“TELL ME which one sounds better,” said my older sister. Without explanation, she went on to give two different self-introductions, her voice loud and clear. If she wasn’t my sister, I would have laughed at the introduction. However, I understood the seriousness while she was showing me her script. She had been accepted to a nursing college and so I realized she had to introduce herself to her sun-baes in the orientation. I chose one of her introductions and she was successful in impressing her sun-baes with her loud voice. However, some of her friends were not as lucky as they failed to meet the sun-baes’ standards, having to repeat the self-introduction until the sun-baes were satisfied.
The sun-bae, hu-bae culture of Korea and its universities
What my sister experienced was the Korean sun-hu-bae culture that enforces a strict hierarchy based on years of experience. Strongly related to the Confucian teachings of respecting order through age, sun-hu-bae culture is present throughout all corners of Korean society, including university. The original intent of the sun-hu-bae culture was not negative. It allowed for order and respect towards elders and “superiors” and allowed, to a certain extent, for faster administration. However, through the strict military culture of the 20th-century Japanese occupation and authoritarian rule in Korea, a gradual subversion and corruption of this culture have occurred.
The sun-hu-bae culture is also apparent in universities. In most cases, the sun-hu-bae culture plays a positive role in helping hu-baes, notably freshman, adjust to college life. Based on first-hand experience, sun-baes recommend clubs, classes, and sometimes give tips on college life. For freshmen, sun-baes play a vital role in preparing orientations (OT) and freshman retreats. Their advice and guidance are the reasons why hu-baes follow their sun-baes. However, when the sun-baes enforce strict hierarchy, the sun-hu-bae culture can be manipulated to do more harm than good. In many universities, freshmen have complained about the strict and odd culture they are expected to follow. Some Kakaotalk group chats for individual departments have announcements explaining ways to greet their sun-baes. My friend in a different university said he had to post a respectful greeting on the Facebook timeline of his sun-baes when they accepted his friend requests. The situation gets even worse when alcohol is involved. Sometimes, hu-baes are taught to drink their alcohol in “respectful” ways and are indirectly forced to drink by their sun-baes. In fact, some colleges in Yonsei decided to get rid of the X-men system** for this reason. A plethora of other complaints made by hu-baes remain controversial.
Enemy of progress
Some argue that the current sun-hu-bae culture is necessary as a part of Korean heritage. One positive aspect is that the culture creates a tight bond between the sun-baes and hu-baes that helps them both in university and in later society. However, I believe that the strict sun-hu-bae culture borders upon authoritarianism and that the draconian culture goes against globalization of universities. The sun-hu-bae hierarchy creates vertical communication that limits discussions while allowing for manipulation and peer pressure to exist without restriction. Also, if the sun-hu-bae bond becomes too strong, it stifles relationships within the group and prevents new connections from taking place. In fact, some professors complain that there isn’t enough communication between academics outside their university due to the sun-hu-bae culture as well. Furthermore, the culture bars out international students. It makes it harder for the students to “fit in” into an already inclusive society as there is no clear place for them in the hierarchy. Although there is no coercion for them to follow the culture, being left out involuntarily limits their opportunities and social connections within the university. Most importantly, the rigid culture that sun-baes enforce allows for easy violations of hu-baes’ rights. Forced drinking and public humiliation is a crime. If Korean universities wish to become globalized, the strict sun-hu-bae culture must go.
Although sun-hu-bae culture is part of Korean heritage and remains with its positives, it must loosen its strict hierarchical characteristics. In universities, the positives of sun-baes providing advice and guidance are important, but its stringency may hinder them from meeting the global standards of free speech and open discussions, welcoming foreigners and protecting the rights of its students. If the culture remains authoritarian and closed-off, it will not be a heritage to preserve but instead an “accumulated evil.” Thus, sun-baes should not exploit their power to take advantage of their hu-baes. Instead, they should take the proverb to heart, that a leader comes to serve, not to be served.
*Sun-bae: A person who has more experience in the same field; In university, it means someone who entered the university or its organizations earlier; Hu-baes is the opposite.
**X-men system: A system where some sun-baes trick the freshmen that they are also freshmen; The system is intended to help the newly-entered adjust to college life and stop possible clash and overdrinking; However, critics say that the system is just a way for the sun-baes to have fun by deceiving the students.