A Cowboy in Korea
by BARRETT AMES
Two weeks ago, my wife and I made a trip to Seoul, South Korea. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: first, I was there to present a paper I recently published at an international robotics conference. Second, we wanted to take the opportunity to explore the culture of South Korea—and more broadly the cultural differences between the ‘East’ and the ‘West.’ I’ve heard a great number of things about Asia, but I’ve never been fully satisfied with secondary sources, and prefer to learn things first hand, if possible. While we were there however, not only did I learn about South Korea, I also learned about myself.
My first experience in South Korea was that of being lost. I was lost in the second largest city in the world, on the opposite side of the world, away from my home, surrounded by strangers—not the best situation I’ve been in. Typically, I can get around just about anywhere, but after ~20 hrs of travel time, the time difference, and lack of sleep, my wife and I were so lost, that we even looked lost. And that’s when something pretty amazing happened: someone came up to us and offered us help, in English. This small gesture quickly made concrete a very simple idea: no matter where you are in the world, people are willing to help. In addition, it was one more data point to support a long held theory of mine that regardless where one travels, people are essentially the same. Sure, there are little differences—like the main cereal crop in South Korea is rice while in the U.S. it’s corn—but it’s the compendium of these small differences that create the rich cultural heritage that is so vastly interesting to explore. At the root, we’re all human beings.
In Seoul, the subway exposed me not only to South Korean culture, but to things I’ve taken for granted about the U.S. It made me appreciate our diversity.
After several days, we became quite familiar with the subway system and it became our preferred mode of transport for exploration. Experiencing the subway and its regular commuters is enlightening in any city. But, in Seoul it was especially insightful. For example, a quick ride on the NYC subway will show you that no one is above the subway. In fact, the subway might be the great equalizer of New York. Whether business executives on route to a meeting, college students heading to class, or typical residents going about their day, the sampling of diversity is comprehensive. Or, for example, on a typical “EL” ride in Chicago, the number of cultures I am exposed to is astounding. I usually start my ride in the north western part of town, surrounded by upper middle class families, and as I go further into town I’m joined by hipsters, Latinos, African- Americans, and European immigrants. Yet, in Seoul the situation was vastly different. Everyone on the subway is Korean. That is to say, on a six-car subway, as a white male, I made up the entire minority. Before this moment of realization on the subway in Seoul, I had never really given much thought to how diverse the U.S. really is. In Seoul, the subway exposed me not only to South Korean culture, but to things I’ve taken for granted about the U.S. It made me appreciate our diversity. Sure, we might be going through a rough patch right now, but we get along relatively well (and xenophobia is definitely not the answer). We’ve made it through worse and we’ll make it through this together and be stronger for it.
Sure, there are little differences—like the main cereal crop in South Korea is rice while in the U.S. it’s corn—but it’s the compendium of these small differences that create the rich cultural heritage that is so vastly interesting to explore. At the root, we’re all human beings.
However homogeneous the racial makeup of South Korea is, it has a fascinating culture built upon thousands of years of tradition, a common moral code, and soju. While the current government of South Korea has existed for less than 100 years, the Korean peninsula has been inhabited for over a millennium. During this time, they have developed a strong, shared moral code. The idea of a shared moral code for an entire nation was by far the most foreign concept that I encountered during my visit, and it was also one of the first things I learned about South Korea. Upon entering the country, the customs’ form warns against bringing any material into South Korea that may be "against the morals of the country." This warning was a bit concerning for me. I had no idea what the morals of the country were, and thus I had no real way of knowing whether or not me, my boots, and my cowboy hat were about to trample on someone else’s moral code! This got me thinking, especially in comparison to the United States: do we have a standardized ‘moral code’ here? If so, how explicit is it? As we currently wade through realizations of inequality and discussions on international policy, peaceful change and transformation seems particularly possible precisely because of the fluid nature of the moral code in the United States. By contrast, in a country where tradition spans thousands of years like South Korea, I can only imagine that changing the moral code would be more difficult.
Another great take-away was notions of collectivism.The Korean traditions that surround drinking and eating, for instance, provide a clear example of the traditional social hierarchy and the importance of communal living. In South Korea, the most common drink is soju (which is essentially rice vodka). While the flavor is refreshing, the most important aspect is the way in which it is consumed. Soju is typically served in an ice cold 350 ml glass bottle with a shot glass for every person at the table. The elders are served by the younger generation, and you’re never to pour your own shot. Everyone drinks, and another round is poured. This might seem like just an odd quirk, but the way we do small things shapes the way we do big things. The Korean people have an immense respect for their elders, but also in serving one another. Their lives seemed to be built around a communal existence, whether it be the family-style eating, the importance of public transit, or their consumption of soju. In effect, the people of Korea experience life together. This is in stark contrast to the lone-wolf existence of the United States, where everyone has their own space, and their own destiny. It is interesting to ponder how the U.S. might be more communal while allowing the individuality that so uniquely defines our life style.
Ultimately, all of these insights and experiences provided me with a few new colors with which to paint my understanding of the world. As I gained first hand experience of South Korea, my experience dispelled a few more generalities, effectively removing black and white from my palette and replacing it with (fifty) shades of gray. I gained a richer, more nuanced understanding of the world and its many complex facets—specifically how the Korea of today is influenced by its history and an increasingly globalized world. I also learned more about the United States through the lens of contrast and comparison which gave me a deeper appreciation for my home.
The Korean people have an immense respect for their elders, but also in serving one another. Their lives seemed to be built around a communal existence, whether it be the family-style eating, the importance of public transit, or their consumption of soju. In effect, the people of Korea experience life together.
Overall, it is these insights gained and the adventures experienced that make exploration worth the discomfort and the risk. Traveling for 24 hrs straight is not an experience I hope to replicate any time soon, but the perspective it provided me has allowed for reflection and appreciation. It’s for these same reasons that I highly recommend you to find an adventure and grow through its experience. But it doesn’t have to be only about traveling, anything that pushes one’s comfort zone is bound to make you grow. This new adventure could be starting a new company, or talking to that person who's caught your eye. Push your boundaries, and learn something new by getting out and exploring the world! It’s through these adventures that we find ourselves, and what’s important to us. Put down the keyboard, the TV remote and just get out there. Make the world a smaller place, and have fun by going on an adventure!
Barrett Ames can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.