My Korea for a 6th Grade Class in Iowa

A young relative of mine in the 6th grade (I don’t think I’ve seen her since she was a toddler) contacted me recently to say that she chose to do a report on South Korea for a class project on countries of the world.  She asked her teacher to switch from North Korea to South Korea because she had an uncle/cousin living there (good on her that she knew the difference when many Americans don’t seem to at times).

I was excited to help out and give her my impressions of Korea.  I even offered to Skype with her class.  I was happily surprised when her teacher showed interest in doing so.  We set up a time and I was able to Skype with their class (it was originally the whole school, but 2 snow days killed that plan).

Below are the notes I was working off of.  Some useful information in there, not much you can’t get from Wikipedia, mixed in with my own observations/opinions.  Let me know what you think.

Notes on Korea for a 6th Grade Audience

The first section is generally about me and my impression of Korea.  The other sections strive to answer some of the questions to be answered in their country books.

General Information

I’ve been in Korean off and on since December 1997.  I came here to make a little money to support my interest in travel.  I started off working at a private language institute (school).  These are everywhere in Korea.  These schools are primarily for children.  Full-time Kindergartens employ many foreign workers, but the majority of people work at schools that teach after school programs for children as well as daytime and late-night classes for adults.  There are so many of these schools, because English is very important in Korean society.  Korea only has a population of around 50 million and it is a small country (about the size of Illinois).  Both of these mean that it is very important to do business globally if a company wants to succeed.  And, of course, in order to do global business, one must speak English.  Even people who will never have to use English must learn it if they want to succeed in a corporation.  It is one of the more important aspects of promotion in many companies.  In addition to business reasons, anyone interested in science, technology, and advanced graduate study must learn to read English well.  Most publications in these fields are in English.

Later, I taught English at a medical school for 3 years.  These students were primarily interested in writing and presentation skills.  They were required to publish and present their research as requirements for their jobs and education (mostly MS and PhD students).

I’ve been a professor at a university in northern Seoul for nearly 2 years now.  I’m in the English Education Department, which means I teach English Education majors (people who want to be English teachers) in classes such as teaching theories/methods and writing.

What kind of things do you do? 

Since I’m a boring old man, I pretty much spend all my time either at work or home.  We don’t have a lot of time to do anything.  However, you can probably learn most about the similarities and differences between Korea and the States in our boring daily lives.

My son goes to pre-school (Kindergarten starting in March) every day at 9am and usually comes home at either 2pm or 4pm depending on our schedules.  Kindergarten is private in Korea (not at public schools) and it usually lasts for two years (ages 5 and 6).  It is very similar to Kindergarten in America, though not as aligned to the public school curriculum.

When he comes home, if the weather is nice he’ll play in the parking lot….yes, I said parking lot.  Seoul is a city of over 15 million.  Most people live either in large apartment complexes (technically they are condos, because they are owned by individuals.  20 story buildings, usually in groups of at least 6, but many in clumps of dozens).  These are the best places to live because there are more convenient services and many kids in the same age range (regardless of what age you are).  There is a small play area behind the apartment, but it’s not really big enough to ride bikes, so most people in are the parking lot.  The kids play the same things that you’d expect kids to play at home: riding bikes, rollerblading, hula hoops, jump ropes, tag, soccer, and so forth.

When we have the chance to go out, we sometimes go to parks.  There are a number of public parks in Seoul, but they all require us to travel quite a ways.  These are the only places where you actually see grass, so I like to go there as much as possible.  A number of these are near the Han River (major river that runs through Seoul…think Mississippi River size).  They are always crowded, but they are good places to ride bikes, have picnics, and some have other special events.  The playgrounds are also really good in some of them. In the summer time, many of these have fountains (the kind that have water shooting out of the ground…not like pool-type fountain) that children like to play in. On hot days, these are great places to go.

Nearby, there are a number of “playrooms” for kids.  There are a variety.  The ones that my son used to like have play equipment, which is always a favorite with the kids ().  These days, his favorite is this place that’s a large room lined with shelves of Lego-type block sets.  He can spend hours in that place…and we like it πŸ™‚

Much of our family time is spent at relatives’ homes.  We go to my wife’s parents home quite often.  They in a Seoul suburb.  Of course, even in the suburbs, most people live in large apartment complexes.  Even cheap houses can be around $2 million and are really for the very wealthy.  At their house my son plays with his cousins or goes to a large, nearby park.  Just like at family gatherings in the States, much revolves around food πŸ™‚

We go out to eat (though not as much as we used to).  We always try to find new, interesting places.  Most are Korean food places, but there are many kinds of Korean food, so we are always looking for something new.  Some of my favorites include grilled pork/beef (galbi in Korean), spicy chicken dishes (dalkgalbi and dalkdoritang), and tofu (I eat a ton of tofu).  These are often travel adventures as it seems that nothing is ever nearby.  In a city this size, really nothing is ever close. 

What kind of food do you like the best?

Some of my favorites include:

  • grilled pork/beef (galbi in Korean – or an example of making a lettuce wrap with galbi ),
  • spicy chicken dishes (dalkgalbi – and
  • dalkdoritang – ), and
  • tofu (I eat a ton of tofu – ).

What do you like the most about living in South Korea?

I really like living in Korea.  There are always things that I miss about living in the US, but my Korean experience has been very good.  There are a number of things I like about South Korea.  In no particular order.

  • Safety – there are no “bad” neighborhoods in Korea.  Violent crime is extremely low.  Even theft is quite low.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard of people having lost wallets (other other items) and having them returned with the money still in it.
  • Public Transportation – The public transit system here is better than ANY city in the States and is likely in the top 3 in the world.  The cost and coverage of the network is great.  Rides (bus or subway) cost 900 Won (about 80 cents). Buses go everywhere and there are nine main subway lines that criss-cross the city.  And, it’s all FAST.  This is helped by the rest addition (last 10 years) of bus lines in most parts of the city.  Buses cruise along even when traffic is at a standstill.  This is particularly important for us because we have never owned a car here.  No need to.
  • People – The Korean people are really amazing in many ways.  It can be very difficult for foreigners in Korea to adjust and understand Korean culture, but once they do they tend to love it.  Koreans are very emotional.  You won’t notice this at first, particularly with the older Koreans because they tend not to smile in the same way that Americans do. However, this is obvious when watching protests, TV, politics, and just hanging out with friends.  Friendship is not casual in Korea.  This terms has a deep meaning in Korean.  When you are friends with a Korean, you have a very dedicated, loyal friend.


Korea Background

Korea has a 5000 year history, as Koreans are fond of saying.  This history includes dynasties that divided up the country and other, more unified dynasties that even occupied much of eastern China at one point.  That history includes much influence (and control) from China as well as many wars and occupations by the Japanese.


Most recently, the Japanese occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945 (the surrender of the Japanese in WWII).  There are still many hard feelings in Korea towards the Japanese, though this has softened considerably in the last 15 years.


The exit of the Japanese left a power vacuum that the USSR and the USA filled.  This resulted in splitting the country into North and South (which remains so today).  In 1950, the North invaded the South.  The UN came to the rescue of the South and evidentially China came to the rescue of the North.  At the end of the 3 year war, the dividing line between the countries was essentially the same as before the war.  The war isn’t really over, though.  Fighting ended with an armistice (agreement to stop fighting), but not a peace treaty.  These days, the two countries have an uneasy peace with isolated fighting breaking out on occasion.


Unfortunately, many Americans still envision Korea during wartime.  This means that many representations in TV and movies show poor farmers in grass and mud huts plowing fields with an ox.   This representation was particularly common after a TV comedy called M.A.S.H. became one of the most popular shows ever in American in the early 1980’s (ask your parents about it if you haven’t seen it πŸ˜‰ 


The modern reality of Korea couldn’t be more different.


Korea is a country with a population of around 50 million (about the equivalent of New York and California).  Seoul, Korea’s largest city, with about 25 million in the metro area has a population density of  44,775.7 people per sq mile (one of the densest cities in the world) vs. 2,838/sq. mi. NY and 183.4/sq. mi. (Des Moines).  We’re kind of packed in here πŸ™‚ 



The Korean government is a constitutional democracy quite similar to that of the USA, with an executive, legislative, and judicial branch.  This is not surprising given the role of the USA in Korea after WWII and that the first president of the country (Syngman Rhee) lived and studied (in exile) in the USA for many years.  However, it took many years to form a stable, democratic government.  Coups and dictators mark Korea’s modern history.  A stable democracy has only really been in place for the last 20 years. 


Education (P-12)

Koreans are crazy about education.  In fact, they refer to their pursuit of education as a mania (seriously).  Korea has some of the highest literacy rates in the world (similar to Iowa) and one of the most educated populous.  Competition for jobs is extremely high in Korea and just about the ONLY avenue to a good job is admission to a top university.  Therefore, the competition for university admission is extremely high.


Children commonly attend private pre-school/kindergartens from around age 3 to 6.  These range from daycare-like facilities to English-only school-prep, costing between $200-$2000/month for standard care.


Elementary school has 6 grades (age 7-12).  Elementary school is very similar to school in the US in terms of its focus on foundational reading and arithmetic (very little writing) skills.  There is also a focus on ethics, civics, and experiential learning.   In addition to school attendance, most Koreans with the means to do so enroll their children in private learning academies for everything from math, Korean, and English to Taekwondo and music.  It’s not uncommon for students at your age to be in classes into the evening.


Middle school is when the competition heats up.  Middle school has 3 grades, you can think of them as grades 7-9 in the American system.  It is not uncommon for a Korean middle school student to go to classes before school starts, after school, Saturday classes, and additional classes at private academies for 3, 4, or more hours a day.  As I said, this is when the competition heats up.  Top students can apply to attend special high schools that will give them an edge in attending the best schools.


High school has 3 grades, these are similar to grades 10-12 in an American high school.  If you thought that middle school students studied a lot, you would be shocked by the average high school student’s schedule.  It is common for high school students to put in 18 hour days.  They must be at classes (before school classes) at around 6-7am.  They then have school until around 3pm.  They then have after school classes (either at the school or with tutors or at private academies) until they get home around 12am.  High school is one of the most stressful times in a Korean’s life. 


At the end of high school, Korea students take the KSATs (like the SATs in America).  Their score on the KSAT determines which school they will go to.  Only the top percentage of students will be able to enter one of the three top universities.  This is particularly important since most of the best (highest paying) jobs in Korea are held almost entirely by graduates from these universities. 


Physical Features

Korea is a mountainous country.  These are mountains smaller than those found in the Rockies, similar to the Appalachian Mountains.  It often seems that there is a mountain everywhere you go in Korea and that would be about right.  There isn’t much flat land here.

Korea is also peninsula with the East Sea (Sea of Japan) in the east, the West Sea (Yellow Sea) on the west, and the East China Sea in the south.

Given these two facts, it’s not surprising that Koreans favorite pastime is hiking in the mountains and some of their favorite food is fish.


Korean, with Seoul dialect being the standard


Those who consider themselves religious (which is about 50% of the population according to one report)  are primarily Buddhist (50%) and Christian (50%).   Christians form a larger percentage in the north of the country (around Seoul) and Buddhists in other parts of the country.  The number of people who consider themselves Christians has and continues to grow rapidly.


Similar to that of Iowa.  About the same highs and lows.  About the same amount of precipitation overall.  A little more snow in the mountain ranges, a little less in Seoul.  One major difference in the rainy season.  The rainy season is at the end of July to mid-August (give or take) and it rains just about non-stop during that time. 


Work of the People

About the same as that of the States.  There is more manufacturing work in Korea, but that is going abroad as it has with the USA.  Farming is primarily done in small family farms, with little corporate farming.  However, the farmers are aging and are not being replaced.  This is allowing for more consolidation in the farming market.  The service and financial industries are growing fast. 

Cultural Events

There are many cultural events.  Two of the most popular are Chuseok (Thanksgiving/Memorial Day) and Seollal (Lunar New Year).  Each of these days sees much of the population abandoning the city and heading to their hometowns for family events.  They both have a significant focus on honoring ancestors (Confucian heritage), which is done by performing traditional rituals, when possible, at the grave site.  This is done for 5 generations in the family line, primarily by the first born son in each family.  So, if you are 5th in the line of first sons, you will be doing the ceremony for 5 generations (father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, great-great-great-grandfather).  Our family includes mother as well. I’m not sure if that is part of the tradition or not.

Chuseok is much like Thanksgiving in America in that is really centers around food and family.  Some traditions during this time include songpyeon (a rice cake with a somewhat sweet filling) and folk games.

Seollal is a celebration of the Lunar New Year (you might know it as the Chinese New Year).  This is also a time of family and food.  Mandu (dumplings) are traditionally eaten and games like Yut (a kind of board game with 4, 2-sided sticks).

Other events include: Christmas, Solar New Year, Childrens’ Day, Parents’ Day, Valentine’s Day (with White and a number of others), Independence Day, etc…

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