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An online magazine about Korean culture, food and hallyu based in Toronto, Canada

Individual-oriented society vs. Family-oriented society

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll have noticed that I fell in love with Korean culture during my three years living in Korea. It’s one of the reasons I still write about Korea and Korean culture, even though I’ve been home for three years now. Wow, it HAS been three years – I came home for Christmas in 2008 and stayed for graduate school.

There’s so much I love about Korean culture – and I  have written many posts about places, cultural things, food, hot Korean actors & musicians, etc. – but there were also some things that I found difficult to adjust to. This post is about one of them. It’s about the challenges of someone – namely me – who was raised in a society that stresses the importance of the individual, and who moves to a society that stresses the importance of family (or society) over the individual.

I’m not going to talk about which is better because frankly, I have no idea; they both have good and bad points. But I would love to share how this fundamental difference in culture and society created challenges (mostly to my thinking) and also made my life more interesting and fun.

Canada, like most (if not all) western societies, stresses the importance of the individual. Perhaps not to the extreme that the United States does but many of our laws and societal customs illustrate that the individual is paramount. Plus, I was raised to be very independent and to think for myself. It was very important to my mother (and my dad too) that both myself and my brother do so. And so I grew up to be a very independent woman. :) Thanks Mom!

Korea, on the other hand, stresses the importance of the family (and to a lesser extent, the collective or society). Part of this is because of the strong Confucian influence on Korean society. Because of this, many decisions are made by the family elder (the elder male in most cases) or by thinking about how it will affect the family.

Until I went to Korea, I always thought my family was close and a very important aspect of my life. I visit my parents often – about 8-10 times a year, not quite monthly but close – when I live in Canada or call weekly or bi-weekly when I lived abroad. I’ve always spent quality time with them – I watch hockey with my Dad or go fishing; shopping or to festivals with my Mom – and we occasionally go on vacation together. I always call and tell them about any important decision or event in my life and often ask for advice even if I don’t always follow what they say. But when I talk to them or ask for advice, it’s more for guidance or for a different perspective, there’s no expectation (on either side) that I will always (or even sometimes) do what they suggest.

Things are different in Korea. And before I get into more depth on how things are different, let me state that this is simply a general observation… it’s by no means true for all Koreans, nor am I trying to say if it’s a good or bad thing. Disclaimer aside, let’s get into the details! Traditionally, family is patriarchal and very important to the fabric of society in Korea. In fact, the family is probably the most important aspect of Korean life – filial piety is definitely encouraged! In Confucian tradition, the father is the head of the family and it is his responsibility to provide for the family, and to approve the marriages of his children. Confucian belief strongly encourages respect for family and elders and touts the importance of the male over female. Korean families were considered a “small society.” And so the idea of individualism generally wasn’t encouraged as the needs of the family were considered more important than that of the individual. First-born sons were/are responsible for taking care of their parents and younger siblings.

So how did this difference in culture affect me? Well, it was one of the things I had the hardest time understanding during my first year in Korea. I was looking at things through my Canadian eyes and simply couldn’t grasp how my 20something female friend could still have a curfew or why one of my female co-workers was being pressured to quit because she was getting married. And when a 30something male friend stopped hanging out with my group of friends (Korean and foreign) because his father told him he had a year to find a bride… I decided I needed to learn more about Korean culture to better understand.

Thankfully, I had some fabulous friends who indulged my near constant curiosity about various aspects of Korean culture and they answered all my questions. I learned about Confucianism and its impact on Korean culture and I grew to understand. And while I could never imagine breaking up with my boyfriend because my mother told me to, at least I understood the excuse when it was used on me. :)

But I found it goes beyond simple filial piety and duty. In modern Korea, many younger Koreans have to live apart from their parents because of work. So they often create a “family” of friends to keep that feeling of togetherness. In my two years in Seoul, I was a part of one – my EG family, co-workers who became close friends. If you can’t eat with your family, than you eat with friends… eating alone is very odd. I actually got scolded for it once! I grew to love that near-constant togetherness and it’s one of the aspects of Korean culture I miss most.

And the whole country is almost like a large family. I honestly can’t imagine Canada – or any Western country for that matter – responding like Korea did when faced with a huge national economic/debt crisis in 1997 (referred to as the IMF crisis or simply IMF in Korea). Now if a family member or close friend needed financial help and I could help, I definitely would (and have). But I can’t imagine donating my gold jewelry to Canada to help pay down our national debt. But that’s just what Koreans did. For more info, check out this BBC story. And if you really want to learn about the entire economic story behind it, check out this fantastic in-depth series of articles on Ask a Korean.   

So this is my long, and very rambling post about one of the differences between Canadian and Korean society that I found the most difficult to understand at the beginning but came to admire (even though it still often confounded me).

What is your country’s culture – an individual-oriented society or a family-oriented society?

2 Comments

  1. Being a Pakistani Canadian, I did not have to go to Korea to understand the difference between individual vs. family oriented society. While my friends are allowed to stay out as late as they like, I can’t (despite being one of those 20something individual). On the other hand, my parents have encouraged certain level of individuality in the sense that I was allowed to pick my education, my career, how to spend my money and am allowed to choose my own life partner. Though, despite all that, I have to turn to my family for advice and unlike you, I can’t disregard their opinions (and almost always have to follow through with them).

    It is difficult to say which is better, as you said, both of their merits.

    • While I have lived abroad before, Korea was the first non-Western country which made it all the more interesting. Nice to see the post is relevant for others as well.

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