Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Perils of Respect Culture

In much of my writing I have criticised the respect culture of Korea because it has harmful effects on relationships, causes arrogance in older people, fear in younger people, and generally causes unnecessary stress all round.  I have always had no problem with respecting older people who are retired or significantly older, but the silly stuff of being forced to respect people who are even merely a year older than you or have a few months more experience in a job has always seemed like a severe complication of life to me.

There are situations, however, when the culture of respecting one's elders is not only a nuisance but logically ridiculous and even extremely dangerous.  I was party to some information regarding the later last week and it did not surprise me one bit.

To explain this I will need to do a brief background on my wife's profession, a nurse, which she took a break from recently because of the stress of the job and to study English.  There are many problems with nurses in Korea, they are well trained at university but once they start their jobs this doesn't continue, they work by routine and are encouraged not to use their brains and take any responsibility.  They are servants for the doctors, the only one's that deserve respect and indeed command awe from everyone as well.

In England, nurses are required to do at least one year as a regular nurse before they can specialise, say into a surgery room nurse.  This is needed because they need the experience and mentoring of older more experienced nurses and doctors in a variety of real life circumstances.  Once they have the experience they would have to do further extensive training to specialise.

In Korea, a nurse needs no extra qualification to be a surgery room nurse, they are just thrown in at the deep end and criticised heavily when they make inevitable mistakes.  A bit like a lowly private in the army, they have their errors forced out of them by constant pressure from superiors.  Younger nurses are shouted at, ordered to make coffee, cut fruit, do all the washing-up in the staff rooms, are made to do the majority of the work, and are bullied by older nurses (on top of everything else a nurse has to do) because the respect culture gives them the right.  Younger nurses fear to ask questions about procedures because of this and are also afraid to contribute their point of view in puzzling situations involving the health of patients.

With this in mind then, perhaps it is easy to understand how the following situation happened.  I gained this information through a nurse working in a hospital near where I live in Korea who was a friend of my wife.

The hospital in question specialises in orthopedic medicine - basically bone and joint surgery - which has its quota of extremely over-worked nurses both in wards and in surgery rooms.  I was told of a gentleman who had been anesthetised and was waiting for the doctor in the surgery room with three nurses present.  The following should be worrying if you are planning an operation any time soon in Korea.

The nurses noticed on the vital signs machine that the patient's systolic blood pressure (the highest figure that is normally about 120 mmHg, diastolic is usually 80 mmHg) had fallen to just 50 mmHg.  Now, anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of medicine would now know that this is very much time to take some action, if not panic.  The first instinct of these nurses, though, was to assume that the machine was faulty.  While they were checking the machine the patients BP was falling further, now at 40.  Thinking that this might be time for the doctor to examine this anomaly they called asking for him to come to the surgery room but politely and without too much haste or urgency.  By the time the doctor arrived the patient's systolic BP was now 30 mmhg, basically he was virtually dead.  The doctor immediately called for support and began chest compression while others arrived and whilst screaming expletives at the nurses.  The patient then went into cardiac arrest and the defibrillator was required as well as adrenaline shots to save his life.

Fortunately, they were able to bring the man back from the brink but we need to examine further just how this situation came about and what was done in the aftermath.

Of the three nurses present at the scene, two were senior and one was a nurse of about 3 years experience but had only recently joined this particular hospital, so she was of a much lower status than the other two.  The least experienced nurse smelled a rat immediately upon noticing the patient's blood pressure reading (she was the one telling the story) but did not say anything other than a polite inquiry to the older nurses about how they might call the doctor, which she was scorned at for mentioning.  It was the older nurses who were not so concerned with the situation, the younger nurse's opinion did not count and vital minutes were lost that could have resulted in the patient's life being lost.

Once the patient was stable he was moved to a different hospital to recover and the doctors and nurses wondered what might have caused his problems.  He had no prior medical complaints, no issues with his heart or lungs or any other organs.  But one nurse told of a similar experience she had in another hospital of a man who had an almost identical situation because of an allergic reaction to the anesthetic they used.  Upon revealing this to an older nurse, who was calling the hospital that was receiving the patient, her suggestion was laughed-off without a second thought and she was told to not be silly.  Considering they still did not know the cause of the man's condition, this was irresponsible at best.  This suggestion was, however, made later in the day by the older nurse, who claimed it was her idea.

Maybe it is tempting to blame stubborn older nurses - one should bear in mind that when I say 'older nurses' this can mean that they are only a few years older and there are not many nurses older than 40 years old working in Korea - but it is the culture within the hospitals of the doctors being so highly respected to the point that they do not respect the opinions of the nurses that is to blame here, and this in turn makes the nurses not respect their own opinion.  This makes them less inclined to use their own initiative and think and act for themselves.  It is also more than a little troubling that hardly anyone, doctors included, thought outside the box and wondered whether the anesthetic could be the cause.  I would have thought that this would be a fairly obvious possibility.

From the information I have been gleaned in this case and when my wife was working, it is clear that Korea utilises nurses as more of a general dogs-body and assistant rather than a genuine medical professional, placing very little value on their position and they rank fairly low in the hierarchy at a hospital and given little respect for what they do.  Is it any wonder the nurses in this situation failed so spectacularly to take responsibility and realise the gravity of the position they found themselves in.

Now, whether you believe this story or not - perhaps it was just a younger nurse embellishing things and telling a more dramatic story than what really happened and making herself look good in the process - it should be taken seriously and the logic of what is supposed to have happened fits very well with some of the issues involving respect culture in Korea.

I am inclined to believe this story just because of what I have heard before from my wife about the treatment of younger nurses in her hospital and how little regard more experienced nurses and doctors have of their rights and opinions.  But there are also some other curious stories coming from other areas of life in Korea that make this so believable.

In the not-so distant past, Korean Air's safety record was not one to be proud of and many of the disasters were caused by pilot error.  The reasons behind this were to do with the process of favouring older, ex-military fighter pilots in the recruitment process and the culture of hierarchy in the cockpit itself while flying, in which the pilot of the plane would rarely listen to or respect his co-pilot's opinion, which caused fatal mistakes.  A full explanation of the issue can be seen in this article in the Wall Street Journal.  At one point of the article it tells of how Korean pilots would actually punch their co-pilots in the arm when they did something wrong or did not agree with what they were doing.  During a training simulation in the US a Korean pilot did the same to his American co-pilot but instead of receiving fear and respect the American simply said, 'do that again and I will break your arm!'  In my view, the correct response.

Also in the Wall Street Journal, this article highlights the headaches of respect culture on business and on the South Korean national football team before Guus Hiddink took charge prior to the 2002 World Cup. He was startled to find that younger players in his team felt obliged to pass the ball to the senior players, hampering the team's ability to improve.  In business, similar problems occur with older people taking all the highest positions regardless of their qualities.  Another complication is that employers are loathed to hire older people for lower positions in companies because of the discomfort people feel in being their superiors at work and ordering them around, so age discrimination is rife in Korea for this reason and many older people who are out of work find it difficult to find jobs.

For all these reasons and more then, I guess you could say I have genuine misgivings about the moral worth of respect culture in the way it is currently operating.  It is not just a harmless difference between cultures it is dangerous, illogical, inefficient, causes a great deal of unhappiness and stress in some people, and a good deal of arrogance and over-confidence in others.

It is a shame some common sense can't be applied to this part of the culture because when you first come to Korea it is quite nice to see young people respecting those that are much older than them, their parents, their grandparents and their teachers.  It makes for such pleasant youngsters when compared to many of the disrespectful yobs back home in England.  Once someone leaves school, however, surely everyone's opinion should counted and be equally valued (in school too), and the freedom to speak out in a situation which requires it should be welcomed as heartfelt concern rather than ridiculed or despised because they disrespectfully challenged the authority, age, and position of someone else.

Make no mistake, this needs to change; it took plane crashes, a sub-standard football team, and reduced efficiency and therefore profits in business to make them realise it in these situations.  What would it take to realise the effects it has in hospitals or on the population at large?  A few deaths on the operating table for one and maybe some proof that the country has problems with stress and unhappiness for the other.  I wonder what could show this?  In case anyone doesn't know, Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.  I am not suggesting that respect culture is the sole cause for it but perhaps it doesn't help the situation very much.  It is time for Korea to have a rethink on this particular traditional value and practice.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Are Korean Parents Getting More Than They Bargained For When They Send Their Children Overseas to Study?

Traveling to other countries can profoundly change a person and when they live in other countries this change can be even more pronounced.  Spending a long time in another part of the world can also cause people to make friends and create new habits that can last a lifetime.

Just consider myself, for example, I am now married to a Korean, I experience reverse culture shock when I go back home to England, and I never eat sandwiches anymore.  It's always a hot meal for lunch and rice for me and I could not do without a rice cooker these days.  

It is now standard practice for wealthy Koreans to send their children away overseas for study.  The USA is the most popular destination, but the UK and Australia are also attracting students, with Australia especially popular for studying English.

By sending their children away to foreign countries to study, Korean parents are hoping for the best education and therefore the best prospects for them in the hope that they get a nice well-paid job at the end of it.  However, their children often come back to Korea with more than just a degree certificate in their hands and I have seen examples of it and learned of many more.

The ultimate nightmare for Korean parents is when their child says that they have fallen in love with someone while they have been in another country, of which there is a varying degree of horror.  I will start with the least troubling and finish with the most - this is according to my wife's family who we carefully questioned on the matter:

- Their daughter is in a relationship with a white man who is not American
- Their daughter is in a relationship with a white man who is American
- Their daughter is in a relationship with a white, mixed race, South East Asian or other ethnicity (not black) man who is not from an English speaking country
- Their son is in a relationship with a white woman who is not American
- Their son is in a relationship with a white woman who is American
- Their son is in a relationship with a white, mixed race, South East Asian or other ethnicity (not black) woman or man who is not from an English speaking country
- Their son or daughter is in a relationship with a black man or woman
- Their son or daughter is in a gay relationship

This needs a little explaining.  It is clear that if there is fierce prejudice in Korea (in fact in many countries) it does regularly fall on black people and gay people the most, so therefore it is no surprise why any relationship involving this and their children is not considered a great thing (with exceptions of course).  I did not include Far East Asian men or women in this because of the difficulty of categorising them.  For instance they might not think a Chinese person or Chinese American would be so bad, but they might think of Japanese as less inviting and Korean American might be the best.  White men are generally not so bad but are still touch and go with many Korean parents as the pure Korean blood thing is important for some, not to mention the problem of the clash of cultures.

There is a difference between the sexes also.  Sons are considered more important generally because of their potential for future income and looking after their parents in old age and for the fact that Korea is still a patriarchal society.  The expected duties of a daughter in-law in Korea are also disrupted if their son marries a non-Korean and especially a Westerner.  How many Western women would run the gauntlet for their Korean in-laws the way a Korean daughter in-law normally does?  Sometimes Korean parents can be turned around to the idea of their daughter marrying a white Western man quite quickly as well because of the positive prejudice of Westerners being quite wealthy, handsome, and sophisticated.

There is another issue, which has to do with the image of Americans in the eyes of a lot of Korean people.  Although Koreans are thankful for the help the US has given them in the past, some are not too enamored with the idea of their son or daughter marrying an American because of the reputation of American soldiers.  This has given many the view that Americans are wild, loud, and rather crass (their words not mine, I promise).

Whereas someone like me, an Englishman, has a rather better reputation as a true gentleman - despite the fact that in reality a trip to England will probably put you in contact with some of the wildest, loudest, vilest human beings around at the moment, particularly if you choose to go out on a Friday or Saturday night).  I on the other hand, fit the charming English stereotype rather well I think and it certainly worked in my favour with my Korean family.  They were often very quick to interject when their friends assumed I was American and proudly say that I was, in actual fact, from England.

These are obviously only opinions based on my Korean family but I have heard many other stories that confirm much of what I say here.  I am certainly no expert on the matter, however, and would welcome any further comments on this.

The only thing worse than saying you have met someone, for a Korean studying overseas, is to say that you are pregnant and even worse still that you are pregnant (or have made someone pregnant) and you are going to keep it.  This is a pretty obvious one, however, and I think it needs no further explanation as this would probably be a nightmare for most parents from any country.

The other thing that Korean students can bring back with them isn't so tangible, but can become just as much of a nuisance to their parents, and that is a change of personality and attitude.  This can be split up into two categories; a positive and a negative change in character, although both are bad from the perspective of the majority of Korean parents:

Positive - Koreans incorporate some Western values during their time studying and start to believe in the rather infectious ideals of individuality and equality.  This erodes some of the Korean core values of respect and group unity.  They now value their own opinion more over their parents and can disagree with them more frequently on a range of issues.  They might even change the path of their career and may even want to live outside of Korea because of the pressures to conform within their society.  This is undoubtedly positive as they have become more world-wise and can identify what is best in their culture and keep it along with their newly acquired ways of thinking.  They also care less about what others think; this can make them happier and more innovative, expanding their horizons and creating opportunities.

Negative - All to often, however, it is some of the negative aspects of Western culture that are brought back home.  Sometimes the need to express oneself as an individual can make one selfish (a common accusation Koreans make of Westerners).  This selfishness can be expressed as a lack of responsibility derived from the university/college atmosphere of drinking and partying.  The less conscientious can embrace merely the licentious part of Western culture and come back with this attitude.  Some come back to Korea expecting a good job, and when they can't get one don't do anything at all, not accepting work they see as beneath them and just sponging off their parents.

I could add arrogance to the negative aspect of going abroad to study or travel, and my wife constantly grumbles about this when she sees some Korean people who have studied abroad or traveled extensively.  Status being highly valued in Korean culture, travel and studying in other countries is something a person can drop into conversation to elevate themselves and some people do just that.  We all know the 'I've been there' people from back home but some Koreans do take this to new levels of conceit.  This goes not only for the people who have been overseas themselves but their relatives also.  My wife and I bought a scarf as a souvenir, while we were traveling in Europe, for my wife's grandmother and she ended up telling everyone in her apartment building about her well-traveled granddaughter's gift from Rome.  There is nothing wrong with this kind of pride in your family but when it turns into a game of 'my family is better than yours', which it so often does, it is not exactly perfect conditions for people to thrive in community happiness.

I have always thought it a shame that what is found so appealing about Western culture is regularly the worst aspects of it.  Other cultures seem blinkered to the good stuff and assimilate only the licentiousness, partying, fast-food, the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism and big business, and celebrity worship.

My Korean students, co-workers, and other acquaintances regularly stereotype Westerners as selfish, unhealthy, arrogant, concerned only with money, rude to elders, fat, and love to get drunk at the weekend.  I regularly take exception to this but funnily enough some Koreans who have traveled to these countries often come back home with at least one or two of these factors imprinted on their lives.

Fortunately, though, some come back with the best of Western culture and the values of the enlightenment branded onto their personality.  Freedom of expression, human rights, equality, originality, imagination, debate, moral philosophy, and individuality.  All these are values that we ourselves under-appreciate but this is the good stuff and worth exporting to the world and it is also worth other cultures following our lead on these issues.

I believe (at least I hope) that these principles are infectious and that Far Easterners that study in the West do in fact bring them back to their countries, this would be great news for people in this part of the world even if their governments and parents don't quite know it yet.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Prejudice and Being Accepted in Western and Korean Culture

I often start getting a bit uncomfortable when I post a string of mostly negative blogs on Korea in succession, which could be argued that I have done in recent weeks.  It is amazing how negative stories pop into my head when I am feeling negative or when I am having troubles relating to Korean culture.  It feels like I dislike Korean culture in my blogs more than I actually do.

On top of all of this I was reminded by a Korean reader of my blogs that things aren't that great in my country - or in the West generally - either in a response to my post on Korean Fatigue.  It seemed from her comments that my troubles with Korean culture were being mirrored in her case but in Australia and England.

Her comments were honest and well put and without the least bit of anger, despite the fact what I said in the post could have been taken badly.  This is often what I find when Korean people reply to my posts, very sensible, well put points that are without abuse or slander.  Maybe only the nice ones read my blogs, or the ones that are comfortable with Western culture having traveled and learned English, or maybe they can take a little criticism without screaming 'Racist!' or 'Hitler!' - a common problem I see in Western dialogue at the moment based on a taboo on criticizing culture coming as a reaction to some of our nastier escapades in the past.

I noticed it cropping up regularly before Piers Morgan's infamous, worrying, but entertaining interview the other night on CNN with Alex Jones about guns in America.  In the UK, the US, and everywhere else in the Western world people on opposing sides of arguments are brandishing the 'Hitler', 'Stalin', 'Mao' and 'Racist' cards with ever increasing regularity.  When George Bush was in power, the Liberals called him the new Hitler with posters of him sporting a little mustache on placards based on his invasion of Iraq and now Obama is the new Hitler for the Conservatives based on healthcare reform.  We can all find things Hitler did or was and find comparisons to others; I was a vegetarian in England, Hitler was a vegetarian and implemented many policies protecting animals so that must mean that what I write will encourage us to kill millions of Jews.  When are we going to stop arguing like this?  It is not an appeal to reason but an appeal to fear.

Anyway I digress, in this post the title says, 'Western countries', but I am only talking about two of them, Australia and England.  I am well aware that when I usually talk of Western culture I am generalizing a little as countries in the West are all different but I am constantly amazed at just how alike we really all are when I meet different people from English speaking Western countries in Korea.  Our core principles are the same and it shows when we have dealings each other.  Even when I meet people from non-English speaking Western countries our values and principles are so similar it always feels like we are reading off the same page, I rarely get this feeling with Koreans.

The reader I was talking about wrote about the pressure on her to conform and the racial abuse she received in Australia in the form of loud verbal abuse, and the more subtle form she received in England in the form of glares, subtle comments, and general ignorance.  Here is some of what she wrote:

"in Australia, I have to deal with racism everyday with people insulting me and others directly but if I challenge this in anyway they usually say "can't you take a joke?" "I wasn't saying anything racism, that guy is an asian **@#. hahaha!" or there can be threats of physical violence. You have strangers coming up to you to tell you in a very public way what is wrong with you. Some absolutely love seeing the pain in your face and be encouraged to shout louder."
"in England I had a wonderful time there but still felt pressure to conform. The only difference was that people wouldn't directly tell you or confront you. It was more subtle, glares, may put into conversation in a round about way that you don't do something that way, ignore you, talk about you behind your back."

I can completely back up what she says about this kind of thing and add that in England it is not always as subtle in prejudice as she experienced.  In England, my wife and I were on the receiving end of very vocal verbal abuse also, especially when people happened to be drunk (I strongly believe that the UK has an alcohol problem causing many of the social problems there at the moment).  My wife also said she experienced the same in Australia when she studied English there.  I include myself in this abuse because the abuse took a different form if I was with my wife compared to when she was alone.  When I was with her she was my Thai bride that I bought on my travels, but when she was alone she was a ching, chong Chinawoman with funny eyes. Intelligent stuff, I know and we never took it to heart, but it singles you out sometimes on busy streets and makes you feel rather uncomfortable.

As well as this, in Australia, Korean news reported recently on attacks on Korean immigrants and travelers.

We all know that prejudice is alive and kicking in Korea also, and I dare say pretty much everywhere around the world.  We are all as bad as each other, right?  Well, not quite.  To me it is clear that prejudice and racism occurs everywhere but they do exist in different forms with differing levels of intensity and threat.

What is very difficult is for a white person to judge effectively the level of racism present in a given society and just how damaging it is because white people are often the least victimized.  For example, I used to think rather naively that when I brought my wife to England all the prejudice we received as a couple in Korea would not be present, and that there we would be accepted.  I really couldn't have been more wrong the whole experience was a real eye-opener.

Even in Korea, as a white person, it is difficult to judge just how nasty people's prejudices can be.  Sure, I experience a level of discrimination in Korea but it is really not that bad.  I am sure there are examples of Koreans punching the odd foreign white person in the face in a racially motivated attack, but it is rare I think.  I would personally like to know what Black, Middle-Eastern, and South East Asian people think of their treatment in South Korea because I have the impression that they might have a much harder time.  But just like I could not really know England's attitude to having an Asian wife before I was married to one, I am ignorant of how Black, Middle-Eastern and South East Asians feel about how they are generally treated in Korea, with the exception of a few stories I have read about in the news.

Even admittedly being ignorant of this important factor, however, it does seem as if the form of prejudice taken in England and Australia is more in your face and more upsetting and threatening than the form it takes in Korea, which on the whole is more subtle and subdued (but can still be extremely infuriating).  In the case of the ethnic minorities I have mentioned, however, the articles I have read in the news are an especially uncomfortable read.

Being accepted is another thing entirely and if people don't accept your individual ways of doing things this does not necessarily mean that this is a type of racism.

Pressure to conform exists in every culture and it occurs regardless of whether you were born into it or not.  Personally, in England I always felt pressure to conform; to drink a lot of alcohol, to act cool, to wear the right clothes, to eat meat, even extremely minor issues like to not enjoy a cup of tea after a squash match and drink beer like everyone else.  This came in form of aggression as well as mere jeering from people that I sometimes knew quite well.  If I came from another country to live in England and people behaved in this way, perhaps I might view it a prejudice, and maybe it is, but it might not be about skin colour or nationality and certainly was not in my case.  It must of course be noted that having a different race and culture might aggravate these situations.

In Korea, I feel the same pressure to conform and it is not because of racial prejudice because the more I fit in with Korean people and am accepted by them, the more I feel it and the more I see the pressure piling on Korean people themselves.  I do feel that the pressure to conform is greater in Korea because of the group-centred nature of the culture.  I sense this in empathy for the Koreans I see succumbing to it and not solely for myself.  I think Korean people really suffer sometimes under the weight of conforming to other people's expectations and I can sympathize with them.  I see this same suffering in people from my own country but not with anywhere near the same intensity and also the advice and encouragement we typically give to friends or family when they are having trouble with others is usually something like, 'just be yourself, they will appreciate you in the end, and if they don't they are not worth caring about.'.

With enough stubborn persistence and courage I found that my unconventional ways (in the eyes of my friends and peers) was eventually accepted and I believe I received a lot of respect and gained a certain charm in people's eyes for standing up for myself and being an individual.

Because of the Western respect for the individual I think that this attitude can win through in the end, but make no mistake it can be a battle to not do what is expected of you and not conform to social norms.  I think this could be a difficult thing to realise for people from the Far East when they live in our countries, that they still have to fight to be respected as an individual and for Western people to value them for who they really are.  Western culture talks a good game of this respect for people and human rights but most people don't follow through on it in practice.  It shouldn't be this way but this is the reality of relationships within a naturally tribal species.

The other big problem at the moment is that in the West you have to take care in who you stand up to and display your own personal character.  For whatever reason - maybe the growing gap between the rich and the poor - England appears to have a growing underclass of ignorant yobs and hooligans and from what I hear the same thing is occurring in Australia too.  Not only do they not appreciate the finer points of individuality with people from within their own culture but they often have an undercurrent of almost militant nationalism, which also makes them very often prejudiced against people from other countries and people of different race.  The growth in popularity of mickey mouse political parties like the BNP (British National Party) and UKIP (The UK Independence Party) is a sign of this growing nationalism and hatred of foreign immigrants within this underclass of the British population who blame many of the ills they are suffering on the convenient scapegoat of foreigners taking their jobs and their money through taxes.  The bleak economic climate may be fueling this attitude further.

Stand up for your right to express yourself in front of these people and you can expect a knuckle sandwich for your trouble, or an egg and water thrown at you from a car going past you down the street.  These things might even happen when you are not expressing yourself.  I have experienced each of these in England, the last two personally, just minding my own business walking and causing no trouble at all alone without the company of my wife.

What must a foreign visitor to our shores think when something like this happens?  While I think some - maybe even most - cases are racially motivated attacks when they involve people who are non-white, one cannot rule out the possibility that they are just randomly selecting people for this treatment because at the end of the day they are simply mindless morons (it was just for kicks in my case, and I didn't stand out from anyone else walking down the street).  These cretins just have to be ignored and somehow tolerated by all of us.

In fact, the nice thing about Korea is that I don't have to worry about people like this, they simply don't exist where I live in Suncheon.  I can go out for a run through the park in the morning wearing my silly-looking Jesus-like running sandals (Huaranches for the 'Born to Run' people) and, despite a few funny looks, I know I can survive the experience and come back unscathed both physically and mentally.  I seriously have concerns about doing the same in England, I am fairly certain I will receive more than just a few quizzical glances for my trouble.

In my reply to the Korean lady who wrote to me I rather clumsily worded my response and said that I did not like Korean culture.  I think with regard to relationships between people I don't but there are many other aspects that I do like.  I like so many Korean people, especially the younger ones, and all the students I have taught in my time here have been truly fantastic, but the culture has continually got in the way of me having honest interactions with anyone but my wife.  I really resent having to placate so many people and not be myself with them and it is all down to the culture of conformity and respect.  This is something that I see not only foreigners struggling with but Korean people themselves as the battle to express individuality is never really fought in the first place because of almost certain ostracism.  Unless you can find success down to your individuality and be a movie star or earn lots of money, it just seems impossible to be respected for it here in Korea.

Weirdly enough though, if I walk down the street or do something in Korea that is a little bizarre I feel far less threatened and under less pressure to conform.  This has lot to do with the fact that I am English and England is my homeland and Korea is not, but it is a sad state of affairs that my own country is so failing the Western ideals of freedom, equality, and individuality; principles that I and many of us hold so very dear and principles that should welcome people of other cultures to our lands and help us all to be ourselves and not fear to be who we really are.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Trouble with Learning Korean

I have lived in Korea, on and off,  for about 3 years now and have been married to a Korean wife for over two years but I am ashamed to say that my Korean language ability is still well below what it should be.  This post is going to seem like a long list of tired excuses for some people but here are the reasons I think learning the Korean language can be so difficult.

Now before I start, I do have some ability to speak Korean, in fact these days I am very efficient at getting things done in Korea and most Korean people I don't know will regularly complement me on my Korean.  I can grasp the gist of most conversations but I am simply not practiced enough or have a wide enough vocabularly to really particpate fully in them.

People back home generally expect me to be fluent in the language after living here and I expect this goes for many people who have visited Korea when they go back to their home countries.  When we say to someone that we spent even just one year in Korea, we are expected to have a fine grasp of the language.  Why is it then that my admittedly shoddy level of Korean is still probably in the top 1 or 2% of foreign visitors that I have ever met?  Why are most Native English teachers who come to work in Korea so bad a picking up the language?

To begin with our jobs obviously do not help.  When I worked in a furniture company a number of years ago in England, I had a Polish work colleague who had almost no English language ability before he worked there.  He did not really study and did not seem like a genius, but he was able to hold quite a decent conversation after six months and probably even before that.  This leads me onto the first excuse for my (and almost everybody else's) terrible Korean:

We do not have to learn Korean

Terrible attitude, I know, but this is true and, what's more, we are paid to do a job using our own language all day.  Even in our work relationships with teachers there really is an onus on most people to speak English to them because we are sort of here for their benefit as well. 

Although many Korean people do not have a great level of English there are also enough of them with a basic knowledge to make everyday life very liveable without so much as uttering a word of Korean in a day (and they want to speak English to you), except for 감사합니다 (thank you) and 죄송합니다 (sorry), without a doubt my two most used words.  I also use 실례합니다 (excuse me) quite often as Korean people have a strange habit of always being in my way.  Everything else is manageable with simple English and hand gestures, and Korea makes things generally quite easy to live with lots of translations into English on subways, restaurant menus, etc. 

This contrasted quite sharply with Japan, which was - perhaps surpringly - more difficult to get around for an English speaker.  The reason for the common place nature of English translations could be to encourage Korean people to learn and understand English and might not be solely for the benefit of foreign visitors.

My Polish friend back in England simply had to learn English, he had no choice as no one was going to speak Polish to him, especially in that working environment.

It can be difficult to make Korean male friends

Language, generally, may be an ability best learned by women simply because they talk more (we all know that, right).  But there is another reason I think that women have an advantage in learning the Korean language specifically, Korean women are nicer, easier to talk to and more open minded than their male counterparts. 

Now, if you are a bit of a player - like an American friend of mine I knew in the past, who would go out almost every night in search of random Korean women he could chat up - this could work to your advantage, but if you are anything like me, whose tongue ends up being tied tighter than the Gordian Knot at the mere sight of a pretty woman, this is a problem (I am also married).

Women visitors to Korea can make friends and therefore use the language much more, although I must admit most Korean women I have seen who are friends with foreigners do mostly speak English to them. 

I have always found Korean male friends - who are not interested in learning English and do not study it - very difficult to find as I have always sensed immediate competition and a feeling of defensiveness when I have tried (see my very early blog post on Korean men). 

Sometimes it is useful that I don't know more Korean

Pleading ignorance has saved my bacon a few times in Korea, but also my lack of Korean speaking knowledge has also prevented me from getting into sticky situations on more than one occasion. 

For example, when a relative of my wife's commented on her looking like a prostitute when she was with me while walking down the street (he had seen us holding hands once) at her cousin's wedding, I had no idea what he was saying until I asked my wife ten minutes later after he left.  Had I known, what would have resulted would not have been pretty.  Personally, I could not believe that her parents sat back and said or did nothing, but he was an older Korean man so I guess he could say whatever he liked without a reprimand.

The knowledge that I don't speak that much Korean has also prevented my in-laws from asking me tough questions directly or me telling them what I think of certain situations too honestly.

I also find that there is a rather uncomfortable truth about the culture here, and that is the more accepted you are in a group of Koreans, whether this be at work, with acquaintances, or (in my case) with family the more you can find yourself in uncomfortable situations where you are being pushed into doing things for the group that you don't want to do.

This has been happening to me recently at my school.  I know my school like me as a teacher and now I have been there for a year and a half they are starting to like me as a person too and want to involve me in more things.  These activities are only fleetingly optional because if the group is doing it everyone must do it.  When they don't like you, you are outside of consideration, but when they do like you you must join in and many a Westerner is uncomfortable with the idea of forced participation, especially me.

Know more language and the fact is that you will find yourself in more uncomfortable situations than you have had hot dinners, and you may even get lulled into reciprocal gift buying.  Personally, I am not comfortable in the culture of the group or in their gift buying behaviour, giving or receiving them.

Essentially, the problem is that if they do not like you they don't involve you, which is exactly what I want (sad I know) so I keep quiet and speak English.  It is not like I have to look for experiences of Korean culture anymore as I am right in the thick of it with my wife's family.

Nobody is teaching any Korean lessons

Outside of the major cities there do appear to be a lack of Korean classes.  I have always wanted to do a Korean class in my town in Korea, Suncheon, with other interested foreigners but opportunities are limited.  Language exchange is the other option, and people can be found for this, I know because I tried but it did not work well for me.  I guess I am just not motivated enough and I need others around in a class situation so that it doubles as a bit of a social gathering also.

It helps to drink alcohol

There are plenty of opportunities to meet and talk to Korean people if you drink and the people who I have known to be the most successful at learning Korean have often been the biggest drinkers.  I have never been able to enjoy drinking as it does not agree with my body at all and in Korean culture it seems like most people do enjoy drinking quite a lot.

Lack of Motivation

Really, it is possible to do almost anything if you put your mind to it, but motivation is the key.  The number one reason for learning Korean for me is simply to say that I know another language and show-off to my friends back home (I know that this is a very sad state of affairs).  There is no practical reason for learning and I do not enjoy Korean popular culture to want to learn it for this reason. 

I feel like a bit of a Philistine for talking like this because I know we should enjoy learning things for their own sake.  However, try as I might, I just cannot get enthused about learning the language.  My wife is not even that keen that I learn as she knows that my, at times, rather stubborn and opinionated personality could easily make my mouth talk when it should be kept well shut.


Maybe it really is all down to laziness.  When I traveled to Japan earlier this year and met fellow English teachers that were teaching in Japan, they did seem to be more interested in the culture and language that Native teachers in Korea.  As I mentioned on on my blog post on the anti-Korean sentiment in the Western community in Korea, the motivations for teachers going to Korea maybe more monetary than cultural, making us all lazy to learn the language.  Although it does seem to be a common theme world-wide with regard to English speakers.

For me, however, this is again no excuse and I am more closely linked than most into Korean culture.  I have to concede that I am simply not working hard enough.  In most respects I am not as idle as this, I wake at 5.30am most mornings to run, I swim, I run marathons, go to the gym, and plan meticulously at my job, but I feel like Homer Simpson when it comes to learning the language. 

I am certainly not alone in this feeling but I don't like it one bit, I have 8 months until I go back to England, let's see if I can do any better.  The key is finding a reason to learn and therefore the motivation, the thing is I just cannot find it.