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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.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What's so Wrong with Eating Dog?

Image by Gael Chardon 

With less than 2 months until I leave, I thought I'd give my perspective on the old chestnut of eating dog in Korea.  I have partly dealt with it before on a few occasions, but it is summer again (the best time of year to eat dog, apparently, it will improve stamina in the hot summer months) and stories about it keep coming up, with the same old nonsense being said about it.  In this piece I will confront the main argument from the cultural relativists and many Koreans themselves:


"Westerners are hypocrites, they eat sheep, pigs, chickens, deer, cows, ducks, and more, but draw the line at dog.  Korea, China, and Vietnam just view things differently, they simply have a different culture.  Who is anyone to say eating dog is wrong?  It's the same as eating any other animal."

I partly agree with this sentiment - shared by many Western people and Koreans alike - there is a big chunk of hypocrisy going on (even wrote a blog about vegetarianism based on it), yet at the same time, I have my issues with what they are ignoring.

There is a special relationship between dogs and humans, it goes back thousands of years.  I am a huge fan of dogs; they are so loyal and so genuine, they can teach people a lot about life.  It is sad to see many dogs still getting so excited to see their owners, even when they are treated badly by them, but that is the spirit of the dog, the eternal optimist.

The adoration of the dog in the West at least gives people a place to begin with compassion towards animals.  Of course, there will be many Koreans, Chinese, etc, who think the same way about dogs and care for animals, but as a pattern in society, frankly, the treatment of dogs is clearly different.

Once you have a place to start, comparisons can be drawn between other animals, which can raise consciousness.  Most people completely ignore these comparisons, granted, but by having sympathy for the dog, a crack appears and a way into people's hearts and minds is possible with regards all other animals.

The problem with the attitude towards dogs in Korea, that I see, is a general heartlessness to all animals is largely present.  It's not like some other animal gets most of their love - in the US is dogs, but in Korea its deer, for example - all animals are well and truly outside the sphere of what the average person should be compassionate or concerned about in a large section of Korean society (especially the older generation).

Remember also that it is not just the eating of dogs, but the treatment of them and the slaughter of them.  Unfortunately, as the dogmeat trade is technically illegal and unregulated in Korea (an example of one of many laws never enforced), the standards of care are appalling.  Some Koreans (mainly older Koreans), believe beating the dogs or strangling them to death slowly causes a surge of adrenalin that makes the meat taste better, and they are often kept in terrible conditions.  In fact, in China also, dog meat always seems to go hand-in-hand with horrifically cruel living conditions for the dogs, abhorrent methods of slaughter, unhygienic practices, and unethical means of procuring the dogs (e.g. stolen from pet owners).

We know it is possible to ignore animal suffering, we all do it to some extent, but when you have the ability to be so indifferent to the suffering of an animal that worships the ground you walk on, and can be the most trusting and loyal friend you've ever had, I think that points to something more than a little troubling.  Many people are hypocrites when it comes to dogs and the treatment and eating of other animals, but at least they have some ability to feel the pain of non-human animals.  I worry that those that treat dogs poorly and eat them may be almost completely numb when it comes to animals, which also begs the question about what goes on in their minds with regards to some fellow human beings.

In another blog, I mused on the reasons for Koreans eating dog and speculated that there may very well be justifiable reasons for it in the past, and perhaps we can understand why they still do so.  I focused mainly on history and poverty in that piece. Whatever the reasons though, you have to weigh the current attitudes and whether they are right, wrong, damaging, or not.

There is a concern I have about cultural morality in this part of the world, and I think the way Koreans treat dogs highlights this quite nicely.  Duty is very important here, and what troubles me is how rigidly defined these duties can be.  Things workout fine most of the time, and perhaps more kind deeds are done and more thought given to others as a result (to those who you have a duty to be kind and thoughtful to), maybe even a more orderly society as well.  However, when someone or something sits outside the traditionally defined duties (think strangers, people from other countries, and animals), it can be a recipe for a lack of moral consideration and I think this is what happens in dogs.

When I see a dog chained-up outside all their lives, or even worse hit and abused, I think about how I would feel if I were in its place, I put myself in its shoes - so to speak - and I think this method of being empathetic is shared by most people.  I don't believe this is how the mind of many Koreans works.  Fine, you can say this is just a theory, how on earth do I know what goes on inside their heads?  But I can draw conclusions from the behaviour I witness, and this is what I see.  I believe the traditional moral duties outlined by Korean, and possibly Chinese culture, actually get in the way of the natural empathetic urges towards the suffering of other beings that people everywhere have.

Korean culture has this set of duties for different people in different situations, even the dog has a duty.  In Korea, any dog too large for an apartment has a duty to sit and guard the house outside, that's just its place, to argue otherwise is futile.  The owners job is to feed it and give it water and pretty much nothing more.  The thought of, "Its freezing outside, the poor dog must be cold.  If it were me, I'd appreciate being inside or least having another blanket", is a thought process I think simply doesn't occur in many Korean people.  For this reason, even some of the most basic and easy to solve discomforts are left unattended to.  Time and time again I see this as I travel around Korea and have even witnessed it in my own Korean family with their treatment of dogs.  It is really quite shocking.  I find myself often muttering under my breath, "Well, the least you could do is x, y, and z, it would require almost no effort or expense at all and would make the dog's life quite a bit better."

This is not to say that cruelty does not exist in the West towards dogs, but the poor treatment I see in the West is done mainly by people who are poor and disadvantaged and are just overwhelmed by the responsibility of having a dog, or they are genuinely nasty, evil people.  What I see in Korea is that you have the poor and the occasional nasty person, as usual everywhere, but also genuinely normal, good, nice, caring people, with the means to care for dogs better, doing horrible things to dogs or just completely neglecting them, that's the difference.  These are also not isolated cases, the neglect and mistreatment of dogs is widespread among perfectly decent people in most other respects.

There have been a few articles in the Western press about the practice of eating dog meat and the relationship between Koreans and Chinese and their dogs. According to Japan Crush, even Japanese netizens sided with the dog meat eating tradition in China.

This article in the New York Times after the Sewol tragedy, actually annoyed me slightly.  I know news articles can't cover everything, but it made it sound like Koreans really adored their Jindo dogs, but in my experience, they are usually chained-up all day and forgotten about, sometimes even sold for dog meat (my uncle in-law did this with his) even though they are designated a "National treasure".  The reverence for the Jindo dog is mainly in words only, it seems.


Read about my own personal experience with this little Jindo dog in Korea.


Change is afoot though, and the number of people in China and Korea objecting to the treatment and eating of dogs is increasing.  Protests in Yulin, China surrounding the traditional summer solstice festival of eating dog have hit the news, and South Korean animal rights activists have staged protests in Seoul.  I find this encouraging, as I do the lack of support eating dog meat seems to have with the younger generation.

There really is something unsettling about eating dogs and I think the intuitive disgust of it by many is a justifiable thing.  I say this while at the same time agreeing with what other people say about the hypocrisy of eating other animals and how we treat them (I really do think factory farming is one of the most disgusting things imaginable), but I hope you can now see why I think that it is so especially horrible to eat dogs.  Because after all, if you can't muster any compassion for dogs, what hope do other animals have?


For more information on the current situation and the law regarding dog meat see the link below:

http://animalrightskorea.org/dog-meat-issue/current-situation-of-koreas-dog-meat-industry.html

Friday, June 20, 2014

From England but Dislike Football? Liar!


The fact that I am not into football is a cause of regular disbelief to most Korean people I know or meet, even to the point that I get accused of lying about it sometimes (especially when England lose).  My students in particular find my lack of enthusiasm for the beautiful game most perplexing. But I promise them it is the truth, I'm really not that interested.

Now, with the World Cup in full swing, of course I wouldn't mind seeing England triumphant (unlikely) and I obviously support them and am curious as to how they do, I even watched the Italy game.  However, their defeats caused me about 0.5 seconds of disappointment. I was much more bothered by England failing to beat Sri Lanka in the cricket at Lords.

Not only am I quite indifferent about the world of professional football (I don't mind a kick about every now and then; nice game and good for fitness), it has actually grown to be something of an irritation for me, causing a mild disliking for it.  Here are my reasons, for my students and those of you out there that think it is impossible for a true Englishman to not like football:

1. Saturation

When I am in England, I very quickly go past saturation point; bored, bored, bored I am of people talking about it and it being on TV.  I like sport, I play squash at a decent level, I love cricket, and I workout pretty much everyday.  I like to know what is going on in the world of sport, but when you flick the TV onto sports news, it is most often 99% about football, and it is usually non-news that is repeated over and over again.  The 24-hour Sky Sports News in the UK, was basically Sky Football News with one minute every hour for whatever else was going on in the world of sport.

2.  Moral Vacuousness 

The professional game is basically morally bankrupt in all departments, from the organisation of it, to the supporting of it, and the playing of it.  The game is the worst possible influence on children, who idolise some of the worst characteristics of some of the worst role models.


I'll let the video above do my explaining of why FIFA is such a disgrace.

When it comes to supporters, I am sure most are great and in fact English sports fans generally are some of the best, most loyal, and most vocal.  However, football has served to encourage one of the worst parts of British culture and that is general drunken thuggery and violence.  Football hooliganism is still a problem in the UK and has had a very nasty history.  I know it is not the fault of the game itself, but I can't help but associate football with probably the most deplorable aspect of my own country's culture.




A few years ago, I worked for a while in a bar in my hometown which regularly showed football matches on a big screen every weekend and I'm afraid the clientele that showed-up were some of the worst human beings imaginable.  On top of this, their behaviour was never worse than when the football was on.

Onto the players then and what happens on the pitch.  Football has turned into game game full of real nancy boys, I must say.  They dive, roll around on the floor, cry, and when they don't get their own way, throw hissy-fits at the referees and basically show no respect whatsoever for each other or the officials.  Almost every game is spoiled by cheating and unsavoury behaviour.  Even in the very first game of the world cup, the game was marred by a dive by a Brazilian player to gain a crucial penalty.

The spectacle of football surely is, at least in part, a show of athletic prowess and a display of competition between men.  Professional footballers are great athletes, but I don't see a lot of men on the field much of the time, only spoilt little boys.




The classic contrast is that of rugby, but I have been told that cheating goes on all the time in rugby, it is just not as obvious.  Well, my response to that is that's a shame but the vast majority of young boys in my country don't idolise rugby players, and if they did, they would have a much better grasp of fighting spirit, fairness, toughness, and respect by watching a game of rugby, even if some of it is an illusion.

I actually prefer to use cricket as an example of a good sport to teach us good core values, especially test cricket (played over five days).  Obviously, sometimes cricketers cheat or show examples of 'professionalism', but when they do there is great debate and moral outrage about it.  See the example below of England player Stuart Broad refusing to walk after clearly hitting the ball and being caught.




For those of you not familiar with cricket,, the batsman in this situation does not have to walk off, he can wait for the umpire's decision, but it is expected of him for such an obvious edge off the bat.  Masses and masses of column inches in newspapers, TV debates, and controversy were the result of this situation, especially as it was in an important Ashes Test between England and Australia.

For another more recent example, see an incident in a one-day game between England and Sri Lanka below:




England player Jos Buttler was given out - quite rightly - for walking out of his ground before the ball was bowled.  This is extremely unusual and has only happened a handful of times in the history of the professional game.  The Sri Lankan players had warned him twice before doing so (they actually didn't even have to warn him once), but there was still moral controversy about it, with many saying it wasn't in the spirit of fair play and the game of cricket.

I think this all means cricket, its players, supporters and organisers still have a moral conscience, it isn't perfect and there are problems with the game, most notably match fixing scandals, especially in India.  But the core messages of cricket and the example the game sets to young people is still praiseworthy.  Football has totally lost its way in this respect, examples of absolutely blatant cheating are minor talking points that occur in almost every single game and no action is ever taken to make an example out of offending players in the vast majority of cases.


3. The Players and the Scandals

I guess I could have included this as a part of section 2, but I thought it deserved its own place.

The vast sums of money involved in professional football have corrupted it to the core. Of course, this happens in officialdom and allegedly appears to be an issue in the success of the Qatar world cup bid, but over-paying the players has given them an inflated sense of self-importance and causes any numbers of apparent character defects in some.  Here are some examples:






I don't watch football - with the exception of the World Cup - but I had heard of all of these incidents linked above and they easily came to mind.  Many youngsters idolise these morons and copy their behaviour, believe it or not.

I see football, and the exorbitant amounts of money paid to its stars, encouraging some of the worst things in society.  It promotes the pursuit of money, fame, and celebrity worship above all else and discourages good manners and behaviour.  There are many positive aspects to football generally - think fitness and community building - but the professional game and its main characters are doing more harm than good.


So, there you go, just in case you didn't believe me, that's why I think the beautiful game isn't so beautiful.  I guess I wouldn't have any problem with it if the game wasn't worshipped like a religion my many people, but it has gotten too big for its boots and garners far too much attention.  I got fed-up with it all a long time ago and fail to see what all the fuss is about, but hey, each to his own and this is just my grumbling perspective on it.  How I wish people in Korea could read this post and understand my reasons for disliking football though, before they look at me in disbelief and call me a liar when I say it doesn't interest me.

Finally, Peter Hitchens sums things up nicely in this clip starting at about 7:10 on the odd situation of people from all over the world obsessing about the game and that strange but common experience of people from Asia mentioning Manchester United whenever you say you're from England.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hiking Brings the Best out of Korea


It is certainly possible that lately I have mainly been focused on the negative aspects of living in Korea.  Before you accuse me of being a grumbling old curmudgeon, I have been without my wife now for too long and I can't wait to join her in Australia in a couple of months.  I'm fed-up, and therefore my mind errs toward irritations and problems much more readily than the good stuff.

I have always found that there is a cure for this kind of melancholy, however, and that is a good, long ramble in the Korean countryside.  It is likely that the fresh air and the exercise readdresses some chemical imbalance in my brain, but I genuinely believe some of the best of Korean culture and its people reveals itself at this time.




Last week, I took a couple of days with a friend of mine to do a 40Km hike along the coast in Yeosu, at the central southern tip of mainland Korea.  The hike, known as the 갯가길, was a bit of a change from the usual intense mountain hikes I am used to in Korea and it also rather pleasantly meandered its way through sleepy fishing villages in between the cliffs, beaches and coastal forests.  One of the other bonuses about a coastal hike is that you can wild-camp and build a campfire, something that is usually prohibited in the mountains due to the fire risk.

Cooking ramen on a stony beach fire.


I have always found that Korean people are at their friendliest, most helpful, and most charming when I am hiking.  Of course, you could make this generalisation to almost any country.  If you want to find the most genuine, warm-hearted, and pleasant people, heading to the countryside is not a bad bet.



However, I am regularly frustrated in Korea by unwanted help; that is when Korean people do things for me that I don't need, that make me feel uncomfortable, and yet at the same time create a debt and a favour that I should pay back.  I don't get this feeling when acts of kindness are done while hiking.  For one, I can't pay them back in kind most of the time and this is understood, so the experience has a much more genuine feeling about it. Contrary to living in the city - where any inconvenience to make an unfamiliar other's life easier appears to be too much trouble -  I often feel like kindnesses are bestowed upon me in an attempt to make life more pleasant on my travels.  It warms the heart and reminds me that Korea isn't such a bad place after all, even in the lowest of times.




Since pretty much day one of arriving in Korea, hiking has been one of the activities I have enjoyed the most.  Korea's hiking courses are so accessible and most are doable in one day or a weekend.  Korea's countryside and coastline can be extremely pretty and the terrain and the extremes of weather can also provide a genuine challenge sometimes. The most memorable of all the challenging hikes I have done in Korea came at Jirisan, which includes the highest peak in mainland Korea.


One of the few pictures I managed to take before my camera gave-up in the cold.

Five of us very loosely planned a two day hike in mid-winter across the park from West to East (about 45Km) along the main ridge and the highest peaks.  With a couple of novices - who were slightly under-prepared - this was no mean feat, as the temperatures near the summit approached minus 30 degrees Celsius.  On the ridge, everything froze and on day two we were greeted by high winds and thick, sometimes waist-deep, snow.  The regular shelters along the ridge, bringing with it the chance to make coffee and ramen noodles, were an absolute godsend when the cold and the exhaustion were truly biting and we shared this relief and hardship with Korean hikers, who would share their food and lend a helping-hand sometimes also (the taste and the feeling of a hot coffee after a long day's hard hiking in a biting cold wind, is truly amazing).

It turned-out that we timed the trip perfectly, we managed to get on the first possible bus to the mountain and the last possible bus back.  By the time we finished, we were totally cold-blasted and exhausted, but it is certainly the hike in Korea I will remember most vividly and fondly, despite feeling almost broken by the end.


Bringing-Out the Best in People

It could be possible that for the simple-minded and the mean-spirited, spending their weekend traipsing up a mountain trail is not quite their cup of tea.  I would like to think hiking forces the best out of people and encourages close friendships and camaraderie between those of us hiking, regardless of where we are from.

For me, the shared suffering and enjoyment of reaching the top of a mountain with a heavy backpack is a means by which I can share a common experience with Korean people who still, despite my connections with Korean family, can be difficult to comprehend sometimes and empathise with (and vice versa, them to me).  It increases feelings of affection with the people around me.


Yeosu, apparently in the top 4 most scenic harbours in the world (according to some Korean sources). Nice, but probably not that nice.


Of course, on my most recent hike, it was less about straining to the top of a mountain with Korean hikers at my side - in fact, we only met one fellow hiker the whole 40Km - but more about stumbling upon parts of Korea that we would have never explored and meeting people most foreigners would commonly never meet.  Not only is there a fascination and a joy for me personally in meeting such people, but I can also see that this curiosity and pleasure is reciprocated on the faces of the Korean people I meet in these places.

The beauty of hiking is that in most cases the hardships put off the majority of people and the sight of someone sweating away under the pressure of a heavy backpack is possibly the least threatening thing imaginable.  The wandering stranger then appears to be someone to help rather than fear and it seems many of the Koreans I meet on hikes like nothing better than bestowing their kindness upon me and my companions, and in the heat of the day, with hungry stomachs and tired limbs it is never more wholly appreciated.




Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Accidents Just Keep on Coming

A couple of weeks ago I wasted my time arguing a point on TheKorean's blog comment's section regarding accidents in Korea.  My point was that we are under no obligation to judge the reason for accidents occurring in different places equally.  Some countries are more likely to have accidents because of their culture than others and I think culture plays a huge role in the many of the accidents we see in Korea, both major and minor.

However, one would think that if certain aspects of a culture did cause more regular accidents, this would show-up in a greater number of accidents generally recorded and witnessed, the frequency should be greater.  I was challenged by a fellow commenter on TheKorean's blog to show that this is the case.

Keeping a record of the number of accidents that occur in different countries must be tricky, especially as some overly-bureaucratic countries, (like mine) will record almost anything as an accident.  I have my doubts that all minor accidents are reported at work - or anywhere else - in Korea.  One thing that would be recorded fairly reliably would be the deaths from accidents, and Korea in fact does have the highest accidental death rate among major developed countries (source NYTimes):


"In South Korea, more than 31,000 people, including 3,000 students, die every year in accidents, accounting for 12.8 percent of the country’s total annual deaths, the highest rate among major developed nations. 
Those episodes include everything from car accidents to fires"

According to Asia News Weekly, Korea also has a 6 fold greater number of workplace fatalities than Australia also, though having only having half the population as Korea, that is still alarmingly high.

One can't also help but notice the alarmingly high number of high-profile accidents and safety issues since the Sewol disaster, at a time when one would think people would be extra careful.

Asiana Jet Ignores Safety Warning

Fire in Bus Terminal

Fire in Hospital

Fire in Homeplus Supermarket

Subway Crash

Subway Fire

Lebanese Ambassador Dies in Car Crash


There were other incidents involving a building collapse (not the North Korea one) and a bus crash that I can't find the links for.  On top of this, now 2 divers have died recovering bodies from the Sewol.  The fire in the hospital, on the subway, and in the supermarket even occurred on the same day.

Of course it could be that people are looking for accidents more now after the Sewol disaster, but there hasn't seemed to be any trouble in finding them.

Fire seems to be a recurring theme in many accidents and as a teacher, and having heard other teacher's experiences in Korea, what goes on in schools makes me concerned.  I am not convinced with my school's fire drill procedure and many other teachers I have spoken to agree with me and say the situation is similar in their schools. I remember fire drills in England being somewhat different.

In England, sometimes the fire bell went off by accident, and when it did we followed the same routine; we evacuated and lined-up in our year classes on the school field.  Our teachers then checked to make sure no one was left behind.

Worryingly, in my school, everyone knows when we are having a fire drill, and when it occurs everyone goes outside.  They get into their classes, but no one checks to see if everyone is present.  Even worse when we have an unexpected fire alarm, everyone stays sitting in class and looks confused until, after a few minutes, the alarm is switched-off.  If there were a real fire, it would be an incredible stroke of luck if it happened when scheduled, more likely it would arrive unexpectedly and all that time waiting to be told that, "no, this is serious this time", could result in lost lives.

All this tends to back up what much of us see here on a day to day basis on the roads and elsewhere and one must come to the conclusion that Korea has a culture of unsafe practices and bad safety habits.  I think it is all too convenient to blame a few bad eggs and the government, but the problem goes deeper than that. The root cause of it all is something worth debating over; in my own opinion there are a combination of factors:

1. A speedy economic rise from poverty to opulence has given the country the appearance of being highly developed, but in reality they are behind in many aspects.

2. Rigid hierarchies and respect culture make clear communication in times of crisis more difficult.

3. Rigid hierarchies make disobeying unsafe orders more difficult (I want to make it super-clear that I do not think this played a part in the students staying below deck in the Sewol disaster, but I think it has played a role in other high profile accidents).

4. Korea simply has not had enough time to evolve good safety habits because of their speed of development.

5. Too many Koreans have a disregard for people outside their family or familiar others, and this causes a lack of care and consideration for people they don't know.

6. The enforcement of laws is weak in Korea, which encourages many to bend rules and regulations because they know they can get away with it.

7. The desire to gets things done quickly (to save time and money) overrides concern for, or blinkers many to the well-being of others.

8. Sometimes a lack of individual thinking and responsibility makes questioning unsafe practices or orders of superiors difficult.

I am positive that what I am saying is not news to many learned Korean people who realise there are problems to be solved.  How to make the necessary changes is a different matter, however.


I'm afraid it now almost seems silly to make the case that the everyday habits and practices of Korean people (I would define this as an aspect of their culture) are playing a part in their propensity to get into accidents, because it is seems so obvious.  All these accidents and deaths aren't always just random events that happen from time to time in any country, they are not solely down to one or two evil people, and they are not the sole responsibility of the government to sort out.  A nationwide consciousness raising effort is needed that the government need to encourage and all Koreans need to accept.  These accidents are not something the government alone can cure, the culture of safety across the whole country has to change and there is much work to be done.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Discriminationism


Firstly, I know the title of this piece is crap, but I guess that is part of the point.  Perhaps there is actually a real word for this, but I don't know it, so I made one up.

Discriminationism:

"The propensity for people to jump to the conclusion that prejudice is the motivation behind other people's thoughts, words, and actions." 

I bring this up mainly because of all the talk of culture being involved in the recent Sewol disaster and allegations of "Culturalism" (again) against those who propagate the idea that Korean culture might have played a role.

There are other reasons, however, and they link to the foreigner experience in Korea.  I do believe that many people who come to Korea to work end up spending much more time on the internet than they would back home for a variety of reasons.  I think that this makes people come into contact with many popular causes that sweep around the web on social media.  I notice a few involving prejudice that make daily appearances on my Twitter and Facebook feeds:


  1. Discrimination against women
  2. Gay marriage
  3. Celebrities saying naughty racist remarks, racist TV programmes, and music videos
  4. Immigration 
  5. "Culturalism" (Korea only)

The first 4 seem to be part of a liberal crusade at the moment and stories involving them are everywhere.  Let me first start by saying that I have many beliefs you might say were liberal.  I would be, pro-choice, anti-gun, for gay marriage, anti-death penalty, pro stem cell research, pro-euthanasia, and in the "Climate Change is real" corner.  I do also have a few classically libertarian and conservative views as well, however.

In all 5 of the listed above I see a great wave of "Discriminationism" going on.  Let's use some classic examples:

1. The disparity in pay between men and women is because of prejudice against women.  People who don't agree are sexist (most right leaning politicians fall into this bracket).

I would argue that there are a number of reasons for the difference between the pay of men and women, the least relevant is unfair discrimination.  The fact is that men and women make vastly different choices in life and prioritise different things, women tend to:
  • Choose different lines of work
  • Have babies (therefore take breaks from work to bring up children)
  • Work less hours in full-time positions
  • Choose less dangerous professions
  • Want more flexible working hours (tend to choose flexibility over high pay)
  • Do more part-time work
  • Are less inclined to travel long distances or relocate for work
  • Are less inclined to ask for pay rises than men
Instead of addressing these well-known points, most just ignore them and bang the drum of prejudice. They jump to the conclusion that Western society is still inherently sexist and people who don't see any unfair discrimination in pay are sexist too.  There is very little sensible debate between opposing sides.
2.  People who are against gay marriage are homophobic.

I actually think gay people should be allowed to marry if they so desire, why not, right? What harm can it do?  I don't accept the arguments from the other side, but that doesn't mean I think they are all motivated by prejudice.  Some are, sure, but to jump to conclusions, like Will Self does in the video below is wrong. Peter Hitchens thinks this is a form of Liberal bigotry, I think he is right to point out what Will Self is doing is wrong, but this doesn't mean that I am on his side in the gay marriage debate (and I think the accusation of bigotry in return might be unhelpful).  I respect his right to a different opinion and would not make accusations of homophobia.




3.  Hypersensitivity is all the rage in popular culture

No doubt there are examples of racist celebrities, racist TV shows, and music videos and those that produce them should get their comeuppance, but the search for racism is going too far, to the point where every TV show has to show racial diversity, any music video that depicts another culture is using them or making fun of them, and any off-the-cuff remark by any celebrity is evidence that they are bigots.  But jumping to conclusions about celebrities is fascinating news for a celebrity-obsessed culture as we are, and we love to see the rich and famous humiliated or shown as flawed individuals.
4.  A world without borders is a happier place, those who disagree.... well, you get the idea

I would love the world to be border-less, as an avid traveler it would be a dream come true.  However, at this moment in time it is not at all desirable.  The fact is, cultures clash. I know this better than most being married into a different one.  Some differences are irreconcilable for many people and this causes conflict. Multicultural nations can absorb people from other cultures, but it does take time.  Too much immigration, too fast, is a recipe for disaster and I think the open borders policy of the EU at the moment is causing too much friction in Europe, with right-wing parties starting to pop-up all over the place.

5.  "Culturalism" 

I have been purposely brief with the first 4 on my list to pay more attention to something more relevant to Korea.  Let me first say that I am sure some people have their prejudices towards other cultures and I am sure they jump to conclusions sometimes. However, I do not think that, a) There is an obvious pattern of culturalism in the Western media or in Western people generally, especially for explaining disasters, and b) that when wrong conclusions are drawn sometimes that this implies prejudice.  A couple of points below to illustrate what I mean:

a)

b)
  • I believe people were wrong to conclude that Korean students were too obedient because of respect hierarchies or Confucianism, and that's why they stayed below deck, leading to their deaths. However, I can understand how someone with experience of Korean culture might think it.  It was an over-reach, though, as I am not sure it applied very well to that situation.  Wrong conclusion, yes, but was it because of simple ignorance, filling in time on 24-hour news or columns in newspaper or was it true prejudice?  When a Korean-American news reporter (Kyung Lah) thought Korean culture was a factor, I have difficulty thinking it was prejudice in her case. Generally, I think it was just a bad argument, but not the result of prejudice. Perhaps there were some reports where prejudice was a factor, but I think they were the exceptions rather than the norm. 

I see a hypocrisy in the whole culturalism argument.  Those who advocate this idea place incredibly high demands of proof before we can even question whether culture was even partly involved in a disaster.  Yet they require no proof whatsoever to assert that when people do question cultural involvement they do so as a result of a prejudice.

No only this, but surely there is a cultural accusation going on here, and that is the West regularly shows a prejudice in explaining disasters in Asia.  If the statement said, the West regularly gets things wrong explaining disasters in Asia, then I'd have no problem with it.  However, many go further than this (like TheKorean), they claim to know the mind and the motivation of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, journalists, and just ordinary people with an opinion.

If it was a simple matter of "you are wrong, I am right, and here's why", there would be little to worry about and we could have a good debate about it.  But it is worse than that, instead one side is saying, "I am right, you are wrong and the reason you're wrong is that you are prejudiced against Asian cultures."  Unfortunately, it is only then a short step away from accusations of racism as well and then moral superiority over the opponent is truly asserted and debate can be silenced, as funnily enough, people don't much enjoy being accused of racism, especially when they know they are not.  People that oppose modern-day liberal viewpoints are most at risk of being labeled racist and instead of debating with liberals, this fear drives them to watch sometimes radically right-wing radio and TV programmes in large numbers.  This could actually have the effect of turning people who genuinely have a point worth arguing about on some issues into an actual racist or inflame or create real prejudice.

This is extremely problematic, encouraging a whole lot of emotion and push-back from the other side.  Just like in the other debates I have mentioned, as soon as a prejudice is accused of good, unbiased people (not everyone will fit this category, but many are) merely with a differing opinion, you create a real "us against them" tussle.

The accusation of prejudice is something that must be much more carefully made or tension and resentment will be the result when it is made unfairly.  Black people having to drink from different water fountains to White people is clear-cut prejudice.  Explaining poor communication in a cockpit by invoking Korean respect culture is not an example of clear-cut prejudice as there are reasons to believe this could be the case. Argue the conclusion is wrong if you like, but keep the accusations of prejudice out of it.

Culture is not race, gender or sexual orientation, it is learned behaviour, not innate. Different cultures can be prone to different problems through certain aspects of their culture.  Respect hierarchies could affect clear communication and safety and attitudes to safety among Korean people could make dangers more likely. Attitudes towards food in many Western countries could make obesity and ill-health more likely.  Cultures are not equal, therefore the prevalence of explanations regarding ill-health and Western food culture will happen more often and disasters will be explained more often by using Korean attitudes to safety and the interaction with their elders and superiors.  We are not obligated to explain negative connotations of cultural attitudes equally between all cultures in all situations.


Unfortunately, I do think there is a real concerted effort going on in liberal circles to silence arguments, not with good points, reason, and evidence, but with slurs on the opposition and appeals to emotion.  There is a way of thinking going around at the moment that if you don't subscribe to, you are a fit target for abuse and are always on the defensive.  You are guilty until proven innocent of prejudice, and to prove this innocence you have to absorb a series of barbed verbal and/or written abuse (I know this better than most on this blog).  I think most just give up the discussion because of fear or social ostracism.  What a sad state of affairs for good, honest, reasoned debate and the search for truth.  Sure, name and shame those that are truly bigots, racists, sexists, homophobes, etc.  But people should start by making sound arguments first and benefit of the doubt should be given.  Innocent until proven guilty, remember.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Safety in Korea: Forming Good Habits


I was recently invited onto a panel discussion on tbs eFM Primetime - an English speaking radio station in Seoul - to talk about safety in Korea.  I was originally invited to give my point of view about South Korean cultural involvement in the Sewol tragedy, but couldn't do it, so they invited me to the next relevant debate instead.

Because I live about as far from Seoul as you can be in Korea, I was not able to appear in person in the studio, which was a pity, but I gave some points in a short telephone interview.  You can listen to the whole program by searching here (on Wednesday May 7th) and I found the perspective of the two university professors in the studio quite interesting.

I won't go into the whole discussion, for this post I will only focus on one aspect of the debate.  During the discussion on the radio, both myself and one of the professors in the studio came up with an interesting point about getting into good habits regarding safety.

I actually think Koreans are being a bit hard on themselves and the other professor in the discussion made some quite scathing comments about Koreans being uncivilised, uncaring, even describing them as animals for such things as not forming orderly queues.  Many articles have also been written in the Korean media about how they as a society care too much about money and getting things done quickly and don't care about people enough. Perhaps there is some truth to this, it's possible the country as a whole has become too obsessed with success and economic development and it was certainly a factor in the poor safety practices at my wife's hospital when she worked in Korea.  But I think a general lack of safety awareness and a poor understanding of risk are the greater culprits.

The situation on the roads is a perfect example of this.  In my experience, lots of people cross the road without looking both ways, sometimes not even looking at all or with their heads buried in their smart phones. Inside cars, I have had the experience of siting in the back of a car with a Korean mother driving with her son of 12 years old in the passenger seat and who was wearing no seat belt and have friends who recall similar experiences.  I also get regular lifts to play squash with a man who has a young daughter (4 years old) who sits with no seat belt on in the back seat while he drives at ridiculous speeds, weaving in and out of traffic, while texting and calling people on his phone.  I shut my eyes and pray for the best.

I should say something in these circumstances, and I would in my own country in the same situations (I doubt whether it would ever happen though), but if I did (especially in my clumsy Korean) I would be worried that it would come across as me insinuating that they don't care for their children or that they are bad parents. Just like the person who tells the mother of a screaming baby on a long-haul flight to keep him/her quiet, you are never the good guy in such situations.  Perhaps I should say something anyway, it might save their lives one day.

Yet, from what I know of this mother and of my friend who I play squash with, they would do anything for their children.  I am sure they would throw themselves in front of a bus or run into a burning building to save them.  I see them dote on them and I simply can't believe that they don't care enough.  And the people with their heads in their smart phones as they cross the road; what monetary gain or time-saving are they getting out of doing it?  And don't they care about their own lives?

It leads me to think that probably the main issue here is ignorance of risk and safety and that this state of being leads easily into ignoring it for profit and time saving.  I think this is cultural as I see it everywhere. People's everyday habits and actions are just not attuned to common dangers.  Most of these good habitual practices can be taught and drummed into people of a very young age and it can start as soon as children can walk and talk, pick up chopsticks or a knife and fork, or learn about respecting their elders in speech.

Crossing the road is a classic example of this.  Much of the time, I can find myself walking around in something of a day dream, my senses aren't heightened to danger all the time, even when I am crossing the road (although I do make more of a conscious effort in Korea).  But by force of habit, when I hit the edge of a pavement, I look both ways.  The funny thing is that it took about a year of living in Korea to look the correct way at the correct time when crossing the road, because in England the traffic comes from the opposite direction.  I found myself being more careful because my brain was so confused.  You'd think it would be simple, just look the opposite way when you should, but so ingrained the behaviour was, it took almost a year of crossing streets day in day out to get over it.

Whilst I think England has much better habits when it comes to safety, I have increasingly felt that the country has gone too far in its concern for it.  Masses of red tape need to be dealt with even relating to the most minor risks imaginable.  Health and safety has become something that people really detest and it causes a significant reduction in civil liberties and personal responsibility due to the laws and other obstacles you have to overcome to do almost anything at all.  It also opens people up for being liable for other's injuries and too many people seek compensation when they don't deserve it.  One of the things I enjoy about Korea is that I feel freer living here.  I hope it is not inevitable that, in time, improving health and safety will turn into an unhealthy obsession with it, like in England.  Why oh why can we not meet in the middle between the two cultures, on this and many other issues?