As a 19-year-old girl growing up in the southeastern United States, I’m used to friendly strangers. When you’re walking down the street, you smile and say hi to the people that pass. When someone is walking into the store behind you, you hold the door open for them. You chat with the people waiting in line beside you, and you say “yes ma’am” and “no sir” when talking to an adult. The South is famous for its almost overbearing hospitality, and that’s just what I’m used to. In many cases, it can be overwhelming, and at times is so robotic that it doesn’t seem genuine.
Studying Abroad in Seoul, South Korea
In Seoul, there is a nice change of pace. When you’re on the bus people keep to themselves. It’s amazing how silent a packed subway car or bus can be. If two friends are talking, it’s with lowered voices, so as not to disturb the people around them. Unlike in some cities, such as New York, there’s no interaction on the subway. People mind their own business and keep the peace. There are no performances or loud conversations. Even on the streets, there are designated areas for street performance, so people aren’t disturbed in other areas. If you bump shoulders with someone walking down the street, you don’t stop to apologize. If anything, a small nod suffices. For some, this culture of ignoring strangers may at first come across as rude. However, if you look into the reasoning and cultural opinion on this behavior, you can actually see it as a sign of respect that Korean people mind their own business and don’t over-analyze other people’s actions. While the behavior was strange at first, I grew to enjoy it because for once, I didn’t have to worry about what the strangers around me would say or think.
Interacting with Strangers
After making some friends here in Korea, I began to see the difference between the interaction with strangers, and how Korean people treat their close friends and loved ones. It is clear that Korean people care deeply about those people with whom they have a deep connection. When my teacher talked to our class, she would ask us “did you eat?” And if the answer was no, she would casually scold us for not taking care of ourselves. My teacher even noticed when I dyed my hair, despite there being only a subtle difference in color. When I admitted I was struggling with studying for my Korean midterm, my close friend offered to teach me, and traveled to meet me multiple times to help me learn, no matter how busy she was.
Family and Friends
Family and age is very important to Korean people. Some children attend college and work but still live with their parents until they are ready to get married. This is not only fiscally responsible, but also a sure testament to the strong bond within Korean families. In regards to speech, there is a hierarchy of respect to be followed that relates to age. Depending on a person’s age and how close they are to you, you speak with varying degrees of formality.
However, close friends will drop honorific speech, despite age gaps, and laugh and embrace each other warmly. Couples will stroll hand in hand down crowded streets, pulling each other close to protect the other from passing cars and quick walkers. Men will take their girlfriend’s heavy bags when they greet them, slinging them over their own shoulders without a second thought.
Embracing Korean Culture
Maybe it’s not as overt or obvious as it is in Alabama, but there is a unique culture around caring in South Korea. Strangers who come across as cold to you, may go home to a doting mother and siblings. Certainly, things are different, and it’s easy to look at the surface of something and make sweeping assertions; but it is much harder to look deeper and discover the true nature of people. In the end, there is always something we can learn from one another. There’s a lot I am learning in South Korea, and if one of those things is a deeper heart to cherish and provide for my friends and family, well maybe that isn’t such a bad lesson to learn.
Maddie McCann is a digital communications intern for USAC who is studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea for Fall 2017. She attends the University of Alabama at Birmingham.