South Korea: My Final Impression
Living abroad for a semester or more can have a significant impact on one’s perspective about a place and its people. I’ve had a handful of chats with various friends before they leave Seoul, listening to their thoughts as they reflect on their time here and summarize their impression of Korean society. With two weeks left before I leave Seoul, the time has come for me to sum up my own impression of this nation that I’ve called home for the past year.
Before I arrived in Seoul, my understanding of Korean society was limited to Korean dramas, content covered through my Korean courses, and a handful of Koreans I got to know who were studying abroad at my home university in Hawaii. I thought I was connected and quite knowledgeable when it came to Korea and its people, but in reality, my understanding of Korean culture and society was shallow. I was up to date with the latest news, but each headline was a distant issue unrelated to me. That was, until I moved to Seoul.
Living in Korea
While attending Korea University this past academic year, I’ve continued to examine the major societal issues that have made headlines in South Korea. Through my program's coursework, I was able to comfortably peer into Korean society through the lens of reporters and experts, but only the Korean friends and co-workers that I interacted with day-to-day took me by the hand and gave me the opportunity to examine Korean society with my own two eyes.
I didn't just read about South Korea’s severe working conditions, I watched my co-workers sit at their desk and push through another day after staying at the office late into the night. I looked into the faces of office workers riding the train home at 11pm, eyes closed and heads tilted back. I didn’t just watch news reports about elderly unemployment. As I walked to class each morning I began to notice elderly men and women scour through roadside trash bags in search for anything they could trade in for cash at a nearby recycling center. Moment by moment, the societal issues I've been studying for the past few years came to life around me.
Halfway through the semester I grew a bit dispirited. I lost count of how many times Koreans have mentioned leaving the country and living elsewhere if they had the money to do so. Some said it jokingly, although most seemed sincere. The utopia that I had once seen through the lens of K-pop and Korean dramas had become “Hell Chosun,” the satirical term that many of my Korean friends used to describe the current socioeconomic state of South Korea.
Just a few days ago I met with a close Korean friend and spent an evening together that subsequently restored my hope in Korean society. We were talking about Brexit and the US elections for most of dinner, but later, found ourselves talking about South Korean societal issues over beer at a nearby pub. As someone currently studying to take the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs examination, this guy knew his stuff. I was impressed by the way he eloquently explained the fundamental shortcomings of Korean society and the factors that contribute to it. He acknowledged the ongoing “brain drain” that is occurring as well-educated Koreans opt to live abroad in search of better opportunity and working conditions. “I don’t know how to fix it,” he said honestly. “I don’t know what the solution is, but I know the first step is acknowledging the problem. If you don’t acknowledge the problem, you can’t fix it.”
He was the first Korean to say that to me. What made those words so impactful was the optimism that I sensed in his voice. He wasn’t going to run from the societal issues his country faced. Rather, he believed in the potential for change, and his courage got me to believe in it too. Despite everything I’ve learned about societal issues in South Korea and the realities I’ve seen with my own eyes while living in Seoul, the positivity of my friend is what I’ve chosen to bear in mind as I leave this country.
My final impression is this: Korea’s destiny is in the hands of its people. If they believe it can change, it will. If they don’t, it won’t.