Saturday, October 27, 2012

Night "Study" Exposed

I know for a fact that most Korean students absolutely hate being at school for all hours of the day, but that does not stop them making the best of a bad situation.  Night study in my all-boys high school is normally self-study and the teachers just leave them to it without supervision most of the time I think.  This gives the students the opportunity to sneak in a bit of fun between bouts of learning.

The typical impression of Far Eastern people and especially their students back home in England is that of a population of serious, smart, nerdy computer geeks who all want to become doctors and therefore study unhumorously day and night.  Granted, many of them do like computer games and it does seem that many of them want to become doctors but the reality of a Korean student's everyday world could not be further from the classic stereotype of over-seriousness.

I sometimes experience a sneak preview of the kind of shenanigans that go on after dark in their behaviour between classes.  I am probably the only teacher in the school that arrives early for class to set up computers, sort things out, and just have a casual chat with the students, so I see a little of what they get up to.

Classroom Sports/Activities

1. Flip-flop table tennis
The students push four tables together to make the playing area and sandwich some flip-flops in the middle for a net, then use one more flip-flop for a bat/paddle.  This way they only need to remember the ball.  Some of them are amazingly good at it and have almost masterly control using only their slipper.

2. Baseball
They scrunch up paper into a tight ball and seal it with sellotape, thereby making a baseball, a small broom is then utilised as the bat.  Not much running can be done but they have a pitcher, some fielders, and a referee calling the strikes.  To add some atmosphere, sometimes a student will plug his MP3 into the TV speakers and play some encouraging music inbetween pitches.  Some students join in with chanting and cheerleading and some just sleep through it.

3. Hockey
Desks turned around make for perfect hockey goals and a golf ball is used for the hockey ball.  The students usually only have two small brooms per classroom so they have to borrow some more from the neighbours to have a full and interesting game.  This game tends to cause the most disruption as desks are cleared to make room for the playing area.  There are frequent breaks for lost balls under tables, bags and other obstructions.

4. Sirum
A traditional Korean sport, which is kind of a mix between sumo and wrestling.  I feel a smidgeon uncomfortable walking in on all of these activities but this one is probably the most dangerous as students go tumbling around.  Other teachers do not appear to be too bothered by what goes on in the classrooms in breaks between classes, so I try and be lenient.  I guess they figure that if they get injured in this time, it is their own fault and they will learn from their mistakes and it is their room and if they wreck it they have to fix it and clean it (now theres an idea).

5. Arm Wrestling
Probably the most common of the classroom sports and there is usually one student that particularly excels in each class.

6. Fighting
General fighting with punching, kicking, wrestling, and slapping is a regular feature of the ten minute breaks.  I have never seen anything turn nasty, however, although occasionally you can see students sitting on their own and studying outside classrooms, this is sometimes due to fighting and also smoking in the toilets.

7. Dancing
I rarely see this with my students but there are sometimes coordinated dance moves practiced with a group of boys.  Any search on youtube will show many more of these which they surely copy from K-Pop music stars.  I would not mind betting that the girl students are even worse with things like this but it does appear funnier when the boys do it.  Here some examples of what I have found on youtube  (Skip to just over 1 minute on the second video).

8. Annoying other students
Some students are simply plain annoying and try their best to irritate other students in a great many novel ways.  See the clip below.

9.  Random Events
Rather worryingly, I walked in on one student being held down and pants partly down with his boxer shorts out and being spanked.  He also had his mouth gagged by a belt.  Perhaps they were trying to replica their favourite pornography scene.  I just shook my head and walked on by without asking any questions.

Actually, one of the best things about schools in Korea is the responsibility they give to students.  After reading my previous posts on older people you would be forgiven for thinking that Korean kids never do anything of their own accord without being told what to do first, but oddly enough they are given a kind of freedom that in many ways would never happen in Western countries.

I have experience teaching in England and teachers would rarely trust students enough to leave them unsupervised in a classroom.  It is common that teachers lock classrooms to avoid students wrecking the place at breaks and lunchtimes.  Of course, usually students do not have their own rooms and they travel from class to class throughout a typical school day.  The great benefit of the Korean system is that they are responsible for their own room (and their school) - for maintaining it, repairing it, and cleaning it - and this makes them far less likely to trash it.  Despite all my Korean students mucking around I have never seen an incident that you would regard as unsafe or anything broken.

This system of responsibility is fantastic but it obviously cannot work on its own and the culture has much to do with why it is successful.  There are a couple of cultural reasons that Korean students are quite a bit easier to manage than Western students; the first has to do with a level of automatic respect they have for teachers and older people, and the second is their group centred culture.  The first is fairly self-explanatory, but the reason for the second is because if an individual does something wrong within the group, the whole group can be punished for not dealing with or preventing them from doing it.  This way you never have to argue about who did it and what is fair, the group will just accept the punishment (with maybe a little resistance) without feeling that their human rights have been violated. 

As a teacher you do not have to waste time being fair, you can simply punish the group and the group itself will make sure justice prevails in the end by admonishing the individual responsible themselves.  Again they are responsible, not only for their own, but for others behaviour.  This dramatically cuts down on teacher's time spent dealing with behavioural problems, you really can (most of the time) trust Korean students from about the age of 11 upwards in a way you would never do in most Western countries.

All this responsibility suggests a greater maturity among Korean students but it certainly does not feel this way when you teach them.  They have a childish like innocence, even the ones that you know are smoking in the toilets at lunchtime and talking about pornography (a favourite pastime for high school boys students in Korea in my experience).  Teaching a class of 16 and 17 year olds in Korea feels more like teaching 14 and 15 year olds in England. 

When my mother visited a couple of weeks ago she remarked on stories of my students with the belief that they were less mature and they do feel this way, but I am not so sure.  I think they are simply nicer, and - I hate to denigrate the young people of my own country - friendlier, with a much greater sense of fun than students of a similar age in England.  They make teaching a pure joy, I do not think I could have a better job.  I actually look forward to returning to work after a break and my mood is usually lifted after teaching a class rather than the opposite.  I am not one to overstate things like this, or indeed tend to find pleasure in working at all, and it is all down to my students, which is perhaps why you could forgive me on being so harsh in my previous posts on the culture of putting so much pressure on young people here in Korea. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Stories Behind Korean Food

When my in-laws decided to make a two hour detour from a trip back home the other day to visit a town that was famous for Deokkgalbi, I have to admit I was none too impressed and sceptical of the difference there would be in the quality of the food just because a city or town is famous for it.  It sounded like annoying Korean logic at work again. 

Maybe I have been living here too long, but I think I am starting to sympathise and understand this point of view on food.  I started to be turned around by a trip to Jeonju the other day with my mother, who was visiting for a couple of weeks.  Jeonju is famous for bibimbap, and it has to be said their bibimbap is mighty good, without doubt the best I have had.

Now everytime I go to a different city I enquire with my wife as to what food they are famous for (I am sounding like a Korean, I know) and I try to sample it.  Here is just a short list of famous foods from different cities:

Jeonju (Jeollabukdo) - Bibimbap
Uijeongbu (Gyeonggido and site of big US army base) - Budae Jiggae
Busan (Gyeongsanamdo) - Fish cake
Chuncheon (Gangwondo) - Dakgalbi
Damyang (Jeollanamdo) - Doekkgalbi
Mokpo/Naju (Jeollanamdo) - Hongeo (highly aged and fermented fish, below), which is the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted.
Gyeongju (North Gyeongsanamdo) - Bread
Geumsan (Chungcheongnam-do) - Ginseng
Eumseong (Chungcheongbuk-do) - Red chili peppers
Sokcho (Gangwondo) - Oechingho Sundae

I am sure there are a whole lot more, indeed whenever I visit a certain area with my wife and her family I am told of the different speciality foods. 

Apparently, during the Joseon dynasty these speciality foods from all over Korea were often brought together for Kings to eat.  In fact, the higher the position in Joseon society, the more side dishes - from all corners of Korea - you were entitled to eat.

It is not just where the food comes from but also the stories behind them that can be so interesting and shows what a deep connection with their food they have in Korea.  Although I am highly sceptical of some of their supposed properties, the stories of their creation and their history can sometimes be quite interesting.

Have you ever been given some bibimbap (Doshirak) in a metal box in a galbi restaurant that you had to shake?  The story behind this  is that parents used to give these to their children for school lunch and put them in their bags.  As they walked to school and ran around all the ingredients would all mix up and this is the reason it is sometimes still served this way in some restaurants.

I always wondered about the Korean fascination with spam and cheap processed meat.  It seems a strange combination with most of their other quite natural and healthy food.  Budae Jiggae is a spicy soup with spam and cheap little frankfurters in it and I learned of its origin the other day.  It is obvious when you think about it, it is from American soldiers and their rations during and after the Korean War.  The Americans brought lots of this processed meat with them and the Koreans used it, adding it to many foods.  This why Budae Jiggae is famous in Uijeongbu, which is a big US army area.

The story of some of their slightly less palatable sounding foods also shares a similar logic.  Koreans do tend to use just about all of the meat on animal that they can, any plant or vegetable, and anything that crawls on the ocean floor.  Chicken feet, pig's intestine, pig spine (Gamjatang, left), dog, Hwae (raw and sometimes still moving sea creatures, below), and sundae (various inner organs of a pig or cow) are all still quite popular, with the exception of dog which is becoming less and less popular as time goes by (it is the older population that mainly eats this).  Like the processed meat they probably would not have chosen to use these things if they had had the choice, but life - until very recently - has always been quite a testing experience in Korea with their harsh winters, boiling hot summers and with the Korean War still fairly fresh in their history.  Put quite simply, 'beggars can't be choosers', and most people were very poor especially at the time of the Korean War.  They had no choice but to adapt and make the most out of their sources of food.

I am a vegetarian in England but in Korea I choose not to be because of the difficulty in finding vegetarian options, and eating everything that Koreans put in front of you is a good way of getting them to like you, especially the in-laws.  The good thing about my meat eating in Korea is that I get to try these foods (with the exception of dog) and the fact is that the Koreans have done such a good job of making them edible that they are very often delicious.  You can find yourself trying all sorts of odd delicacies that sound disgusting but end up being extremely tasty.  Chicken feet is my personal favourite.

These are the the few stories that I am aware of, but I would be fascinated to learn some more as a man who attaches quite a high importance to food.  Korean culture is extremely rich in the food department and is one of the aspects of living in Korea I really do enjoy.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Aging Population of Korea

This is following on from last weeks post about the stress created by the relationship between the young and old in Korea and particularly regarding families.  I argued strongly that the pressure of providing for people in old age was just too much for the younger generation in Korea.

By chance, I stumbled across an episode of Newsnight (BBC) on youtube shortly after posting last weeks blog  The subject was about the problems we face as a planet with the growing population of people over 60 in the world.  Here are some of the statistics summarised from the programme, sourced from the UN:

- The over 60s are the fastest growing age group in the world.

- By 2022 there will be an estimated 1 billion over 60s.

- By 2050 there will be an estimated 2 billion over 60s.

- By 2050 there will be more people over 60 than there will be under 15 (for the first time in history).

The UN predicts that the problem of an aging population on the economy is not just an issue for the rich nations but also in the developing world, where it is the duty of the young to take care of their family in old age.  Because of this governments and indeed older people themselves are not making provisions for later life and could suffer as a result.

In Korea's case, it is not a developing country anymore, but it still has very much a developing world way of dealing with people in their old age.  As I mentioned in my previous article, there is a debt that young people owe to their parents and this is to look after them, both by caring for them personally and by financially supporting them when they are older.  This being almost the sole way of taking care of elderly people cannot continue for very much longer, especially as South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

It is not that young people caring for their parents in later life is a bad thing, we all should be giving our parents a measure of care and attention and maybe aiding them financially too, but it cannot be too demanding and other measures must be put into place.

Government pensions are one solution.  In Korea, there is a pension scheme but unlike my country there seems to be no state pension, whereby even if someone pays no money into a pension scheme, they will at least get some return from the government because of paying taxes throughout their lives.  The results of this can be seen in Korea when you see the sad sight of very old people carting huge amounts of cardboard around city streets.  The problem with state pensions, however - as is experienced in the UK - is that they are quite a tax burden for the country.  For this reason my own country's government has been controversially reducing the amount paid out for pensions steadily over recent years.

By far the best solution (and the most ethical) in an aging world, is for people to take responsibility for their increasing longevity and pay for themselves.  This is the idea behind personal pensions and is undoubtedly the only real way forward.

So with personal pension schemes in place in Korea, why are the old still so reliant on the young to provide for them when they are older, even in families that have had good jobs and healthy incomes?  Well, it all comes down to keeping the standard of living that they have had for their whole lives or even improving on it.  I think the older population of Korea really expect that for all the hard work they have put in to bringing up their children they should reap a dividend of an easy and comfortable life in their old age, wanting for little.  This is further exacerbated by the feeling of superiority many older people have towards people who are younger.  They are old, they deserve better than the young.  It sounds a little reductionist and over-simplified, but live in Korea for long enough and this is a conclusion that you cannot help but make. 

South Korea also has a brand name obsession and this is not exclusive to the young, older people still want the prettiest and shiniest new brands so they can show off their high status to their friends.  Do not underestimate the importance of this factor in Korea.  In my experience, shows of status often dominate many conversations between friends and acquaintances of my parents in-law and in many other situations.  There seems almost a constant battle between people - even those that have been friends for decades - of one-upmanship in this regard, revealing petty jealousies that are so transparent it defies belief at times.

This is the annoying arrogance of entitlement that older people sometimes have in this part of the world.  They feel they are entitled to respect, to money, to be obeyed, to give advice (that should be followed) and entitled to the life of Riley just because they are old.  It has irked me since day one living in Korea, this 'arrogance of age and position.'  The other unpleasant aspect of it all is that Koreans do not even have to be that old to exhibit this attitude, as merely a higher position at work, a year older, or simply being a man can create the same condition.

This even cropped up in a book I was reading recently on the Korean war.  It was a sore point and a regular complaint of the Americans and their allies that the Korean soldiers of high rank would rarely listen to anyone, both the South Koreans under their command or their foreign allies.  Allied commanders remarked that they would walk around with an air of superiority, giving orders but not doing any work of their own accord.  Their age and rank gave them a perceived right to be respected without ever really earning it and although Korean soldiers earned a good reputation for themselves in the following Vietnam war, the same could not be said of the Korean war with allied forces having little confidence in them.

Korea has undoubtedly made some of the greatest strides forward of any country in recent history, which they deserve immense credit for.  Many still seem to be stuck in pre-Korean War way of thinking, however, and this needs to change to adapt to the modern world.  Maybe things will change with a more open-minded younger generation, but I don't know that I would like to make a bet on a smooth and quick change of attitudes in the culture of age and respect.

The respect culture in this part of the world combined with the importance of social status combine to create a feeling of, 'well I suffered when I was younger, now it is my turn for some payback and some boot-licking from anyone I can get to do it.'  From my experience of twenty and thirty-something Korean people, they often display short memories of how they suffered when they were new to jobs, and when they were teenagers and lose empathy for those under them, both in age and in positions in work rather too swiftly.  Will they carry this into old age and keep piling evermore pressure on the young in the future?  Only time will tell.

Update: I also came across another interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on the age issue in Korea and how change might be starting to take place:

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Christmas Comes Every Week in Korea

This post is perhaps more relevant because we have all just had Chuseok here in Korea, the equivalent of Thanksgiving for people in Canada and America, but I guess for me (as a Brit) it has more in common with Christmas.  But actually, this is not the parallel I wish to draw, it is merely a coincidence that I am writing this over the Chuseok weekend.

When we think of Christmas we picture a time of joy, happiness, meeting relatives we may not meet all year, enjoying quality time together while eating a big Christmas dinner, unwrapping presents, and watching Indiana Jones for the upteenth time on TV with big full stomachs and a slightly tipsy feeling from all the alcohol (in my country, anyway).  There is another side, however, and that is the stress.  Christmas has been widely recognised as one of the most stressful times of the year for reasons such as gift buying, (and maxing out credit cards because of it) organising events, and meeting family members you may not choose to be spending time with if you had the choice.

When I was thinking about all this the other day - reminded of proceedings by the Chuseok holiday - I realised that Korean people have a Christmas-like event going on with family almost every week, it certainly seems to be happening to me an awful lot lately.

Let us first draw some fairly superficial similarities with what I have written above about Christmas and everyday Korean culture.

Dinner - A huge dinner with many family members present appears to be a weekly occurrence.  Lots of meat and side dishes with everyone gathered together, people eat until they drop, well at least that is what happens to me, my in-laws can just keep on eating.

Presents - Korea is a gift buying culture, hence there are always presents being passed around between relatives, usually in the form of food, drink, or money.  The gift buying extends to overly expensive items also, especially in couples, where brand names are very popular and credit cards take a beating.

Watching Films Repeated on TV - It's not Indiana Jones, but if I flick around on the TV and see Transformers or Iron Man once more in Korea, I will have some kind of mental breakdown.  I am not sure how the TV channel bosses are getting away with it, both films are on every week and I do not even watch that much TV.

Drinking Alcohol - Though I wrote a highly criticised article on another site that was similar to my blog post condemning some Western foreigner behaviour while drunk in Korea ( I am certainly under no illusions about Koreans and drinking too much.  They have a serious problem, but my argument in the article was that they are slightly less noticeable and licentious when drunk than Westerners.  My in-laws go through so many bottles of soju in an evening that I wonder how their bodies can cope with it.  This is a kind of trauma my very alcohol-shy body used to go through maybe just once a year on Christmas Eve, yet in Korea it is every week and often every day.

Meeting Family - I am coming from the perspective of a family that do not meet very often and when we do, not for that much time, so do not shoot me if this sounds harsh, but the meeting of family in Korea is excessive, to my mind anyway.  It is nice that they can all rely on each other but I see an over-reliance and a great deal of pressure on the young to not only be around their parents and other family members regularly but also to support them in old age.  The stress of Korean people's own families and particularly their in-laws must cause a lot of strain on an already over-worked population.  Working conditions are also pretty totalitarian so when you combine taking orders at work - which can often be quite unreasonable with an atmosphere of subordination in the young towards their elders - and being lectured and constantly told what to do by family members, I think there is a great recipe for unhappiness and the statistics for depression and suicides would tend to back this up.  The stress of meeting family in the West occurs mainly at Christmas or Thanksgiving, in Korea it is all year round.

I have been critical of family in Korea more than once on my blog posts and although I have accepted criticism for maybe being a bit lazy with my Korean family, the atmosphere is definitely not made easy and my ultra self-reliant upbringing does not really suit the Korean model well.

There is something that really troubles me about Korean families, however, which I think is valid and I have tried to separate it as much as possible from any bias from my own upbringing.  I really dislike the culture of owing something to parents.  It would not be so bad if Koreans felt a genuine need to be kind to their parents out of a deep emotional bond - this is obviously some part of it - but most of it appears to be down to duty and pressure put on them by their parents and their culture.

The giving of money to parents also bothers me.  As much as I think very highly of my in-laws in Korea (they are wonderfully kind and good to me), I will not be handing any money over like a good son in-law should because they are irresponsible with it.  Too much money goes on alcohol, cigarettes, eating out, and designer clothes and accessories.  It is not younger people that should bear the brunt of these costs by giving gifts of money.  The combination of capitalism and Korean gift-buying and status culture has created an ugly monster of personal debt, but do you think I or anyone else could mention such an obviously valid argument to their parents or parents in-law in Korea?  The culture - at least in my experience and from what I hear from others - simply does not allow this kind of candid conversation on just where money is really being spent.  From my point of view if you cannot have this sort of conversation with people and share concerns, you should not be giving them money.

All of the above direct us to something I think is very important in life, and that is personal responsibility and freedom.  These vital aspects of life come together, like when a young person chooses their future career; they should have the freedom to select one that suits them best without pressure from their parents (advice is fine), have the responsibility to see it through and if they do not know what to do in life or do not succeed they must have the responsibility to be able to get by and do something else.  They can seek help, but ultimate responsibility and the freedom to make choices - whether right or wrong - must always be their own.  A child must grow-up at some time and it feels like Korean parents would rather chew on glass than really let this happen (except in the responsibility they place on them to provide for them when they are older, of course).

Care too much for loved ones, like I can see in Korean parents and freedom and responsibility are taken away.  Demand too much of them as well and the combination can cause levels of stress, which when combined with Korean work culture is a disaster waiting to happen.  Perhaps this is an uncomfortable truth, but it could be that Koreans need to look at their work life and their home life if they are going to address their culture of stress and suicides.  The bottom line is that Korean parents could be playing a part in the misery and even the deaths of their own children.

Christmas and the New Year is a time for reflection for many people, so at this kind of Christmasy time of year we have had in Korea, I would like to reflect.  One-off loans or gifts of money from family, a few weeks on government benefit, and extra help in special circumstances like ill-health aside, if one can go through life without demanding too much of others and caring for people without want of anything in return, it is a life well-lived.  If you can then throw in some generosity to those in need and never intentionally hurt anybody, you can have a wonderful feeling of satisfaction on your death bed.  Maybe this is merely my culture and my upbringing talking, but the argument from the other side that I see on daily basis is not persuading me one bit that I should change my opinion on living the good life.

I am not sure if I have managed to separate my Western-value bias in this post, but there is a kind of benign dictatorship at work within the Korean family make-up.  Maybe I am generalising too much and not all families in Korea are like the samples of mine and the Korean people I know, and perhaps the feeling of freedom is something more important to me as a Westerner and more stressful when I do not have it than it is for a Korean thereby cancelling out my theory on stress and suicides.  Speaking to my wife is no good also as she has a much more Western way of thinking these days and she used to comment on how much more she appeared to suffer at work than her colleagues when her freedoms were compromised. 

The fact is that I think young people in Korea are genuinely fantastic and this is probably because of the culture but it saddens me to see my students and others suffering so much under the burden of the pressure from their parents and society.  Korea is not a developing country anymore and Koreans are not having big families anymore, both of which make the burden of the old on the young much greater.  Korean parents still have this developing world mindset and the culture must change for the sake of the younger generation, there is far too much weight being carried on their shoulders at the moment.