My Reflection on the Emphasis of Social Harmony in the Korean Society

While staying in South Korea I encountered numerous cultural practices that surprised me and that I had to adjust to.

I feel that living in another country means integrating into society as much as possible and understanding as well as appreciating the differences and coming to terms with the things you might not initially enjoy. I feel that for me the age hierarchy and also the empathy on Kibun and social harmony are definitely things I will never be quite as fond of as I feel that those are not useful practices to keep. Personally, I think that pride hinders growth, as we all are flawed and we all need to continue to reflect upon ourselves and others to be able to grow as a person but also to be able to grow as a society. I know that times are changing and the Korean society is evolving in its own way, but I am always surprised by how far people are willing to go. As an example, if an elderly person says something derogatory to a foreign or even Korean woman or just has a complete public meltdown, people would rather ignore it than step up and face the issue. I feel that no one wants to be the person that is making the problem apparent and therefore highlighting the disruption in harmony.

… pride hinders growth, as we all are flawed and we all need to continue to reflect upon ourselves and others to be able to grow as a person but also to be able to grow as a society.

I also noticed that in class, when the professor would say something the students would not find okay, they would not really express that opinion as the professor is higher in the hierarchy. So, it does not come as a surprise that usually the foreign students were the ones complaining loudly and making their opinions heard. Funny enough, only when being able to say something anonymously and when asked to do so, the Korean students would be brutally honest and even throw each other under the bus if that meant getting a better grade. To me,  that clearly shows how they attempt to keep a superficial harmony, even though they have a completely different opinion. And I do feel that especially on certain issues you can feel the discontent breaking through that neutral façade. I think that there is a wide gap between the younger and the older generation and that leads to a lot of misunderstanding and conflict within society. Personally, I have realized that when staying in Korea I am a very direct person and I openly express my opinion. I do care about not hurting anyone’s feelings of course, but I will speak my mind if I am unhappy with something. I have come to realize that it is also something that some students appreciated and it was no surprise that I was chosen as the group leader right away in my first group task ever in a fully Korean group. I think I did somewhat accommodate this emphasis on social harmony, as I also accepted that some things are better left unsaid as in this kind of culture it would not lead to anything good. So, this was my way of adjusting, so to say.

However, I do note, and I will continue to do so whenever I think of Korea, that the society is changing and as my Contemporary Korea professor once said: “Just wait 15-20 years and all these problems will be gone, as all the elderly people will be dead.” And no, I am not kidding, he actually said that. I would not necessarily say it in that fashion but I do think that these generational differences are oftentimes hard to overcome. I mean, would you want to change your opinion after living that way for 80 years? I do not think so. The older generation has seen war and devastation, they have had to rebuild the country and they did so with a tremendous amount of pride but also nationalism. And the younger generation did not live through that. They are living in times when they can travel, learn English, profit from the latest technology but also worry about their economic situation. As a result of globalization, it feels as if the younger generation in Korea is much more similar to the younger people all over the world. Therefore, I think that emphasis on social harmony will change as the society will also continue to change and overcome obstacles. 

Nina Huber

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