In order to give a kind of overview of my Korean experience I thought it might be helpful to lay out some common stereotypes and discuss which ones I’ve found to be true and which ones are nonsense.
Perhaps you think of Koreans as rice-eating math geniuses who play Starcraft all day and are a foot shorter than Americans. When you think of Korean classrooms you might be picturing rows and rows of disciplined students dutifully writing down your every word. Unsurprisingly these stereotypes are neither totally accurate nor completely off the mark.
Korean people are significantly smaller than Westerners.
This one is unequivocally false. I am right at 6 feet tall and a reasonably muscular 190 pounds. Seeing men who are taller, more muscular, or fatter than me is normal, and seeing women about my height only slightly less normal. I have several students who are still teenagers that are getting pretty close to my size. Compared to America I see fewer people who are insanely in shape or insanely out of shape, but unless you are pretty big at home you aren’t going to be pretty big here.
Korean people are very deferential and polite.
This is generally true, but with some important caveats. First, what counts as impolite is different in Korea, and I’ve heard Koreans tell foreigners that they ‘look tired’ or ‘look a little fat’. This is almost never meant to be hurtful and just reflects different cultural standards of appropriateness. Second, your students are going to vary enormously in how polite they are to you. Some of my students are extremely respectful, while others don’t give a damn about me and don’t care if I know it.
Koreans eat a lot of rice.
This is absolutely true. Koreans eat rice with everything and at nearly every meal. Once, while I was on a low-carb kick, I ordered what looked like a big omelet because it was the only thing on the menu that didn’t come with rice. Guess what the omelet was stuffed with? Rice!
Koreans can’t drive.
Here is the thing you have to realize about roads in Korea: things like traffic lights and stop signs are just suggestions. Whereas in America a red light means “you have to sit and wait until I turn green, even if no one else is around”, in Korea it means “slow down long enough to make sure no one is going through the intersection and then gun it”. I looked at traffic death statistics from Wikipedia and the World Health organization, and it appears that Korea has more traffic deaths than America, but not that many more.
Koreans love starcraft.
This one is true but I get the feeling that starcraft’s popularity is waning just a bit. There are still major Starcraft tournaments here and the best player’s are still Koreans, but I think most regular people have moved on to other games. Fair warning: this assessment is based only on my having asked around and observed what people play at internet cafes.
Koreans are sexually repressed.
This is actually a pretty complicated topic, and the response will depend on the angle at which it is viewed. Korean culture emphasizes monogamy and marriage, and this puts tremendous pressure on people to settle down. As a result I think a lot of Koreans rush into long-term commitments for which they are not prepared and wind up unhappy with the decision. Though divorce is on the rise it’s still not common, leaving those in unsatisfying marriages with no way to escape. This isn’t the only thing driving the booming prostitution business, but it can’t be hurting it.
So that’s one side of it. But as far as individual Koreans go, I haven’t yet been involved with anyone who was even remotely afraid of their sexuality. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Koreans are geniuses.
Not really. Education is a huge part of Korean society, and most Korean kids go to school all day everyday (even, in some cases, on Saturday). The result is that the students who work hard end up being pretty impressive by the time they get to college. However, I had quite a number of students who didn’t ever do homework, didn’t listen in class, and put no effort into furthering their education.
Every Korean studies martial arts.
Taekwondo strikes me as being similar to American sports like baseball in that it is very popular and a lot of people study it, but the vast majority of them are not that serious about it. You aren’t going to see many Koreans flipping over tables and breaking boards with their face.
Koreans eat dogs.
This is true, but it’s far more rare than you probably think. I’ve never been served dog meat, never seen it in a restaurant, and come to think of it, never met a Korean person who admitted to wanting to eat it. When I’ve asked my students whether or not they have eaten dog, or wanted to in the future, the answer has always been an emphatic no. I don’t know how often dog is eaten, but I can tell you that one weekend a co-worker had some at a restaurant, and the way he told me about it on Monday made it seem as though it was a very unusual experience.
Korean is a difficult language.
Korean is pretty exotic for an English speaker. Verbs always come at the end of sentences, things like definite/indefinite articles and pronouns which are important in English are often omitted entirely, and sentences can vary significantly depending on the formality of the conversation. That said, there isn’t any tonal system like in Chinese, and also unlike Chinese Korean uses a phonetic alphabet. Learning Korean is going to be harder than learning Spanish or French, but it is something you should do and it’s also worth the effort.