A lot can Change in a Decade: South Korea

Confucianism was decreed the official ideology of the state in the late 14th Century, at the beginning of Korea’s final (Choson) Dynasty. It took hundreds of years to filter down from the elite to the masses, but eventually Neo-Confucianism became such an intrinsic part of daily life that the Koreans now don’t even seem to notice it as being the driving force behind pretty much everything that goes on there – which is kind of weird because without this little snippet of knowledge, pretty much nothing that goes on in Korea makes any sense at all… at least to outsiders (or maybe it was just me).

The bowing and kowtowing to anyone older than yourself, the ancestor worship, the subservience of women and children, the national obsession with education and status… ‘That’s just Korean style’ they say, but you don’t generally hear the topic of Korean Neo-Confucianism popping up in casual conversation.

With around two million foreigners in the former ‘Hermit Kingdom’ the locals don’t stare at foreigners so much these days (well, the younger ones don’t). Word has filtered down to school children that making monkey noises when they see a black person is somehow inappropriate. ‘Blackface’ is still a hilarious staple on Korean variety television, but foreigners are reminded that we don’t understand their unique culture.

I can’t imagine what the elderly Koreans must think, having lived through the war, their nation decimated; then starvation, eating grass and boiling soup from the bark of trees. Now every Korean person over the age of three has a smart-phone.

During one of my first ever Seoul subway experiences, a new friend of mine pondered how amazing it was that most of the passengers lucky enough to get a seat in the crowded subway were asleep, but always woke up exactly when the train arrived at their station.

Even a crowd this dense can somehow avoid any form of eye contact

Later another friend (who had been there several more years) posited that the seated passengers, whilst perhaps resting their eyes, were not actually asleep. They were simply avoiding making eye contact with anyone older than themselves which, as custom dictates, would mean they would have to offer their seat to the elder person. Many things suddenly began making sense to me… the pushing and shoving without acknowledgement, commuters staring so fervently at nothing, or something invisible in the imaginary middle-distance, as if the entire country is playing an endless game of, ‘If I can’t see you, you can’t see me’. To the newcomer it is a bizarre spectacle in a nation more densely populated than China or India, and sometimes downright frightening when the game continues on the streets of Seoul and the nations highways.

When I arrived in Korea in 2006, I was shocked to see a heavily pregnant woman stand up, to give a man her seat on the subway. That doesn’t happen anymore… which is a good thing, I think.

Gotta be lucky to get a seat…
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

These days however people don’t even bother pretending to sleep on the subway. The younger generation in particular is permanently transfixed by their screens and the ubiquitous headphones that keep everybody happily oblivious of each other. It’s always funny when someone walks into a wall but the screen-zombie situation is getting ridiculous. There are Korean boot camps for seriously screen-addicted Korean teens.

Depressingly common are the news stories about people dying of starvation/dehydration/mental exhaustion after spending 96 straight hours in the PC Bangs (computer rooms). More fucked up are the reports that deceased individuals are frequently not ‘discovered’ for 12 hours or more, because the zombies sitting two feet either side were so engrossed in their own gaming they didn’t realize they’d been sitting next to a dead guy all day.

These guys are just asleep…. hopefully.

Anyway, back in the subway… it seems of late that many young people don’t even bother hiding behind their screens anymore. People in their forties or older continue to offer their seat to the elderly (who then refuse the offer twice before reluctantly but thankfully sitting down, as is customary), but these days increasing numbers of younger adults and teenagers have different attitudes toward toward the older generation, and I wonder whether this visibly non-Confucian lack of reverence is a sign that the whole system is slowly breaking down.

Traditional Korean life (to me) appeared to be like some kind of ‘hazing’ process that lasts for about 50 years, after which a person finally gets to push everyone else around, tell everybody what to do, elbow their way to the front of the queue… they’ve earned it. Suddenly, the young middle-class Koreans who have never known hardship, hunger or war, are wordlessly saying (whether consciously or not), ‘fuck you grandpa, this is my time now’.

The old people riding the rails seem to have an empty sadness in their eyes. They waited all their lives to get the respect they were due… but times changed.

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