Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Magic Wand: Five Things I'd Change about Korea

In case you don't think an expat should write an essay like "Five Things I'd Change About Korea". . . read the last half of this comment.

Soundtrack: hit play and start reading. Edwyn Collins

Never Met A Girl Like You Before

So. . . topic #1 on the sidebar poll: "The Top Five Things I Would Change About Korea [if I had a magic wand that works]"

Now, to be fair, because I get really tired of the droning whiners who forget to shine a flashlight on the good stuff, I'm gonna start this post off with a qualifier and a counterbalance.

Picture: me in my "I Love Korea" t-shirt.
Qualifier: I'm painting with a broad brush here (duh). What I say here doesn't apply completely to all Koreans, or all aspects of Korea; this is just what I've seen, and I'm just a dude, with no real qualifications except that you're reading this, and this is the kind of stuff I think about. Also, a lot of the things I highlight here ARE improving, have been for a while, and most are miles better now than they were ten years ago, or even since I first came here in 2003, but change always happens too quickly for the power center, and too slowly for the margins. Before you fill my box up with angry comments, please carefully note that I use words like "sometimes, may, might, often, too often, can be, some, many, almost" not words like "always, are, all, never, can't, won't."

Counterbalance: so I'm not all negative, here are five things I would NEVER change about Korean culture, magic wand or none.

1. When Korea gets behind a cause, the energy and passion Koreans apply to it is phenomenal and pretty inspiring. The way the country banded together during the '60s 70s and 1980s, and said, "we gotta muckle in and build this country," pretty much from scratch, is nothing short of miraculous. You can see that same passion and "all-on-board" unity in the 2002 World cup. True, some people have used this same unity of purpose for less-than-wonderful purposes (demagoguery and the 2002 anti-American riots, or the anti-US Beef scaremongering going on right now, for example), and as Korea's fractious, polarized political scene and protest culture shows, it can be pretty hard to get everyone on the bandwagon... BUT, that kind of "band together and get shit done" energy and enthusiasm gives the Korean people a mind-boggling potential for accomplishment, if they can get themselves all pointed in the same direction. . . and puts a really heavy burden of responsibility on the leaders and influence-brokers of this country, to use that passion and potential for good and not for evil. (And I'm dead serious about that.)

(from World Cup 2002 - and these are mostly just the fans in Vancouver, according to the clip info)

2. Koreans, almost to a person, put forth a great deal of effort and energy to maintain old connections and friendships. Sure, this is easier in a country as geographically small and centralized as Korea -- most people and their elementary school classmates either: 1. still either live in their hometown, or 2. have all migrated to the nearest urban center, or Seoul. While many Canadians might want to have a beer with their old classmates, flying from Vancouver to Montreal for a night of drinking is a bigger endeavour than taking a train from Seoul to Ulsan once a year. Be that as it may, it's pretty darn cool, that Koreans ARE very intentional about staying in touch with high school, elementary school, university, grad school, first job, second job, guitar lessons, etc., friends, in a deeper way than having a long facebook friends list and sending out Christmas cards once a year.

Interestingly, this reunion imperative is almost always group-oriented -- as a Canadian, I'd invite my friend from my first job, my university friend, my high school friend, and my "Shanghai Winter Vacation 2005 Trip" friend all to the same birthday party, introduce them, and hope they get along, while most Koreans generally keep those separate groups, well, separate, but the fact remains: that kind of intentionality, that wish to keep old ties alive, is admirable.

3. Along that same vein, Korean eating culture is wonderfully communal. In a Western restaurant (right), we each order our food, and it comes out on separate dishes, and this is MY food and that is YOUR food and don't you touch MY food unless I offer it to you.

In a Korean restaurant, they throw a big pot, or a grill, in the middle of the table, and everybody digs into the same dishes. This really increases the communal experience of eating. It's also pretty rare to see someone eat lunch at his desk here, or to eat a muffin while walking down the street: eating is a time to sit down (preferably with someone) and enjoy the food. (By the way: chopsticks are great -- way better than forks for most foods, and especially salad.)

(Picture: traditional Korean funeral -- most don't follow that pattern anymore. From the USC archives.)

4. It's taken as an absolute given that you'll get the day off work to go to your grandmother's funeral. Some of your coworkers might even go along with you. When my grandmother died a little while ago, a lot of my Korean students were even a little taken aback that I DIDN'T go to Canada to attend her funeral: when I explained the time and cost it would involve to do so, they decided Canadians weren't simply cold-hearted and callous, but it took some talking for a few of them. Weddings, births, and "baby's first 100 days" are other family events Koreans make it a [much] high[er] priority [than most N. Americans] to attend.

5. More Korean old people get out of the house and have fun;
they don't just linger around the house, or gate themselves away in little retirement communities, as if being old were some kind of shame; there are parks and areas that have basically been taken over by the fogeys (I live near one), and say what you want about the way they behave, it's nice that they're putting themselves out there, meeting people, and enjoying their lives. I certainly hope that when I'm old, I still dance, sing, join bus tours to the countryside, and drink (or at least hang out a lot and gab) with friends, the way Korean old people do. (Pictures from Jongmyo Park: worth a visit on a Saturday afternoon sometime.)

There you go, bud. Don't lump me in with the haters, thanks.

Soundtrack part two: just hit play. "The Times, They Are A'Changing"

Bob Dylan

The five changes, then, in no particular order.
If I had a magic wand, I would:

1. Internalize a deep understanding of the law of diminishing returns.

The law of diminishing returns (originally from economics) states that as one increases effort, eventually results from that increased effort levels off, and then starts to decline. (more explanation here) For example, a handful of seeds tossed on a square meter of tilled earth creates a certain number of plants. A second handful in the same space, might create double the number of plants, but there comes a point where throwing more seeds on the plot won't produce more plants, because the soil's fertility is maxed out. The improvement in results from increased input follows a curve like this:It works with people, too: the longer I do one thing continuously, without breaks, the less it benefits me to continue doing so, in an arc similar to the one on this chart.

For example, studying Korean for one hour on Monday, one on Wednesday, and one on Friday, (three hours total) will benefit me more than studying for five hours continuously on Saturday. It's the same for exercise, for sleep, for writing, for reading, and pretty much everything humans do. We need breaks, we need balance; it's how we're wired. Here in Korea, many people take pride in how long they can study without a break, despite the fact that, after about two hours of studying, unless you have a genius study strategy, each new piece of information you acquire crowds out something else. It's same with work: Koreans work one of the longest work-weeks in the world, but if you divide Korea's impressive GNP by the number of person-hours worked, you discover that productivity-per-person-hour is very low (while France, with their 35 hour work week, is a world leader in worker productivity per person-hour).

Articles and statistics on this topic here, here, here, and here. Photo of exhausted students from the metropolitician, who wrote a good essay about overworked students in Korea.

Koreans often focus on quantity over quality, missing the point that by the time they show up for work on Thursday morning, Minho, who goes home at 6pm, plays with his kids, works out, has a hobby, chats with his wife, and goes to bed on time, will be more mentally refreshed, ready to work, and ultimately more productive, than Chulsoo, who works until 10:30, commutes home, falls into bed, and arrives at work the next day still exhausted from yesterday's exertion, and hating his boss, looking forward to the two hour nap he's going to take after lunch: not ready to put in another full, productive day, and heading for an early grave.

Not a lot is actually accomplished during the ten extra working hours that make the difference between working 50 hours a week and 60 hours, because after fifty hours of work in a week, most people are too exhausted to do much more than play solitaire at the office desk and take long smoke breaks. Despite this, many Koreans seem to show their "I stayed until XX" finishing times around like masochistic badges of honour.

Meanwhile, in (un?)related news, Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Understanding the law of diminishing returns would revolutionize work and study efficiency, and create a culture of people who knew when to draw the line, do something else, and enjoy their lives more. (Along with the longest workweek, Koreans spend more on private education academies and less on leisure activities per capita than most other OECD countries.)

The extra six hours of study time that gets your kid's test score from 93% to 95%, also causes him to hate school and studying: he/she loses in the end. All the mentally exhausted workers, too, end up spending their time at work trying to appear busy, while being too mentally exhausted to actually focus on their tasks (which then requires them to stay late and finish their assignments, prolonging the cycle) -- it's kinda self-defeating.

More is not the same as better.

2. Create a status-neutral verb ending, and a status-neutral system of titles and modes for addressing others, to replace, or at least reduce the influence of Korean's over-developed honorific system.

Girlfriendoseyo had some difficulty with this one when I talked to her about it, so I have to choose my words carefully here.

See, the Korean language has a highly developed grammar of honorifics -- one of the world's most confusing/complex. Words and verb conjugations establish a hierarchy of relationships. If I'm older than you, you address me by a different title than if I'm younger than you; you conjugate your verb differently, etc.. If my uncle is my father's older brother, I call him a different title than if he's my father's YOUNGER brother, and even if he's older than me, I hold hierarchical sway over the husband of my younger sister, simply because SHE's the younger one, and he has to address me in more respectful terms than I must for him. It blew one class' mind that there's just one word for "Uncle" in English, and one word for "Aunt," and then we use first names (SO informal!) to tell one uncle from the other, and who's older than whom doesn't matter a single whit to we Anglos. I often use the example that, if I'm talking to a six-year-old, I say "sit, please," and if I'm talking to the Queen of England, I also say, "sit, please."

The honorific system deeply engrains a pattern of measuring each person Koreans meet against themselves, to establish who is higher and who is lower on the pecking order. This in turn leads to a culture of constant vying for status, of endless competition that popped up even in my six-year-old kindergarten classes (moms phoning in, "So, is Ella at the top of the class, or nearer to the bottom?")

Now don't get me wrong here: there's nothing wrong with respecting your elders, yah? And Korean culture has that respect for elders deeply enough programmed that changing some linguistic forms wouldn't erase all respectful relationships; however, this hierarchical system is often abused, particularly by the elders, or the more educated, who take their special status as license to treat those younger or otherwise lower than them like lapdogs (and the younger side is not allowed to complain about it, because s/he's older).

You can regularly see drunken old men disrespecting police officers in ways that would probably have them tasered in Canada, and certainly holed away in the drunk tank for the night, because "He's old. He's drunk. He probably lived a hard life," which was even used to plead for leniency for the arsonist who burned down Korea's national treasure #1. Again, the Metropolitician, on older male entitlement in Korea. (Older males are the ones who benefit the most from Confucian hierarchies.)

Malaysian is another language with a complex honorific system, but (according to the Lonely Planet Malay Phrasebook), they have imported the English pronouns "I" and "You" into conversational usage, because "I" and "you" are status neutral, which means that you can use them, and carry a conversation on an equal footing, rather than being required to get out the rulers and measure who's higher on the totem pole. Creating a single, status-neutral-but-still-respectful verb ending that can be universally used, a status-neutral-but-still-respectful pronoun/title system for addressing family members, in-laws, and colleagues, superiors and juniors, would do a lot to make sure respect goes both up AND down the status ladder, that respect for others is internalized instead of only formalized!

3. Reduce the need to defend and promote, and instead ingrain the ability to laugh at oneself, one's culture, and one's country.

The ability to take things in stride, or blow them off, instead of making them into pride issues and fighting Pyrrhic battles over unimportant crap, would help a lot of things. The ability to laugh at situations, to look below the surface rather than getting defensive with knee-jerk, unthinking nationalism, would help a lot of stuff. That is, to shift pride (personal and national) into positive instead of negative directions.

This is one of the things I like best about Canada. Canadians are deeply proud of being Canadian, and yeah, if you make some sort of ignint fifty-first state/funny money crack, we'll get annoyed, but along with that, we laughed harder than anyone else at South Park's anthem, "Blame Canada," we didn't threaten to burn down Trey Parker and Matt Stone's house for writing it. Here in Korea, too many nationalists can't take a joke and too many are ready to stir things up anytime, for example, during medal ceremonies. Too many Korean tourists have been bringing up politics, even on vacation, or making political/policy issues personal (I can't remember whether I read online, or heard from a friend, of a Korean who wanted to marry his Japanese girlfriend, and his parents wouldn't approve the marriage until her parents had personally apologized to them for Japan's wartime/colonial atrocities to Korea, as if they were the ones responsible for it -- any reader got a reference for this?)

Another thing most educated Canadians can do is listen reasonably to a criticism of Canada, and take it seriously, even when the critic is not Canadian, if said critic is well-informed, and presents issues reasonably, rather than emotionally. Here in Korea, if I bring a subject into my conversation classes that seems too critical of Korea, students from every end of the ideological spectrum may basically lock elbows and defend Korea to the hilt, and might even take it personally: "Why do you hate Korea?" "Why are you so critical" "It bothers me when you're so critical" "If you don't like it, you can go home" -- to the extent that I once had one of my feminist students defending the patriarchal business culture in Korea, simply because she felt like I was being too critical. All this came from students who know I've been here a long time (getting close to five years now), made a careful and extensive study of the country and culture, and that I love Korea, probably as much as they do! If you don't believe me about the hypersensitivity, check out this essay, and then read the comment board to see how visceral and unthinking some Koreans' reaction to criticism can be. Issues that should be political become emotional quickly here. Koreans themselves describe their national character as a thin, tin pot: quick to heat up, quick to cool down.

Yeah. I'd change that. Add a little more self-reflection and rationality and emotional temperance into the nationalism (at least enough to recognize that getting upset over Dokdo at the drop of a hat plays RIGHT into the hands of the nationalist Japanese politicians who provoke them). I'd give Koreans the ability to laugh at their country when it's being silly (for example, their National Assembly, which often resembles a rugby scrum more than a convention of lawmakers). In the same vein, I'd also give Koreans the ability to laugh at themselves personally, (without the help of alcohol). Girlfriendoseyo tells me that after childhood, so many of the Koreans she knows seem to forget how to smile, to laugh, to take things lightly (until they drink) -- the aforementioned workaholic/studyholic tendency might be a factor in this kind of joylessness, but the fact remains (especially with men) that many of the adult men I know laugh rarely, if at all, unless they've been drinking. Levity, dear readers. Levity is good.

Soundtrack part III: Sam Cooke

A Change is Gonna Come

4. Eliminate the anxiety over strangers' and near-strangers' opinions that leads to such a focus on cosmetic and outward benchmarks and measurements (looks, possessions, credentials), and the fear of going against the grain.

Sometimes it seems like parents here would rather have their kid be a miserable banker than a happy plumber, for the sake of bragging rights, (I suggested that to a group of students, and rather than answer, "That's not true," they answered, "Well, the kid's job reflects on the parents, you know.") Many Korean schools, given two applications for an English teaching position, would give a Harvard Chemistry B.Sc. graduate and a Masters in TEFL from Whatever University of Southern Wheresthat approximately equal consideration, because of the Harvard brand. It goes the same with the obssession over brand name possessions -- Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, Louis Vuitton handbags, and even physical appearance (Korea has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world) -- all these benchmarks are SO external, they create an outward show that's impressive, but only go skin deep -- REACHING the benchmark is so important in Korea, but after busting a nut to achieve the Civil Servant position (one of the higher ranking status-jobs in Korea, because of unheard of job security and a glamorously difficult entrance exam), or University Professorship, or just getting entrance to a top university, many civil servants, university professors and students end up getting complacent -- exhausted from working so hard to ATTAIN that status, they decide to coast on credentials once IN those positions, so that there are many delinquent civil workers, deadbeat university professors, and sloppy students in the top schools, who expect a free pass now that they made it into the elite club. If I were the King of Korea, I'd make a law that five years after graduating university, you're no longer allowed to mention the name of your school, and instead of giving your university's name, you have to supply contact numbers for your former employers. That'd shake things up a bit.

James Turnbull, who researches his points about Korean culture better than I do, has more readers, and posts pictures of hotter female popstars, (basically, he owns me in every way), wrote two excellent essays on form over substance in Korea.

Test scores is another benchmark on which Koreans rely too much: if something can't be converted to a number which can then be measured against other people's numbers and ranked, it just holds less water here (please remember, I'm painting with a very broad brush here) -- I saw this picture (right) for TOEIC -Test Of English for International Communication (one of the more popular, and possibly the most useless, evaluation of one's English ability); the slogan is "Only What's On The Test" -- we don't care about your actual communicative ability; we'll teach you how to ace the test. None of that time-wasting functionality junk! And what happens when an international client calls the office, and they hand the phone to me, because I got hired for my high English score, but I only studied what's on the test, and never developed the actual ability to use English? Who cares? I already got the job, didn't I?

When Ex-girlfriendoseyo wanted to come to Canada (an English speaking country, don't you know) and visit my dying mother, her parents said, "You can't go to Canada. You need to use that time to study for your English test!" It sounds pretty ass-backwards, right, that traveling to an English speaking country and speaking English all day, every day, for half a month would be BAD for her, right? But, because of the way Korea depends on test scores, they were right to keep her from coming (as far as the test score was concerned). If Bob Doede, one of the coolest profs I had during university, told a Korean what he once said in class: "I was so busy learning that I almost failed out of grad school" -- for most Koreans, that phrase would simply not compute.

Another area where the deeply internalized anxiety over other people's opinions comes into play is in public behaviour. Even though the chances are basically nil that the people who <--glower at me as I walk down the street singing songs from "West Side Story" with Matt will ever see me again, I have to behave around Girlfriendoseyo. Acting goofy in pubic sometimes is really liberating, but total strangers' big, hairy eyeballs --> are a very strong deterrent here. If that dude on the bus is going to judge me for laughing out loud at the book I'm reading, that should be HIS problem, not MINE. Me, I find my validation in the fact my friends, who know me well, respect the hell out of me, so I really don't give a flying rat's furblinker if geezer Creak on the bus gives me a dirty look because my jeans are torn, or because I didn't shave this morning, or because I don't fit the Greek Ideal for physical beauty.Take that, James Turnbull! That's as beautiful as your Lee Hyori pictures!

To sum up: too many Koreans feel too strongly as if they're doing something wrong by doing what makes them happy, because there's this perception that they must fall in line and obtain the correct signifiers: "everybody else" would rather young Jin-hee were a miserable stay-at-home mom in a joyless marriage with a workaholic high-level civil servant or Samsung office drone (who went to Seoul National University and drives a Lexus), living in a brand name apartment complex in a brand-name neighbourhood, because that fills out the checklist of familiar reference points, of outward signifiers of success, than have her be an insanely happy private art tutor living in a funky apartment in a quirky old neighbourhood with winding streets, married to an insanely happy, tender and gentle massage therapist (working with his hands? Gasp!) who loves his job, cooks for her regularly, comes home from work at a reasonable time each day, plays with the kids, and fills the house with laughter from the moment the kids come home from school to bedtime. Where are the boxes to check for that? Where are the signifiers of success in wearing cool, comfy second-hand clothes with funky patches? That's unacceptable! How can Jin-hee's mom brag about her to the rest of the sewing circle when she has to explain and justify each one of Jin-hee's choices?

Yeah. I'd change that.
Korea's not the only place one finds this phenomenon, not by a long shot - but I'd change all those other places, too, if I could.

5. Replace the Y chromosome's of 50% of Korea's elites and power-brokers with X chromosomes (including/especially the president), and let everything sort itself out from there (it IS a MAGIC wand, after all).

Reducing the number of (non-magic) wands in elite positions would help a lot of other changes along -- if 50% of the power and influence in Korea were suddenly in the hands of women, all the OTHER gender issues would sort themselves out within a (tumultuous) generation or two. I've discussed sexism enough on the blog in other places that I don't really feel like going into it here, but the fact is, despite having the 13th largest GNP, and ranking in the mid-twenties on the Human Development Index, Korea's Gender Empowerment Measure has been embarrassingly low, and that kind of a disparity between economic and social development should be cause for some serious cultural self-reflection.

5. Separate drinking culture from business culture.

All-too-common situation (much more common 20 or 25 years ago: some of this stuff is getting cleaned up, especially since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, but still too common):

1. Chul-soo is tired from working a ten hour day.

2. On the way out the door, Chul-soo's boss says, "Chul-soo! Come join us for an office dinner."

3. Chul-soo cannot say no to his boss without losing face (hierarchical Confucian culture and all), so he comes along. The women in the office are not invited, or leave early: drinking together is often/usually a men-only activity.

4. Boss says, "Chul-soo! Join us for some soju shots!"

5. Again, Chul-soo can't say no to his boss: that would make him the stick in the mud, and bending one's own individual wishes to suit the group atmosphere is very important to Koreans. Chul-soo complies.

6. Chul-soo gets drunk, gets home late, along with everyone in his office (except the women, who left early, or respectfully declined, and Ho-Jun - more about him later). His wife is pissed off.

6.5 (25 years ago, definitely; not as much now, but still too often) Boss leads them to the singing room, switches from soju to whiskey, and then says, "Hey guys! Let's go to a hostess bar/room salon on the company expense account, and ogle girls/have our drinks poured by girls in bikinis/buy some whores. Chul-soo is married, but he still can't say no to his boss (20 years ago, definitely not; now, probably not), so he goes along.

7. Next morning, Chul-soo arrives at the office hung-over and sleepy, along with all the men in the office. They punch each other's arms and make references to last nights adventures, sharing a feeling of camaraderie from which the women are excluded. They ask the women (and Ho-Jun, the office loner, who doesn't come drinking because he says it's important to him to spend time with his wife and small children) to pick up the slack while they take it easy and nurse their hangovers all morning, which entails a two-hour lunch break, a nap at the desk from 10-11:30 am, and maybe a little "hair of the dog" at lunch. Nobody gets much work done except the women, who would grind their teeth about it, but damaging their smiles might injure their job prospects. Ho-jun is criticized for not trying to fit in and be a "team player" because he doesn't come out drinking with the rest of the boys, rather than praised for doing what's necessary to be fresh and ready to work each morning.

8. When it comes time for promotions, the boss promotes his most stalwart drinking buddies, because he feels most comfortable around them, rather than the most efficient or diligent workers. The women are passed over, because women aren't really welcome at the drinking nights, so boss never feels as familiar with them as with the men who stay out late with him. The ones who go home early so that they'll be ready to work the next day are not rewarded, while the ones who drink with the boss and spend entire work-days hung over ARE rewarded with promotions. Thus, office alcoholism is not just forgiven, but it's institutionalized.

Now granted, the above is a caricature that may or may not be comically exaggarated, but I know for a fact that when my male students come into my morning classes hung over, it's never with even the tiniest hint of shame, more often with a bit of a sheepish but self-satisfied, "Look what I did!" grin that a kid might have when he throws a stone at a duck out in the pond, and actually hits it.

Situation 2:
Ahmed, a high-roller from Jordan, and a devout Muslim, wants to do business in East Asia. "Let's have dinner together" sales manager Min-ho says, and offers Ahmed barbeque pork (not Hallal) soju (alcohol: off limits for a good Muslim) and a woman (uhh. . . yeah). Ahmed decides to take his business to Hong Kong, Singapore, or Taiwan, instead.

The way drinking culture and business culture mix together in Korea generates sexism, leads to inefficiency (office-sanctioned next-day hangovers, which are grinned and shrugged off, rather than reprimanded), and promotion of the wrong workers. I'd separate drinking and work culture.

Nothing against Korea's drinking culture when separate from work culture, mind you. If you like drinking culture, Korea's is great -- it's fun, gregarious, Korean men are never friendlier than when you're trading shots of soju -- but you know, in Canada, you drink with your friends, not your coworkers, and when you come to work, you're expected to be ready to work. (See again the statistic on productivity per person-hour of work in Korea.)

Other contenders for the list:
--make it so that you're ALWAYS responsible for what you do, even/especially when you're drunk.)
72% of Korean men drink every day

--explain to Protestants and Catholics that they are two branches of a single religion, not separate religions entirely (So tired of hearing people say, "I'm not a Christian. I'm Catholic", so so tired of the mutual us-vs.-them animousity that comes of that misconception.)

--Engrain on the minds of all Korean media members that, with the foreigners living in Korea now, who can speak Korean, and their connections with international communication and press outlets, there are no more in-house issues for Korea: the world is watching. Factory owner mistreats Indonesian workers? People in Indonesia get mad. There is no such thing as a dirty secret any more. Only dirty laundry, all out for display.

--Create watchdog organizations with wide press coverage and legal clout, but without connections to Korea's left-wing political party (which is one of the most unappealing groups of disingenuous demagogues and xenophobes I've ever seen) to keep an eye on 1. corporate corruption, 2. agenda-driven and other kinds of unethical journalism, 3. political indoctrination in elementary and high-school classes (especially as taught in lieu of critical thinking skills). Have one such organization award yearly prizes for integrity in journalism, a Korean version of the Pulitzer Prize.

--erase the culture of conspicuous consumption and waste, especially in Seoul, and reintroduce actual material modesty.

So there you go. I'll put my broad brush away now, and remind you all that yes, I'm well aware that most of these situations are much better than they were a decade or two ago. Both internationally and locally owned companies are beginning to enforce "go home and see your family" quit times: some of my students' employers keep "family night" policies, where workers are not allowed to stay late on Wednesday night. A single-mother office worker won a lawsuit against her boss recently, because he ostracized her for refusing to come drinking "with the team". Koreans recognize that the test-based, studyholic, brand-name school system is flawed (it's dragged Korean universities down to 53rd of 55 countries, "in the extent to which university education meets social and economic needs"), and have seen the social decay caused by these entitled bums who coast on their credentials rather than trying to improve their performance, and bars are being raised even in places that used to be rife with complacency, like academia ([can't find a link, but] KAIST is axing some of its deadbeat professors, which will spur other universities to trim their dead weight, too) and government administration (Seoul city hall is also going after corrupt and/or lazy officials). Women ARE entering the workforce in record numbers, and passing the bar exam, and the civil service exams at a higher clip than ever before, which will inevitably, by sheer force of numbers, rearrange the antiquated dynamics, so things are getting better!

My magic wand would just be speeding things along in the direction they're already going, in a lot of cases, but there you go, dear readers. My personal opinions, after nearly five years of watching. Hope you enjoyed my thoughts.

That's it. I'm spent.

Thanks, Daily Transit, Joanie, Chiamatt, Popular Gusts and Zenkimchi, for the link love.


Whitey said...

Good stuff. Can't believe I'm the first to comment.

I like #1, #2 is a pipe dream.

Roboseyo said...

#2 is a pipe dream. That's why it's a magic wand.

glad you liked it.

chiam said...

Great post dude. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It said a lot of the things I'd like to say far better than I could have said them.

I love Korea as well.

Be cool,

Jon Allen said...

That is an impressive list. You've certainly hit the nail on the head with most of your wishes.

I see things changing slowly, another 10 to 20 years I am guessing SK will improve in all those areas.
Rome wasn't built in a day.

chiam said...

Hey dude, I could not find any other way to contact you on this site and i don't know if you have trackbacks. I just wanted to let you know that I liked your post so much I published some of it on

Be cool,

Anonymous said...

I remember in university in Canada many Asian students would spend like 10 hours or something consecutively at the library. I couldn't believe it.
I also can't believe that my students cram English for years and still can't speak more than a few sentences.
They work hard, but not smart.
Great post.

Anonymous said...

This is an incredibly well thought-out post. I'm Korean myself but have never actually lived for an extended time there, so I learned a lot about Korean culture from this. It's frustrating to hear about the gender and workplace inequalities. I can see why you'd want the magic brush.

Anonymous said...

These are good observations from a very Western perspective. however it falls very short in tjat it presupposes that the Korean people are just like Western peoples but just happen to have different cultral practices. You have to understand that the people over there really have biological level differences as well. Like the inter-family connections - it's non-trivial to lose grandparents or parents not because of merely psychological/cultural reasons but there are biological/physical level in-grained connections there. Drinking with co-workers after work. it's not because of some sort of confucian obligations. rather the people you work with become very close - very much like family/intimates. so you gotta stay.

and that's in a way a major point of difference. asians in general as has been pointed out thousands of times in books, tend to be more social creatures in the sense that literally their selves are communal selves. western selves are atomic and connections to others are extrinsic. there's biological basis for this.

there's been research done too like the flight or fight chemical response studies - like asian bodies don't show any changes in body chem even as more and more and more people pile into an elevator say. but similar studies show big changes in bio chem in western bodies as more people start piling into an elevator.

so you guys gotta re-think your assessments of what's going on around you and interpret it better instead of being stuck into your own narrow worldviews.

Roboseyo said...

Anonymous, if you make claims that Koreans have fundamental biological differences which lead to the differences in how they drink together, or interact with their families, I'd like to see links to references in reputable scientific journals, thanks. Those are some pretty encompassing claims for an anonymous commenter to make without support, and frankly, while I'd be fascinated to read about such studies and their methods, until you provide that kind of support, I'm not buying it.

Drinking together because of closeness... that sounds like a chicken/egg proposition to me. Of course you grow intimate with people when you drink with them; I fail to see any biological origin to that obvious fact.

References, if you please.

Anonymous said...


I do agree that Koreans are more patient and at ease in intimate situations with strangers in an elevator. But I don't see how that's relevant to the thread. Nevertheless your statement: "Drinking with co-workers after work. it's not because of some sort of confucian obligations. rather the people you work with become very close"

couldn't be further from the truth. I work in a Korean office and am the only foreigner...they do it just as the thread fill a role expected of them.

Unknown said...

Great post! If I could change one additional thing about Korea, it would be to do away with their mandatory military service for all men. It really screws up their psyche, their lives and just about everything else when they have to drop everything and go serve for 2+(?) years.

Roboseyo said...

Etan: I'm fond of tabling the notion that Korean WOMEN should also serve in the military. It would put them on a more equal footing for the rest of their lives.

Roboseyo said...

Amazing. Thankyou so much for this article. I felt like it was both honest about what some of the problems are, but there is a great sense of hope too that all these issues can be changed (and not just with a magic wand). There is great potential for South Korea and the whole world to overcome old restrictive traditions/institutions, leading whole cultures and every individual to shine with their best qualities. Yay for travellers who traverse the globe and spread unity in diversity and independant investigation of truth! Keep on enjoying the beauty of different people, and keep on saying it how you see it. If there were more people like you who could do this in the same respectful way, societies are going to learn and progress very quickly.