Being roughly 5000 years old, Korea is ripe with tradition. No matter how long you have been living in Seoul, you will still be taken by surprise by exactly what is cause for a full blown ceremony! Tradition shapes the way of life of every Korean, even in today’s industrialized, first world atmosphere. Huge emphasis is placed on one’s elders, including bosses and grandparents, while those who are younger or less important are often treated indifferently. One can find this system in place in nearly every home and workplace in South Korea.
While some traditions may seem kinder than others, you should understand that every Korean feels that their traditions are what set them apart as a people. They are proud of their history, and they want to uphold many traditions that may, to Westerners, seem very old fashioned.
Due to the popularity of Christianity in Korea (roughly 40 percent of the population is considered Christian in faith), Christmas and Easter are recognised as holidays, but not celebrated in the same way as other, more traditional, holidays. The two largest holidays in Seoul are Lunar Events – one is associated with the harvest (very similar to Thanksgiving in North America) and takes place in autumn. It is called Chuseok. The other takes place in the winter and celebrates the Lunar New Year – in Korean, it is called Seollal. There are several other holidays, including a few Independence Days (one, seemingly, for each time the country gained independence from other countries).
It is important to remember that, in Korea, a holiday does not necessarily mean a day off from work, or a long weekend. It completely depends on the exact date that the holiday falls on. If Independence Day falls on a Wednesday, you get Wednesday off from work. If it falls on a Saturday, you still have a full work week from Monday to Friday; therefore, one must double check with the calendar before making any long weekend plans!
Perhaps the most subtle Korean tradition is the unspoken knowledge of one’s place in society and appropriate etiquette associated with this knowledge. This is the most mystifying aspect of Korean life for many expats, and it is something you probably won’t be aware of at first but will slowly become acquainted with as you continue your Korean journey.
Remember: this is an Asian country, and as in many Asian countries, saving face is extremely important. In the West, people are more upfront and will tell someone if they are doing something wrong. This will not happen directly in Korea. In order to save face, your Korean boss may tell someone else to tell you what you are doing wrong. If your boss or elder is doing something wrong, ignoring it is usually the best policy.