Korean Traditions – An Introduction

korean traditionsTraditions have always been perceived as knowledge, believes and customs that have been handed down from one generation to the next from time immemorial. Some traditions have been refined, thanks to progressive minded individuals who have filtered believes of their ancestors and re-established old virtues in a new light. As an example, the European Intellectual movement of the 17th and the 18th centuries (also known as enlightenment) which brought about a shift in the thinking of educated men, from traditional and established practices to more reason based conclusions, can be cited here. Some traditions, on the other hand, have been kept alive in the truest of forms for thousands of years. These traditions often make up the foundations of societies, helping them to stay as a cohesive unit and maintain their identity in a fast ever changing world. The threat of losing their existence have, thus, to some extent, forced societies to treasure their age-old traditions and practice them with vigor. E.g. the ancient art of marble cutting and setting of semi-precious stones on them has survived for more than 500 years in India. The age old tradition of stone cutting and stone setting can still be seen if you make your way through the streets of Agra in India.

Traditions have, thus, always maintained a love and hate relationship with society. While some traditional believes have been defied and challenged by intellectuals, such as those belonging to the age of reasoning, trying to establish their own, others have been maintained with earnest for thousands of years.

Every country, every society and every family has its own traditions and customs. It is a bond that connects one generation with the next and transcends beyond families to create the moral and social fabric of a nation. As a mandatory requirement of globalization, every business leader is required to understand the culture and traditions of the people they are dealing with. Let’s look at some traditions from Korea in this discussion.

Korean Traditions

When we speak of Korean traditions we have to take into account the unified Korean peninsula. However, since the breakup of the country into North and South, over the last seven decades the traditions have evolved and have taken their separate paths. However, having said that, Korean traditions both north and south of the border, have many similarities.

Chinese and Japanese Influence Over Korean Culture

Korea has been influenced by both Japanese and Chinese cultures. There had been bitter battles fought between its mainland and Sea of Japan rivals over hundreds of years. The Japanese occupied Korea for the first half of the 20th century and was only liberated after the allies fought and won the war for the Korean peninsula. Though what happened afterwards was not something that the Koreans expected. Korea got divided into two nations. They fought a bitter war, with each half claiming control over the entire peninsula and now shares one of the most dangerous borders in the whole world. Both China and Japan had exerted their influence over the Korean culture.

The Impact of Confucianism in Korean Culture

Confucianism was brought over by the Chinese. It established a tradition to maintain a code of conduct in social life which can still be seen in modern Korea. Confucianism revolves around the importance of respect to elders and the importance of one’s family to one’s life. While growing up, children are inculcated the belief that for them their parents are the most important people in the whole world. They can never hope to return the debt that they owe to their parents. Koreans hold special rituals three or four times a year where their ancestors are worshipped. The New Year starts with a ritual too and everybody bows down to their ancestors and the oldest living persons in the family in a traditional way known as ‘Seh Bae’. Food and drink are prepared and set out to honor the spirits of the departed older generations.

Korean Family Values

Families in the western societies believe in autonomy of every living soul. It is unthinkable for a grown up boy or girl to stay back with his / her parents. Similarly, it is unimaginable that older parents would prefer to stay with their children after they have grown up. Of course there is an element of respect that exist between parents and their grown up children but parents don’t feel like burdening their children to take care of them nor do they have any other expectations, financial or otherwise from their children. Most Asian communities have a completely different notion of family values and traditions. A typical Korean family is no different and here children live with their parents long after they are grown up and capable of fending for themselves. Koreans don’t quite believe in the western ways of life, and certainly have no confidence in the way western family lives are.

An average Korean is expected to not only respect his parents and give them a proper funeral after their death, but also take care of them when they are incapable of taking care of themselves. Their duty comes from the fact that they owe their life and their upbringing to their parents. After the death of their parents they are expected to perform the necessary rituals. But their duty does not end here. They are expected to have children of their own to ensure that the family bloodline continues long after their parents are gone.

Koreans believe that no living being is alone in this world and there is no defining line of coming to an existence or destruction, which is the normal way of thinking. Birth and death are mere incidents. Every living being carries with him / her a part of his / her ancestors, meaning his ancestors continue to live through them the future descendants for as long as the blood line continues. Although it may sound like some far-fetched theory developed by a Na’vi, it is to some extent a very common notion among a number of Asian communities.

The Korean Way of Calculating Age

Believe it or not, the Korean traditional way of calculating the age of individuals is not by his / her birthdays but on the basis of years. Let’s say you are born on the 15th of September 1960. That will make you 54 on the 15th of September this year as per the western calendar. However, the Korean way of calculating age is by years. Plus, they would add 1 (or 2 in some cases) to arrive at your age. Following that method, makes you 2014-1960+1 = 55 years old at the turn of the last New Year! Gulp!

Practical Tips if  You’re Traveling to Korea

Are you planning to visit Korea? The land of mythical mountains, magnificent palaces and mouth-watering delicacies can really surprise you if you are unprepared. So, in your best interest here are a few tips for you to remember before you hop on to that flight heading Seoul.

Table Manners

An important part of any culture is its culinary delicacies. But even before you can dig into traditional delicacies such as ‘Pap’ or ‘Kimchi’ or ‘Taenjang kuk’ you need to know a few things about Korean table manners, lest you appear rude to your hosts. First things first. Traditionally, Korean culture requires of their men to eat first before the females. There are various other details and twists to this but in the modern Korean society this is not strictly followed. However, what is followed is that the eldest of the family is the first to eat. Usually what happens is that the entire family will sit together with everybody helping to set the table. The eldest of the family will take the first bite before everyone else does.

Leave Your Shoes behind When Entering Someone’s Home

Koreans revere their floors. If you are to make the cardinal mistake of walking into someone’s home with your shoes on you will be frowned upon and will be considered extremely rude. Respect the culture and believes and they will love you for that.

Kibun

Kibun is a concept of Korean culture and social life and can be compared to respect and dignity elsewhere. Every person tries not to hurt the Kibun of the other person he / she is interacting with as it is vital for maintaining a peaceful social state. While interacting with others it is thus advisable to keep an eye on the mood of the other individual. It can be a very delicate thing to understand for someone coming from a different culture, not knowing when you have transgressed your line. The easiest way is to watch and learn and stay within a degree of modesty when interacting with Koreans.

Thou Shalt Not Smile

Walking through the streets of Korea you will notice something uncanny about the Korean people. They never smile! Not even while they eat. The worst thing is Koreans don’t even speak while they are eating! This is unlike anything around the world. Everywhere else friends and families will smile, speak and discuss issues while munching their favorite food. Just in case you are travelling to Korea for a business meet and your idea of closing deals is over lunch or breakfast, don’t even think about it!

Straight Talking is Better

Speaking of not talking, when Koreans speak they are usually straight talkers and will not hesitate to ask you to explain when they don’t understand something. If you believe in straight talking and is clear and precise in your communication, you will love this notion of communication. Additionally, doing business and achieving sales success in Korea usually means getting to know a person socially. You need someone to socially introduce you before you can start doing business with someone.