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A Few Observations About South Korean Society

Updated on July 13, 2012

There are some curious observations I've made after my interactions and discussion with various Korean individuals I've met for the past year or two. I was curious about the aspects of a range of areas in Korea, mainly those that directly affect me if I were to temporarily live there. The economy and the job market, education and various laws regarding them. So these were some of the topics I discussed with my friends, and I learned about the differences between life in Canada and life in Korea focusing on these areas. It helped me greatly to understand the mentality of the people that I had met, and why they acted the way they did and explained their stay in Canada.

There were particular aspects of their society that stuck out to me the most, of which I will each go through and expand upon based on what natives have told me.

Education

This is perhaps one of the most important facets of a young, successful Korean today; majority of high school graduates are encouraged, sometimes forced, by parents and older society to be even considered by businesses for entry level positions. I have seen Korean job postings for sales clerks in department stores with the hefty requirement of a Bachelor Degree in Business for the lowest attainable positions. In 2008, 83.8% of high school graduates move on to study in universities, giving the country the highest rate of advancement in the world. [1]

I see some problems with this, however, as the balance of workers entering lower-wage jobs begin to dwindle, and competition for positions of stature making opportunities scarce. I spoke with a few of my friends on this matter, and for those who had any opinion on it, remark on its effects on their society and economy. University graduates who are unable to secure a suitable position preferred to remain unemployed than to work in a job deemed ‘lower’ than what they were trained for. I asked, then, who would take up lower-wage jobs, which brings up my next topic, age.

Age Matters

As technology advances, in most countries, those not in the prime of their youth are able to experience a ‘second youth’ of sorts. Many times have I heard, ’40 is the new 20′ and so forth. In Korea, the differences of age is shown most clearly in their language. A completely different vocabulary is used when one is speaking to someone older than themselves. There are many rules concerning age, making many obstacles for those who find themselves at a disadvantage.

In terms of nightlife, entertainment, and the general ability to let loose, the bar stops at 30 years old (in Korean years, which can be 28 or 29 for us), then it’s expected one stops socializing and gets married. The legal age in Korea is 21, like in the US, and is the age when males generally serve their mandatory 2 year service in the military. After this, it is expected that they enter university for about 4 years. During this time up until the 30 year old mark, Koreans generally go crazy with drinking, clubbing, and other social activities. They are usually expected to find a serious relationship during this time, so that when they settle into their permanent jobs, they don’t have to worry about dating and can focus totally on their work and family. In short, they no longer have a life.

For men and women who do not find themselves married around this age, they are considered strange by their elders and their peers. Men, in particular, when introduced to other males older than themselves, are often asked, ‘Why don’t you have a business already?’ Older women, in my opinion, is the worse to be, even if they are pretty, their age is a big factor in whether they are marriageable or employable. There is more as to why it sucks to be female in Korea, but I’ll outline them later.

If you’re a middle-aged or a senior , it’s not much better than the other age groups. Businesses such as dance clubs, night clubs, and other entertainment venues do not cater to older people. Some dance clubs would even bar someone in their 30s or 40s from entering!

Better A Hot Dog Than A Bun

Sexism is still prevalent in Korea, and the concept of roles is prioritized. Males are expected to act a certain way, have certain interests, and look a certain way, as well as females. Men are still looked-on as main providers in a marriage, with the women expected to be housewives. In fact, the Korean word for wife is 집사람 (jipsaram), which directly translates as ‘home person’. In Korea, the wife doesn’t take the husband’s name. However when referred to as Mrs. Kim, for example, although there are Westernized “konglish” equivalents to Missus and Miss, a wife would be referred to as 김선생님 (Kimsonsaengnim), or Mr. Kim’s wife.

The opportunities of a career are limited for women, as higher positions are generally taken by men. Normally, women take on roles as receptionists, secretaries, nurses, and the like. Namely, roles where they have to ‘sit and look pretty’. A normal Korean resume is required the person’s photo, and it is not uncommon for women to pay for plastic surgery just so their resume photo is acceptable!

Generally though, it’s expected that, even after 4 years of study in a university, when a woman gets married she becomes a housewife and bears children. Her role stays within the confines of the husband’s home.

So I turned to my friend and said, “So, in reality, the worse possible person to be in Korea, is an older, single, ugly woman?”

He paused a moment and nodded, “Pretty much.”

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    • Pamela-anne profile image

      Pamela-anne 5 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Well after reading your hub I can honestly say as a single middle-aged woman I am so glad I am living here (Canada) over Korea; thanks for sharing! take care pam.