[Junior AJA] Are Korean and Mexican cultures really so different?

Are our cultures really so different?

My first impression upon arriving in Korea was completely bewilderment because I did not understand anything around me, unless it was translated into English. Then followed a series of experiences that made me realize how different we are: the Mexican and Korean culture. When I met different Mexican friends who were living in Korea, we immediately highlighted the differences that we found between Korean and Mexican culture based on our experiences.  And it seemed that the more we talked about the differences, the more difficult it was to adapt to this new country. For that reason, I decided to explore the similarities between both cultures in order to start understanding this country that welcomed me for more than two years.

The opportunity to study the Korean language in this country gave me another perspective about my life in Korea. First of all, I did not want to be a “forever tourist” in Korea. So, I decided to find those similarities that could unite us both, Koreans and Mexicans, through the Korean language.  I started to get involved in activities where the Koreans would explain to me about their culture in Korean. Of course, I had to do much research in English for there were many things I did not know or understand. But, having all these experiences in Korean helped me to understand the different experience one could have by knowing the language.

I remember the day I was sitting in my Korean language class and my teacher told us that for the next three days we would not have class because Korea would be celebrating one of its most important festivals called Chuseok. I did not know what my teacher was talking about, but I felt relieved because I had a lot of homework to be done. But, I was curious about what kind of holiday the Koreans celebrated. The curiosity lasted until I could manage to sit and read about this important Korean celebration. It was surprising for me that Chuseok has many similarities with one of the most important holydays in Mexico. Although the style is different, the basic purpose is still the same! Chuseok in Korea and the Day of the Dead in Mexico have some similarities that I would have never thought of. I am going to take you through a few of the aspects of these traditional holidays.

Comparison of Korean “Chuseok” and Mexican “Day of the Dead” holidays 

Chuseok is by far the biggest and most important three day holiday in Korea celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. It is a time when family members from near and far come together to share food and stories and to thank their ancestors for the abundant harvest. Essentially, Chuseok is a prime opportunity to go sightseeing in the major cities since many Koreans return to their hometowns in the countryside, leaving the city attractions relatively crowd free. This holiday has been called the Korean Thanksgiving Day as well. The day before Chuseok is used to facilitate transportation for families to return to their hometowns and prepare food for the next day. The day after Chuseok is a time to rest and clean up as well as time to return home. Chuseok has many traditions and customs, and much of the holiday is centered around food.

About a month before Chuseok, families clear the weeds from their ancestral graves – this is called Beolcho. During the morning of Chuseok, families gather around their homes and hold a memorial service for their ancestors. This custom is called Charye. After Charye, families gather around the table and enjoy a big breakfast of freshly harvested food that symbolizes their blessings and respect for family members that have passed away.

Ceremonial table setting during Chuseok (Photo: Wikipedia)

On the other hand, Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is an important holiday celebrated throughout Mexico. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico, where it is a national holiday in which all banks and government offices are closed. The celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd in connection with the Catholic holidays All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day. The families clear the weeds from their ancestral graves and build private altars honoring the deceased by visiting with gifts of sugar skulls, marigolds and their favorite foods and beverages of the departed. It is a festive and colorful holiday. Mexican visit cemeteries, decorate the graves and spend time here in the presence of their deceased friends and family members. They also make elaborately decorated altars (called ofrendas) in their homes to welcome the spirits.


Day of the Dead Altar (Altar de muertos) (Photo: http://acryliczombie.wordpress.com/tag/day-of-the-dead/)

In ancient times, people were buried close to their family homes and there was no need to have separate grave decorations and home altars as they were together in one place. Now that the dead are buried away from their homes, graves are decorated with the idea that the dead return there first. In some villages, flower petals are laid in paths from the cemetery to the home so that the spirits will be able to find their way. In other places, it is customary to spend the whole night in the cemetery by having a party consisting of a supper picnic, playing music, talking and drinking through the night.

Day of the Dead at Mexican cemetery (Photo: Wikipedia)

Regardless of the different Mexican and Korean traditions, I feel more connected with this culture after learning about these kinds of similarities. Usually for Mexicans, the Korean culture is something unknown and exotic, far away from our customs. But, as I started to learn Korean, I felt curious about what kind of things I could find that related us to each other as humanity. Undoubtedly, there are many differences between us. But, in spite of our different language and cultural backgrounds, I found that a good way to start to be involved in Korean culture is through our similarities.  Let us meet each other through our similarities and emphasize on points where we can understand one another like respect for our ancestors. You cannot love something that you do not know. Therefore, studying Korean and starting to take an interest in this country has let me learn to value Korean culture.

By Saul Serna Segura

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