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Friday, March 11, 2016

The Rules of the Road

Something that always fascinated me about living in Korea was the strict adherence to cultural rules and laws while at the same time a very loose following of actual state laws and rules.  From afar, it looks like Park Geun Hye is setting about trying to control more and more things through the government, yet it is difficult because as I have commented on before, many laws in Korea are selectively followed.  The country as a whole appears more governed day to day by cultural do's and don't's with significant others providing the watchful eye of a policeman.

It immediately struck me upon returning to the UK and now Australia that the reverse is true; there appears to be fewer consistent cultural rules (although cultural marxism seems to be quite prevalent), but many state rules, regulation, and advice.

Laws around general behaviour are infuriatingly abundant here in Melbourne, and makes me wonder whether the state gives any credit to it's citizens at all for being able to live their lives responsibly.  A trip to the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Boxing Day Test match reveals this quite starkly.  Every 15 minutes you are reminded of the various bad behaviours that can get you ejected from the stadium and heavily fined on the big screen.  Popular members of the current Australia cricket team are there to dispense the friendly advice.  One shouldn't:

- Swear
- Drink too much
- Throw anything onto the field of play
- Go onto the field of play
- Abuse officials, players or other spectators

Fines ranging from $1000 - $10 000.

Fine, all are unpleasant and should be discouraged, perhaps with a message at the start of the game.  However, the constant all-day reminders begin to grate on me.  Do people not know how to behave already?  In Korea, it mostly seemed like people did, crowds of people were in many respects self-policed (lucky as the Korean police force didn't really appear capable of handling big trouble).  In the past, I'm sure crowds at cricket grounds we the same; they sometimes ran onto the pitch, sometimes caused trouble, sometimes had a naughty bit of a laugh.  No one died, no one was ever really hurt, and people laughed often.  There was a behavioural boundary that was well understood and rarely crossed, although occasionally cheekily flirted with, but dealt with in mostly good humour and understood that it was a rare occurrence.  Perhaps because of the social status concerns, most of the bad behaviour you heard about in Korea occurred in the shadows.

The thing is that these rules do actually seem necessary here; people are more childish and more in need of being told how to behave than I ever remember in the UK in the past, and certainly in Korea.  This year I took stock of the number of people escorted out of the MCG stadium by police.  After lunchtime it was staggering just how many people fell foul of these rules, despite being reminded ad nauseam by some of their cricketing idols.

But it's not just at the cricket ground, rules are everywhere in Melbourne, and on top of that, advice from the government abounds also.

Driving my car in Melbourne is a real note of sourness for me, in fact having a car in general is a nuisance.  I feel like I come into contact with state laws far more often. Driving is still a useful convenience, but it's like I have a camera on me all the time, just waiting to pounce on any trivial mistake.  I don't think this is what law enforcement is all about.

I have had 5 speeding fines in Melbourne in 6 months, the first (and worst) written-off as a first offence.  I never had one in ten years driving in the UK.  All the fines came in two places, both of which were three lane carriageways and the limit only 40km/h, pitifully and unnecessarily slow.  Melbourne has changes in speed limits all over the city, often recently devised with road signs changed regularly, and new speed cameras craftily placed.  It can be very difficult to keep up with.  Make a mistake once, however, and you are unlikely to learn from it until 3 weeks later when you receive notice in the post.  In those three weeks, if you drove down the same road you are very likely to be fined again and again and again.  Speed cameras are not noticeably marked and do not conspicuously flash.  You have to wonder, if you don't learn from your mistakes until three weeks after, what job is this doing protecting the public (the stated reason for speed limits and cameras)?  If it were so dangerous going over 40km/h in these areas, then surely 3 weeks of making the same mistake, might cause an accident in that time.

Luckily, I drive rarely, preferring to bike (still managed to get my fair share of fines though, in a small number of car journeys).  Some people I know, however, I have been stung by these fines and points on their license extremely badly, and no one I have spoken to has a clean license (and I moan about this often to many people, you'd be surprised to hear).  I think it is safe to say that for many low-wage earners, they are likely to pay far more in speeding and parking fines (the parking is overly-complicated too) than they pay in tax over a year.

TV adverts constantly paint the police as around for the benefit of public safety, especially on the roads.  Anti-speeding adverts ask, "How many deaths on the road are acceptable each year?"  When a man says "I don't know, maybe a 70?", 70 of his friends and family walk around the corner looking somber and teary hugs are the result.  None is the correct, and very unrealistic answer.  Anyway, how is constantly looking for roads signs and taking your eye off the road to check your speedometer on fast roads, with unnaturally slow speed limits, going to reduce accidents?  This is unrealistic, touchy-feely idealism, supported by the government for one reason and one reason alone; it makes them a tremendous amount of money.  It's not about saving lives, it's about convincing the public that all the speed cameras and fines are good for them.  Fear drives it, because at the end of the day, you don't want to be the one seeing your child's body being peeled off the tarmac.  Families buy into this lie the most because of this very natural aversion to the possibility of their child being in danger (this is a topic I will return to at a later date).

There are even 10km/h speed limits through a park that I cycle through every morning (I run/jog faster than that!).  Adverts on the TV say, "Don't drink and drive", "Don't take drugs and drive", "Don't speed", "Don't drink and swim", "Wear sunscreen".  There are so many more.  Is it that necessary to treat everyone like a child?  If it is, what's happened to society?  I don't remember everyone being this irresponsible.

We've been warned not to throw sticks for our dogs to prevent injury? I've thrown sticks for 35 yrs without a problem. Have sticks changed?

Above: An example from the UK on Twitter, while taking a break from writing this.  Can't imagine such concerns in Korea.

I know many of you will be thinking that this is all good advice, but I feel saturated by it.  I never once experienced this feeling in Korea, except when I was with my wife's family, where advice was dispensed on an almost minute by minute basis.  This was equally annoying, however innocent mistakes were met with initial annoyance, but then understanding.  Mistakes here equal money for the state government and they will contrive every which way to make sure you pay up.  They will wack a fine or a service charge on basically anything, leaving no stone unturned for the accruing of public revenue.

Of course, this is a moan born of the frustration of receiving too many large speeding fines for only just exceeding the limits ($190 for only a 5km/h mistake), but I think this is all a bit symptomatic of too much state involvement in the life of perfectly reasonable, otherwise law-abiding people, and also shows the lack of responsibility many people in Western countries appear to have (at least in the two I have lived in).  I do think the political trajectory over the past couple of decades has encouraged this lack of responsibility in people and is damaging our culture as a whole (again a topic for expansion on another day).

What's interesting is that I much maligned Korea as a place devoid of following logical laws and procedures with regard to safety, never more highlighted than in the Sewol disaster.  But that's the frustrating thing, the lack of middle ground.  Is it possible to have this middle ground, or is it inevitable that with time the prevailing cultural opinions of the masses will lead things this way?  I never used to think so, I perhaps naively thought that if enough people went to different parts of the world and brought back with them the knowledge of how things are done better elsewhere, that change for the better of everyone would occur.  My experience, in England and now Australia, is that this rarely happens, and when it does it is usually quite trivial.  No significant changes in culture, or the way a country is organised, ever seem to truly occur.

All this has perplexed and depressed me for sometime now, with any luck I'll be pleasantly surprised in the future, but experience has taught me not to hold my breath.

Friday, February 19, 2016

International Students Beware - Part 2

So, as promised, the plot thickens when it comes to my now ex-housemate.  First a bit of background.

After joining my wife in Melbourne, we decided we needed to be a bit closer to her university.  I arrived a few months before the start of her new course at the better university.

Most of the properties we viewed in the area close to the university were either tiny or dirty and old for the price we could afford, so with this in mind we decided to rent with someone else and get a rather nice place to live in.  The only interested party was a Chinese girl on the same English course prior to the start of the nursing course.  My wife knew little about her other than she seemed harmless enough.

Many of the courses that offered places to international students would have an English level requirement.  In most cases this was an IELTS 7.  This is quite hard to achieve, so most still offer places to international students if they complete an English course prior to the commencement of their main course, obviously at an extra cost.  Still, most institutions require at least a level 6 in all four disciplines.

They stipulate that a certain level (presumably the equivalent to IELTS 7) must be achieved in order to start the course, however, a problem occurs if the student's English level is still not good enough.  If the universities keep on failing students for their English, the likelihood is they won't pay the larger fees to start their actual course and once word of this gets out, less and less overseas students will come.  I therefore highly suspect that most universities will not fail students for their English more than once.  Why am I so cynical, you ask?  Well, for two reasons:

1) My housemate's English was awful, and when I say awful, I mean diabolical.  She rarely understood anything either I or my wife said to her.  On top of this, her basic speaking skills were terrible.  Stringing sentences together just didn't happen unless it was a commonly repeated phrase, like, "I got it", or "Okay sister", to my wife.  I remember once asking what she thought of my new car only for her to reply, "I am go meet friend".  She never ever, not once in about 9 months asked me to repeat what I said, she always guessed and was, at least 50% of the time, wrong.  She pronounced simple words like, "dollar" and "chili", wrong, saying "donar" and "chini", instead.  It was painful communicating with her.  My speaking and listening in Korean was better than her English, I understood more and I made less basic mistakes.  My Korean is not at all good, and certainly not good enough to do a degree in Korean.

I'd been an English teacher for a few years, so I think I can judge English level pretty decently.  This girl's English was no better than an average Middle school student in Korea at best.  I doubt whether her IELTS level got much past level 5, let alone approaching level 7.  How on earth was she accepted onto this course?

It turned out that my housemate failed her English course once and then was passed the second time.

2) As chance would have it, one of my personal training clients at work used to be an English tutor in one of these pre-degree course English schools.  I asked her why she left and she confirmed my suspicion that students could fail only once, that after one fail she was told to just pass them.  When it appeared that she had to lie in order to do her job, she quit (she could do this on principle as her spouse and family in general were very well-off).

Now there is no way her English was good enough to start a nursing degree, no way. What's wrong with this?  Where do I start?

While it seems the university was doing her a favour by letting her start her nursing course, it clearly was not.  How on earth would she ever pass the course (she still hasn't by the way, she is having to repeat a number of modules, at extra cost of course)?  If she did even somehow manage to pass the course, how could someone employ her?  If by some miracle someone did employ her, what would it mean for the patients she was helping treat?!

As well as all this, the personal cost to her family would be mounting and mounting.  She had already had to repeat her English course and then a number of modules on her nursing course.  This already must be up into the tens of thousands of donars, sorry, I mean dollars.

So where was my housemate getting all this money from; for her students fees, failed modules, and living costs while in Australia?  She had a rich family?  She worked tirelessly at a part-time job, right?  Wrong.  She never worked, and all the money her family poured into their daughter were in loans, this is all straight from the horses mouth, as we asked her.  She had already been in Australia for 2 years when I met her, and this was over a year ago.  By my calculations, the money spent by her family must be a six-figure sum.  Frightening.  The pressure on her and her family for her to pass must be immense.

All of this gave me an interesting first-hand insight into what must be going on when it comes to the economy in China.  It seemed like a microcosm of the the wider economic problem there, anecdotal, but telling evidence that money and wealth in the country appears mainly a sham.  Assuming that it isn't though, and that debts have to be re-paid, my housemate's family were being driven into bankruptcy.

The old saying, "sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind", seems to apply here.  In all honesty, she never should have been offered a place on any course in the English language (other than an English course) and the reality of the initial disappointment would have saved her and her family in the long-run.

This was a girl of mediocre talents from a small city Chinese background, not ready at all for life outside of China, and it showed in everything she did.  It is impossible that the university couldn't see that this was the case.

I can't figure out how she even survived or passed any modules on her course at all.  Although there were rumours of vast resources for cheating in the Chinese student community.

I bemoaned the online element of the course in the previous post, and it is relevant here also.  Many tests could be cheated on because of this.  Students can all sit in a group and use each other to find answers, perhaps this is how she managed it.

Believe me, I felt very sorry for this girl.  She spent 99% of her time in her room, especially when she was on vacation from university.  She never went anywhere, other than to get food from the shops.  She had no one, and no knowledge whatsoever of the country she was in.  We tried to be friendly, but she often purposely avoided contact with either my wife or me.  To say she was anti-social was an understatement.  How would she ever improve her communication in English?

Here are a couple of examples to show how disconnected and incompetent she was:

- After living in Australia for nearly 3 years, she had no idea what cricket was.  This became clear after my cricket birthday cake was shared with her and we discussed it (with difficulty).

- She did not know how to pay at restaurants.  Most embarrassingly for my wife, our housemate just shoved money into the hand of a waitress after lunch with her one time.

- Worryingly for her potential future profession, she was incredibly negligent and unaware of some very basic things, including some which were potentially dangerous. She would often forget she was cooking, leaving food on the stove for hours; she would wash one piece of clothing in the washing machine until one day I caught her and told her off for it; she put plastic in the microwave twice; her personal hygiene was awful.

- She would only turn the heating and air-conditioning on when we were not there. We only found out because clearly she had forgotten that she had turned it on sometimes and the house was either like a sauna or a refrigerator when we got home.

- She would put the air conditioning on while having the windows wide open.  She would also leave windows wide open in the winter and run the heating, or at least let all the cold air in.  This infuriated me no end because of the extra cost in bills and the inconvenience of always coming home to a house too hot or too cold, solely caused by a weird desire of one person to leave the windows open all the time, regardless of the weather.

To be quite honest, I don't know how we put up with her.  I suppose the fact that she was in her room the whole time helped.  All in all, I am thankful she didn't burn the house down or something, it was a relief to see her go.

The picture I'm painting is of a person you would least like to be a nurse.  Frankly, she was ignorant, unable to speak the language, negligent, dishonest, and unable to perform or remember to do the most basic of tasks.  The fact she was on a degree course in Australia was truly unfathomable.

There is so much more to tell on this subject, but I worry I'd be going on too much.

I wrote this whole post with nothing more than a suspicion that something fishy was going on, based on my own experiences.  However, after I wrote part one, one of my readers sent a link to a very interesting investigation on the topic, and it appears my fears are very well-founded, indeed, they are exactly as I suspected and the story I tell here fits in nicely with the following documentary:

There are a number of victims in all of this, international students and their families and society as a whole are put in real strife and possible danger because of this.  Thinking of specifically nursing, how happy would you be to have incompetent people looking after your health?  But a whole host of people could be graduating from university, in a variety of different professions, that are simply not capable doing what the universities said they can do.

On a personal note, it is gnarling for my wife.  She has already received a frosty reception on her first few days of hospital placements.  This eventually evaporates as it becomes clear that she can understand English and is capable, but a prejudice and suspicion is occurring of international student nurses, and in a way, the staff at the hospitals can't be blamed for that.  This is why many international students who graduate end up doing their nursing in old people's homes, and who could be more vulnerable than the elderly?  What a scandal, what a mess, what is going on, and is it going on in other Western countries too?  I suspect so.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

International Students Beware: Sneaky Sneaky Universities - Part 1

My wife has now finished her nursing course in Australia.  This was a huge achievement; I can't imagine how hard it must be to complete a degree in another language, so she deserves a lot of credit.

The whole experience of my wife being an international student in Australia did give me an interesting perspective into what's going on with the universities here.  It is not an understatement when I say I found what they were up to a smidge immoral.

This actually has less to do with my wife's time at university and more to do with our ex-housemate's.  Before I get on to our dear little lodger, however, I shall first explain what my wife and I have had to deal with, and in part two, I will write about the far worse scenario that went on with our housemate.

Firstly, I am not going to complain about the fees - exorbitant though they are - more what you are getting for the fees and the level of dishonesty surrounding what the universities are doing.  I also will not name the learning institutions involved, just in case, and because I think it is largely irrelevant anyway, as I have learned that this behaviour is fairly endemic across the board.

To begin with, my wife enrolled in a course at a well-known TAFE in Melbourne.  These are smaller college-like campuses, still offering degrees for many subjects.  They often have the advantage of having less students per member of staff, and therefore provide greater support and usually for less money also.  My wife's course was to be 2 years full-time, with one year part-time because of partial credit for what she had already done in Korea.

However, as soon as time came to start her course, things changed.  Instead of doing one or two modules per semester in year one - as offered before she left Korea - all of a sudden she had to take extra modules because they were not satisfied with her previous knowledge.  Unsurprisingly, this would come at extra cost, about $8000.

Having carefully planned our outgoings before we embarked on this venture, this was unacceptable, not just for the extra charge, but for the amount of time it took away from my wife's ability to work in that first year in order to help out with finances (for much of the first year she was on her own in Australia, as I stayed in Korea to finish my teaching contract and save money).

To put it mildly, I was not a happy bunny.  What made things even worse was that speaking to somebody about this was extremely difficult.  My wife tried, but I had the feeling they were purposely confusing her and fobbing her off with weak excuses and promises.  I wanted to speak with them, but a familiar problem I experienced in England, as well as Australia, occurred, the complete lack of someone to speak to when you really need to. It took a lot of skype calls from South Korea and an incredible amount of quite strident complaining to find someone that could speak to me about it.  After making them all feel very uncomfortable indeed, they delayed charging us extra and putting my wife on extra modules until the following semester, before which my wife and I decided to pull out of the course and join another university.

Luckily, this university had some prestige in the area of nursing and offered just a one-year course, giving my wife credit for the time she worked as a nurse in Korea and the learning she had already done at the TAFE.  Curious, I thought, that a better university thought her experience warranted just doing the last year of a nursing degree (which she then passed fairly comfortably), while the lesser institution demanded two and a bit years, and then more when we arrived.

I think the reason for this is that once an international student arrives in Australia, most of them have no choice but to give way to the universities demands for extra tuition at extra cost.  Even before they arrive they can also call for more study than is necessary, again in order to swell their pockets.  Once we were in Australia, knew the system and knew others that had been through it, we could find a better offer.  How many international students have this knowledge or indeed have a miserly, moaning, old fart of a husband to truly hold the universities accountable for this sneaky trickery?

For most students, they had been sent to Australia with their family's money in order to make a career for themselves, mainly from China and India, but basically all parts of Asia.  What are you going to do if your son or daughter phones home and says they need more money than expected as they need to take extra modules?  Pull them out and send them back home, having already heavily invested in paying at least the first semester upfront and moving them half-way across the world, or pay up?  My suspicion is that the universities know full-well that the vast majority will simply pay up, especially as many international students and their families lack the English ability to put up much of a fight when it comes to putting their case across and complaining.

Most of the universities my wife had her choice of, once we left the TAFE in question, also were not advertised or made known to us in Korea.  Now that we are here, it seems different universities advertise in different parts of different countries, China, of course, being the most popular.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there.  My experience of university some 15 years or so ago seemed a lot different to what I saw with my wife.  I'm not talking about the social life or anything like that, but the way learning was structured.

Universities these days appear to take full advantage of the internet, making the online element of their courses gain larger and larger significance.  Far from aiding learning, I believe this has given universities the ability to save an extraordinary amount of money by being less hands on with students and this helps them by requiring less staff.

I used to regularly meet with my personal tutor at my university, at specified times, usually 3 or 4 times a month with 4 other students.  Other lecturers and tutors were also quite available to deal with any difficulties I might have had.  But this was before the sophistication of the internet was really adequate enough to run a course mainly from online, it really had to be done on a more person to person basis.  At my wife's university, the ratio is hundreds and hundreds to 1 of students to tutors.  Problems are dealt with online, and from what I saw, there were plenty of them as well, as regular maintenance problems with much of the material online.

With international students in particular, you could also make a case for them needing greater support, but it seemed less to me.  Did they really pay all this money for almost zero support except for a few vaguely answered questions on the university's online portal?

To top it all off, after receiving an awfully large sum of money from us, the graduation ceremony was to take place 100Km away in another campus at a charge of approximately $400 (more if you don't decide straight-away to attend).  This is annoying for us, but extremely disappointing for any international students wishing to attend, what for many is supposed to be one of the proudest days of their lives, as the graduation takes place 5 months after the finish of the their course.  Almost certainly, all those planning not to stay in Australia would have had their student visas run out by this time.  They either couldn't attend or would have to go home and then come back.

So, to sum things up, it looked to me that universities were out to squeeze all they could out of international students, and they'd do it with a mixture of bending the truth, shoddy service, and in my opinion some big fat lies to boot.  To put the icing on the cake, they also decide not to give a second thought or any effort to alleviating any of the many inconveniences and special issues international students might have compared to ordinary Australians at university.

If it wasn't for the qualification at the end of it all, it can only be described as one sneaky little con job, designed to extort vast sums of money from countries like China, India, and Korea, just some of the countries now where people have increasing sources of capital.  All in all it was a disgraceful case of the bottom line coming before human beings.  I wonder how many families in Asia universities have bankrupt, or put in severe debt, because of the innocent dreams of a better life for their sons and daughters and security for the family as a whole.

Now if this all sounds like I am making a mountain out of a mole hill or I am rather too suspicious of the motives of Australian universities, the story of my housemate in part 2 might sway you into my highly cynical position on them.  I can't say this girl was my favourite person in the world, but I did feel mightily sorry for her.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Returning to Korea? Why Not?

Let's get stuck in with the first real post back.  Now I have to admit to entertaining the thought of returning to Korea on a number of occasions, my reasons for not doing so I won't bore you with again as I have already touched on them in my post, "The Reasons I left Korea".  All I can say was that the temptation was great.  On each occasion after I left (I did so before, to live back in England for a year), it soon became apparent to me that I had a pretty great time in Korea.

I can't say that without my wife that I would have returned, but my wife certainly was quite steadfast against returning, much more so than me.  This seemed odd to me as she has clearly missed home very much and moans quite regularly about the many nuisances of living in a Western country.  She is also much more attached to family than me, as are they attached to her.  At times, adjusting to life in Australia, along with the lack of money (due to the international student fees we have had to pay), has been a real burden on her.

We have both worked exceptionally hard and only recently have we began to see the fruits of our labours.  But trust me, it's been tough.  Every time we have tried to get some money together, the cost of living bites, every time we sort anything out - like internet, visas, finding a house, going away, etc - we have to work through mountains of bureaucracy, bad service, and unnecessary rules, regulations and charges.

So what's going on?  In my wife's eyes, and in mine, Korea is a much nicer place to live. Everything is organised better, life is more convenient, less stressful, we go out more often, and I have more holiday.  For my wife, all her friends and family are there too.  So why is she so against returning?

The answer lies in how the people she knows treat her; family, work colleagues, friends, and acquaintances.  Societal pressure and expectations in Korea are astoundingly strong and I have been quick to criticise how Koreans treat one another before on this blog based on quite inflexible views on life and the duties that are expected of each other. Us foreigners who have experienced Korea often bemoan how we are treated by Koreans, but like I have said time and time again on this blog, we really don't know the half of it. Koreans themselves get treated far worse by other Koreans than we ever are.  We can play the foreigner card and get away with an awful amount.

Korean working culture is often cited as a big reason why people want to leave the country, but my wife would often comment that she didn't mind working so hard if the people she was working with could treat her like more of an individual and with a bit of empathy and understanding.

When you think about it, the despair many Koreans feel surrounding work and education is rooted in how others treat them and what's expected of them.  It is the pressure parents put on their kids to learn - which comes from the pressure society puts on them - that makes education the way it is and so unbearable for students, for example.  The inflexibility of the working environment and the long hours is also something more controlled by society and the perceptions of work and duty than by the government or business (although both take advantage of it, I'm sure).

It's a shame, because I reckon that if my wife were to make a list of pro's and con's about Korea and Australia, she would have a long list of pro's for Korea and only one or two con's.  It's just that these one or two are so powerful, it is out of the question for her to entertain returning.  She is currently visiting friends and family in chilly Korea right now, and although it has obviously been nice to go back home, after less than a week away, she can understand why she left, and yearns for a return to Melbourne (despite having more than a few complaints about living there).

Sergey Kustov -

It's a sad state of affairs in what would otherwise be a fine country to live in.  Not only do many Koreans not want to return to Korea, but an alarming amount want to leave. There is a real sensation that many Koreans are truly fed up with the direction the country is taking, they just don't know how to change things and hence simply leave it (one way or another).

A couple of weeks ago, I got a haircut and coincidentally it was a Korean lady who did it and she was very open and talkative - as well as being able to do a Western haircut. (Funnily enough, I reckon most of my haircuts have been done by Koreans since coming to Melbourne.  This is because it was one of the easiest avenues to obtaining a visa some years ago).  She commented on travelling last year; she had travelled for about 5 months to South East Asia, Japan, and back home to Korea in two, two week stints.  After her first visit to Korea for about 8 years she remarked, "I planned on staying for a month, but after 2 weeks I couldn't take it anymore.  My mum nagged and nagged, you know, and the rest of my family told me, 'why can't you do this, why can't you do that'".  I couldn't take it so I went to Japan for two weeks before going back to Korea for one more week and then returning to Melbourne."

I have met a number of Koreans in Melbourne through my wife, and it is much the same story for them.  They have all been a rather different breed to the Koreans I met in Korea.  None appear to be living the dream in Australia and really enjoying the place, but none want to go home. They are far more individual also, although coming from a culture that values a rather close-knit group and dependency on others, none seem particularly happy.  My own take on their situation is that they would love to return to Korea, but all want to keep the ability to be themselves and make their own decisions without being pressured into a way of living that is not for them.  This is all impossible in Korea.

Perhaps it is just the nostalgia talking, but what a shame this all is because when I look back at my time there, it is a country that has so much to like about it.
And on a site in English:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Different Perspective

Well, I know I said I'd be back over a year ago and haven't posted since.  However, new year and a new start.  I am well and truly settled in to living in Australia now and although things are running pretty smoothly, there are still plenty of things to complain about (and that's essentially what this blog was all about, right?), so some cathartic writing is in order and the blog has been resurrected from the ashes.

I must also thank one of my readers for helping me contemplate getting things restarted, I forgot just how much I enjoyed putting my thoughts into writing.  Having no artistic ability at all, this seems one of the few ways I can actually create something, and of course, I love a good argument.

I would often receive criticism in Korea from readers saying something like, "Why don't you criticise your own culture?"  Well, I'd like to think my blogs on Korea weren't all negative, I did have many positive things to say.  I do quite like to moan though, and I can see how I could come across as a bit of an old curmudgeon towards Korean culture. I did always retort that I had just as many dislikes about my own dear culture, and here is the blog that will prove it.  I am quite sure that I won't have many people berating me for criticising Western culture, Australian and British specifically.

So why connect what may essentially be a diatribe against certain aspects of life in the Western world with Korea?  Well, mainly because many of the things that now irk me about living in Australia and some of the issues I see from afar happening to my dear country of birth, bother me precisely because I lived in Korea.  What was good about Korea is often bad in Australia or Britain and vice versa, from a perspective that is quite possibly only available to someone who has lived in a radically different culture.  Korea will be very relevant to much of what I write in future months.

Plato's "Allegory of the Cave", drawing by Markus Maurer
There are many things I am troubled by upon returning from topsy-turvy land and an unrest created by a reverse culture shock.  Why can't we have the best of both worlds?  Is that even possible?  Will I ever be truly comfortable living anywhere now or will the knowledge that things can be done better elsewhere get the better of me?

Can't live here, can't live there, stuck in the middle, this is often what my wife tells me about her feelings on that matter.  I must admit to giving thought to the idea of returning to my cosy existence in Korea, as there was much to like and life seems much more complicated in Australia.  I console myself with the thought, borrowed from Plato, that while I may be wholly content sitting in the cave, walking outside into the light, while painful at first, can produce a richer, more fulfilling existence.  I think this may be a thought many who have lived in lands far away (and certainly in Korea) can relate to.

So on that very profound note, I hope you enjoy the posts to come.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Reasons I Left Korea

Faisal Akram (
I'm back!!  It's been nearly 4 months without a single post, but I have been busy trying to settle into life in a new country, Australia, so give me a break.  To be honest, compared to living in Korea, it is just like living in England just a bit sunnier, more laid back, and with barbecues everywhere.

So why did I leave Korea?  I had a decent job that I liked, a very comfortable existence, was saving money and had lots of free time.  In recent months I have had times where I thought, "Jees, what am I doing?", especially as I have had to fork out quite a lot of my saved cash in tuition fees and work very hard here in Oz.  Here are my reasons:

1. The English Teaching Went Stale

I remember how keen I was to teach when I started my High school teaching job, I gave it everything and I was so creative in my lesson planning.  I enjoyed going to work, in fact I'd even turn up 45 minutes early everyday!  By the middle of my third year however, I was getting lazy and irritable, the challenge had gone and I was working off old lesson plans.  Everything, including the lessons themselves became less enjoyable. It was time to move on.  On top of this, could I ever be anything but an English teacher in South Korea?

2. Disappearing Friends

A friend of mine commented on Facebook the other day something along the lines of, "another year in Korea and the friend count continues to fall."  This is very true.  If you stay for a year or two, you make loads of new friends and keep your old ones, if you stay for longer, the new friends leave and you're out of sight, out of mind to your friends at home.  For me, I am always looking for new experiences and England has grown stale also, so it is with great regret that I have distanced myself from friends back home.  In Australia, I can at least make friends through my sports and there is less of a cultural barrier as well.

3. I was Becoming too Immersed in the World of the Internet

This blog was partly to blame for this, but also the nature of my job and Korea as a whole.  Too many spare hours on the computer at work sent me into a world that isn't quite as it seems, where faux outrage, trolling and political correctness reign absurdly supreme and debates always end on a sour note due to implied aggressive tone and the lack of a human face (or even a real name) to hold each person back.

I was afraid, frankly, of becoming one sad bastard who spends hours arguing with morons and reading other people's worthless blogs (I can see the irony, really), looking for something to blog about.  Live in the world of the internet for too long and you forget what the real world is all about, and that it is much better to live in.

It isn't all negative; I grew a much thicker skin, discovered the very real problem of political correctness for myself, and most importantly created something.  That something might only be a shitty opinionated blog, but I think it is important to have an outlet, to produce something, which is a large part of why I'm writing this post now.  What it means is that posts on this blog will be far less frequent than in the past, but that this site is not dead!!!

4. Something New, but not so Stressful

What can I say, I get bored easily these days, both with jobs and the places I live.  I want to see the world before I die and experience many different countries and cultures.  However, I want to live in these new worlds and not simply pass through them.

Korea is a place I am sure I will return to - I have family here after all - but for now the spice has gone and too many things were rubbing me up the wrong way, a long break was needed. When I do return, it will be to study Korean first, as my lack of fluency in the language is probably my biggest regret in my time living there, even though I could get by OK, I just couldn't have very deep conversations.  When I can speak properly, I can argue with Koreans in their own language and that'll be really interesting!

Australia is somewhere different, but not too different.  It's a taste of home, but with kangaroos, Koalas, and possums!!

5. Too Easy

The above is one of my favourite Aussie sayings I hear a lot over here, so I thought I drop it in to describe how I felt in Korea in general.  Soooo comfortable my life had become.  I have never been happy being comfortable; when it lasts for too long it becomes a rut, a furrow in the path so deep that it becomes impossible to blaze a new trail and go to new, exciting places, both literally and metaphorically. Through discomfort, the challenge of something new, and associating myself with new people, I have learned and achieved a lot and gained great life satisfaction in the process.  Korea was certainly this way for a time, but all good things must come to an end.

6. Freedom!!!

There was always the feeling of constraint in Korean society, the feeling that I couldn't really do and say what I wanted.  I couldn't just be me and be accepted by Korea, I would never be accepted that way, I would have to conform.  To be fair I have felt this way in England as well, but the flavour of it in Korea was certainly sharper and more pronounced.  I even felt pressure to not voice my opinions on this blog, so I often held back (believe it or not).  I believe my blog was censored by Busan's Ministry of Education (according to a chap on Asiapundits).  I felt like I was one blog post away from getting in trouble. I say that, but just as I was leaving, I kept on getting requests to join radio debates in Seoul (had to keep refusing, but I did one on the phone about the Sewol disaster and safety), so someone must have been reading and thinking I had some valid points or at least a debatable opposing view.  Perhaps I was just being paranoid and that actually I was one step away from recognition as a truly insightful blogger on Korea (could be dreaming on that one).

Note: Stay tuned for some more perspectives on Korea, except now from the outside looking back in; I guess I am still on the inside in a way, as I have family, so the blog title can stay the same.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Confucianism Doesn't Explain Everything, but it can Explain Quite a lot

Since the Sewol disaster and some rather simplistic reporting of Confucianism being in the reason for so many student deaths, using the C-word has become a bit of a no-no in writing about South Korea.  If you do dare to use it, you risk immediately discrediting everything you write.  "Did he say Confucianism?"  "He must know nothing about Korea, what a fool."

As I wrote at the time, the explanation that it was Confucian values that made those students follow orders and stay below was far too basic.  For a start, many didn't listen and escaped, and in a situation you are not sure about - and rarely are most people experts on ferry safety - you perhaps should defer to those in charge with the supposed experience and expertise.  Not only that, it was insulting, laying the blame on the students for their own deaths, when it was clear they were let down by a grossly negligent ferry company and an incompetent crew.

Turning to Confucianism to explain things was a mistake in this case (for the students, I could see a more complex argument for the company and the crew, but I would more broadly say that Korean, 'respect culture', rather than traditional Confucianism could've been a factor) but let's be honest, Confucianism is a driver of many of the behaviours we see around us on a day to day basis in Korea.  In many cases, common practices have become a slightly altered form of Confucian tradition, but modern culture in Korea still has a Confucian base.  It seems stupid to have to say this, as it is so obvious, but I do think some people might need to be told this brute fact.

Some popular news articles and some in the Korean blogosphere have managed to make using the C-word as an explanation a bit of a taboo.  Actually, I think I agree with the two articles I have linked to and many others on the subject, and I also agree that many people used Confucianism too freely, but it is amazing how things swing to the ends of two extremes and the reactions to such articles have not caused balance.  It has gone from being the one-stop solution to every query about things that happen in Korea, to being ridiculed whenever it is used, even if it is extremely relevant.

I have noticed the ridiculing of those that mention Confucianism a lot in the past few months, but it came to my attention this week when an old post I wrote for Asiapundits on the treatment of women in Korea was shared again by one of the editors and received some attention and comments.  In that article, I used Confucianism to partly explain the culture of patriarchy that still exists in Korea.  If you read that post, you will see it only formed a small part of what I wrote, but sure enough, it was picked up upon and received the usual treatment:

1. "It might further behoove you to read about why these cultural traditions exist rather than throwing it under the gauge blanket of confusion ism." (her spelling, not mine by the way)
2. "But Confucianism is such a handy word. Every time I can’t understand Korea, I just use it and pretend I do."

These kind of comments have increasingly become the norm.  But in respect to the treatment of women in Korea, surely it is impossible to say that Confucianism is not involved, it is a huge part of the system of hierarchy we see today, both with young and old and men and women.  In a rather long article, I actually only wrote a few lines about it and I'm not really sure how you can argue against it:

"To do away with nearly two thousand years of Confucian tradition (and about 700 hundred of strong cultural influence through the Joseon Dynasty) is what the women of Korea are up against, so perhaps it is no surprise they are still struggling to make an impact on society for better treatment.  In Confucian thought a virtuous woman is meant to uphold the ‘Three subordinations’: be subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband after marriage, and her son after her husband dies.  Men can remarry and have mistresses, but women must always remain faithful even after their husbands’ death.  With this is mind it is easy to see why men are still thought of in higher regard."

Most cultures all around the world are still in some state of patriarchy.  I would argue that Western culture is almost completely rid of it now (although I'm sure many would disagree, but that's an argument for another time).  But I don't think it is a stretch to say each of these cultures has had to, or is still battling out of, the old traditions that were enforced by a religion or cultural philosophy.  Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, etc.  Which hasn't tried to subjugate and control women?  They all have their particular ways about doing it, however, and some are worse and harder to escape and fight your way out of than others. Islam is undoubtedly the most oppressive of the bunch in this regard and has easy to identify consequences of its patriarchal philosophy.  The results of Confucian tradition in Korea are not so brutal on women, but they still have a significant affect and the form of patriarchy present in Korea has the obvious stamp of Confucianism about it and the culture as a whole persists in holding women back because of it.  Not solely because of it, mind, but to deny it is a factor is strange to say the least.  My suspicion is that it's down to political correctness.

Political correctness is not always a bad thing, it is good we aren't all going around saying bad words to people and jumping to overly-simple conclusions, and it has raised consciousness about certain issues.  But it regularly goes too far and prevents honest dialogue and that is something I have had to really fight with on this blog.

Reflecting on my time blogging, with just one week left in Korea, I have to say that I have been quite amazed by the aggressive, vitriolic, and ridiculing nature of the responses I have got to my blogs over the last two years or so.  Some people write entire repetitive essays of hate against me on my comments section or on their own sites. In the beginning, it was upsetting, I won't lie, especially as I thought I wasn't really being that controversial or anywhere near hateful.  Nowadays though, it is just time-consuming to deal with.  A new life dawns in Australia and I just don't have the time or inclination to deal with those who say white is black and always misconstrue what I write to be some of the most vile evil know to man, indicative of some of the worst elements in modern society and harking back to the days of Hitler (really, no exaggeration, it's what some people think).  The fact I am a White man also seems to be a real problem for many people (even some White men).  How dare a White man give his perspective on Korea.  What a danger to world my meager little blog must be.

It seems that even with a lightly-read, tiny blog on South Korea, you can't escape the abuse, just by having different opinions to the progressive crowd.  From day one, I have had to fight the assumption that you just can't make and share your own judgements about other cultures and you can't compare other cultures (if what you are saying is in any way negative in nature). Although I should say you can, but Western culture - and in particular American culture - must always come out on the losing side, then it's fine.

Confucianism might be becoming another word us White guys can't use anymore in writing or talking about South Korea, it feels like it is now off the table for discussion.  Keep this in mind the next time you ask a Korean person about why they behave in such different ways to us Westerners, because in my experience Confucianism is as much a 'go to' in their explanations of their own behaviour as it is for us. Why?  Because it really is relevant in explaining Korea, there's no escaping it and people other than Koreans themselves can use it (including White guys), it's just not always relevant in every situation.  So somewhere between 'always relevant' and 'never relevant', I think there might be some middle-ground we can occupy.  How about treating every claim of Confucian involvement in different circumstances on its own merit and arguing the particulars of each case?  Now there's an idea.