Respectful. Family oriented. Hard working.
These are just some of the adjectives I heard about Koreans after telling people I was going to Korea for a year. It's definitely an accurate portrayal of the Korean people.
Curious needs to be added to the top adjectives.
One thing I wasn't expecting was their ultra curiosity with foreigners.
Since arriving in Korea and getting around the city of Seoul on the public transportation, I've caught many glimpses of their curiosity taking hold by staring at my program mates and I for an unusual amount of time. It's become such a common occurrence I have even become more aware of it by going out of my way to discover it.
As a very typical looking white male, it's very new to me to be the focal point of a general populace.
We speak two very different languages, but, the language of curiosity is universal.
It's been rare that I've had a chance to sit down on the seats in the metro trains, but when I have, I've been the focal point of the commuters going about their lives.
Mostly when they're not looking at their phones.
The elders here in Korea are by far the most curious. They're more blatant in staring at you. The younger folks usually will peek at you but will quickly divert their eyes and attention when they know you've noticed them.
The elders are a whole different animal. They're not the least bit shy about maintaining their curiosity. Maybe it's because they're less focused on their phone than their younger counterparts, but, I can't say for sure.
What I do know is that the gap between societal openness and equality is very deep between the older and younger generations in Korea. The newer generations are more open to what some call, "social justice" while the older generation is still very much trying to keep the hierarchal structure and is very socially conservative.
There's also a very long history in Korea of foreigners oppressing the Korean people throughout the centuries. The wounds are deep with many Koreans, and I'd imagine the older generations who may have lived through the most recent struggles. These include the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and the years that followed where Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world.
It could be the phones distracting the younger folks from their curiosity with foreigners. It could be that they're more open to foreigners being here. It could be that the wounds of the past are deeper from those that lived through the roughest of times.
I won't act like I know the answer because all I can do is observe the differences and make my own summations from my experiences and the history of this intriguing nation.
Just expect to get lots of looks. It's far from abnormal and it in no way should worry you. I have never once received a bad word (not that I would know if I did) or a contensious interaction.
Koreans will still help you find your way, even if they don't understand a word you say and vice versa. The universal language of hand gestures and translation apps are of the utmost importance.
"Be curious, not judgmental." - Walt Whitman