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  • Writer's pictureKatrine Lyngsø

Exchange Season in Seoul

After years of saving, applying and patiently waiting for the day to come to finally move across the world, I can finally call Seoul my temporary home for four months.

South Korea is much more than the home of K-pop, Soju, Samsung and Taekwondo, and I’m on a mission to learn as much as possible about the nation’s complex history, culture and political scene while I’m here. ROOTLESS Podcast Season 3 will be an educational journey for me in this exact pursuit.

Korea has successfully managed to become a democracy and an industrial leader within just four decades. Such a social, political and industrial shift is a complex process. The implementation is most successful under certain social and cultural conditions, which is Korea’s case comes from a large middle class working hard and determined leadership.

Although the economic position here competes with the western countries' I’ve previously lived in, the social and cultural conditions seems worlds apart. The Confucian norms from Korea’s long past of dynasties are still deeply rooted in families and institutions. Confucian norms are a big part of shaping the interactions, traditions and hierarchies in basic human relationships and institutions. It lays the groundwork for the overall social capital in Korea and plays a huge role in people’s unwillingness to individually express themselves. But movements are growing across the country like the LGBT community which continues to show its growing prominence each summer with their pride parades. Opposite is the religious movement, the Christian in particular with conservative and powerful influence on the political scene.

Simultaneously, confucian societies tend to have enviably few family breakdowns potentially caused by the unbreakable ties to their affective networks. This is one of the factors that contributes to the low rates of homeless people on the Korean streets.

In Western societies where citizens’ individual expression is greater, homelessness rates are higher because families and communities aren’t equally as responsible for members that don’t adhere the collective expectations. Simultaneously individuals are not willing to cover or change their unpopular beliefs, which results in collective estrangement and the loss of their support network potentially leading to homelessness.

Women’s place in society has long been inferior to men's but on the surface gander equality has been achieved as a result of the intense modernisation. Korean women are educated and ambitious, but the truth hidden in Korea’s historically low birth rate reveals how women are still victims of discrimination. Pregnant women have no security and rights the way I’m accustomed to from my Danish upbringing.

Women are continuously prioritising their careers because it doesn’t seem compatible with motherhood, as the conditions in working environments and care institutions will disadvantage a mother's professional success.

The generational divide in the country is one I’ve never witnessed before, with the younger generations opening up to western and liberal ideologies in direct dispute with the main cohort of the older generations.

For example, in the last decade the Korean society has been opening up to the LGBT community and their demand for legislative protection, however a big part of the conservative attitudes remains in families and institutions. The increased public debate and awareness is gradually helping the topic become less taboo, but the older generation remain in opposition to the community’s progression.

Koreans have been taught since elementary school that live in an “ethnically homogeneous” country to their own benefit, whereas I’ve grown up being taught that diversity is key for innovation and equality. Living in Korea as a Western women, I experience nothing but openness, kindness and respect from all strangers, but many older Koreans remain relatively closed-off to the idea of mingling with foreigners the country is gradually transforming into a multicultural society. Since the populations in East Asia are shrinking so fast some social scientists have even debated possible eventual extinction of their civilisations. South Korea is opening itself to more immigrants than ever before in order tackle demographic declines driven by low birth-rate.

As an exchange student in Social and Political Science, South Korea is probably one of the most interesting societies to study. I already wish I could stay for a few years to get a real in-depth picture and fully learn conversational Korean.

Sadly my time is limited but I am trying as much as possible to absorb as much knowledge and as many experiences as possible while I’m here.

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