’s hay day?

The Samsung Lions

The first thing I’ve noticed is how the corporations here give back to the community. The Korean citizens rally behind these corporations. So much so in fact, that their professional sports teams aren’t even named after the cities in which they play – they’re named after their corporate sponsors. The Daegu baseball team isn’t the Daegu Lions… they’re the Samsung Lions. People are willing to give so much back to these corporations as well.

Another way in which Korea in 2012 is like America in 1955 is the dating culture (not that I have any first hand knowledge here – this is all hearsay and circumstantial). Women live with their parents until their late 20s (sometimes as late as their mid 30s). They rarely, if ever, move out to live on their own unless in the case of doctors or attorneys. Men may move out sooner and sometimes get their own places but never do they move in together. Cohabitation is reserved only for marriage.

But They Wear Matching Shirts

And speaking of marriage, many women wait until their married before consummating the relationship. And the ones who don’t wait that long, make their boyfriends wait months, sometimes years, before incorporating that kind of intimacy into their ‘romantic’ relationships. And I’m not just talking about sex. The word ‘dating’ itself is taboo in Korea. Innocent acts like holding hands don’t happen right away either. I can’t imagine any American men from 14-44, putting in a month dating a girl (without calling it dating) before being able to hold her hand, let alone kiss her.

Additionally, the music industry here is built a lot like the American music industry in the 50s. K-Pop is a juggernaut machine, cranking out over produced group, singing over produced songs, on over produced tours for thousands of screaming, rabid fans. You think you know anything about K-Pop after listening to Gangnam Style? Tip of the iceberg my friends.

Tip of the iceberg.

K-Pop, in fact, is so polished it reminds me of the type of acts like the Jackson 5, the Temptations, and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I’m sure there’s a room full of unnamed songwriters cloistered up somewhere similar to the Brill Building in Manhattan.

Girls Generation – Overproduced Pop

Finally, the last thing that reminds me of the 1950s is some of the clothing styles. Women and girls wear pleated skirts and men walk around in three piece suits. I occasionally even see a fedora. The busier parts of town resemble a scene out of Mad Men during office hours. Often, households are single income households – the husband and father able to earn enough to support a family of three or four without his wife having to work at all.

Dad… Dad… Daddeo

I’m sure there are other, even more meaningful comparisons, but these are just a few of the observations I’ve made regarding the culture of Korea. I suppose that my point is that while America feels like the best days are behind us, Koreans are diligently working toward a future of economic prosperity for all their people.

In a way, I feel like Marty McFly who’s been whisked away to another world with rules he doesn’t entirely comprehend. I hope I just don’t bump into my teenage father…. or do I?

Until Next Time…

-Justin

(I didn’t want to bring up any negative aspects in this article but there is also some racial issues that mirror the U.S. in the 50s. There aren’t a lot of non-Asians here but the few who do live here carry stereotypes with them. If you’d like more details, I’ll share them in an email).

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One thought on “A Tale of Two Countries

  1. Postscript: I was speaking with some of the Korean teachers at the school and right now in most of Korea (not necessarily downtown Seoul) the majority of women only work until they get married and after that, they stop working to be housewives and mothers. Also, similar to 1950s America.

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