Figuring out Korea by looking at its past

I love Kenny for many reasons. But one of his best qualities is his curiosity. As he puts it, he likes to learn about the language, history, cultural aspects, famous people and places, transportation systems, dangers, wonders and must-do’s. Since we’ve been here, he has been reading Korea: The Impossible Country and trying to put everything we see and experience into some kind of context. While I haven’t read it yet, he highly recommends it to all of you history buffs out there. Here are some of Kenny’s historical facts and how we, as foreigners, see it coming into play today.


Kenny’s historical context: King Sejong the Great (1418-1450), the 4th ruler of the Joseon Empire, commissioned the creation of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. It was first used in 1446, it is composed of 24 characters, and is designed to be a very simple writing system that ordinary people could learn. It is considered a marvel of linguistics and revolutionized access to education for the Korean people. King Sejong is thus the most admired leader in Korea’s history.

Alison’s perception: If you’re anything like us, Asian languages and characters are INTIMIDATING. I remember going to a Korean BBQ restaurant back in Seattle and I looked at the menu and thought, “Whoa, all I see are shapes!” I could not begin to wrap my brain around it. However, we have very slowly began to learn Hangul and guess what? It’s brilliant! The spelling of the words make so much sense. Now, once we get the characters down, we still have to learn what these Korean words actually mean. But hey, that’s what our smartphones are for! Okay, and also our bi-weekly study sessions…

Rapid Development

Kenny’s historical context: Following the Korean War, South Korea had a GNP per capita of $79 making it one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in Asia. In 2012, it had a GNP per capita of $30,970. This is an illustration of that growth and development in pictures of Seoul:

Korean exports rose from $100 million in 1964 to $10 billion in 1977 and in 2011 rose about $1 trillion.

Alison’s perception: This country is growing at a rapid fire pace! When you talk to older Koreans, they cannot believe the progress this country has made. Sixty years ago, this country was impoverished. Many people were struggling to survive. Now, everyone has a smartphone. Korea has the fastest Internet in the world. It’s nuts.

From my perspective of living here for just over a month, I see this rapid development most in the differences between the young and the old. When we go to markets, the only vendors are older women. When we walk by the beach, the only ones gathering clams and mussels are older women. In Korea, we call these women Ajumas. They have a reputation of pushing you out of their way. And, let me tell you, I would do the same if I was one. These Ajumas often have hunched backs from years of labor. Some of them are in their 80s and are still picking their own produce and selling them at the markets. I can only imagine what they have seen in their lifetime.

Interestingly enough, you never see anyone from the younger generation selling produce or seafood at the markets. In the U.S. it’s very common (and I might add, trendy)  for younger adults to sell products at a farmer’s market. In Korea, though, many Millenials are moving to Seoul, where they can pursue careers in an urban setting. Only time will tell if fresh produce at farmer’s markets are going by the wayside.


Kenny’s historical context: Kia Motor Company is owned by Hyundai Corporation. Samsung also makes cars for the Korean market in collaboration with the French Motor Company, Renault. 

Alison’s perception: Yep, all cars look the same! Our sweet ride is just an average Joe here. But want to know something crazier? Well, let’s first back up. Do you know what K-Pop is? Maybe you’ve heard of something like this? Well Samsung and Hyandai own entertainment groups that have a very precise business model for these K-Pop bands. It’s BIG business around here. And they are good at what they do. People can’t get enough of these stars here! Hyundai and Samsung’s game is homogeneity which is one reason why there is seemingly not much variety among buildings, K-Pop groups, phones and cars. But that has not stopped them from being extremely successful in Korea and abroad.

This country is incredible and we are so thankful to have the opportunity to explore and learn more. Here are some pictures from our hike in Gayasan National Park last weekend with our friends, Elicia and Tom. Tom has an awesome blog post that sums up our experience, so check it out! Oh, also take a look at Elicia’s post about our trip to a traditional village a few weekends ago.

Bye for now!

– Alison & Kenny


사진 084



6 thoughts on “Figuring out Korea by looking at its past

  1. Awesome post you guys!!!! I love that you both contributed in very important yet very different ways. Fun to read and love the history to real life applications. Thanks for sharing and great work!!!

  2. Dear God- I had no clue Korea had attained superior levels of boy band technology. This is a serious threat to U.S Pop hegemony.

    In all seriousness, just read through all your guys’ posts and really enjoy them. I’m officially subscribed so keep them coming! Health and Happiness to you both!

  3. I’m really interested in reading that book… I will probably have like a million “aha!” moments and will be able to put into context so much of what we have seen/heard/done the last 8 months in Korea. Good writing, please keep the posts coming!

  4. Love this post. The dual perspectives from a historical context and personal experience was awesome to read. You two make an awesome duo!

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