The conversation usually starts with them asking me why I wanted to come to Korea or how I got started learning Korean. Unlike most people who study Korean, I wasn’t drawn in by Korean pop culture. I was interested in exploring a new country, and the best option happened to be Korea.
So far, I have really only spent extended amounts of time in countries where I speak the language well: the US (duh), Taiwan, and Japan. So I wanted to go somewhere that I couldn’t get around as easily. Korea seemed like a good choice; not too different (at least they eat rice! And use Chinese-based vocabulary and Japanese-like grammar!) but different enough that I had to adapt to it (spicy food, language still very difficult). And it also really boiled down to the fact that I could receive a fellowship that would cover my living expenses, tuition, flight, miscellaneous expenses. When I said that to my Korean friends, some would enthusiastically agree, “인정! 돈 중요하지!” (Money matters!).
But some of my friends ask…
While I’ve only received this question about 20% of the times, it still strikes me as a bit weird. I’d never ask an international student at Yale, “So you weren’t interested in America? Or American culture?” And I would not be disappointed if they downright told me “No.” In fact, that is the vibe I get from a lot of international students anyways 😉
After all, people go to a new country for a variety of reasons: political, economic, educational, etc. And in fact, many international students (from Uzbekistan to Egypt) are in Korea because it was their best option financially: generous scholarships are provided by not only the ROK government but also from the schools themselves, whose funding from the government depends on how many internationals they can bring in. And clearly many exchange students are not very interested in Korea at all. I went to an exchange student gathering at KU and a German guy asked “How do I say ‘Hi,’ in Korean?” I nearly face-palmed.
So I think when they ask a question like, “So you weren’t interested in Korean culture?” it shows that they think more about their culture, in a way that we don’t in the U.S. We rarely ever talk about “American culture.” And when we do, it’s usually in a self-derisive manner: “American fast food culture,” “American lawsuit culture,” “American gun culture.” Everything else that other countries would consider “culture”—Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl, Black Friday shopping—we just take for granted. ! (These are my observations having lived only in the tri-state area. Please do let me know if you have observed differently!)
Perhaps the fact that more Koreans worry about their culture shows that they feel less secure about it. You don’t really have to think about your culture until you come in contact with other cultures deemed more “powerful” than yours. When one of my teachers from Yale, a Korea University (KU) alum, came to Korea, we met up at the Starbucks at KU. “When I was studying here” he said, “there were huge protests when this was being built.” Now nobody questions it, but just ten years ago students were deeply concerned about a bastion of American imperialism setting up shop right under their nose. Korea University, is after all, known as 민족고대 “minjok godae,” that can be understood as “Korea University, those who fight for the Korean race.” (KU students featured prominently in the anti-Japan resistance and pro-democracy movements here.)
Perhaps a deeper reason why Koreans think about their “culture,” is because it is so emphasized in the history curriculum growing up. The historical narrative taught in schools puts their culture in the context of the victimization narrative: “we have been wronged time and time again by outsiders, but yet our ‘minjok’ (our race and all its glorious culture) has survived.” (I have heard highly-educated Koreans say this themselves.) This version of history was written in the 1930s, in order to create a Korean identity separate from that of China and Japan. The man who penned it, Shin Chae-ho’s, main concern was in uniting the Korean people against foreign aggressions, which had historically come from—you guessed it: China and Japan. More on this in another post though.
So anyways, what do I usually do when asked if I’m not interested in Korean history? I’ve found a good workaround is to say, “No (I was not originally interested in your culture), but after I coming to Korea, I’ve made a lot of good friends and have come to appreciate Korean food and history. And I would love to come back again someday.” And that is all true.