Video Podcast „Do you got Seoul? The Seoulistic Way of Life – Preparing for a Semester Abroad”

Podcast by Theresa von Rüden, Pascal Kromm, Anna Fahle, Christine Triep, Christina Warnecke

1. What is our video podcast about?

The following video podcast tells you how Pascal, who is a German graduate student, tries to prepare for his semester abroad in South Korea. Pascal has just received his letter of admission from the popular Ewha Woman’s University located in the heart of Seoul. However, realizing that he is just about to travel to the other side of the world, he recognizes that until now he does not really know a lot about his future home.

Together with his brother he asks some fellow students to get an impression of what European students actually connect with South Korea. It soon becomes clear, that South Korea is still a little bit of a mystery in our part of the world. For this reason, he continues his research with the help of the internet. Soon he realizes that South Koreans behave differently than Europeans within the same situation. They address the saleswoman with “aunt” instead of “Ms.”; they behave weird when they receive their examination results and act totally different compared to European students when meeting their professor on the corridor…With the help of explanatory videos in which experts analyze the situations, he finally finds out about the reasons for their behaviour that is deeply rooted in their culture.

Before heading off to Seoul he finally has the chance to talk to two South Korean students who are currently enrolled at his university. The two girls explain the different behaviours again from a Korean point of view and illustrate how the South Korean culture still affects daily life.

2. What was our motivation and intention?

During the last weeks and especially during the Korean language class in Bochum we realized that South Korean culture is a complex and not easy-to-reach topic. With the help of several role-playings our teachers tried to demonstrate differences in the South Korean and European behaviour. One and the same situation may be solved totally different by a South Korean agent than we as Europeans would expect them. As the culture lies at the very bottom of every society we decided to deal with this as a main topic in our podcast.

South Korea and Germany are located at the very other end of the scale from an individualistic to a collectivistic culture. This was – as we probably all know – already explored by Hofstede in his popular cross-national study with IBM employees (1991). It is thus likely to find out differences in our daily behaviour. While conducting research for this project work we got to know that the South Korean culture is especially rooted in the Confucianism. However, it needs to be taken into consideration that Confucianism, that was initially explored and nurtured by Confucius (Xinzhong, 2000), can rather be described as a moral value system than a religion. Moreover, it has no legal applicability. Literature prevails that Confucianism has influenced South Korea for hundreds of years. Confucian ethical values still play an essential role in the manner and ways Koreans establish and maintain interpersonal relationships (cf. Lee-Scherpinski, 2011).

Therefore, our intention was to figure out how Confucianism affects the South Korean way of life or as we have put it, the “seoulistic” way of life. After examining different situations and explaining them with the help of Confucian principles, we wanted further to find out to what extent does Confucianism still apply today. To put it in a nutshell:

  • Why do South Koreans act different in the same situation?
  • Can the behaviour be explained with the help of Confucian principles? How?
  • What role does Confucianism play in today’s daily life?
  • What do South Koreans say themselves? How do they experience Confucianism?

3. Reflection

Before actually starting to film we did a lot of reading on South Korean culture, its value system and, of course, the whole concept of Confucianism. To be honest, we already had some specific ideas in our mind regarding what to expect because we have all been more or less in touch with Confucian principles during the ASBE programme.

At some point we thought that literature might be idealistic and to some extent exaggerating concerning the actual application of Confucianism in daily life. Sure, the video scenes are intentionally a bit overacted to clearly illustrate where the Confucian behaviour is reflected; however, while working together with two South Korean exchange students, Sola Kim and Dahye Dana Kim to keep the scenes as authentic as possible we realized that Confucianism is actually still deeply rooted at all levels of society. Even if it is not always obviously recognizable, every South Korean has a very sensitive feeling towards the Confucian values and expects from its interaction partner to value these principles.

Thanks to the video podcast and the close cooperation with the South Korean exchange students – who supported us in choosing the situations and dialogues – we could learn a lot about the importance of Confucian principles in today’s South Korea. We are aware of the fact that South Koreans still attach great importance to the traditional Confucian views even if South Korea seems to be more and more adapting to Western culture and lifestyle. We thank Sola and Dahye for helping us to understand their culture a little bit better and feel now prepared for our semester abroad. Our new knowledge might become very important in order to get in touch with South Koreans and make real friends.

4. Internet Sources

Hofstede, Geert, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov.Cultures and Organizations:
Software of the Mind, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2010.

Lee-Scherpinski, Anna (2011): Die Bedeutung von Emotionen in koreanischen
Institutionen. In: Interculture Journal. <http://www.interculture-journal.com
/download/issues/2011_14.pdf>, 10.05.2014.

Xinzhong, Lao (2000): Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian Classes. In: An
Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. PP. 16-35.

5. Transcription

[Introductory Scene]

Pascal: (Happy about something) Jonny, come over I’ve got mail.

Jonny: What did you say?

Pascal: I’ve got mail, I’ve got the admission from Seoul South Korea, from the EWHA.

Jonny: Yeaha, congratulation!

Pascal: Thank you!

Jonny: But I have no idea about South Korea.

Pascal: Me neither, very good question. Let’s go to the campus, we can ask some people.

Jonny: Alright, let’s have a look.

[On-campus interviews]

Reporter: When you think about South Korea…what comes to your mind?

Student 1: North and South Korea!

Student 2: Strange food.

Student 3: One of my cousins went to university in South Korea two years ago and he told
me that people are very good and friendly and his experiences were very good.
He told me that it’s a good place to visit. I don’t know much about South Korea
but I have heard much from my cousin…he told me very good things.

Student 4: The first things are high technology, good weather, spicy food and nice
people.

Student 5: Dispute with North Korea.

Student 6: Nothing really…not much…because I’m not so much in touch with Korea or
news related to South Korea.

Student 7: They don’t do so well in the World Cup.

Student 8: There are many hierarchies. It is better off than North Korea, more interesting
in economic regards.

Student 9: Strong community feeling.

Student 10: Western-oriented.

Student 11: I think that family plays a very important role and I also think that sons are
more important than daughters.

[Pascal starts research on the internet]

Pascal: I talked to so many people about South Korea, but I still don’t know how the Korean behave, maybe I can find out (in the internet).

(He starts looking on the internet, what he can find out about South Korea)


[Scene 1: Ajuma Kiosk Scene]

Ajuma: Please come in!

Tourist: Good day! Ajuma (=aunt), do you have a dental kit with toothpaste and a toothbrush?

Ajuma: Yes, sure, here it is. Do you also need a set with shampoo and conditioner?

Tourist: Yes, please. Please hand me the set with shampoo and conditioner, too. Ajuma, (=aunt), well, do you also have something against mosquitoes?

Ajuma: No, it’s not here. Unfortunately I do not have something against mosquitoes.

Tourist: Ok, then please give me the coffee. How much is this in total?

Ajuma: Everything together is 10,500 won.

Tourist: Here it is.

Ajuma: Thank you.

Tourist: Thank you very much.

Ajuma: Thank you. Bye bye.

Tourist: Bye!

Expert 1: Familial Confucianism

As just shown in the shopping scene, the customer calls the vendor “ajuma” which can be translated as “aunt”. What first seems to be quite surprising to Western people is in fact common habit in South Korea. But why? The reason lies in the so-called “Familial Confucianism”:

Although Confucianism is nowadays neither imparted in formal education nor embedded in Korean law, its fundamental principal and values are still prevalent in the Korean way of life, especially in the context of family.
Confucian societal ethics consider the individual in terms of its ascribed role in the social hierarchy as well as its reciprocal relationships with others.
Within a family everyone is born with a predefined status that comes along with certain commitments regarding the other family members.
For example the reciprocal relationship of parents and children consists of parental care on the one side and respect and obedience on the other side.
The human essence is seen as relational and can be defined in terms of emotions that connect people. As this feeling of bond is prototypically felt among family members, family plays a superordinate role in the Korean everyday life.

Due to its superior role, family is considered the centre of the social system. Modes of behavior that are applied in the context of family should prepare for interpersonal relationships in the societal sphere. Social networks are therefore regarded as an imitation of family life.
This imitation equally manifests itself with regard to language. Koreans address older friends as “older brother /“older sister” or vendors as “aunt” as just presented in the video clip.
By calling the vendor “ajuma” the concept of respect/honor that is applied in the context of family, is transferred to the public sphere with the aim of establishing a harmonious relationship.


[Scene 2: Examination results]

(Setting: Classroom, teacher enters the classroom holding three booklets.)

Teacher:    Good morning guys.

[Teacher writes the Korean word for exam at the blackboard.]

Teacher: As you can see: today is a special day. I’ve got the results of the exam with me. First of all, I’d like to give you a short overview.

[Teacher draws the performance record at the blackboard. The results are as follows: 1*A, 1*B, 1*C]

Teacher: If you have any questions regarding the exam, we can deal with it after class.
Now I like to start with Sola. Best exam. Well done!

[Teacher hands the first exam to the Korean girl Sola. Sola throws just a short glimpse at her results and bags her booklet immediately.]

Teacher: I’d like to continue with Christine. Also, well done!

[Teacher hands the second exam to the Western girl Christine. Christine looks at her results immediately and turns over to the Western girl Anna.]

Teacher: And Anna; also, well done!

[Teacher hands the third exam to the Western girl Anna. Anna first looks at her results and then looks at Christine. Christine shows her results to Anna.]

Christine:    I’ve got a B-! What about you?

[Anna shows her results to Christine.]

Anna: I’ve got a C+!

Christine: Yeah! Well done!

Anna gives Christine a high five.

Expert 2: Chemyon

As it was shown in previous scene, there are huge differences in the reactions of Western students compared to Korean students, when they receive their marks.
This is due to the different cultural terms of saving ones face. Chemyon: The South Korean term Chemyon means „harmony by saving ones face“. This derived from the fact that South Korea is a Confucian affected country, which implies a collectivistic orientated culture. In such cultures the feeling of community („we“-feeling) has the function to guard the group (and this means in the end the whole South Korean society) from external influences. Therefore the group members have a strong motivation to keep harmony, conformity and consensus and to avoid risks that could harm the connection between members of their group. Such risks concerning the Korean interaction are aligned with the saving of one’s face. The social face can be divided into three dimensions:

  • Personal image of the self…
  • Deviated from positive social moral concepts…
  • Utilized by interactions with others

The face is something given by the community based on one’s own social position and status concerning the society’s hierarchy. It is saved by being in accordance with the expectations, normality concepts and social moral concepts of the society through behavior and action.
For a harmonic interaction it is very essential to respect ones partner of interaction, to be empathic and sensible and not to hurt one another. Thereby it is also possible not only to save one’s own face or the one of the partner of interaction but also to award face.
Besides, it is important to question one’s own position in society by critical self-reflection to avoid exposed emotional releases like disappointment or anger.
This is what we wanted to show in the previous scene. The Korean girl threw just a short glance at her results and tried not to show any emotional reaction.


[Scene 3: Students meet professor]

[Korean Version]

Teacher: Ah Ms. Kim!

Korean Student: Hello! (takes a bow and looks away)

[Western Version]

Western Student 1: Have you already seen the pictures of the last party?

Western Student 2: Noo, please show me! Oh, hey Mr. Kromm, how was your weekend? (touching Mr. Kromm’s arm)

Mr. Kromm: Hey, very good. My football team won and we are the champions now!

Western Students: Oh, wow, great!

Mr. Kromm: Come on, let’s talk about it in class.

Students: Ok!

Expert 3: Hierarchy in Korea – “Sajiji – Do”

As we have just seen in the previous scene, Korean students react quite differently in interactions with their professors in comparison to western students. While the Western Students start talking with their professor – even about private things – the Korean Student just bows and looks away when meeting the professor on campus. But why is it like that?
To understand this you need to know about the concept of “Sajiji Do”– which is Korean and expresses the importance of hierarchy within the Korean society.
Since ancient time, Korea has culturally been influenced by the ideology of Confucianism thereby it is characterized as a hierarchical society.
In Korea, social harmony results in part from every individual knowing his or her place in the natural order and playing his or her part very well without the need of justification.
There are five main relationships in Confucianism which can be named as ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother and friend to friend.
You may or may not have realized, nearly all of them are hierarchical. Hierarchy and ones position in Korea is therefore largely defined by age, marital status, job position or time spent in education.
In General, the older person is always ranked higher than the younger one and thus has to be treated with respect – in our case the Korean student showed her respect bowing in front of her professor.
South Korean students view their professors as a maximum authority, which is never to be questioned. As a result, it is not proper to ask questions in class or to evaluate the opinions, ideas or orders of a higher ranked person – in our case the professor. Western Students as Foreigners are – by definition – outsiders of these hierarchical orders. They can expect to be treated at the highest level of respect and care by their Korean counterparts. Nevertheless they should act appropriately when being in Korea.


[Scene 4: Wrap-up]

Expert 4: Ok, let’s some up what we have learned about the Korean cultural value system. Why do Koreans act different in the same situation? As already mentioned, the explanation lies in the Confucianism. But we have to keep in mind, that this is not a religion, it is a way of living, a moral system that defines the social relation among the individuals of a society. So let’s have a look at this graphic. The South Korean Confucianism positions the family into the center of the society. It is a prototype for all the other existing societal networks. That’s why we talk about familial Confucianism. Inside the family we do have a clear structure. The relationship between husband and wife, or elder siblings and younger siblings is clearly defined as a one-sided relation of obedience. As the Korean culture is characterized by a collectivistic nature, not-loosing-one’s-face is of crucial importance to sustain a harmonious living together. These inner-familial practices can then be projected to the whole of the society. To put it in a nutshell: The rules that count inside the family count for every other existing social relationship. This explains the seniority principle in educational institutions and at the work place to the same extent as it explains the imitation of family life –as we have seen – through the use of language.

[Pascal meets South Korean students]

Pascal: So I learned a lot about Confucianism and now I’ve got the great chance to talk to two experts from South Korea, two exchange students.
(Walks over to Korean students)
Hi guys!

Sola & Dahye (Korean students): Hi!

Pascal: And this is Dahye from Seoul, and this is Sola. And my first question is what comes to your mind if you think about Confucianism?

Dahye: For me as Korean, I think Confucianism is very important in Korean society and relationships. There are some Confucian virtues that are passed on till today. The first most important thing is that young people should respect older people and old people always come first. Because in Korean language, you know that there are two forms, impolite forms and polite forms. According to that language form the order or rank is formed between young people and old people. So if you visit Korea you have to keep in mind that old people are always first.

Sola: Second there is a politeness between higher and lower position. In Korea the relationship is very important and how people evaluate oneself is also important. In that case people in a higher position play a very important role.

Pascal: And do you think that it’s still an important topic today?

Sola: Yeah it is still important, but it does not affect legally. However, if you want to be more adaptable to Korean society or if you want to make a relationship with Korean people it could be better to understand Korean Confucianism.

Pascal: Thank you!

Dahye: You’re welcome!

[Closing scene]

Pascal: Now I am ready for South Korea, I know how to behave there to find friends and I think it will be a great time.

(He leaves Paderborn to travel to South Korea to start his studies there and to find out how it is like to live within the South Korean culture).

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