So, how can one simplify the monolith that is American culture? By which means does a melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities, influenced by popular culture and generational changes, get simplified into a general idea? On the other hand, how does one explain the emphasis on family roles and a tight-knit family dynamic in Korean cultures to an American audience without it seeming strict or claustrophobic? American family culture has changed over the decades, what was once envisioned as a perfect nuclear family with a smiling dad coming home from work to his two kids and dog and perfectly coiffed wife in an apron and oven mitts pulling a freshly baked apple pie out of the oven has changed drastically. In 2015 with the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges same sex marriage became legal in all 50 states. This changed the image of family life forever making it more inclusive and accepted for same sex couples to raise a family. In Korea, while same sex relationships are legal, the addition of same sex marriage in the legal system is a work in progress. As of 2015, Pew Research Center, updated the statistics surrounding the family structure in American society by saying “Two-parent households are on the decline in the United States as divorce, remarriage and cohabitation are on the rise. And families are smaller now, both due to the growth of single-parent households and the drop in fertility”. (Pew Research Center, 2015).
In Korean culture, divorce is less common. This is partially due to the greater emphasis placed upon the specialness of marriage and the respect given to the institution of family. Korean culture also places an emphasis on the roles of a person within the familial unit, rather than individualistic driven culture American families reside in. The Asia Society Center for Global Education explains this cultural practice.
Children incur a debt to their parents who gave birth to them and raised them. This debt lies behind the idea of filial duty: treating parents respectfully at all times, taking care of them in their old age, mourning them well at proper funerals, and performing ceremonies for them after their deaths. Even fulfilling these duties, however, is not enough to repay the debt to one’s parents. The full repayment also entails having children and maintaining the continuity of the family line.
Families in Korean culture have a social “family face”, this implies that the actions of one individual in the family creates a ripple effect and has the capacity to either tarnish or shine a positive light on the family. This tradition is practiced mildly in the United States, there’s an understanding that if someone does something, such as “Oh, yes the Johnson’s boy dropped out of college, what a shame,” but that doesn’t translate into the Johnson family’s shame, they are individuals who make their own decisions. One could speculate that the root of the division within American and Korean culture is the view of individuals within the family unit— while American culture encourages loose bonds and individuality with a universal belief that 18 means a child has become an adult; Korean culture doesn’t draw that clear line in the dirt between when a child is no longer a child but an adult, the child always has a duty to their family even in adulthood.
Another difference in culture can be seen within the religious practices of the two regions. America was historically Protestant as it was founded by Protestants, and even today over 70% of Americans report being some sort of Christian. Before Europeans brought their Abrahamic religions and beliefs to the North American continent, the Native Americans that belonged to the land practiced what we now call paganism. Paganism is an oversimplification of the belief that there are spirits and power within nature and natural forces, all complexly intertwined. In modern America, along with Christianity, many Americans adhere to the religions they brought with them to the New World such as Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. There is also a general acceptance or understanding that even within religious groups there is a spectrum ranging from orthodox to liberally involved. American society is also quite secular, so religion does not govern everyday life and decisions, in fact many remain agonistic or atheist, not prescribing to any religious belief system. Another important note to mention when considering religion in America is the fact that while several religions are practiced, there isn’t necessarily tolerance for all religions. Freedom of religion is a tenant in American law and civil society, yet majority vs. minority rifts aren’t uncommon and stereotypes and prejudices are placed among certain groups such as Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus.
In contrast, the Asia Society Center for Global Education states that “According to the 2010 survey, 31.6% of Koreans are Christian, 24.2% are Buddhist and 43.3% are unaffiliated with any religion.”. With that being said it’s important to acknowledge like other Eastern Asian countries such as China and Japan, Korean prescribes to a tradition of ancient philosophies that has transcended time and continues to serve as a lifestyle guide even today. So while Confucian philosophy is a rather commonly adhered to within the Korean social sphere, it isn’t necessarily considered a religious practice rather than a way of life. An example of Confucian influence can be seen within the model of family life and structure in Korean society, everyone within the familial unit has a role to play that signifies their place in the family in relation to others. The following expert from The Republic of Korea’s website will better explain the role of Confucianism in Korean culture;
Confucianism was more a system of ethics than religion and stressed the importance of loyalty, filial piety and other virtues. Confucian followers also valued ancestral worship in the belief that the ancestral spirits can affect the life of their descendants, and tried to find auspicious sites for the graves of their ancestors.
Branches of Christianity such as Catholicism and Protestantism were brought to the peninsula by outsiders, Catholicism was introduced vis envoys from China while Protestantism was the result of North American missionaries in the 19th century. Like America, Korea had Protestantism brought to the land and culture. Like the pagan religious practices of Native Americans, an ancient spiritual practice in Korea known as shamanism which is a pre-historic belief in gods, spirits, and ancestors residing within nature and natural phenomena. Unlike organized religion, shamanism does not adhere to any dogma, sacred texts, or hierarchy but rather is a set of (for the most part) universally accepted beliefs about spirituality that has remained an integral part of Korean culture.
Through studying, researching, and analyzing the similarities and the differences in Americana and Korean societies one isn’t just well informed but allowed an understanding of two completely different cultures that are worlds apart but able to coexist and even overlap in harmony. American family structure is more liberal, independent, and has to form of what a “typical” family is whereas in Korean culture family dynamics are built upon mutual respect and collectivist belief that the family is one unit that operates together. In American culture, there are a variety of religions but not exactly tolerance for them and those who follow them; in Korea there are also several religions but the society isn’t as much religious as much as it practices ancient philosophies and spiritual beliefs that go beyond structured religion, such as Confucianism, shamanism, and Buddhism. In today’s age the world is a lot smaller than it used to be, phones, the Internet, globalization, advancements in travel, as well as migration have brought cultures and societies much closer together than they have been. More so, with the age of Imperialism and colonization a dark reminder to the past, it is the duty of every global citizen to learn about and foster an appreciation for other cultures so that tolerance and acceptance of others becomes an integral part of what it means to be human.