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February 22, 2007

TravelBlog: Korea

Photos from my trip to Korea are now up on my flickr stream.

Normally, I'd write a lengthy entry of my reflections on my time in Korea. But, since this trip was primarily for business, it wasn't quite the same kind of trip I normally make. Normally, I won't lug my computer around, stay in fancy hotels, or spend much time with people who speak my language. Having cut my teeth backpacking solo in Europe many years ago, I much prefer being "close to the ground" where I can get a better sense of what the local culture is like (with the obvious caveat that this can be hard to do when you stick out like a sore thumb and don't speak the language!).

So, I have only a few thoughts this time. For instance, Korea and Japan are extremely similar in many ways, both culturally, visually, and in the overwhelming ubiquity of digital technology. Much of the traditional architecture looks roughly the same to my unaccustomed eye, although I'm told there are important differences. One that stood out the most was the Korean emphasis on greens (for instance, this structure) versus the Japanese emphasis on reds (like this one). Another architectural observation is that many of the buildings look like they were inexpensive derivatives of the brutalist architectural movement, i.e., lots of uninteresting, high-rise concrete buildings, probably hastily erected after the Korean War flattened most everything that was there before.

On the technological side (which admittedly fascinated me more than the architecture did), I was amazed at how pervasive digital technology was, not only with mobile phones (which did television, text messaging, calls, etc., and have that little hook from which you can hang a personalizing charm - I really wish American wireless providers puts these on the handsets...), but in elevators (door-close buttons that work instantly!), parking lots (which, with a pressure pad under each parking space, display at their entrance the precise number of available spots!), and public busses, among many others. The thing that sets these countries apart from America (and much of Europe) in their use of these technologies is that they use it to explicitly make everyday activities easier and more convenient. In these ways, I think of Korea and Japan as true first-world countries, while Western nations feel more like third-world countries.

Socially, the country seems to be experiencing a similar kind of shift as Japan, with the older generation trying to preserve the social norms and traditions, while the younger generation is actively defining their own way of life. Sometimes this means embracing traditions (such as the first-place, second-place, third-place method of going out on the town), but I think it typically means moving away from them. This dynamic is pervasive in Western countries, as well, but because the social norms are that much stronger in these Eastern nations, the contrast seem that much more palpable at times.

I found Seoul to be an extremely fashionable city, and particularly so with the younger generation. Typically, it seemed, women, old and young, are elegant and beautiful, while men are sharply dressed. (I did see some people who would have fit in well in Harajuku.) If shopping is your bag, it's excellent for both club faddle and custom-made business attire. Plus, clothing (much of which is apparently Made in China), transportation (trains, busses, taxis, subways), and food are all pretty inexpensive. I had just about gotten used to the local cuisine by the time I left - it has a lot of beef and pork in it, and is quite spicy.

From talks with people who know much more than I, the educational system in Korea seems quite similar to that of Japan (and, to some extent, of China), with the main emphasis being on memorization, performance on standardized tests, respect for elders (even if they're wrong), etc. Kids in both countries, and at all ages, spend a lot of extra time studying for the various entrance exams for different grade schools, college and university. It's my own opinion that this kind of approach to education tends to discourage creative problem solving and ingenuity. These things are, I think, perhaps somehow less discouraged by the more chaotic style of education in the US, although I'm not an expert on education systems. I wonder whether the profound emphasis in these Eastern nations on mastering standardized bodies of knowledge has its roots in the ancient scholasticism that focused mastering an extremely large body of cultural, historical and mathematical facts. (Perhaps some of my several Korean and Japanese readers can share their perspective? If any of you have been to the US, I'd love to hear your impression our of system.)

Endnote: One thing that I found very strange was seeing Hyundai Santa Fe SUVs all over Seoul. Supposedly, car manufacturers usually change the name of a car when they sell it in a different country, but it was nice to see a little bit of home in Korea!


posted February 22, 2007 01:17 AM in Travel | permalink


The educational system is structured that way because of historical tradition, as you said. In the past, social and political advancement in China and Korea (I don't know about Japan) was determined in part by a rigorous examination system testing knowledge of poetry, literature, philosophy, and history. The specific knowledge was the philosophy and commentary of Confucius and his followers, and later reinterpretations of Confucius by other scholars. Those taking the test essentially had to memorize the "canonical" books, the commentaries on the books, and so on, and the top testers would be given government positions.

That sort of testing system is now in effect more generally all over, and partly causes a lot of stress amongst the adolescents. A growing trend in the upper-class of Korea is to send children abroad to study in America, where the schooling system is presumably better, more rounded, but less stressful. Japan has fewer students in America, but the numbers are growing.

Posted by: Such irE at February 26, 2007 05:48 PM


I happened to find your blog.

What I want to add is that Korean Society is based on Confucius as you said.

Unlike other religions like Christianity and Buddihism which have the things about life after death such as heaven and hell, Confucius does not have comment or theory about life after death. Because of that, some people argue that Confucius is not religion. Instead the children of the people are existence that prove parents' immortality in the world after their death in Confucius tradition. In other words, children are something that shows that parents used to be alive in the world to other people or the world after their death. Also they believe that children share a lot of things with parents, so parents' thoughts and other things are still remaining even after parents' death. So this is one of the reason why parents usually want that children should follow him, i think.

Also over 500 years from late 14th century to early 20th century in Joseon dynasty, korean society had been bureaucracy. People who want to be high class should, first of all, pass entrance exam in order to become a bureaucrat. In Joseon dynasty, high class is not nobility but bureaucrat class. So in korean society it is popular thought that if you want to be successful in your life like become high class, you should pass entrance exam. In other words, study is the way to get success for your life rather than is about curiosity about the world, nature and other things. This is one of the reason why many of korean people believe that good scores on entrance exam for college, company or officials probably guarantees their success in their life and they tend to focus a lot on good scores on test.

What i have told you is just my personal opinion based on my observation and study about korea during last couple of years.

Posted by: quicksilver messenger service at February 26, 2007 11:39 PM