Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Korean Concept of Family

Korean concept of Family

I am often quizzed by western employees of Korean-owned firms on the long hours Korean team members work. For example, Americans often feel that their families suffer when they work long hours. Erroneously, American reason, if Koreans work long hours, then Family must not matter. Family does matter to Koreans. In fact, it's the pillar of Korean society.

I felt this editorial article by Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University and visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, provides deep insights into a Korean view of Family. I suggest that Family to Koreans perhaps is somewhat different than that in the West.

Dr. Kim notes...
In Korean culture, family occupies a very important place in one's life. Indeed, Koreans are very unique in the sense that every decent family keeps a "jokbo" (book of family history), in which one can find his genealogical roots. Generally speaking, even marriage is regarded as a form of family ties between the two families involved, rather than as a personal event between the bride and the groom. Therefore, in Korean society, the family always comes first.

Perhaps that is why our [Korean] media's immediate concern is not so much the person himself as his family background. Whenever someone is on the headline news, whether he's a criminal or an Olympic gold medalist, Korean reporters have an inscrutable habit of rushing to the home of the person in spotlight. They completely ignore the feelings of the perplexed, embarrassed parents and siblings, they begin asking all sorts of personal, even offensive questions to get a scoop on the story.

When it comes to an athlete, the reporters deliberately wring out the same cliches from the parents: "My poor daughter has lived only on ramen and knows what it's like to be hungry." So the headline always says: "A Story of Human Victory: Medalist Overcomes Hunger and Poverty." If the hero is a student who has entered a first-rate university with the highest scores, reporters anticipated an answer like: "My son has never attended a 'hagwon' (private academy). He just studied at school and home, using only his textbooks," which is, of course, highly implausible. If he is a criminal, Lord knows what kind of ruthless questions such inconsiderate reporters would ask, hurting the feelings of the family.

The reason why journalists want to write an emotionally charged, sentimental article that would make the reader shed tears eludes me. [ This also tells us lots about Korean media]. Moreover, if the newsmaker is an adult, what he has done has nothing to do with his family. Thus, it would be an insult to him if the reporters sought an interview with his parents or brothers instead of directly coming to him. What's worse is that aggressive reporters often brutally inflict a severe pain on an already devastated family.

Korea has a long history of perceiving a person not as an individual, but as a member of a family. During the Joseon Dynasty, for example, the penalty for a convict who was charged for sedition and high treason was severe and hefty. The government executed not only the traitor himself but also the families directly related to him: his immediate family, his father's family and his in-law's family, completely eradicating the traitor's genealogy. While men were tortured and executed, the women were sentenced to become a slave who belonged to a local government. [ North Korea still has the same policy...families of law breakers and the dissenters are also jailed...]

After the Korean War, the children and relatives of those who had collaborated with the North Korean administration were also persecuted, even if they were not Marxists. This notorious collective liability system has destroyed so many innocent lives. And yet, the legacy still continues. Even today, the descendants of pro-Japanese Koreans are not free from this uniquely Korean phenomenon. In fact, this extremely absurd custom can be found everywhere; it still lingers around homes, schools and military camps.

Perhaps Westerners would never understand this joint responsibility system of Korea. From their childhood on, Westerners have been trained to think of themselves as separate individuals who are responsible for their own situations and destinies. To the eyes of Westerners, being punished for something they are not responsible for is totally absurd and unfair. My daughter, who was educated in the United States and then transferred to a Korean school, was tremendously shocked and appalled at this outrageous, inhumane punishment system. She never understood why the entire class was punished when a person in class made a mistake.

Closely related with individualism are independence and responsibility. Perhaps Koreans should learn to respect individuality as much as they revere the family. Unlike Koreans who stick to the value of a family as an interdependent community, Westerners do not seem to consider it as something that binds them forever. And unlike the blissful Korean word, "gajok," which means family, the English term often has negative connotations such as the "Mafia family."

It is time that we stop the bad habit of hurting families, when we could directly talk to the person involved. What does his family have to do with him anyway?

Questions, Comments?

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