Just as the sun began to set over the narrow alleys of Seoul, our small group of seven students hesitantly wandered into a small restaurant close to Korea University. It was a quiet, dimly-lit, hole-in-the-wall filled with Koreans unwinding after work. As we entered, all the patrons simultaneously, in an almost cartoon-ish manor, looked at us, a group of foreigners who happened to stray from the usual tourist-trap eateries. Although the looks were unnerving, we had all come to Korea with the intention of experiencing the culture and lifestyle of the locals. We wanted to push past the superficial layer of the cultural iceberg and dive head-first into the most raw experience of Korean daily life we could find.
Our tension quickly dissipated, although it was still clear that we as a group were quite an unusual sight. One table of locals in particular had taken a great interest in us. Several photo-bombed selfies later, we decided to invite them over to our table. What better way to experience Korea than to mingle with the locals?
After moving to our table, our new friends introduced themselves as Kelly, Kevin, James, and Allen (using their American names for our benefit), telling us they were 32, 41, 30, and 44, respectively. We then learned they all worked at our university’s hospital and that all of them were married, except for Kevin. This may strike some as an odd way for someone to introduce themselves, but it is the Korean way. This tradition has deep Confucian roots that date back thousands of years and still remains evident in modern Korean society. These four pieces of information, name, age, occupation, and relationship status, are all essential for one’s placement in Korea’s social hierarchy. This hierarchical system dictates how you talk to people around you, who you talk to, who you befriend, and who you respect. This set of dogmas have created a well-defined social structure that stresses respect, discipline, and modesty as integral parts of the Korean identity. All that being said, after our new friends had established their social identity, it was our turn. We ran through the list and ranked our group from oldest to youngest in a most Korean fashion.
After our introduction we continued to talk to the locals and learn more about Korean customs. As I was the youngest, I was taught to how to pour a drink for my elders. It’s customary when drinking to hold your glass with your right hand as your younger counterpart uses both hands to refill the glass. So we celebrated our new adventure, our new friends, and our increased desire to discover more about this amazing country and it’s people.
The world awaits…discover it.