Family Life in Korea

This weeks topic comes from a Dear Reader named Pam, who asks KiK about family life in Korea and how it compares to Indian culture; a part of her heritage. She writes:

“I’ve always loved exploring the west and east and how vastly different they are. For example, in India when you marry you don’t move away from your parents and family, you all move in together. Once I asked my aunt why that is and she explained that family is of utmost importance in India. You respect and care for your elders and sisters and brothers when you marry. They are your blood, they will be there through thick and thin. Why would you want to be away from that? I wonder if South Korea differs? Do they value community and family like India? Do they value individual prosperity and independence like westerners? Or is South Korea somewhere in the middle?”

I will gladly do my best to quench your thirst for knowledge my friend! The family unit definitely dominates many aspects of Korean life. Although the younger generations are altering this structure and slowly becoming more westernized, the original eastern architecture still holds up for the most part. Every member plays a role in this, so allow me to explain.

Young Children: Seen as cute little rug rats until around grade 3. It’s around this time that they start to study at hogwons, also known as after school academies. If the parents can afford it, most kids are sent to private academies after regular school hours to study whatever subject their parents think they should. It may be English, math, music or some kind of martial arts class. The more money the parents have, the more academies their child will most likely attend. The math and English academies are especially important because of the fierce competition for entering the top high schools and universities later in life. Due to such a large population density in such a small country, there are only so many spots available each year, driving competition through the roof.

Younger kids at an after school academy, or "hogwon."

Younger kids at an after school academy.

Older Children: Academy life intensifies. It’s rare for teens to have a part-time job unless it’s summer or winter vacation. Middle school students (grades 7-9 in western terms) study in school and after school to prepare for their high school entrance exams. Students in Korea must apply to their future high school based on their entrance exam scores, so if they score low, they’ll have to go to a lower ranked high school. This is why none of the teens in Korea have jobs during the school year. They are training to become professional students and their job is to study full-time, usually more intensely from their second year of middle school and onwards.

Moving out on your own doesn’t happen either, unless you’re finished university and can afford it with your new job. Otherwise, most kids stay home until marriage and even then they often move in with their parents or in-laws post-marriage. More on that in a moment.

hogwon older

Older kids at a hogwon, not having so much fun.

Dads: Fathers these days are still seen as the man of the house, the bread winner and the money maker. In the last 25 years, I’ve been told that more fathers seem to be involved in their children’s lives and more enthusiastic about being there for everyday child-rearing. In the past, the father often worked long hours to support the family on a single income and came home to eat, shower and rest for the next day. With more double income families sprouting up, less pressure is put on the father to work so much, leading to more time and participation with the children.

Proud Poppa. My friend's husband on their daughter's first birthday.

Proud Poppa. My friend’s husband on their daughter’s first birthday.

Moms: Mothers are usually the house manager. They control the house affairs, including the money, managing bills and maintenance, while raising the children too. Nowadays more mothers work outside the home, if even part-time, so grandparents help out, but 20+ years ago that would never be the case. Mom would be at home full-time, most likely living in her in-law’s home, getting daily help/instructions from her mother-in-law on child care and life management skills.

Mom and Dad on baby's first birthday.

Mom and Dad on baby’s first birthday.

Grandmothers: Grandmothers are in charge of the entire universe. This lady runs her family and usually (to some degree) her child’s family too. It seems that once you’ve raised a family and have stuck around for the era of grandchildren, you’ve reached the “untouchable” stage in Korean life where you become exempt from every rule ever made. This variation of a grandmother is affectionately referred to as an “ajuma,” which technically means “married woman with children” but has extended its meaning to include this tornado of a woman in her later years.

Typical grandmother character, as played on a Korean soap opera.

Typical grandmother character, played on a Korean soap opera.

The ajuma will sit, stand or just stop walking wherever she likes and will physically shove you out of the way with her ungodly ajuma strength when needed, which is often and usually on public transit. This is the woman who purposely finds miss-matched patterned pants and tops to wear, complete with 4-inch wedge sandals and a sun visor that spans at least 12 inches around her head. She is often seen telling random strangers what to do and cursing at the inefficiencies of everyday life around her. That being said, she is also the woman who managed to get her children through school, taught them how to cook and pretty much ensured her entire family’s survival thus far. She also most likely played a big role in how her grandkids grew up, so she’s been keeping things in order for ages. You can see why these grandmas are untouchable.

A Korean-American girl I met on the zombie walk we did last halloween. She was dressed as a zombie ajuma. The wardrobe is spot on!

A Korean-American girl I met on the zombie walk last halloween. She was dressed as a zombie ajuma. The wardrobe is spot on!


Another ajuma zombie walker I met last halloween. I don’t know where he got those pants but with the little shoestring backpack thrown in, he nailed it. Aside from the face paint, there is no exaggeration in either of these pictures.

Grandfathers: I haven’t heard as many stories on the grandfather figure in the family so he won’t sound as zany as grandma, but he’s still there and his presence is strong. From what my Korean friends tell me, their grandfathers are the last of the old generation who fought in the Korean war in the 1950s. These men are often noted as the strong, silent type who have seen so much change since there time as young men that they’ve just washed their hands of the new, evolving Korea and enjoy the simple things in life. They contribute to each family’s structure by being the original provider in the family and having the biggest job of being the backbone of the family’s morals and values. These are the men who lived through the days of hunger and strife and are now content to enjoy their grandchildren and spend time with their peers. It also helps that their wives are running things like a naval officer so they don’t have much to worry about any more!

Typical grandfather, as portrayed in Korean soaps.

Typical grandfather, as portrayed in Korean soaps.

The Shift: These days, some newlyweds still opt to live with the husband’s parents but it’s becoming less popular as the younger generations reach marrying age and strive for independence. If they do move in with the in-laws, the wife is often shifted into a more subservient role of semi-caretaker to the husband’s parents. She may still manage her spouse’s money and home affairs, but it’s often under the scrutinizing supervision of the mother-in-law. There are many dramas and movies about life with the in-laws in every culture and Korea is no different. Of course not all in-laws are horrible, but often times in Korea, the new wife is at the mercy of her mother-in-law which makes for a stressful beginning to married life.  As a result, newlyweds these days are more likely to put a down-payment on an apartment of their own from the start or perhaps live with the in-laws for only the first year to save money.

Dinner with the in-laws, as portrayed in a Korean soap.

Dinner with the in-laws, as portrayed in a Korean soap.

It’s also becoming more common to enter a marriage with someone who already has their own place and their partner simply moves in after the wedding. That way is considered very modern and western and becoming more desirable to young newlyweds. That being said, my friend tells me there is a saying in Korea: “You’re not marrying only one person, you’re marrying a whole family.” I believe this is true in all nations, but in a rapidly changing South Korea, it proves that the core values of honouring your family are still deeply embedded in their hearts and minds.

A real Korean dinner, not much different from the one shown in the soap.

A real Korean dinner, not much different from the one shown in the soap.

I hope that helped to answer your question Pam. If anyone else would like to suggest a discussion topic, feel free to comment below or post a message on my facebook page here. Ben, your request for how to find a trustworthy dentist is in the works. Until next time, be well Dear Readers.

A Day in the Life: Teaching in Korea

Being a teacher is entertaining to say the least. My friends who teach in middle schools have much more active (and by active I mean violent) stories to tell out of class, but my students have not quite hit that puberty stage where they feel the need to throw and/or destroy everything they touch. Here are some highlights from a usual day at my elementary school.

1st period: Grade 6 class 3

There is one boy who can’t speak English very well but really seems to like me and insists on attempting communication. This usually consists of him running up to me with his friends yelling, “Hello teacher!” Then asking his friends how to say what he wants to say in English. I usually stand there guessing, grasping at the Korean I know and searching his rapid Korean questions for something I recognize. Then we resort to body language, which often fails us, and so he waves his hands and says, “Teacher no” and runs away.

On this morning, I walked into class to find him sitting in an office chair, spinning himself around and around, enjoying the breeze from the fan. As soon as he saw me he was ready.

Him: “Teacher, pipa.”

Me: “Pipa? What is pipa?”

Him: (shouting now) “Pipa! Pipa!”

A friend: “Soccer!”

Me: “Aaaahhh. FIFA! Yes, FIFA.”

Him: “World cup.”

Me: “Yes, world cup. Soccer. Do you like soccer?”

Him: A pause to calculate meaning, then… “Yes.”

Me: “Good job. Now go to your seat.”

Courtesy of

That was exhausting but I’m proud of him and I can see that took a lot out of him too. I wish I could help him out more but my Korean isn’t strong enough and same goes for his English. Such is life when you’re a public school teacher. In a class of 30, many are left wanting – teachers included.

3rd period: Grade 6 class 5

The kids are doing a survey game where they have to ask other students what they want to do this summer. They must use sentences like “I want to see…I want to go to…I want to play…” A couple of girls have changed the sentence “I want to see a play” into “I want to see an EXO concert” (a very popular Korean pop group). I applaud their ingenuity and tell them to continue. A minute later, one of the girls comes up to me and says, “Teacher, do you know EXO?” Her eyes are wide with wonder at how I could possibly know of this underground phenomenon known as K-pop music.

I tell her yes, I know EXO.

She runs full-tilt into her group of friends, slamming them all on the back with her hands, exclaiming that the teacher knows about EXO. I’m not sure if they are planning a mutiny because I’ve infringed on their collective love interests so I grab my board marker in case I need to swat anyone on the head to maintain sanity. If you doubt that last sentence, you’ve never seen a crazed K-pop fan. They are lethal when threatened.


Another member of the tribe with decent English comes over, eyeing me cautiously.

Her: “Teacher, you know EXO?”

Me: “Yes.”

Her: Turns around to holler back at her crew that it has been confirmed that I understood the question. Then: “Do you like EXO?”

Me: “Yes, I like EXO. I like ‘growl’ and ‘wolf’ too.”

Her: “WHOAAA!” She sprints back to the tribe, screaming that I not only know, but also like EXO and named the songs mentioned.

The entire group squeals until they turn into a mass of flailing arms and flying hair. I am laughing and telling them to focus, that there is only a minute left in the survey game. Eventually they all calm down, no board marker needed. A third from the group looks at me with a huge smile and gives me a thumbs up. “Teacher, good!” She says.

Yes. I’m in the cool club. Nailed it.

4th period: Grade 6 class 2

The period before lunch is often the hardest to control. They are hungry, agitated and physically unable to focus on anything for more than 1.5 minutes. That is when I am most animated and expressive, determined to keep them with me at least until the textbook portion of the class is over.

I’ve got the door to my right open for the breeze, which often leads to walk-bys of students peeking in to wave hello or see what we’re doing. As distracting as that can be, I think it’s sweet that the kiddies want to stop by to say “hi” and after all the work I’ve done to make them feel comfortable speaking English with me, I’m not about to shoo them away from the door when they are curious. So, the PowerPoint presentation is running and we are about to wrap it up and play a team game.

I’m about to launch into the part about closing their books and starting the game when I see a yellow blur out of the corner of my eye. A student passes by in a yellow t-shirt. Fine. Then the t-shirt blur re-emerges in a slow and shoddy moonwalk and the boy freezes at the door. He was one of my grade 4 kids. I wave a quick hello and he takes off down the hall. Fine.


As the game rules are being disbursed to my class, the yellow blur comes back again and this time, I’m slightly turned away and he thinks I can’t see him. He throws his hands up behind his head, bends his knees and starts doing some kind of pelvic thrusting-Night-at-the-Roxbury dance.


Sensing the spasmodic rhythms emanating from the yellow t-shirt blur, I spin around and give him some wicked cut-eye, while releasing my best low growl of a “YA!” (“Ya” is Korean for “hey,” as in “hey, what are you doing?” Or, “hey! Stop that!”)

His eyes bulge and he dashes off in fear. He’s lucky I fought down the demon that told me chase his ass down. Punk. After that the yellow t-shirted degenerate has ambled back to his room, life goes on inside the classroom.

Soon after it’s time for lunch, then some deskwork as my classes are done for the day. All in all, it was another successful Friday. No one threw a chair, no one cried or got a nosebleed and I had a laugh in almost every class. At some point, I think some kids may have even learned some English. Until Monday! Be well Dear Readers :)

Interview with an Expat in Paris

The most common way to explore the world is to vacation but for some, that’s not enough. Some choose to work and travel like my friend in Dubai. Those like myself choose to teach and travel while others choose to take academia to the next level. One such person is my friend Jessica from back home in Toronto who embarked on a year of study in Paris, France. As if university life isn’t challenging enough, this brave lady packed some bags and hauled off to Paris to further her studies. As her year in Paris approaches its final quarter, I had the chance to interview her on her time so far. All photos are hers as well, so let’s take a walk through Paris, shall we?

Q. How long have you been in Paris?

A. Since September 2013, so 10 months now.

Q. How did you come to study in Paris?

A. After job hunting in Toronto for 2 years with little to no luck, I came to the realization that I needed to better my education. My bachelor’s degree was in French Literature so Paris seemed like a good fit for me in order to improve my language skills. I happened to come across a great master’s program in Cross-Cultural and Sustainable Business Management at the American University of Paris. The rest is history!


LeMarais, the historical district in Paris.

Q. When you first arrived, what was your biggest surprise?

A. This will sound strange, but it took me a really long time to adjust to showering with a hand-held shower head. I do miss long, hot, luxurious showers but I tell myself that it’s a good thing I’m saving water. Outside of the bathroom, there were a few other things: There is a button you have to push before opening any door, the city is highly unaccessible for those with physical disabilities and people don’t start work until 10am, then proceed to have one and a half hour lunch breaks.

Q. What has your experience been like living the expatriate life so far? Do you feel welcomed overall?

A. If you take the time to understand the culture and the French perspective on North Americans, then you can avoid (for the most part) any unwelcoming encounters. Making the effort to speak in your second language as opposed to forcing the French to speak in theirs goes a long way. It’s all about respect. So yes, it’s been an incredible experience and I feel like I was able to adjust fairly quickly.

Jardin des Plantes botanical garden.

Jardin des Plantes botanical garden.

Q. Was housing provided for you upon arrival?

A. My university offered a housing service but I decided to go through an agency outside of the school to avoid the hassle.

Q. What is the cost of living like?

A. Outrageously expensive. My studio apartment, which I luckily share with my boyfriend, runs almost 1,000 euros per month and it’s 32 square meters. Any sit-down meal is going to start at 12 euros and goes up from there. Don’t even get me started about shopping in Paris. I will never take Canadian prices for granted again.

The Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower.

Q. What is the food like?

A. I cannot stress enough how the quality of food here compares to Canada. Everything is (for the most part) local, fresh and chemical/preservative free. I feel much healthier since living and eating in Paris.

Q. What do you think is the best selling point for expats to live and study in Paris?

A. Paris is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world and you will never tire of walking its streets.

Paris in the fall.

Paris in the fall.

Q. What would you say is the downside to living and studying in Paris?

A. The cost of living is simply unsustainable.

Q. What do you think is the biggest misconception about Paris?

A. The biggest misconception is that the French are rude. I think it’s a difference in perspectives on customer service. The concept of ‘the customer is always right’ doesn’t exist in Paris and coming fresh out of a decade in the hospitality industry, I kind of appreciate that the French can be honest with their customers.

Local goods from the markets.

Local goods from the markets.

Jessica's local neighbourhood in Paris.

Jessica’s local neighbourhood in Paris.

Q. What are some things from back home that are not available or hard to find in Paris?

A. I just had my parents bring me a care package for my convocation. It consisted of: Crest white strips (because all the espressos are making my teeth yellow), my preferred brand of face wash, a Jets hat, and a giant jar of peanut butter.

Q. How long can Canadian expats stay in Paris without a visa?

A. Canadians can stay up to 90 days without a visa.

The view from a friend's apartment.

The view from a friend’s apartment.

Q. Do you think it would be easy for a traveler to just arrive in Paris on a travel visa and start looking for work?

A. There is actually a working holiday visa (2E visa) that is completely free of charge and allows a Canadian in their 20s to stay in France and work for up to 1 year. My boyfriend moved here with that exact visa and was easily able to find work teaching English and giving bike tours of the city.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

Jessica and her beau at the Notre Dame Cathedral in the city of Reims, France.

Q. If you could tell a newly arriving expat something you wish you were told, what would it be?

A. Canadians underdress. Bring nice clothes.

Q. What would you advise a newcomer to pack in their suitcase?

A. Durable shoes (cobblestone streets and rainy days are sure to do some damage), an umbrella and all the clothes you have because shopping here is steeeeep.

Q. Is there any sort of expat community where you are?

A. Luckily for me, it was easy to find a sense of community because of my master’s program. However, Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, so there is definitely the opportunity to meet other English speakers and expats in general.

Jardin du Luxembourg, the second largest public park in Paris. Behind is the Luxembourg Palace, which houses the French Senate.

Jardin du Luxembourg, the second largest public park in Paris. Behind is the Luxembourg Palace, which houses the French Senate.

Q. Aside from friends and family, what do you miss about Canada?

A. I’m half-Chinese so I definitely miss dim-sum and cheap all-you-can-eat sushi.

This concludes my interview with Jessica, a Canadian expat in Paris. If you have further questions please comment below and I will ask Jessica and let you know! For more information on Canadian visas for work or study in France, click here.