I’ve often heard Koreans say some version of “되면 하는 거고 말면 말고”, which directly translated means “if things work out we do so and so, and if things don’t work out we just don’t.” I believe that this ‘maybe, maybe not’ mindset to some extent explains why I oftentimes feel that I clash with the Korean culture.
Personally, I’m a planner. There, I admitted it. I like to plan ahead. I like to have a clear vision of what my day, my week, and to some extent, my month will look like. Yes, I’m a self-proclaimed time fascist and control freak. But I also know that this attitude can be difficult when I live in a culture where the opposite is the norm. I often joke that I don’t know why Koreans even bother buying calendars and organizers since no one sticks to the plans they make anyway. Obviously, I’m exaggerating but still.
Back to the point. If we dig deeper into this Korean saying, there’s something that strikes me, though. To me, this ideology seems very reactive, which obviously goes against everything I know from Western culture about being proactive and making your own luck. Koreans tend to believe much more in destiny (at least to some degree), often referring to this as 팔자, and thereby seem to accept that the course that has been laid out for you is simply the one you must follow.
As a Westerner, I’m used to being in control of my own life. In fact, it’s usually when I feel that control momentarily shifting away from me that I become the most stressed and the most unhappy. In the social sciences, this concept is often referred to as ‘locus of control’ meaning to which extent people feel that they have control over the events in their own lives. I personally need to have a strong internal locus of control, meaning that I myself can affect the outcome of events and steer the wheel in my own life. Other cultures are more comfortable with an external locus of control, where the course of events is primarily determined by external circumstances. In Korea, I’d say that external locus of control is dominating.
While younger people present day Korea enjoy more freedom than previous generations, they are still very limited compared to their Western counterparts. Their education and subsequent career path is determined by their score on the standardized college entrance exam and the wealth of their parents who must pay for their tuition. A large number of young Koreans continue to live with their parents until they are well into their 30s (humorously dubbed the kangaroo generation), and thereby still have to comply with the ‘my house, my rules’ doctrine. At school or work, they must follow the guidelines laid out by their professors, seniors, or supervisors, and at home, the ones laid out by the parents. This leaves very little internal locus of control to the individual.
In cultures with more individual independence and lower levels of hierarchy, it may be difficult to even imagine this kind of lifestyle where you are only in charge of a fraction of your own daily life. To myself, and most people I know this would be absolutely suffocating.
Another phrase often heard in Korean is “어쩔 수 없다”, meaning “it can’t be helped” or “well, nothing to do about that”. This is strongly related to the first saying and provides an equally valuable window into the Korean mindset. Like the first one, it’s usually accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders as if to say “no need to fight a losing battle”.
The more I think about these two expressions, the more I reach the conclusion that they are the only way to deal with this culture of constant obligations and lack of personal control. If you start dwelling too long on the things you wish to do but aren’t able to, it’s too easy to become depressed.
Finally, Koreans often refer to external circumstances as 상황. As in “나는 그러고 싶은데 상황이 좀 …” “I wish I could … but given the circumstances…” This attitude of passive defeat shines through in many of my interactions with young Koreans.
I want to stress that Koreans are in no way lazy. If anything they are more hardworking than any other nation. What strikes me as a major cultural and psychological difference with the West, however, is the silent acceptance of the current state of affairs, no matter how hard or unfair it must be.
I’ve grown up with the adage “if it’s to be, it’s up to me”. I’ve always taken full responsibility for my actions, and not once have I felt that my outcomes (good and bad) in life were a result of chance or external circumstances. I am where I am today and have done the things I’ve done because of me and my own choices and actions (and my wonderful support system of family and friends). I realize now that this mindset, which springs from a different reality than the one most Koreans face today, is a tremendous privilege. One that we should always cherish. I will forever continue to believe that I can do anything I put my mind to and that rather than waiting for things to happen, I can do everything in my power to make them happen. I may not always succeed, but then at least I know that I always have my free will and can choose to try again.