Unpacking with Danielle

Travel & Exploration

What is Korean Identity?

This week is Thanksgiving week, and as I’ve been preparing teaching materials on Thanksgiving focused on what America is all about, I’ve been wondering- what is Korea all about?

I’ve been here for 3 months now and as someone who studied Anthropology I feel like I should be able to answer this question easily.  For a lot of other countries I’ve visited it has been pretty straightforward.  But this place, I’m not so sure.

Why is it so hard?  I have a few theories:

1) Korea is fucking old.  The US- not even 300 years old.  Latin American countries- same boat.  The Americas are also heavily populated by people who wanted something / wanted to get away from something.  Their desires are fresh in our memories, and that recent history is still part of our collective psyche.  Also, Europe, while old, has traditions that are familiar to us in the West.  I grew up learning about European history.  Korea though- who knows anything about Korea in the US?  Plus it’s 5,000 years old.  So where would you even begin if you wanted to study the history and make a fair amount of sense out of it?  I’ll try though…

2) A lot of their history, including recent history, has involved being invaded/occupied by other countries, like China and Japan.  Whenever that happens, your collective identity will be affected.  In some ways you may want to be more Korean to assert yourself, in others you’ll change either by force or because you just like something your occupiers introduced (like spas from Japan).  So I don’t yet know what is Korean and what is now Korean because the Chinese or the Japanese made them do it (or American soldiers…).  And to take that a step further, of those things they’ve kept, I don’t know how much they see them as “Korean” or “Japanese/Chinese/American things we also do.”

3) Super-rapid development is giving me the impression Koreans wish they were someone else.  I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out on this.  In this country right now, you have old people who, in their youth, had to dig through trash to find something to eat, and young people who curse their parents out for not giving them literally everything they want.  In many ways, this is a completely different country than the one it was 50 years ago.  So many young people seem to quietly reject the values of their parents and grandparents.  This creates tension, and their way of dealing with it is to escape it, either by moving abroad or dreaming about it.  Either way, the desire shows a lack of attachment to Korea.  It’s like being a young person in Korea today means you wish you were someone else, somewhere else.

So what is Korean identity?  It must run deeper than eating the same food at every meal and hiking on the weekend.  And I want to believe it’s more than simply wishing you were American.  But I haven’t fully wrapped my head around it yet.

What are your thoughts?


  1. Korea has been in a constant state of war for the last 100 years. People have been taught to save and store up to have a bright future. People have been taught to overhaul their mind to be more competitive in the job industry. And once in the job that they worked so hard for, they become disillusioned and really have no idea who they are or what they want.

    Because of all this, Koreans have been in a constant state of panic and struggle- scrambling for a place of security, and never taught to explore the things that come with free time. Art. The national self. Travel. Culture. Personal identity.

    So who are Koreans? What is Korea?

    Korea is a chemical reaction, powerful and confused and still burning and reacting after a hundred years.

    Just my opinion : )

  2. Remember Korea was an isolated country before and after the Korean War, South Korea became a public country. So the gap between generations is wide. We have an old generations that grew up in an isolated Korea so the isolation influence how they are as a collective whole while the younger generation grew up in an involved Korea with different influences coming into the country. So I can understand how the confusion for Korean identity cannot be easily identified.

    This is just my theory. There may be more factors to the issue, but just wanted to put my two cents in.

  3. For me (a Korean born in 1985), Korean identity is defined by Korean language. I don’t have much allegiance to the nation, society, and culture that is Korea, but I can’t escape the fact that my mother tongue is Korean and I hear words of Korean language in my dream. Most of Korean language speakers happen to live in Korean peninsula, so despite of many problems here seems to be the best place for me to live.

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