0-100: Cultural Differences Between the US & Korea

I’ve lived in Korea for 15 years, teaching English (and computers) to all levels, from kindergarten to adult. I spent my first 26 years of life & education in the US, from kindergarten to university. I grew up in a typical American family, and I’m now raising a typical Korean family.

For these reasons, I was recently approached to give a presentation on Cultural Differences between the US (my home country) and Korea (my residence) to a group of high school students in Jeonju.

Now, there are plenty of good blog posts, YouTube videos, and discussions about cultural differences between the US and Korea already available online, so I decided to take a different approach. This presentation will start with a brief overview of some facts and statistics that I’ve gathered from the CIA World Factbook. But then, we will dive into cultural differences that one may experience at certain milestones along a typical life journey “from birth to death” (hence, the presentation’s subtitle).

While I’ve experienced my fair share of culture shock and cultural differences during my 15 years living in Jeonju, I wanted to approach this subject from a slightly different angle. Therefore, I’ve selected a handful of “Life Milestones” that everyone will (likely) experience in some form or another throughout their lives.

I’ll compare and contrast different aspects of these Life Milestones and how each culture experiences them in their own unique ways. Some will be quite similar between the cultures, but others will have wildly different cultural expressions. I hope this presentation will be both interesting and insightful, and that we’ll be able to have a good discussion through it and learn a lot together.

Since I’ve lived for extended periods in both cultures (26 years in America, 15 years in Korea), I am quite familiar with the differences and similarities between cultures and can speak extensively from my own experiences.

Some Basic Facts

These facts have been sourced from the CIA World Factbook.

Compare & Contrast

  • Size: Area • Landscape
  • People: Population • Health
  • Money: Education • Military

Size

Area

  • USA: 9,833,517 km2 (#4 in the world)
  • Korea: 99,720 km2 (#109 in the world)

At that size, the USA is roughly 100 times larger than Korea! Korea is only:

  • Slightly larger than Indiana
  • And slightly smaller than Pennsylvania

Landscape

Korea

  • Halla-san – the tallest mountain in Korea (1,950m) 
    • An easy way to remember its height is with a Korean expression that encourages tourism by using each number of its height in the sentence: “세요.” Actually, this is one of my favorite Korean sentences for this very reason. It says, “1번” (one time), “9경” (sightsee), “5세요” (come) = 1,9,5,0 meters high. Cool!~
  • Seoul – the most wired city in the world (1st for 5G)
    • Though this report is from 10 years ago, even in 2011, Seoul was considered the most wired city in the world. As the home of global brands like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai, and the first country in the world to launch 5G commercially, South Korea is still one of the most wired countries in the world, and a great test bed for new technologies.
  • Jeonju – largest hanok village in Korea (800+ hanok)
    • Jeonju is also a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, and the food capital of Korea! It is located in the heart of some of the richest farmland in Korea, and restaurants here serve the most variety, quantity, and freshest side dishes of any place I’ve yet visited in Korea. The food is incomparable!

USA

  • Denali – the coldest mountain on earth (6,190m, -73°C)
    • The “crowning peak” of the Alaskan Mountain Range and the highest point in North America.
    • Permanent snow and ice cover over 75% of the mountain.
    • Glaciers up to 45 miles (72.4km) and 3700 feet (1127.8m) thick “spider out from its base in every direction.” (source)
    • Winds of over 150 mph (241.4kph) and temperatures of -93˚F (-73˚C) have been recorded, which is some of the coldest and most violent weather on earth.
  • Mauna Kea – the tallest mountain on earth (10,200m) above sea level (4,207m)
    • The highest point in Hawaii and one of 6 volcanoes that formed the island, it stands roughly at the same height that commercial airplanes fly.
    • It is one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observation and contains 12 sites with 13 telescopes, though the construction of the telescopes has been controversial (indigenous rights, religion, ecology).
  • Death Valley – the hottest place on earth (-86m, 56.7°C)
    • It lies near the border of California and Nevada (126.2 miles or 203km to Las Vegas), and is 3,000km2 (7770km2) – almost as big as Jeollabuk-do (8067km2)
    • The hottest officially registered temperature is 56.7°C in 1913.
    • But it may not be the hottest place on earth much longer.

Land Use

  • Korea
    • Agriculture (18.1%) = 18,049 km2
    • Forest (63.9%)
    • Other (18.0%)
  • USA
    • Agriculture (44.5%) = 4,375,915 km2
    • Forest (33.3%)
    • Other (22.2%)

That means the USA has over 242 times more land area devoted to agriculture!

People

Population

  • USA: 334,998,398 (#3 in the world)
    • Demographics
      • 72.4% White
      • 12.6% Black
      • 4.8% Asian
      • 10.2% Other
    • Language
      • 78.2% English
      • 13.4% Spanish
      • 1.1% Chinese
  • Korea: 51,715,162 (#28 in the world)
    • 96.2% Korean
    • 3.8% Non-Korean (1.99 million)

Population Density

  • USA: 50% of the population lives in 9 states: Califonia, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New York
  • Korea: 50% of the population lives in Gyeongi Province & especially Seoul

Population Pyramids

Korea just isn’t having babies (1.09 children per woman – a negative birth rate), and longer life expectancy (82.78 vs 80.43 in the US) which means there is an aging population, and it’s only a matter of time before the total population shrinks dramatically.

Health

You can see from the graphic that Korea wins on almost every metric.

The US is at least continuing to maintain its population (1.84 children per woman) as you can also see from the previous Population Pyramid.

And although the US does have more Physician Density per 1,000 people, the fact that the US spends more than double the amount of its GDP on healthcare means that this metric is (at least) a toss-up.

Mother’s mean age for her first child is additionally mostly a toss-up, because cultural factors may play a big part in this. But this might also be a big reason why Korea has a negative birthrate – because women are waiting so much longer to start having children. American women, by contrast, have on average 5 years more than Korean women to have children because they are starting earlier.

Nevertheless, all of the other factors, as well as Korea’s technological and economic advanced, prompted the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to classify Korea as a “developed” economy on July 2, 2021, and no longer merely a “developing” economy. This is the first upgrade for a member state since the body’s establishment in 1964!

Money

GDP (purchasing power parity)

  • USA: $62,530
  • Korea: $42,755

GDP Composition

  • USA
    • Agriculture (0.9%)
    • Industry (19.1%)
    • Military (3.7%)
    • Education (5%)
    • Healthcare (16.9%)
    • Other Services (54.4%)
  • Korea
    • Agriculture (2.2%)
    • Industry (39.3%)
    • Military (2.7%)
    • Education (4.3%)
    • Healthcare (7.6%)
    • Other Services (43.9%)

Education

  • Korea
    • Elementary (1-6)
    • Middle (1-3)
    • High (1-3)
  • USA (alt #1)
    • Elementary (K-6)
    • Junior High (7-9)
    • High (10-12)
  • USA (alt #2)
    • Elementary (K-5)
    • Middle (6-8)
    • High (9-12)

School Year

  • Korea
    • Year: March – July, September – January
    • Vacation: August, February (2 months total)
    • Hours: 8:30am – 4:30pm? (or 11:30pm?)
  • USA
    • Year: September – December, January – May
    • Vacation: December – January (1 month), June – August (3 months)
    • Hours: 8:30 – 3:00pm (or 6:00pm?)

More Education Differences

In the US:

  • No uniforms: only 19% of schools require uniforms
  • Students move classrooms: there is no “home room” so in the 10 minute breaks, students have to travel through the halls, go to lockers, etc.
  • Less days & times: US schools are in session for shorter hours, plus require less minimum school days per year
    • USA: 180 days (and way more holidays!)
    • Korea: 220 days
  • Extracurricular activities:
    • In school: students are encouraged to join sports, clubs, and leadership (Student Council)
    • Out of school: students get part-time jobs, date, and just hang out
    • But also, in the US, there are more fights, drugs, skipping, vandalism, threats, etc.

A Typical Day in High School

Military

  • Korea: Compulsory
    • 1.5 years
    • $450 / month salary
  • USA: Voluntary
    • Typically 4 years minimum, up to a full career (11 years average)
    • Starting salary: around $2,000 / month
    • But also includes multiple bonuses, paying for school, etc

Break time!

Any questions?


Life Milestones

My wife brought home the “Visit Korea” book here the other day, and one of the first articles I noticed was touting some 8 top benefits of visiting Korea. I thought it would be interesting to compare these to my personal experiences in the US:

  1. Safe Streets & Low Crime Rate
    • USA: Yes, mostly, except in certain places at night
  2. A Country that Never Sleeps
  3. Foreigner-friendly Signs
    • USA: There are more Spanish language signs and announcements popping up than when I was a child
  4. Excellent & Fast Medical Services
    • USA: But much more expensive than in Korea (by about 10x in my experience)
  5. Wi-Fi Heaven
    • USA: In Starbucks… But there is no wide-spread wifi, nor Internet cafes on every corner.
  6. No Cash, No Worries!
    • USA: Yes, the card is king. But the US still uses LOTS of checks, and direct deposit, e-taxes, and other digital conveniences still aren’t widespread.
  7. Convenient Public Transportation
  8. Fast & Easy Delivery
    • USA: In my experience, only pizza, and maybe Chinese, does delivery. Perhaps that’s changed?

(Keep in mind, I am from a small town in Wyoming, so my experiences are not necessarily reflective of more developed and larger cities.)

Life Stages

I’ve broken these Life Stages down into three main sections:

  1. Youth – including childhood & schooling
  2. Adulthood – including career & family
  3. Elderly – including aging & retirement

Here they are in detail:

  1. Youth (~18% of life)
    • 0-5: Infancy
    • 6-11: Elementary
    • 12-18: Middle / High school
    • 16, 18, 21: “Coming of Age”
    • 18-21: University?
  2. Adulthood (~48% of life)
    • 21-30: Figuring Yourself Out
    • 31-40: Family? Career?
    • 41-50: Career! (Midlife Crisis?)
    • 51-60: “Over the Hill”
    • 61-66: The End (of career) is Near
  3. Elderly (~34% of life)
    • 66-70: The “Golden Years”
    • 71-75: Aging
    • 76-80: Slowing
    • 81-85: The “Twilight Years”
    • 86-100?: THE END

The remainder of this presentation contains many questions that I hope will lead to a good discussion with the participants. Each of these topics is lengthy and could lead to its own discussion or presentation, so I’ll try my best to keep things brief.

Youth: 0-18ish

0-5: Infancy

Birth

Sleep

Walking & Talking

6-11: Elementary

First Day of School

Making Friends

In & After School

12-18: Middle / High School

Learning to Work

Pets

College Entrance Exams

16, 18, 21: Coming of Age

16: First Car / Job

18: First Love

21: First Drink

18-21: University?

Meet the Police

Experience Death

Move Out

Adulthood: 21-66

21-30: Figuring Yourself Out

On Your Own

First “Real” Job

First “Major” Purchase

31-40: Family? Career?

Getting Married

Buying a House

Having a Baby

41-50: Career! (Midlife Crisis?)

Changes at Work

Excess $$$

Midlife Crisis

51-60: “Over the Hill”

Family Again

61-66: The End (of Career) is Near

Retirement Party

Elderly: 66-100?

66-70: The “Golden Years”

“Golden Years”

71-75: Aging

Health Issues

76-80: Slowing Down

Nursing Homes

81-85: The “Twilight Years”

Last Will & Testament

86-100: THE END

The Next Great Adventure

Thanks!

Author: Aaron

Aaron Snowberger is an experienced web developer, graphic designer, and educator in ESL and computer technology. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science, Master's degree in Media Design, and professional certifications for React (JavaScript) development, and as a Google Certified Educator and Trainer. Aaron is passionate about helping new learners discover the joys of technology, and has presented across the country at multiple local, national, and international conferences in both the ESL and web development fields. His most recent talk was given at the 2019 JSConf (JavaScript Conference) in Seoul on September 3, 2019. (https://2019.jsconfkorea.com/en/tutorials)

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