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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Choong: What's mine is yours, and what's yours is what I have to have

Okay, so let's get to the heart of Korean culture. I'm not going to pretend that, after being here for two months I am by any means an expert on the Korean mindset, but there's something that's become overwhelmingly obvious since I've been here: Korean do everything to the extreme! I'm not exaggerating when I say this, extremism is a huge part of Korean culture, basically it comes from the mindset that mediocrity is not acceptable. What sort of things are Korean people extreme about you may ask? Many of the things I've mentioned in previous blog entries can easily be explained by extremism. 
For example, as I mentioned, Korean people are quite materialistic. The mindset comes from the concept of choong,  which I will talk about later in this blog post, but basically it is related to the idea of egalitarianism. A Korean would prefer that he is equal to his neighbor, so if his neighbor runs out and buys a new 60" television, he should get one too so he isn't behind. It's sort of similar to the American idea of "keeping up with the Joneses"....but of course, more extreme! Keep in mind too that many Koreans live in incredibly small apartment complexes, so everyone's business is out in the open so to speak. This explains why so many Koreans are adamant about getting their children the best education possible. If Mr. Kim hires an after-school English tutor for his daughter, then his neighbor, Mr. Park should probably get one for his daughter too. 

It would seem that Koreans are in a constant struggle to one-up each other, but in reality, they are actually just trying to keep up with their neighbors! 
When it comes to drinking culture, Koreans are by far one of the most extreme. One common Korean toast is: "Mashi-go chuk-ja" literally meaning, Drink or Die. Extreme you say? Well....yes! It's considered extremely rude to refuse a drink when someone offers, especially for men. There is a large amount of macho associated with this, each man has to drink enough to keep up with his peers. Once I asked my Korean guy friend how much he can drink, and his response was, "real men don't count
Soju is Korean rice wine, similar to vodka.... it's ridiculously cheap, and deadly!


Another thing foreigners will notice about Korean extremism is the food.... almost all of it is incredibly spicy! Koreans have a huge affinity for red pepper, which they use to flavor almost all of their food. The problem is that, for Koreans, eating this kind of spicy food all the time is sort of addicting, so when they go back to regular (unspicy) food, it simply tastes bland to them. 
Kochujang, a spicy red paste made from red pepper...Koreans love it!



Yet another area in which Koreans are extreme is religion. While I don't want to discuss too much about his subject in this blog post (we'll talk about that more later...) suffice it to say that in a mere 30 years, almost 40 percent of the Korean population has converted to Christianity...that's a huge jump! Korea has over 50,000 churches spread around the country (but mostly concentrated in Seoul) and they are easily recognized by the bright red neon crosses hanging overtop. 



So what does all of this have to do with choong? Basically, choong is a Confucian ideal which permeates all of Korean culture. Basically, choong translated means middle, emphasized by the Confucian saying: "To know choong one must know the middle." As I mentioned before, choong is strongly associated with the idea of egalitarianism, but going further, it is at the heart of many other Korean ideals such as fairness, righteousness, loyalty, justice and uprightness. It is also related to the common Asian ideal of putting the community before self.  So, as long as everyone in Korean stays equal, it will be better for the community. While on the outside Korea seems like a fiercely Capitalistic country, under the surface it is deeply affected by Socialistic principles. It's sort of counterintuitive really, the Socialistic Korean mindset of keeping equality consequently results in Capitalistic materialism. 

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