When In Korea, do as Koreans do.

Kibum's article on KAIST Herald
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)’s KAIST Herald reporter Kibum Park received some mild social media celebrity (by that I mean negative) status writing about how foreign students in Korea should be adept at speaking Korean and that not doing so is creating this great invisible wall between nationals from his country and foreigners. In all honesty, I only took notice of the article after a senior of mine shared the story of his friend getting really pissed off with what Kibum had to say. Somehow, I had the same copy of the newspaper from my visit to the SaTRec this week and I read through it and here’s my take on what he has to say.

He’s spot on.

As an ex-student journalist and an editor, I would have advised him to rewrite it and focus on cultural differences rather the language primarily, but he does have some valid point up his sleeve nonetheless.

Getting the full picture

When we used work for the SNU Quill, our university’s journal, the way we approached listing down topics of next issue was quite random. Some people would take ages to decide what to write, some people would have these moments of epiphany in some circumstance and would basically give me a call right then to see if the topic would work.

Kibum had that epiphany.

Somehow he seemed have channeled his inner anger on writing, as most writers tend to do. If you had the full issue, you will have noticed that he interviewed the new KAIST International Student Association (KISA) president, Wajhat Tahir, a sophomore in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. When Kibum asked Wajhat about what the biggest issue for internationals in KAIST is, he replies saying that “there is a gap” and there’s “lack of interaction” between foreigners and Korean students.

You see why he went through the trouble of writing that article down? As a Korean himself (which I assume) he knew exactly what the problem was and he had a solution for it. It’s his opinion, he’s a student journalist without pay (which I also assume) and his expected to fill the empty spaces in a paper.

That’s completely understandable.

Why Koreans are reluctant to talk in English

Here’s how the thought process of the rest of the world works; I don’t know shit but I am going to show how good I am. For instance, if you go to Nepal, you will almost certainly see people trying to interact with a foreigner even when their skill level is basically down the toilet. They both have a hard time understanding each other, but the connection is there, the interaction is there.

In Korea, things work a little differently. The society is based on excellence. Let me rephrase that; this is a society that’s obsessed with excellence. So much so that they expect themselves to be absolutely perfect in whatever they are doing. That’s because the competition here is cut throat, and anything less than being the best at everything they do will seriously undermine their existence.

Call my observations an exaggeration, but the reality speak for itself.

So when they aren’t confident enough about something, like speaking English for example, they just don’t do it. Think about a time you meet a Korean and he/she starts out with the sentence “My English isn’t good but..” Compare that to me where the only time I say my Korean isn’t good is when I have to bullshit my way through a Korean medium class I have to take. As someone who managed to get through graduation required course College Korean (대학국어) solely by google translate and massive amount of cheating, I should be saying that my Korean is shit all the time, to whoever I meet whenever I open my mouth to speak Korean.

I look stupid, but I speak the language anyways if I need to. And that’s the difference.

Reverse Engineering Culture

The book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg explains that people have their own habits and habits define who they are and what they are capable of. Not talent, not any other bullshit we learnt to fantasize about. Just plain old habits.

Turns out, it’s not just individuals that have habits. Institutions too have habits of their own too. They have a specific habit they have adhered to and they know it works and that’s how they stick to it. That same idea can be extended from an individual, to an institution to a national institution like, you guessed it, a country.

South Korea, like any other country, has its own habits. What’s important to realize is that habits form culture and that is why it’s so difficult to go against the culture of any country and try to impose your own. The deep rooted habits that you grew up clash with the habits that Koreans have learnt to adhere to and that’s where the interaction gets all F**ked up.

Problem, Solution: How to survive in Korea

madeinepal's very own male model
So when you ask somebody to learn the culture, you are asking someone to learn the habits. Habits are the building blocks. Going back to the article, what Kibum was trying to exert on his one-nighter piece is that foreigners, having decided to come to Korean, should learn the habits that Koreans are familiar with.

You do that and the interaction is there.

We can now move on to characterize the habits. As someone who has no Korean language skill and still managed to survive here for 6 odd years, I have identified two habits of highly effective Koreans that must be taken into consideration in order to “fit” in the society.

Controlled Alcoholism
Drink. I don’t know what better verb to put here but drink your heart out when you go out. Alcoholism in Korea is widely accepted, surprisingly appreciated and if you can drink that bottle of soju, you will be part of the culture. Koreans will like you for that and you will learn to love to drink.

There are a few nations in this world that “loves” to stay behind and work, but South Korea, unfortunately, is one of them. You stay back, work your butts off, show results and you are part of the culture. On top of that, learn to respect the hierarchy and nod at everything.

Here’s the thing though, this is what has worked for me. People are different, institutions have their own tweaked habits. The point to adapt is to identify the patterns, otherwise known as habits, and stick with them.

Word of advice for foreigners, don’t bother going against the system. As the police officer, while placing me under arrest for no reason once said, “It’s not your bloody* country”

Just let it be and you will feel more in control.

*I added that. 


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