My Role in the Korean Community

November 25, 2009
By allison.l BRONZE, Los Angeles, California
allison.l BRONZE, Los Angeles, California
3 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Koreans impose very specific and challenging rules and expectations on themselves and other Koreans. The trend within the Korean community seems immersed within the cultures past, primarily the influence of Confucianism. The ancestors of Korea’s age of dynasties identified and adopted this philosophy, a system that brought harmony to the country and created rules to preserve positive energy and maintain respect and honor for elders and the deceased. The moral code of Confucianism emphasizes benevolence, traditional rituals, filial piety, and respect for the elderly. While Koreans do not often discuss Confucianism’s impact on today’s society and how it shapes our thinking, it runs through the culture and remains deeply infused in our modern day lives.

Korean believe that positive energy promotes positive thinking, action, and living. If one lives with positive energy, then they will develop positive relationships with others, particularly for elders. For Koreans, respect for elders remains paramount in the tradition. Korean youth are expected to know and comply with a strict set of implicit rules. For example, when a younger person meets an older person, he or she says, “An-yeong-ha-sae-yo,” meaning “hello” in formal Korean, as opposed to “An-yeong,” the informal way of saying “hello.” When a younger person meets an older person, he or she must also bend the upper body to 45 degrees as a gesture of respect. Koreans value old age because we believe its brings maturity and wisdom through life experiences.

Within the Korean culture one must also respect the living space of others. Before one enters a Korean household, he or she must always remember to take off his or her shoes. Koreans find it offensive and disrespectful when a guest does not take off his or her shoes. According to traditional Korean beliefs, wearing one’s shoes inside the house brings dirt and evil from outside into the home. Since Koreans seek to surround themselves and their homes with positive energy, removing one’s shoes before entering keeps negativity outside and preserves the positive energy inside. Because of this custom, many foreigners describe Koreans as “clean freaks.” In actuality, Koreans are disgusted by the idea of walking in a public bathroom or stepping on a piece of gum and then wearing the shoes inside the house. While the custom may not be universally accepted, for Koreans, removing one’s shoes and the negative aspects of the world they represent is common courtesy.

During mealtime in a traditional Korean household, neither the children nor the mother may eat until the head of the household, usually the father, picks up his chopsticks. The father’s action signals that the others may enjoy their meal together and begin eating. Not only does the head of the family make the decisions and represent the whole family, he also works diligently to keep food on the table. Until the father comes home, no other member of the household can eat dinner. Waiting for a father’s arrival is a gesture that shows respect and demonstrates that the family acknowledges the father as the most important member of the household. My mother practiced the ritual in her family while growing up in Seoul, Korea. She explains that as a child, when her father, my grandfather, came home late, my mother, her siblings, and my grandmother did not eat dinner until he lifted in chopsticks.

Respect for the deceased remains a central theme in Korean culture. For example, writing the name of a living person in red ink should NEVER be done in the Korean community. The color red implies death and the dark nature in Asian cultures, just as black does in Western countries. Korean families use the color red to record the name of a deceased person in the family register and on funeral banners, which Koreans use in traditional Korean funerals to drive off evil spirits. Also, the color bears the connotations of Communism. The Korean War split the once unified nation into North an South Korea because North Korea wanted to create a communist state throughout the country but South Korea resisted. As result of the civil war, South Koreans harbor animosity towards North Korea’s government and its current leader, Kim Jong-il. The war separated families and fractured Koreans into separate groups - South Koreans and North Koreans. The distinction between “types” of Koreans and the fracture that resulted from the war symbolized the death of a unified Korea. Therefore, it is appropriate that North Korea’s communist regime use the color red to promote its beliefs. Koreans observe many rules that can be difficult for people outside the Korean community to understand and accept in the modern world. Some Korean beliefs and time-honored practices seem superstitious and archaic, but most of them have roots in Confucianism. Although many rituals of the past, such as waiting for one’s father to pick up his chopsticks before eating, have not remained a substantial part of Korean culture, they are intrinsically tied to more lasting qualities: loyalty, devotion to one’s family, and pursuit of education continue in contemporary society.

The author's comments:
I wanted to share my observations of the cultural differences that existed between Korean and American culture that I have observed throughout my life.

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