There is a proverb in South Korea: “The smallest pepper is the hottest.” Despite its small size, South Korea is one of the “hottest” nations in the world. Home of multinational companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai, it is a leading producer of semi-conductors, flat screen TVs, cars, and ships which drive the 13th largest economy in the world. At the end of the Korean War though, South Korea was poorer than Ethiopia and North Korea. Only through my parents’ recounts can I imagine what an average life in Korea had been like in the 60’s and 70’s, but living in the countryside of Senegal—biting into rocks in ceeb bu jan and consuming margarine every day—I feel like I’m traveling back in time and living what my grandparents’ generations must have gone through in Korea. The two seemingly distant cultures share striking similarities in their cultural values and traditions, as well as lack of natural resources that set me off on a time travel.
Due to the influence of Confucian ideals, the South Korean culture puts a lot of emphasis on being respectful to the elders, humility, and persevering through hardships. Senegal has a value called jom, which explains that goodness comes through diligent work. Humility is a cultural norm in Senegal; people rarely brag about their personal achievements or possessions. Filial piety is considered a moral deed in Senegal as well, because parents sacrifice for their children and thus deserve their care when they become unable to support themselves. In both cultures, it’s considered rude to stare directly into the elders’ eyes, pick up spoons (or hands, in case of Senegal) before the elders, and enter someone else’s house with shoes on as a guest.
Another interesting similarity between Senegal and South Korea lies in their lack of natural resources. One of the reasons why education is so important in South Korean culture is because its only “natural resource” is the people. In the 70’s and 80’s, Korea used to export its human resources such as skilled nurses to countries like Germany so that they can bring back foreign currencies. Thanks to public and private efforts to improve secondary education, South Korea consistently ranks high in international reports on academic readiness of secondary school students of all countries. Likewise, Senegal invests a major portion of its annual budget in its human resource, as it lacks lucrative natural commodities, like oil and agricultural products, unlike Ivory Coast, a rival country that has plenty of natural resources. Despite the current decline in quality due to budget cuts for education and subsequent strikes of teachers and students, Senegal’s educational system is widely respected across West Africa; students from neighboring countries such as Mali, Mauritania, and Guinea-Bissau come to obtain degrees in Senegal as stepping stones to further their studies or work in developed countries like France, Canada, and America.
One of the most striking similarities I observed was the variety of pastimes for kids. At the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics opening ceremony, there was a little boy who entered the main Seoul Olympics Stadium rolling a steel wheel with a steel stick, a traditional Korean folk game called gul long soe. I was shocked when I saw little boys in my village rolling the same steel wheel with a stick. One day, my sisters took home a basketful of flower petals from the field to dry them in the sun. They then pounded them into powder, added water, and put little clumps on their finger- and toe- nails to dye them orange. My sisters called this dying activity fodan, which looks exactly the same as the Korean pastime called bong sung aa mul del ee gee, popular among young girls like my sisters in Senegal. Another example is a game my sisters play with clam shells. They throw the shells up in the air one at a time, trying to catch them on their palms without dropping any. In Korea, this exact game is called gong gi nol ee, only except it’s done with rocks.
Senegal is an interesting country that has lots of striking similarities with Korea in terms of culture and people. Though I’m thousands of miles away from Korea, I feel like I’m home.