Understanding Cultural Differences

Written by on August 29, 2014 in Special Report, Worldwide Korea Bloggers

Watching your favorite Korean star in a popular TV drama or discovering a new K-Pop idol group may have made you think how great it would be to have the next best thing: having a Korean friend. In my case, I was simply looking for a Korean that can teach me the fundamentals of Korean grammar and make me more familiarized with hangeul (한글), the system of writing.

My interest in learning the Korean language grew the more Korean friends I made and the more discounted flights there were from Manila to Seoul and back again. With Korea being just less than 4 hours away on a low-cost airline, I’ve been tempted to go at least twice a year. And each time I was tempted, I indulged myself by going. Anyway, who can refuse a 100-dollar roundtrip promo?

However cheap the plane tickets may have seemed, leaving my city every week for language classes can still burn a hole in my pocket. Having a Korean tutor based in Manila would be great, although that didn’t come too easily because they were either tourists taking a brief vacation or English students enrolled in a short term course. Fortunately for me, a Filipino friend referred me to Oh-Hyun, a Korean who happened to be a university student and had plans of staying until he finishes his degree.

Oh-Hyun and I met on a regular basis for our Korean lessons. At that time, I was taking already taking formal lessons at the Korean Cultural Center but I needed supplementary tutorials to help me increase my knowledge on the language. We spent a lot of time studying and we eventually became best friends. And as expected, like any two close friends, misunderstanding can arise due to cultural differences. My friendship with Oh-Hyun taught me how to be a bit more Korean in the following aspects:

Importance of Time
Every second counts for Koreans. Their ppali ppali (빨리빨리) culture, meaning to be fast-paced, has trained them to not waste any time. Buses and trains in Seoul arrive and leave on time, public gatherings are not delayed, and restaurant waiters are quick like lightning in serving dishes. A small delay of 5 or 10 minutes can already cause frustration.  On the other hand, Manila traffic jams are a norm and rainy days can deliver massive floods around the metropolis, so being late for an appointment is oftentimes forgivable. There were a couple of instances that I was late for a tutor session and it made Oh-Hyun irritated. He then became more understanding after living in Manila for several months and didn’t mind my late arrivals as long as I call him early if I’m already caught in a bad traffic jam.

One distinct characteristic in Korean culture is the concept of brotherhood. They can be very expressive in how much they appreciate you by giving a long and tight hug, saying “I miss you”,  inviting you to a jjimjilbang (찜질방; bath house) wherein both of you are completely naked or putting a samgyupsal (삼겹살) wrap in your mouth just like the photo above. Try searching “Kpop bromance” on Youtube and you will understand what I mean. I’ve experienced these whenever I am in Korea and I’ve gotten used to such practices.  While this may be construed as something more than a platonic relationship before two men, this bond is a facet of same-sex friendships in Korean culture. With the Philippines taking on so much of the machismo culture, there is a completely different idea on how two male friends should relate to each other. This can probably be attributed to the long Spanish and American colonizations that had strict rules on masculine affection. For Oh-Hyun, he really didn’t mind but I had to explain that there is a possibility that people might take our closeness the wrong way. So we try to be conscious with our actions, like being careful in uploading photos of us together on Facebook that can be categorically labeled as “over-bromance.”

Age Matters
Strictly speaking, in Korean society, you can only be friends with someone who is within the same age group. A hyung (형; a term used by a guy for an older brother) can’t be friends with a dongsaeng (동생, a younger guy) but this doesn’t mean that they can’t have a deep and close relationship.  A dongsaeng is expected to show a certain level of respect to a hyung. The whole hyung-dongsaeng concept is not new to me but I still feel uncomfortable whenever Oh-Hyun performs simple tasks for me like washing the dishes after eating or carrying grocery bags even if I can bring them. I attempt to volunteer but he would still insist on doing these duties since he is the younger one.

Another interesting part  is that the older pays for the younger. Dutch pay isn’t as common as it is in other countries. This practice was surprising for me during my first few visits in Korea. My older Korean friends would lavishly spend for a lunch meet-up or a night of drinking. So as a form of “revenge” to Oh-Hyun, I frequently pay for both of us whenever I hang out with him.  At first, he felt awkward and pointed out that I’m a foreigner so I’m not obliged to practice that part of Korean culture. But as time goes by, we had adjusted to each other’s actions and we feel truly grateful when one shows a gesture of kindness towards the other. 

I have identified several things that friends from different cultures can find surprising — and sometimes irritating — about each other. However, it goes without saying that with a Korean friend or not, cultural differences will always be present and they will most likely spark misunderstandings. That’s why it is always important to accommodate each other’s differences by learning and understanding deeply rooted practices. I am still learning, but discovering differences and finding ways to work around it with a dear friend is always worth the trouble.

To know more about our friendship and to see the video we submitted for a 2013 contest by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which received a Bronze recognition), click here: My Korean Best Friend

About the Author

Marius Oczon

Marius Oczon is a social media manager based in Manila, Philippines. Occasionally, he is also a photographer and graphic designer. His passion for travel has lead him to explore various parts of the globe but he considers South Korea as his second home because of its rich culture, warm people, and the unlimited appetizers whenever he eats in a Korean restaurant. You can visit his website at http://www.mariusoczon.com