A well-travelled, softly-spoken colleague told me he considered the increase in individualism to be one of the most negative impacts of Western culture on Korea.  Before coming East I’d never heard individualism spoken of as a bad thing…  This has struck me as the most interesting and fundamental of cultural differences, and one I am just scraping the surface of understanding.

In Korea, an individual is considered within the context of family, community and society.  Very early on in a conversation a Korean person may ask your age and marital status so they can place you and speak to you in the appropriate way.  Addressing people directly by their name is uncommon (and mostly rude), and there’s an extensive range of alternative forms of address depending on the intricate web of all possible age and gender-based relationships. Sometimes a familial term of address is used: I call one of my friends ‘Unni’ which translates as ‘big sister’, and everyone can call older women, ‘Auntie’.

Perhaps this ingrained sense of family-like connection and community focus leads to the kind of intimacy I find in schools, when walking, bathing and eating which far exceeds that found in Britain.

This kind of ‘family’ thinking might explain an incident that happened yesterday on the train, while I was sat next to a young teenage boy with bad acne.  A woman in her 40’s entered, sat on the other side of me and proceeded to advise the boy at great length on the best way to treat his skin (aloe vera was all I gathered).  Aware of everybody else on the train and the insecurities of teenagehood I found this whole advice sandwich situation a bit uncomfortable, and felt sorry for the boy who listened and nodded politely.  But he didn’t seem to mind too much.

It might also explain, perhaps, why old women in supermarket queues feel no qualms about cupping my face, squeezing my cheek and remarking on my appearance… That’s what Grandmas do, after all.