Korean Culture and Health

Upon returning to the nightclub we first visited (picture to the left), I pointed to a light fixture where we had affixed a nicotine monitor. “It’s not there!” I shouted to John, trying to project my voice over the booming hip-hop music in the background. We both looked around aimlessly. One down.

That’s fine, I thought, knowing that we had put up two other monitors in a different location. Arriving there, however, they were also missing! We found one of the study participants and John explained what had happened – he quickly disappeared to investigate.

Once he returned, they had a brief exchange while I politely sat there, my usual practice whenever Korean is spoken around me. As a blaring foreigner here, I pay extra attention to my actions in an effort to avoid looking bored or uncomfortable when being left out of a conversation. I figure this is something I will have to get used to if I want to work in the global arena. Respect, it turns out, is paramount in Korea.

Described as one of most Confucian states in modern times, the country is built on traditions and unspoken regimens of respect. While many Koreans will attribute my ignorance of protocol to my foreignness, they still greatly appreciate any effort I make to adapt to their environment. They are particularly keen on my appreciation of their food and are overjoyed when I add spoonfuls of spicy red chili paste to my favorite Korean dish, bibimbap. Some are even surprised that I would know the name of one of their staple dishes.

While John can more accurately describe the intricacies of respect here, I am interested in how this behavior affects their health. That is, can the Korean way of interacting with others hinder or promote healthy living? I have already witnessed their healthy eating habits (John and I have had to tighten our belts!), their active lifestyles (walking and using public transportation) and their heightened awareness of healthy living, especially compared to Americans.

Yet last night at one of our study sites, a young man gave us insight on the smoking and drinking habits of Koreans, particularly among men. While times have changed, smoking has traditionally been viewed as masculine and men opting out of the practice are essentially isolating themselves from their own gender. Drinking alcohol, as he explained further, is another behavior associated with social standing. Even the way one pours and receives their drink (as John and I are showing in the picture below) requires attention to detail. He pointed out that in the past, business partnerships were always solidified over alcohol because “if [the potential partners] cannot drink together then they cannot work together.” This behavior, as one can surmise, essentially forces an individual into an unhealthy practice. Now, though, times are adapting to the influx of individualism brought in by the West. Breaking tradition is not as dire as it once was.

There are many unanswered questions here. As John and I delve deeper into Korean culture, we will try to understand how cultural norms affect the healthy (or unhealthy) practices of the Korean population. Because practices directly contribute to outcomes, this is a vital area to understand.


One Comment

  1. I'm pretty tired so I'm really making an effort not to sound delirious here… with that said, I think it is so interesting that you made the point about how cultural norms can contribute to health. As an undergrad, I was really interested in this subject as I took Asian Am electives. Being Pilipina American myself I have always found it curious how Pacific Islanders equate food with family time and love and even respect for what past generations have sacrificed. With the fast-foodization (is that a word?… imagine a KFC, a McDonalds and a Cinnabon-you read right- at a hwy rest stop in the middle of the jungle. yeah icouldnt believe it either) of the Philippines and Polynesia it would be interesting to see how that is contributing to the breakdown of family time, rates of diabetes/chronic disease, etc especially since these places have traditionally had very healthy diets. Anywho. Great points!


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