South Korea: In The Eyes of an Expatriate
South Korea entered my consciousness through Hallyu – a term that when translated to English means Korean Wave. And yes, when that cultural wave reached our shores, South Korean dramas, movies, and music drowned the country’s airwaves. Local magazines and the entertainment sections of newspapers regularly featured K-pop artists and other Korean TV and movie personalities. Before long, other aspects of Korean culture – food, fashion, lifestyle, and what have you – started to deeply influence me and my countrymen.
Before the Korean Wave came, I knew not much about South Korea. I remember checking the encyclopedia for information about the Korean war when I took World History when I was a college student. It was only then that I found out that my country was one of those which sent troops to help this country to ward off the Communist invasion from north of its borders.
Just imagine how dreadful a picture of the war-torn Korean peninsula the things that I read created in my mind. It was horrible, to say the least. The death and destruction were too much to bear.
But before I graduated, I had another chance to check the encyclopedia for more information about South Korea when the country hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. Because of the said sporting event, South Korea was all over the news. That triggered my curiosity thus I checked the encyclopedia to once again read something about the said nation.
I saw a country different from what those pages about the Korean war presented to me. I found out that the nation called “Land of the Morning Calm” rebounded from the horrors of the Korean war and eventually became very progressive. Then I wondered at that time and asked – “What did the South Koreans do that enabled them to, like the legendary Phoenix, rise from the ashes of a horrendous war at that time and even became only the second country in Asia to host the world’s biggest sporting event?”
As years passed, I learned more and more about South Korea, not only through traditional media but more from the Internet (which became more accessible than when I was in college). I got to see more and more Korean dramas. It made me, just like many of my countrymen, want to visit the country so bad. I wanted to visit the places in the country that I got to see only on TV programs and movies. I wanted to try soju and maekju and when the two are combined – somaek. I wanted to taste kimchi and eat Korean dishes prepared and served by Koreans. I wanted to try bibimbap, pyo haejangguk, and kalguksu served with plenty of banchan in a restaurant in South Korea, not in a Korean restaurant in my native land. I wanted to meet real Korean people. In short, I wanted to have an authentic Korean experience. I personally call that my “Korean dream.”
That urge became stronger when I enrolled in the program Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). South Korea was mentioned by the program coordinator as one of the countries considered as premiere destination for ESL teachers. Thus, since teaching overseas is an option in the career path I set for myself, I thought that if I would teach abroad, why not in South Korea? My “Korea dream” suddenly expanded – I no longer just wanted to have an authentic Korean cultural experience but to live and work in this country.
Then I did what I had to do for that “Korean dream” to come true. I left no stone unturned.
My persistence and hard work eventually paid off. My wish was granted. I was given the opportunity to live that dream when a university hired me as a teacher. So, off to South Korea, I flew.
As soon as I exited Gimhae Airport, I started having that authentic Korean experience. The early spring weather giving me an icy cold welcome got it going.
As days and weeks passed, I gradually immersed myself into the country’s culture. I was no longer just watching the people of this land from the television set, the silver screen, and the World Wide Web. It’s no longer a Korean drama I was watching but it’s real Korean life I was experiencing… from reel to real. I got what I wanted.
I started mingling with real Korean people – real men and women and not fictional characters. I dined with them, drank their wine and beer, ate their kimchi and their delicious dishes, and spoke (a little) of their language.
I witnessed their way of life and even adopted some parts of it. I saw what’s inside their houses, their theatres, their bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. I have entered their museums, strolled in their parks, and hiked in their mountains.
Through daily encounters with my Korean students, colleagues, and friends, I was also able to probe into their character. I confirmed that just like what I saw in their dramas, South Koreans fall in love, get angry, feel sad and happy, and suffer from anxiety and stress. In short, just like me or any average human being from any part of the world, they also ride the roller coaster of emotions. They do have strengths and weaknesses too. They are not faultless… like me. Anyway, nobody is. They also have fears and uncertainties. But just like me and anyone else, they have dreams and ambitions. They have plans and a vision of a good life in the future for themselves and their families.
I discovered more. I found out that their prosperity is not a myth. Those things I saw in Korean dramas and movies that indicate how progressive and modernized their country is are not fictitious. Their provinces, cities, and towns are effectively interconnected by impressive highway systems that how I wish we could also have in my country of origin. How I wish that our telecom companies could provide us with internet connectivity as fast as South Korea’s.
With everything that I have seen and experienced, I could not help but compare this country to mine. I could not help but be envious of the South Koreans for what they have accomplished as a nation. As I stayed here longer, my “How I wish!” list grew longer. How I wish that in my country, packages could be left in front of our doors, even for days, not fearing that somebody would steal them. How I wish we could also send to prison our politicians who would be found guilty of wrongdoings without fearing that when a political ally would become the next president they would be granted a pardon. How I wish we would take research as seriously and meticulously as the Koreans do.
Whatever metrics I used for the comparison, it was a mismatch with this country always ending up on top after all the comparative analyses I performed except for this – my country has a younger population where the median age is less than 26 years. For this country, it’s more than 40 years. I will no longer be citing other statistics like those of life expectancy, GDP, and international ranking of universities. South Korea’s numbers are far more superior to my country’s.
In addition, South Korean students perform better in Math and Science as compared to the youth of my country. If there is any consolation though, I and my countrymen scored higher in English proficiency.
But does it matter if we in our country are better at English? Does it make my country better than South Korea? The answer is obvious – NO. There is no direct correlation between a country’s English proficiency and its economic performance. If there is, then why does this country, as of 2020, rank as the world’s 10th biggest economy while mine barely made it to the list of newly-industrialized countries?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not putting my country down while I am seemingly extolling South Korea. I love the country where I was born and I am proud to be its citizen. I am just wondering how come this country has gone this far leaving my native land way behind in the race to prosperity and stability.
My desire to figure that out led me to read more about the history of this country. In the process, I discovered certain uncanny similarities between our historical experiences. Both South Korea and my native land are colonized nations and earned independence after the second world war. Both countries embraced the democratic form of government thereafter. Additionally, just like in my country, the development of democracy here in South Korea was interrupted by military takeovers, and what a coincidence that martial law in our countries was declared both in 1972. Was it also a coincidence that powerful military leaders in both countries were removed via popular revolt in the mid 1980s?
Unfortunately, the similarities in the historical development of this nation and mine stop there. We took different paths in building our nations from the ashes of colonization, the second world war, and military juntas.
I really tried hard to figure out what happened. What went wrong for my country and conversely, what did the South Koreans do correctly? To think that in the 1950s, while my country was soaking in the glory of being Asia’s second strongest economy, the Korean peninsula plunged into a devastating war.
I tried to probe deeper into this nation’s history to find the answer to the following questions: 1. How were the South Koreans able to slay the ghosts of a bitter colonial past?; 2. How did they survive the devastation wrought by the Korean war?; and 3. How did they triumph over internal political turmoil while at the same trying to ward off a belligerent neighbor in North Korea?
How were the South Koreans able to accomplish all of the aforementioned then eventually catapult themselves to their current lofty position in the global community?
Then I found out what the South Koreans did in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis. They willingly donated their gold – jewelry (including their personal wedding rings), medals and trophies, good luck keys, and what have you. This they did to save their economy during that crisis. The collective weight of the gold they donated may not be that much. But more significant than the corresponding monetary value of their donation was the willingness of the South Koreans to make a personal sacrifice for their country. I call that nationalism. If it’s not then I don’t know what is. It is the same sense of nationalism that emboldened them to resist one military junta after another… to sacrifice their lives and limbs to lay the democratic foundations of this country which eventually became a fertile ground that nurtured the economic prosperity they are currently enjoying.
I also learned about the collectivist culture of these people. They think first of the general welfare over and above their personal interests. This I witnessed first-hand when I saw how the South Koreans willingly obeyed the restrictions set by their government during the early onslaught of Covid-19. There was no need for their leaders to implement a “hard lockdown,” the way other countries did, including mine. The citizens just strictly wore their masks, observe social distancing, and avoided leaving their homes unless it was necessary. They are willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
I think I found the answer to what enabled the South Koreans to attain prosperity and stability – the combination of their nationalism and collectivist culture. I may be wrong but I could not really see any other possible reasons for their success as a nation. There is nothing more potent of a mix for nation-building than the combination of the two. And if they keep using this formula, the future of this nation is secured.
Other expatriates living in this country may not see things here the way I am seeing them. To them the observations I made may not be a big deal. To me, given the situation in my country now, they are.
If only my countrymen would consider including the South Korean model of nationalism and collectivism among the things from this country that we allow ourselves to be influenced by. We should try to find out if we could also propel our own native land to greatness if we would try to emulate the way South Koreans profess their love for their country. We need to see if we could also make our country better if like them we would put the greater good over and above our personal interests.
We copied hook line and sinker (Or was it forced down our throats?) the socio-political and economic models of our colonizers and we are not getting desirable results. Obviously, our needle of success as a nation is barely moving. We have been trying to fit our colonizers’ square peg into our round hole. It’s not working. It’s time for us to rethink our strategies for nation building. Why don’t we try the South Korean model? Let’s see what will happen if we embrace, not only K-dramas, K-pop, and kimchi but also the values that brought the South Koreans to where they are now.