The Way of Life in Korea
By “Awake!” correspondent in Korea
KOREANS are a very hardy and extremely friendly people. They are quiet and reserved when around their elder family members, but at other times they are particularly jocular and animated in their daily conversation. This gives rise to the question asked by many visitors to Korea: “What are those two arguing about?”
The answer given by the guide is usually the same: “Nothing. This one is inviting that one to have a cup of tea.” An invitation to a cup of tea by a Korean could be viewed by an Englishman as the beginning stages of a street fight.
In general, Koreans are a proud, happy people who love to be with others, laughing and talking. If the guests are foreign, the enjoyment of the host is doubled. He may, if he has invited guests to his home, sing his favorite song to them. However, Korean custom being what it is, guests must now reciprocate and sing their favorite song for their host. This makes for lots of throat clearing and excuses, but the host will be insistent. It is Korean custom.
Many foreign visitors make the mistake of judging Koreans by modern standards. They do not take into consideration that Korea has almost 4,000 years of recorded history and an elaborate set of rules of etiquette. Almost everything that a Korean does is based in some way or another on the system of etiquette.
Visit to a Korean Home
Consider, for example, a typical visit by a foreigner to a Korean household. Houses are often completely surrounded by a high wall with a huge front gate that has a small roof over it. The gate may be a distance of twenty to thirty yards from the house.
So, when knocking on the gate, a person does not knock lightly. He pounds on the gate, even rocks it back and forth on its hinges, to get the housemaid’s attention. She comes out, notices a foreigner along with a Korean, and immediately runs back into the house to get the householder, usually the lady of the house. After greeting the householder with a bow and an honorific greeting, one’s purpose in calling is stated and the householder generally invites the visitor into the inner room of the house.
After seating her guests on the floor on small cushions, the householder makes a rather hasty exit. She goes with the housemaid to the kitchen to prepare some kind of treat. A visitor is expected to wait patiently, even if it is for ten minutes or more.
Soon, just as hurriedly as she left, the householder returns through the sliding doors and sets up a small table in between the two guests and proceeds to fill it with various cookies, sweets and peeled fruit. Then she puts coffee or tea out and sugars it herself as a gesture of kindness. Only after this is small talk engaged in, but it has nothing to do with the purpose of the visit. Several more things have to be got out of the way first. Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Any children? If not, why not? Personal questions that to a Westerner would be totally improper are asked without embarrassment and in good taste; Korean custom allows for it.
After the tea and fruits are finished and most questions have been answered, the householder sits back, satisfied that she has treated her guest, and finally inquires: “Now what exactly is your purpose in coming to my home?”
The houses in which middle-class Koreans live are usually built with a tile roof and big rough-hewn timbers inside and out. The spaces between the timbers are filled with wet adobe and then painted over when dry. The porch is made of polished wood. One enters the house through sliding doors made of wooden frames covered with paper.
Inside, the inner room of the house is very clean, but practically bare of furniture. There may be a large cabinet of inlaid mother-of-pearl that contains the family’s clothes and bedding. Usually there is also a small dresser with a mirror and cosmetics on the shelf. The dresser has no stool in front of it, since it is made low to the floor and is used as one sits cross-legged on the floor. A television set finishes the furnishings of the room, if in a large city.
The floor is a type of cement covered with a waxy glazed paper that is easy to keep clean. Shoes are never worn in the house and there are usually no chairs, and no beds. The floor takes care of all the uses to which chairs and beds are usually put.
The floor is heated by a fire built beneath it. Ducts or pipes that run through the cement carry the heat to all parts of the floor. The same fire that warms the floor is used by the housewife to cook her meals. The kitchen is just off the side of the house and lower than the floor level of the main rooms of the house.
When it comes time to eat, small folding tables are set up and the family eats while sitting cross-legged on the floor. At bedtime, bedrolls are brought out, and the family sleeps together on the warm floor. A thick quilt is slept upon, and another one is used as a cover.
Korean men usually wear American and European-type clothes. However, the women still wear the traditional apparel. Their main dress is called a chima.
This is a long flowing skirt that extends from just above the natural waistline to below the ankles. It can be any color and have any pattern, but is usually brightly colored. A bright-colored vest with sleeves is worn over this long skirt and, rather than buttoning, the two overlapping edges of material are tied together and pinned with an ornamental brooch. With their hair pulled straight back into a tight bun, and attired in bright flowing traditional dress, Korean women look very graceful and feminine.
What Koreans Eat
Koreans eat an interesting variety of foods that are very simple and natural in makeup, and very healthful. Meat and fish are popular, but are not eaten in much quantity. The diet consists mainly of vegetables and various fruits and nuts. Foods are generally hot and spicy. They are not overcooked, but just steamed and eaten with either soy sauce or red-pepper sauce. Rice is the main staple, and enormous portions are consumed. Along with rice, a typical meal may include the following:
Kimchi, which is a hot spicy dish. It is composed of pickled cabbage, or cucumber, or turnips, cured in a brine of red-pepper sauce, salt, garlic, and acorns, with pieces of fish that have been heavily spiced. There may also be: steamed spinach, bean sprouts, bean curd fried in oil, seaweed soup, raw oysters, raw squid or squid fried in sugar.
If it is a special occasion, the meal may also include “fire meat.” This is a barbecue-type dish that is cooked right in front of one on the table. As each piece gets sufficiently well done, a person may pick it up with his chopsticks and dip it in soy sauce before eating it. This is not a hot-seasoned dish and almost everyone is delighted with the unique, unforgettable taste.
Religion is a major part of a Korean’s life. Out of a population of 33 million, 19.6 million people claim to be associated with a religion. Of these, over 12 million are Buddhists or Confucianists. Ancestor worship, which is a basic part of both of these religions, is practiced by over 30 percent of the population. Superstition and divining are common. On each street corner in a town can be seen fortune-tellers who do much business.
Many are beginning to see that, just as Buddhism has not been of any real help to people for the past 2,000 years, trusting in modern science is useless too. As proof of this, recently in the local press it was reported that Seoul is the most polluted city in the world. Many Koreans are looking for something better.
As a result, Koreans are interested when Jehovah’s witnesses call to explain what the Bible says about man’s future. Yet, interestingly, the Bible’s promise of “everlasting life” is not welcomed. (John 3:16) “Oh, no,” a Korean may reply. “But we all must die. New people must be born and we older ones must die!” They say this because their religion has taught them from birth that old age and death are desirable, especially since their offspring will then be offering them worship and sacrifices.
So, in speaking to Koreans about the Bible, a minister of Jehovah’s witnesses will appeal to their concern for their immediate family, and say something like this: “Wouldn’t it be a real blessing to live a long and full life and to see our offspring grow up in peaceful surroundings, becoming fine young men and women who always show respect to their elders?” When it is shown that this is something God promises in the Bible, many honest-hearted Koreans want to learn more.
Over 20,000 Bible studies each week are held in Korean homes by Jehovah’s witnesses, and many persons are accepting the Bible truths and becoming zealous ministers. More than 16,700 of Jehovah’s witnesses are preaching in Korea today, compared to less than 8,000 only five years ago. This summer, August 1-5, there will be an international assembly of Jehovah’s witnesses here in Seoul, Korea, with programs being held each morning in English to acquaint visitors with the customs and background of the country.
Korea is one of the fastest developing nations in the world: its gross national product increasing at more than 10 percent a year. And the average Korean is very well educated. At the same time, there is a distinctive Oriental way of life here that many Westerners find fascinating.