Thursday, February 18, 2010

Korean mentality

So here we are, watching the Winter Olympics. It's a great time of intense competition, where individuals and teams fight for their countries' honor as well as their own. However, even in those sports where the competition is on an individual level, there is still an unofficial sense of "teamship" between athletes from the same country. They may compete, but generally a Canadian or American will still be really happy if a fellow countryman gets a medal instead of them.

I've recently learned that this is drastically different from Korean thinking. I've always been aware of the competitive nature of Koreans. It's why I have a job. Parents want their kids to be the absolute best, so they're enrolled in private afterschool schools (Hagwons) in order to get every advantage that they can to get into the ridiculously competitive colleges and then get into the even more competitive jobs. It's a glorious cycle of addictive competition. However, I've never seen it stated so blatantly as last night.

A few nights ago, the Koreans were competing in the men's speed skating race (can't remember the length). Coming into the final leg of it, the Koreans looked like they were going to sweep the podium and claim all three medals. However, in the last few hundred meters, the third place skater tried to push for gold and cut across the second place skater. Both of them went down in a mess and some American (who's apparently famous or something) got silver. This seemed to be such a brazen display of greediness and the desire for gold. I just couldn't understand how the Korean could cut down his own "teammates" when getting all three medals would have been a great thing for Korea.

Well, I've noticed a debate that's been brewing with my students. They keep claiming Korea is in third place overall and I keep telling them "no, Korea is in fifth place in overall medals after France." Finally, after having a similar debate with a Korean friend of mine, she explained that Koreans only care about and count gold medals. The bronze and silver mean absolutely nothing to them. I was speechless. I didn't even know what to make of that. Suddenly the speed skater's actions made sense. It wouldn't matter if he got a bronze, it would only mean something if he pushed for the gold and triumphed. You only matter if you're number one.

I've mentioned this to my coworkers and they're all just as stunned as I am, but it makes so much sense. I suddenly feel a little bit sadder to be here.


  1. hey, im a korean who is currently living in germany. i just got curious about foreigners view on korean mentality and accidentally came across your blog post. i dont follow sports, so i didn't know about this, but yeah it does sound very stupid. however for having lived in germany, britain for a while, i got to think a lot about what koreans values. although i hate how many koreans think, (actually one of my friend always complains he is getting worse, and i tell him to take things easy and stop complaining, because there are so many people failing already it doesnt even matter) but i sometimes think it is what keeps koreans going. (ill be a little but stereotypical here)like how beer is keeping germany going (:P) and how tv shows, movies, big cities, small villages keep americans going. im not trying to say koreans consider working as hobby, but korea has over 50 million people, which is more than the whole scandinavia, with the land so much smaller than that. the only thing koreans have pleanty of is mountains and rough terrain. not much resources, small land, too many people make korea into a island where everybody is on their own. therefore people do become a bit selfish. also the reason only the 1st counts: for example, in this financial crisis, even high positions in a company are being fired. the only one who will not be fired is the owner of the company. i just want to tell you, korea has a unique mentality formed through japanese occupation, korean war and rebuilding the whole country all over again. and it is so much different from europe, us, and even from china and japan. therefore, i dont think you should be sad for the reality of korea. i appologize for my horrible writing skill, but anyway, enjoy staying in korea!, there is no other place like it! :D

    some guest

  2. Jay,

    Thanks a lot for your comment! I appreciate you offering your perspective, as it definitely sheds some light on the issue.

    I can certainly understand how overpopulation in the midst of smaller land mass, and especially in an economic crisis, can engender and sustain some intense competition. But just because I understand the cause doesn't mean I find the experience to be entirely pleasant.

    Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of things I'm absolutely loving about being here. However, that super intense spirit of competition is something that I probably won't miss when I leave.

    And in terms of the other "stereotypes" you offer, I think that the key difference is that beer, movies, small villages, and other things you mention are all "things," not mentalities, per say.

    Again, I can totally understand why it's there, it's just not something I personally enjoy and have been doing what I can to try and encourage my Korean friends to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time.

    Thanks for the comment! I look forward to hearing more from you!