The spirit of giving in Korea

Right now, in the United States, Christmas season is in full effect! I have to say, I miss the American festivities. While Korea celebrates Christmas, it’s on a much smaller scale than the U.S. There are a little less lights, decorations, holiday music and consumerism going on here right now. However, there is one thing we see a lot of this time of the year… and for the rest of the year, from what we understand. The spirit of giving is everywhere. Co-workers handing us mandarins out of the blue. A fellow hiker offering a hot cup of coffee on top of a mountain (I know, right?!). Our friends, Elicia and Tom, have even had someone roll down their window at a stoplight and hand them a snack to try. This weekend, we saw some heartwarming moments of giving at the orphanage Christmas party (see pic below). It’s everywhere and I’m loving it!

We have also noticed this sense of giving in the service industry as well. And now Kenny will describe this in further detail…

Playing with new toys at the orphanage Christmas party

Playing with new toys at the orphanage Christmas party

“……Among them was one old beggar/ all wrinkles/ and just two yellowed teeth./ He laughed like a fool,/ said only one thing -/ not “Got a few pennies?”/ or anything like that,/ my goodness,/ my goodness,/ not that kind of dull begging,/ my goodness,/ my goodness,/ but “You’re the highest!”/ Just that phrase,/ In a word,/ I was astounded, really astounded./ My poor wandering soul/ was brought to a full stop,/ awakened in amazement./ Yesterday, today, or tomorrow/ never was there or will there be such/ a way of begging./ No such begging would be plausible/ anywhere else, anytime……

– In Llasa, Tibet – Ko Un

Seemingly everywhere you go in Korea you are “awakened in amazement” by the spirit of service that people show you in the market, on the street, at a tire shop, or a traditional ceramics studio. We have come to know the Korean people as genuinely kind, attentive souls in both their business and personal interactions. Since we do not have stellar Korean language skills we have been most astonished by the honesty and generosity we have experienced in the most mundane business transactions.

The Korean spirit of service stems from two important historical traditions and one very prevalent modern reality. As Ko Un, the preeminent poet in Hanguel, so illustrated, the Buddhist religious tradition promotes the practice of acceptance and disconnection from the more tragic aspects of the material world; inequalities, suffering, and death.

The Buddhist religious tradition has been adapted to the social tradition of Confucianism in Korea, the other major historical tradition infusing the country with a strong service ethic. Confucianist thought emphasizes social harmony through clear social expectations and rigid social organizing structures. Hierarchy, authority, and submission to those older or of a greater social standing are strong principles of Confucianism.

Lastly, Korea is an intensely competitive society. The small peninsula is practically an island with no natural resources, devastated by war 60 years ago and today containing over 50 million people. Nevertheless, it has succeeded at a very high level in the knowledge economy on a global scale. Koreans compete in academics, athletics and soju drinking. Of the 500,000 college students that graduate from Korean universities each year there only 100,000 jobs created for them to fill. If a Korean asks you, “Do you play volleyball?”, they do not mean, “Do you like to play volleyball?”. What they really mean is, “Do you know how to set, serve and slam with form and well enough to help our school volleyball team beat our rival school’s team?” If you can’t compete you are left on the sidelines of this society.

To many foreigners, especially Americans, I imagine that these aspects of Korean society may seem harsh, old-fashioned or simply unappealing. After living here for a few months, we know better. The acceptance of Buddhism, the respect for authority imbued by Confucianism and the competitive fire of Koreans nets some very positive effects; unflappability, strong nuclear families and a serious spirit of service!

In fact, the word service is a “Konglish” word in the Korean lexicon used nearly everyday. When we go to the market and buy a few apples and a couple pounds of mandarins, we also receive as “service” a half dozen ripe persimmons free of charge. On Monday, we went to a tire shop to get a flat repaired. We pulled into the garage of the tire shop, were immediately greeted by three service attendants, then the owner came out and chatted with us, music started playing from our stereo, and 20 minutes later we left with two new tires and five bows from the smiling men. Finally, last weekend in Jeonju we bought a lovely traditional tea set from a local potter whose wife boxed up our set with care and then wrapped up a pair of ceramic picture holders and stuck a glossy pottery magazine in our bag with them, “service” she said. Back home we dream of customer service like this, in Korea we are “awakened” by it everyday.

Have you experienced any particular examples of giving or “service” during this holiday season? Let us know in the comment section below!

Our new tea set

Our new tea set



4 thoughts on “The spirit of giving in Korea

  1. I really needed to think about this idea of “service” in the US because I do feel we here in America are a giving culture. The difference is our service usually happens at birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions in life. There it happens everyday in life. And that’s when the giving has a bigger impact on the receiver — when you least expect it. I like that.

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