Korean Intensity Mistaken

I witnessed an all too familiar occurrence on my trek after work the other night. I had already made my pit stop for groceries and kogi mandu, and was on the final stretch home when a man walked out of a building and stopped at the rail separating the road from the sidewalk. In an act of rage, he began beating his umbrella on an innocent bicycle chained to the rail. Pieces of the umbrella flew into traffic, spinning around the road after tagging passing cars. He slammed the remaining handle on the ground and let out a mighty roar. There this scrawny Korean man stood posing as if he was Hulk himself, his heavy breathing surrounding his head as it mixed with the cool April evening air.

Is it a full moon or something? Actually, it was. But regardless, this was a pretty typical event that I see on an average evening in Seoul. He got a few funny looks, but just as the other pedestrians, I wasn’t intimidated by him and nobody stopped to stare. Obviously something pissed him off pretty good and this was just his way of blowing off some steam.

When it comes to education, sports, food, patriotism, long work hours, and showing their wide range of emotions, the people of Korea are the most passionate that I have ever been exposed to. Every day activities are carried out with such bravado and emphasis that it’s easy to mistake a friendly conversation between friends as a heated debate among enemies.

Foreigners tend to characterize Koreans as aggressive. I agree that they are, but in my opinion it’s a mistake to confuse this aggressive outcome with the foundation I’m suggesting it originates from. It might be more accurate to characterize this emotional response as intensity. And this intensity is prevalent in many forms, aggression one among many. But whether it’s aggression, passion, or the intensity with which these actions and beliefs are displayed, it is a characteristic that you can’t escape unless your eyes are closed to experiencing and observing the culture around you.

Countless examples come to mind having lived here for close to a year.

The men selling vegetables and meat cuts in the supermarket at the end of the night are hustling as if their life depends on it. They scream and yell as they pace around their respective departments, using wireless mics piped to speakers in the store. They might as well be informing you that the North is invading and life as you know is being threatened. I can only assume to know what they are saying. “Buy my meat! Buy my meat! It’s the best meat you’ve ever had! So good that it will cure whatever ails you! Got cancer! Eat my meat and kiss it goodbye!

Koreans are passionate about their sports. The Winter Olympics are like a 2 week long Super Bowl around here. Korea is a place where the average hole in the wall jiggae/kimbap/donkas restaurant is slammed full of people glued to every leap and twirl of the South Korean figure skater shown on the TV. My Korean co-workers were fixated to their cell phone tv’s in the teacher room between classes. Nearly every other person on the subway was face deep in their phones as well, fully captivated and unaware of the world around them.

Korean baseball is a trip, and a completely different experience than watching America’s pastime at home. It’s an interactive, sing songy game full of chants and percussive noises. The fans are pretty intense too.

This emotional excitement is also widely recognized in South Korean politics. I posted a video of brawl at the National Assembly Building last July. I would consider politics to the point of physical violence as intense.

Another example can be found in the Korean work ethic. South Korea has one of the highest rates of overtime hours in the world. They work late in to the day, and can be found stumbling around the restaurants and bars in their suits late at night. It’s hardcore working at the office as much as it is hardcore unwinding after work. Many will be quick to tell you that this work ethic is tarnished by “face time”, spent not actually accomplishing anything substantial except for trying to look good in the eyes of your superiors by simply making your presence known. Maybe in the corporate world, but I don’t have any experience with that in this country. At my school, the administrative staff, and some of the teachers, work a ton of hours, beyond what they are paid for. As soon as they don’t have to be there, they aren’t.

Korean children are exposed to this work ethic at an early age. In addition to attending public school all day, many early elementary school aged children in this country go to various academies late into the afternoon. These academies range from English, to math and science, music, arts, tae kwon do and other sports. My hagwon is open until 8:50 pm on most days, and once a week many of them stay until 9:30 pm for a comprehensive reading class offered free of charge. I feel bad when they look at me with true sincerity in their eyes, begging me not to pile on the additional homework that will further take away from the minuscule amount of free time they get.

These same kids give me a lesson in intensity every day. They will run right through each other, feeling zero remorse for pushing and shoving, in some cases knocking their peers to the ground, on their way in to the classroom to grab their seat of choice before someone else does. It doesn’t seem to matter a bit that regardless of where they choose to sit, everyday I make them move in to the seating arrangement I prefer before the class begins. When I ask them why they behave in this ridiculous manner, the response is typically because their parents tell them it’s better to take the initiative and do what it takes to get the seat they want. At least they are listening to what their parents are telling them.

And forget about giving them the freedom to line up and let themselves out of the classroom on their own. The pushing involved is overwhelming, and this particular line only provides the positioning to race out of classroom in order to get in the bigger line for the shuttle. This whole process will leave the slower, less aggressive children trampled under foot and weeping. I get to go through this anywhere from 6-9 times a day, frequently tossing the worst offenders, kicking and screaming, to the back of the line in an attempt to make them think twice about how they are treating each other. This technique is not effective, but it makes me feel like I’m trying.

In another example, I was floored when seven and eight year old Korean children were complaining to me in class about how bad the IOC was screwing them over. Seriously? How do they know what the International Olympic Committee is? These are the same children that told me not to root for the American Apolo Ohno because he has Japanese heritage. In general, I have fond that Korean children strongly dislike everything Japanese, besides the food. Where could these children be learning their disdain for the Japanese and the IOC? Perhaps their nationalistic mom and dad were doing a bit of intense complaining at home the night before?

And think twice before admitting that you have no idea who the favorite Korean athlete or actor of the moment is. Your credibility is at stake. My students were absolutely appalled and thoroughly disappointed that I didn’t have a clue who 2010 figure skating gold medalist Kim Yu-Na was.

Of course, sometimes what looks like a heated debate actually turns into a full blown altercation. I have seen motorcycles kicked over in the middle of rush hour traffic and punches thrown over fender benders. In the case of the motorcycle, the driver refused to move out of what was clearly a public transportation lane, for the bus that was attempting to makes its scheduled stop. Horns honked and people yelled, yet he refused to move. Eventually, this stubbornness angered a man waiting for the bus, probably on a tight schedule, to the point that he felt it necessary to take matters in his own hands by kicking bike to the ground and slapping him upside the head. But honestly, who doesn’t feel like doing that sometimes? Here, people are intense enough to follow through with how they feel. And it’s worth mentioning because I find public altercations humorous in any culture.

And that’s what I think the biggest difference is. Back on the American west coast, in Portland, Oregon in particular, people in general seem less intense than they do here. That doesn’t mean that they are any less tough. I may witness more altercations here in Korea, but the actual brawls that take place are surprisingly low in comparison to the situations where I’m assuming a rumble is going to break out. For example, Western courtesy standards don’t allow a lot of the behavior that you see living here. Someone would surely knock you out. But living abroad teaches you that what is considered unacceptable behavior in your culture may be perfectly acceptable in another. Ideals, such as courtesy, don’t necessarily mean the same thing around the world.

This took me a long time to acknowledge, but life is a lot smoother since I’ve come to grips with it. For example, if I want my budget donkas meal expedited during the lunch rush at Hansot, it’s OK to cut in front of the middle school kids that are joking around, not paying attention in line. You snooze you lose. And when the ajumma elbows me in a hurry to get through the checkout at the market, even though she has a basket full of items to purchase and all I have a coke zero and some Nong Shim ramyeon… my bad. She wanted it more. She’s got that intensity that I was lacking at the moment.

Learn Korean with KoreanClass101.com


~ by ripcitytoseoul on April 23, 2010.

One Response to “Korean Intensity Mistaken”

  1. […] normal everyday activities…. that is until you see one of them snap. I’ve written about the intensity of Korean people, and this was a prime demonstration of just that. Gwangjang […]

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