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 (http://smudgem.blogspot.kr/2012/06/morals-in-west-eastern-perspective.html) 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.