Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Are Koreans…? Part 2: abilities, sexuality, and random queries

robot haraboji I saw this in a bus terminal in Daegu - I have no idea what it is meant to do.
blue dot
Jan 15 2013

I seem to have a habit on this blog of promising posts which I never get around to delivering. This following was mostly written at the same time I wrote the first “Are Koreans…?” post, but it was Sunday night, and I put the second half aside, intending to complete it later in the week. Three months later, I’ve finally got around to finishing it.

A reminder: this was a result of me playing around with Google’s auto-search feature for the phrase, “Are Koreans…”, then attempting to answer the questions. I have tried to give researched answers where possible, and personal opinions and experiences where it is not. Any generalizations – and there are a lot of them – are just that: generalizations, which may or may not be true of any individual Korean.

Korean abilities

Are Koreans good at English?

Moving away from the physiological questions, we come to: are Koreans good at English?

No. They are terrible at it, despite spending a ridiculous amount of money on it. “Each year Koreans spend $752m on tests of English, with a large proportion of this being spent on the TOEFL assessment test produced by the US company ETS. Currently South Korea is the world’s largest market for TOEFL, yet, according to a 2004 report by the Korea Government Information Agency, South Koreans ranked a dismal 110th on ETS’s global TOEFL rankings.” From The Guardian.

Korean and English are about as far about as it is possible for two languages to be, and it’s extremely difficult for native speakers of one language to learn the other.

Are Koreans good at math?

Yes, yes, yes. Although apparently the Finns are better.

An anecdote: I once constructed an elimination English quiz for my 4th grade students. The questions were supposed to get progressively more difficult.The final question was something like, “What’s 437 x 926?” When I asked it, all the eliminated students complained – they said it was too easy, that they could have answered it no problem, and it shouldn’t have been the last question.

 Are Koreans intelligent? Are Koreans the smartest people in the world?

And, as if I have not already waded into dangerous territory, we now come to possibly the most controversial question in sociology – the intelligence of races. This upsets people. I hold to the position of the American Psychological Association: IQ, though a hazy concept, correlates with general intelligence and academic and professional achievement; there are differences in average IQ amongst different races; nobody is sure exactly why.

With that necessary disclaimer, a wide variety of studies have consistently shown that East Asians score very well on IQ tests, particularly on spatial and mathematical skills.

If measuring the IQ of different races within a country is controversial, then measuring the average IQs of different countries is really, really problematic. You’re measuring across different tests, different languages, and different methodologies. The best known attempt to do this was Lynn and Vanhanen’s IQ and the Wealth of Nations, which was trashed by pretty much everybody, for good reason.

If you want to pay attention to Lynn and Vanhanen, they ranked Korea second, behind Singapore, with an average IQ of 106.

That said, I don’t have much doubt that Koreans are, on average, comparatively intelligent. What frequently strikes me in my classes is not that fairly small 6 point (if accurate) difference from the norm, but the difference it makes at the edges of the bell curve. In almost every class I’ve taught, there have been one or two students who seemed phenomenally intelligent. I had one fifth grade class that had not one but two boys who could do Rubik’s cube completely, in less than a minute. And Rubik’s cube is hard.

Part of it is certainly the education system, and the Confucian cultural legacy. Whether or not part of it is genetic is a matter on which reasonable people may differ. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers makes a case that it is a genetic inheritance from the difficulties of rice-farming. Take that for what it’s worth – personally, I don’t really trust Gladwell’s conclusions about anything.

Are Koreans bad drivers?

Yes. They are woeful. I’ve spent time in three countries that had, to my eyes, crazy driving habits: India, Indonesia, and Korea. In India they drove fast but well, in Indonesia they drove slowly and badly, and in Korea they drive both quickly and badly. They wander outside their lanes, drive through red lights, overtake on blind curves, and watch TV while they are doing it. More than that, my observation is that many of them are just untalented drivers with no “body sense” of where their car is, and are overly dependent on technology (rear view cameras, motion proximity sensors, GPS systems) instead of basic driving skills.

I don’t know why they are so bad. I’ve heard Confucian explanations, but my new vow is to keep the “It’s all because of Confucianism!” explanations to a minimum. You can use it to explain any aspect of Korean culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right.

This recent article from the Korean Times examines a variety of reasons for Korea’s appalling obliviousness to road safety. Easy licensing is certainly part of it: a co-teacher recently told me that she went for her driving test because they were about to make it more difficult, and that a crucial stage of the current test involved “driving straight for 100 meters”. I also think it’s a matter of social expectations – if nobody else obeys the road rules, why should I?

Of course, there are good Korean drivers. The teacher who drives me home is a good driver. She never assumes a cross-street won’t have a car barreling out of it, nor that anyone else on the road will obey any rule at all. It reminds me of one of my favourite parts of Gatsby:

“You’re a rotten driver,” I protested. “Either you ought to be more careful, or you oughtn’t to drive at all.”

“I am careful.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Well, other people are,” she said lightly.

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“They’ll keep out of my way,” she insisted. “It takes two to make an accident.”

“Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.”

“I hope I never will,” she answered. “I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.”

Driving well in Korea means driving defensively.

Are Koreans good dancers? Are Koreans good singers?

In my experience yeah, they average pretty good; but not, I think, in an “all black people have rhythm” innate/genetic kind-of-way. Instead, I think it’s more that Koreans tend to be good at anything that is responsive to study, practice, and hard work.

It’s easy to make fun of the way Koreans will typically go about taking up a new hobby. If a Korean decides they are interested in squash, for instance, the first thing they will do is go out and buy all the correct equipment, including clothing. Then they will take painstaking lessons. This is not a made-up example; this is what happened when two of my co-teachers took up squash for exercise. After a couple of weeks, I asked them who was better. “We don’t know,” they said. “We haven’t played yet! We are still learning how to hit the ball.”

Yes, it’s easy to mock, but if you want to get good at something, instead of merely seeking instant gratification, it’s an effective method. Koreans tend to want to do things “correctly”, so they will study how to reproduce a K-pop group’s dance steps, alone or in hagwons, and practice singing in the singing practice rooms, which are different from the noraebangs. As a result, they tend to be pretty good at those things. Of course, some are more naturally talented than others.


The Korean sexuality questions people type into Google mostly come down to “Will Koreans sleep with me?”, phrased in a variety of ways.

Are Koreans promiscuous? Are Korean girls easy? Are Koreans sexually active?

Stereotypes of Asian women aside, not particularly. This article lists the average age of first sexual experience for Korean women as 21; this post at The Grand Narrative puts it at 21 for men and 24 for women, which seems very old, by Western standards. (There’s a lot more detail about Korean people’s promiscuity-or-otherwise at the same link). Of course, as the same post points out, there is an issue with over-reporting from men and under-reporting from women.

Do Korean women like white men? American men? Black men? Do Korean men like black women? Chinese women? American women? White girls?

And no, I don’t know why the default search for white females is “girls”, when all the rest are women. Is there some deep significance, or is the alliteration of “white women” just somehow jarring?

The idea of “one race” is still pretty strong in Korea, so the family and societal pressures tend to be towards dating and marrying within your race. Nor is there the sort of financial inequality that exists in South East Asia, which results in lots of fat ugly foreign guys with tiny Asian girlfriends.

Having said that, there is also the human desire for a bit of strange. And there are Koreans who fall in love with foreigners. But I think if you’re expecting Koreans to swoon solely because you’re a foreigner, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Of course some foreigners here, mostly dickheads, will tell you differently. It reminds me of something I once read about why commercial fishermen tend to deny that fisheries are becoming endangered. This article made the point that fishermen tended not to perceive the problem, because fish congregate around certain natural features, and this is where fishermen fish. So, as the stocks are depleted, the last places to be affected are those places where fishermen fish, and they don’t perceive the scarcity.

I mean – if you only go to foreigner bars and clubs, you’re likely to meet a certain kind of Korean girl/guy, who may not be representative generally of the population.

As for Korean preferences between races, I don’t really want to get into that. Probably white people have an advantage, for the same reasons they have advantages in most things.


A hodge-podge of other “Are Koreans…” questions.

Are Koreans afraid of fans?


Are Koreans fashionable?

If you consider being fashionable to involve some individual eye and personal sense of style, then no. In and out of work, Koreans dress in uniform. If you consider being fashionable to involve buying classy, expensive clothes, then yes, they are fashionable. Most foreigners here I know, on returning to their own countries after a period in Korea, have the same reaction: “Wow, why does everybody in my country dress like such a slob?”

Are Koreans homophobic?

In it’s most literal sense of being afraid of homosexuality, then no – not at all. They are quite comfortable with displays of male-on-male affection that would get people beaten up in some places in the West. Koreans aren’t afraid of homosexuality; they just don’t often acknowledge its existence. It’s like, “Don’t ask – don’t tell – don’t even consider the possibility.”

Are Koreans all named Kim?

No. Only one in five of them are. The rest are all named Lee.

Waegukin wrote these 1889 words on January 15th, 2013 | Posted in Culture |


3 comments on “Are Koreans…? Part 2: abilities, sexuality, and random queries”

  1. yoo says:

    *cus i am Korean

    1. i am not good at enlgish. it is hard for me not to forget totally different words and grammar. for example you say “i love you” in english but we say “i you love” in korean.
    2. i am not good at math. i hate it!!
    3. i think i am intelligent. hahahaha ^0^
    4. Koreans are bad drivers. that’s true!
    they have a hasty temper.
    5. i don’t care nationality of men. (age, race, country doesnt matter~) ^^ i just like attractive person.


    i wonder the temper of the people in your country too.

  2. The Waegukin says:

    Haha, I knew you would reply to this ^^

    Your English is infinitely better than my Korean.

    And… my favorite moment in every Korean drama is “나~~ 너~~ 사랑해~~”. I really want the chance to say it drama-style one day.

    Australians are mostly laid-back and relaxed, but when they lose their temper they will shout and lose control much more than Koreans.

    But I am not a typical Australian… almost everything irritates me and makes me angry. I am not relaxed at all.

  3. CDM says:

    I lived in Korea for 2-1/2 years in the mid nineties, when the car population in Seoul was increasing 10% a MONTH, and Koreans were spectacularly bad drivers back then. My husband and I speculated that a lot of new drivers were hitting the road who had never spent much time behind a steering wheel. Apparently things haven’t changed that much.

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