As my first year here in Korea inches toward a close, I feel as though I’ve finally experienced enough of Korean culture to comment on repeated observations I’ve made while living here.  Some of the biggest stereotypes of Koreans and Korean culture involve parents. If you ask someone from a western country to describe what they imagine parents in Korea to be like, you’ll often get the image of some English-obsessed mother who storms into school to yell at teachers and principals for inadequate grades and forces their child into hours and hours of hagwon every day after regular school lets out.

Obviously stereotypes exist for a reason, and there are unfortunately some parents out there who try to push their kids like this I’m sure this has to do with the fact that I’m in the country and down south, but I’ve found the majority of these to be untrue!  Here are some of the most common stereotypes of Korean parents, and how I’ve found they actually manifest themselves.

South Korean parents all want their children to grow up to be doctors or business professionals.

There are countless popular dramas in Korea that take place in and glorify the medical world.

Out of all the stereotypes I have here, this one probably still hold the most truth.  There are a lot of parents who still push their children to become doctors and businessmen and women, or work for Samsung or LG.  “What do you do for a living?” and “How much money do you make?” are common questions my Korean friends are asked by both their parents’ friends and even their own peers.  Even dramas seem to be obsessed with doctors and the chaebols of the business world.  I suspect this is still fairly prevalent in Seoul, but I’ve actually found this to not necessarily be the case in the south.

When I ask my students what they want to be when they grow up, numerous times I’ve gotten illustrator, diplomat, game designer or programmer, and athlete.  While some of these seem like typical childhood dreams, I find diplomat in particular to be interesting.  More than one student has mentioned this to me, at both the elementary and high school level.  If there’s one thing you can say has been successful about the English program in Korea, it’s that it has inspired Korea’s younger generations to take more of an interest in the world outside of Korea.  Also, I think it’s worth noting that none of them wanted to be Kpop stars!
At the college level and among my own peers, I’ve met several marketing students, a marine electrical engineer, PR manager in the music industry, many teachers, an English literature major, and computer programmers.  And the occasional doctor or businessman.

South Korean parents micro-manage their kids’ lives and constantly butt into the classroom.

In dramas stereotypical “tiger” parents come into classrooms demanding special treatment for their students, or even control teachers and schools via donations–all to win favor for their children.
There are countless dramas that show controlling parents bursting into classrooms or school offices and throwing tantrums on behalf of their children.  Rich families in dramas are stereotyped as donating money to school so their troublesome children’s low grades are overlooked, and “tiger” parents can be seen dragging their children away from their friends to beef up their college applications with extracurriculars and more studying.
But how much truth is there to all that?  Of my students, and the kids I know in my neighborhood, I would say half of the elementary students go to hagwon after school for an additional hour or two.  By middle school that does increase, and I often see high schoolers coming home at 10PM on schools nights. 
But for all that, I see plenty of students hanging around in coffee shops and going to convenience stores to get ramen with friends after school as well.  As for parents confronting teachers and administrative staff, the only time I’ve seen it at any of my schools has been the parents of a special needs student.  Any time I’ve seen parents at school events, I’ve gotten smiles and shy waves.  As a foreign teacher, I imagine the language barrier prevents even the most concerned parents from confronting me directly (there’s probably more of that up in Seoul), but I’ve never had any complaints passed on from my vice principal or co-teacher either.

South Korean parents are too strict, old-school, and traditional.

In dramas, chaebols (wealthily families who control everything in massive companies), are known for holding onto traditional values and trying to instill them in their children.
I can’t even count all the shows that center around chaebols in today’s Korean drama lineup, but it’s a stereotype that’s been around since TV shows began airing here.  The parents in these dramas are notorious for holding very traditional values–especially concerning love and marriage–and forcing them upon their children.  They care more about money and status and reputation than love, and are the ultimate puppet masters of arranging marriages.
As Korea has become more and more exposed to western culture, there have been concerns of promiscuity and lack of respect for parents’ wishes circulating in Korean media.  You hear of young people visiting love motels in order to spend time with their boyfriend of girlfriend–or even fiancé(e)!–because the parents refuse to allow any physical signs of affection or intimacy.
While there is some truth to the divide between generations, it’s not as hostile or polarizing as the media makes it seem.  A lot of Korean culture revolves around the concept of face, or maintaining a positive image in the eyes of your peers.  I’ve found that the way this actually plays out is more along the lines of the parents looking the other way–they know it’s happening, but they aren’t going to police their adult children like dramas and the media would have you believe.  Young people are also fairly open about discussing their relationships among close friends, and there’s plenty of hooking up that happens among the young people of Korea today.  That link connects to a video interviewing Koreans in a club about hook up culture, and you can see how many of them talk generally about “people” instead of saying anything about themselves individually.
Regardless, Korean society has just as much of a mix as western society.  There are young people who want to marry for superficial reasons, but just as many (if not more) who want to marry for love.  Some Korean parents may push their children toward marriage and care about the reputation of their child’s spouse, but often times their child’s happiness supersedes that.

South Korean parents are overprotective “helicopter” parents.

Helicopter parents are a staple in Korean dramas, but how much truth is there to them?
I think this one stems from western culture actually.  I think western parents have become increasingly overprotective since my own childhood in the 90s, and when we hear about all the other stereotypes listed above, we assume Korean parents must be just as neurotic–or worse!
Funnily enough, it’s actually the complete opposite!  The amount of trust and responsibility parents give their kids here actually reminds me more of my own childhood than kids in the USA do now.
Kids walk themselves to hagwon across town after school, play in the apartment complex’s parking lots unsupervised, and are trusted to come home at sundown, just like we used to.  There are a few things that shocked me though, such as my elementary students using X-acto knives as a preferred cutting tool.  Or when my 4th graders came into the teacher’s office needing to make copies of something, the secretary showed them how to use the copy machine and let them do it themselves!
My surprise at these kinds of things made me realize how much we “baby” our children now in modern western culture, and how dramatically we’ve changed over the last two decades.  Why not teach a 10 year old how to safely and responsibly use an X-acto knife?  Or, what’s the harm in teaching a 9 year old how to use a copy machine?  It’s not hard, and students end up being more responsible and feel respected by their teachers, even at a young age.  Maybe this is why Korean children seem to have a bit more respect for their teachers and parents compared to western children–they aren’t belittled or chastised as harshly, and seems to have more opportunities to figure things out for themselves as opposed to being told the “correct” way to do something.

Final Thoughts

Now, if only that could be applied to the older students as they decide what they want to do with their lives.  Neither Korean nor western culture are perfect, but maybe we could both take some lessons from one another for the sake of our respective future generations.  Do you think these stereotypes are accurate?  What have your experiences been in Korea?  Are there other stereotypes of Korean parents you think I missed?