Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Ethical Dilemma for Hagwon Owners

The thought for this post came to me while reading a criticism of an article I wrote for this week on the misery of hagwons (privately owned after-school academies) for many Korean students, which can be seen here.  On the comment section another blogger,, commented that I had no idea what I was talking about but did not elaborate and merely posted a link to an article on his website.  So I looked but was still not entirely sure what his point was after reading it.  I replied anyway with what I thought he meant and asking him to explain further.

Now, I can understand why he/she (will proceed with 'he' for simplicity) might be a tad upset.  From what I can gather he is a foreigner who owns a hagwon in Korea and my article was pretty scathing on hagwons generally.  The strange thing is, however, is when I looked at some of his previous posts, they all seemed to confirm exactly what I said in the article.  He actually has a very good site, worth reading, especially if you want to know more about Korean hagwons.  I will highlight just a few articles:

I could link more as they are very interesting.  In each he muses about many of the concerns I raised in the article I wrote, but as I don't expect everyone reading this to take the time of reading 4 pieces of writing I will start getting to the point.

In the second post, he goes into a little detail of the ethos of his school, which seems a noble philosophy that I applaud him for, but it is the first post on fear and guilt that pricked my interest.  In this post he talks of a mother of one of his students who came in complaining about the lack of progress of her son for the last two years.  She apparently had him tested at another hagwon (a competitor) and they said he wasn't able to put a sentence together.  The writer then goes on to say that this particular student wasn't too bright and was introverted, shy, and buckled under pressure, so it was no surprise he did badly when under the spotlight.

This got me thinking, because my first job in Korea was at a really great little hagwon where the owners were well organised and tried hard to do the best for their students, much like this chap seems to be doing.  But, as nice as they were, there were many students in that hagwon that were going nowhere with their English and the owners knew it.  Of course, to stay in business in a highly competitive industry they have to continue to accept money from these children's parents and keep the students attending every day (these were often the most miserable students too) and this is where the ethical dilemma comes in.

Teachers and hagwon owners must know what students are not making even the least bit progress, as hagwons are not generally big enough to lose kids in the system, indeed small class sizes is one of the reasons they are considered important for learning English.  Despite this, they take the money and I think more importantly the poor student's time and enthusiasm for learning.  In wangjangnim's own post he taught a student for 2 years and he couldn't make a sentence in English, under pressure or not that is troubling.  How many hours of his short life did he spend there after school?  Did he enjoy his time there?  Maybe he did, but it is surely the case that many students in a similar position don't, this being another factor that may lead to student depression and even suicide in extreme cases.

I am in no way am attacking this hagwon owner by saying he is not teaching well, sometimes you can be the best teacher in the world and working at a school with the best strategies, but some kids just will not want to or be able to learn, especially when they are saturated with education like they are in Korea.  This is a problem however, because I think it is unethical to keep on taking the money for teaching this student and taking up their precious time.

The dilemma is though, can you really be honest and do the right thing?  If you are honest and do the right thing, surely your business will fail, while at the same time significantly improve the chances of the dishonest one's succeeding.  This maybe shows a small example of the wider issue of global business generally, that the muck tends to rise to the top.

Curiously, as well as the good hagwon I worked at (mentioned earlier) I also worked at a bit of a nightmare hagwon as well.  The boss had a reputation for firing teachers on the 11th month of their contract - thereby avoiding paying the bonus for completion of the contract - and I thought his strategies for teaching English were poor and he was willfully deceiving the parents of the children and the children themselves.  He was a pretty ruthless, cut-throat businessman and he had a long history of being a hagwon owner and was also successful in running a string of successful hagwons in Seoul, the most highly competitive of all places in Korea.  He knew how to survive and make a profit in the business when others were falling around him and this worried me a lot considering his lack of care for the students, dishonesty, and his general nastiness (his English was also appalling, especially as he wrote a book about how best to teach it).

Not all owners are like this guy obviously, but it was the fact that he had survived for so long that troubled me, he was a success story in the industry having been in it such a long time, he also had a maths academy in the same city.

Much of the business world revolves around dishonesty, unfortunately, that appears to be a reality of life but it seems to me that hagwon owners do have a little extra responsibility on their shoulders when dealing with young people who can't tell whether their time is being spent well and their parents money is being spent wisely.  Parents can't also judge very well how effective the hagwon is at teaching its children because the majority have almost no knowledge of English themselves.  This is a problem of conscience and makes the right way forward extremely unclear.  As wangjangnim says in his post on fear and guilt, a key factor of what drives the industry is deeply immoral, making parents feel the need to put their kids in private schools for fear of their children being disadvantaged.  I mostly overlooked this aspect in my post at asiapundits as I focused on private academies more from the students' perspective, but his article certainly confirms my fears for students and what they are really getting from these schools and the motivation for parents to send them there in the first place.

I urge readers of this post to have a look at  I have read 4 or 5 posts now and it is an interesting perspective of the Korean hagwon industry from a man who owns one himself.  His posts are sensible, knowledgeable, and sincere.  He obviously cares about giving his students the best tuition possible.  This post and my asiapundits article was in no way a direct attack on his business.  I simply have grave concerns about the industry as a whole and I genuinely worry about the well-being of young people in Korea and private schools are a large part of that problem.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Corrosive Nature of Respect Culture on Relationships

I think it is fair to say that I have had a lot of negative things to say about respect culture.  I have my reservations as to whether there is anything at all that is good about it, except for maybe teaching young children to be polite to their elders (something that can be achieved without an engrained culture of respect).  In adult life it is not only unnecessary but poisonous for a variety of reasons I have mentioned in previous posts, but in this post I will deal with one of the most important of all, the effect it has on relationships between people.

Let's start with a rather large gripe I have when dealing with some Korean people and that is the lack of honesty within groups, e.g. family and work. When you are forced into respecting someone an atmosphere is immediately created. This feeling is one of inequality, one person is superior to the other.  This inequality has deleterious effects on all people involved because there is a forced submission and lack of freedom on the younger person and because of this the younger or lower-ranked person is likely to placate their superior for fear of offending them.  The person receiving the respect can then be withheld information about the thoughts and feelings of other people.  The problem is a lack of freedom of expression which harms everyone.

From this, illusions and delusions can be created.  Those who give the respect can feel the illusion of not be cared about; their feelings and thoughts are not respected often by people who are closest to them, like their own family members.  Children can get the feeling that their parents don't really know who they are deep inside and don't want what is best for them, something that my students often complain about.  Conversely, parents can be deluded into thinking that their children are happy or agree with everything they say and will behave accordingly, this can have adverse effects on important family issues.  If children of Korean parents have failings or problems I have noticed a general trend of denial of these issues and much of this is a combination of respect culture and the status element of saving face in the eyes of others.

The failure of free-expression can result in being dishonest in many ways.  In my Korean family I can't believe how much dishonesty actually goes on.  Family members lie about what they are going to do, where they are, who they are with, what they did, and how they feel all the time.  When you think about it this makes sense to avoid any confrontation and therefore disrespect.  The amount of politics that goes on between family members is exhausting, mostly in the name of keeping elders happy.  The lack of an open dialogue means that elders are always to be listened to on the surface, but that changes nothing deep inside and resentment builds in the young.  I believe this causes strained relationships in Korean families to a point that goes beyond the norm.  Difficult family relationships exist everywhere but in Korea the culture at large is the main cause and not just personal differences and history.

Resentment is a common theme I see in all areas of life here.  People are told what to do by superiors, often in an unjustifiable manner with an air of superiority and they can't dispute it openly so they do it internally.  The irony of it all is that making sure you appear to respect people on the outside actually causes the exact opposite to occur inside.  A deep disrespect forms and the result is that people lie and deceive.  What could be a greater sign of disrespect to anyone than lying to them; it says I really don't respect your opinion and I don't respect your ability to handle any criticism.  If you have ever been lied to by a friend or loved one, you will know how this makes you feel.

Deceit is rife in almost all situations I find myself in the company of many Korean people where I am part of the group.  People pretend to be having a good time at staff dinners, they pretend to find elders jokes funny, they pretend to be somewhere where they are not, they pretend to listen to advice, they pretend that the gifts they give haven't broken the bank, they pretend they are happy to pay for a meal, and they pretend to respect their elders.  I see no evidence that respecting their elders is really what Koreans do, what I see is that they placate their elders, there is a difference.

What results is a failure to understand others and also - rather counter-intuitively - any genuinely good advice can end up going straight through one ear and out the other of the young.  Parents don't understand their own children and children don't understand their own parents.  Bosses don't know what is troubling their employees, and employees are alienated from their companies and cease to care about their jobs unless their motivation comes from fear of losing their positions or not getting promoted and earning more money.  In my experience, fear of losing jobs is the main motivator of hard work.

What I find extremely interesting is that honesty is markedly improved when it comes to strangers.  Lose a wallet in Korea and it is likely you will get it back with all it's contents still there.  Petty crime, generally, also appears much less prevalent here than back home.  While honesty is good with strangers, courtesy is not and I think both have to do with the respect culture.  They don't have to deceive a stranger because they don't have to worry about offending them, just as they don't have to show courtesy to them for the same reason.  This leads me to think that the vast majority of Korean people want to be good, moral, not lie and do the right thing (of course) and respect culture often gets in the way with the people that matter to them the most.

All this respect nonsense even gets in the way of making friends.  The vast majority of people in Korea would not dream of being friends with anyone significantly older or younger than them, what a shame this is.  Having friends that are older than you is something that does breed genuine respect.  They can inform you in ways merely an older acquaintance can't because they know you and you know them.  They respect you for who you are and you naturally respect them, the relationship is not forced and it is also not one-way in nature.  In fact, older people can learn almost as much from the young.  The older you become the more prone you are to becoming close-minded and stuck in a rut, afraid or less enthused about trying new things.  Being around young people and respecting them can be a tonic to break these sometimes bad habits.

I am certainly not saying that my own culture in Britain is perfect, a healthy dose of respect in young people, for example, would certainly be beneficial.  Young people in Korea are often fantastic because of their respect culture but I do also think it can greatly affect their development into adults that are free to explore their own ideas and aspirations.  Equality comes into its own as a principle just as people come to adult age and I believe it should be encouraged in high school aged students.

I have often been accused of reasoning from the perspective of my own culture in this regard; valuing principles of freedom and equality over respect for authority.  Now it should be clear that valuing freedom and equality does not mean having a total disrespect for authority, I am not advocating having no respect whatsoever and favouring anarchy.  But shoot me for saying this, I genuinely objectively believe that prioritising freedom and equality over respect is a good thing.  Having a society where people are treated fairly and equally, who are valued for how they behave rather than their status or age, and a society where people have freedom of speech and expression trumps a society that fears to offend those in authority every single time.  Throw in a healthy dose of respect on the side and this might be the perfect balance.  In a country that values respect over anything else, the scales can become unbalanced and possibly a worse place to live as a result.

The principle of respect is not a bad one, we all need it to have ordered societies but I think it does become a problem when it is a core value that is prioritised over everything else.  It is my belief that - in countries that do prioritise respect - you can find an ordered society, free of things like petty crime but a society that is repressed and unhappy.  The extreme example is, of course, North Korea, a country that I am sure is relatively free of petty crime and in fact any crimes by the populace.  The government, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.  You then get a gradual lessening of respect of authority in Far East Asia, China being next, South Korea, Taiwan, and then Japan.  It is interesting to note that the countries at the end of this list become increasingly more appealing to live in, with Japan being top. 

However, none of these countries come close to being the best places to live in the world, despite how rich they are.  Those league tables we always see listing the most desirable places to live are still dominated by Western countries and I think the freedom and equality Westerners have in relationships is a large factor in this.  Even as a foreigner in Korea, all my relationships with Koreans are obstructed by respect.  The only Koreans that I am comfortable with, and are comfortable with me, are those that reject and despise the respect aspect of their culture as much as me and this is because without it, open and honest relationships are possible, and most importantly, desirable.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

What Should Make Us Feel Proud About Our Country?

I guess the short answer to this question is nothing because, for example, me being English does not mean that I can take credit for my country's past achievements or indeed have responsibility for any of its atrocities.

It seems to me that slogans - sometimes even worn on T-shirts - such as 'Proud to be British' (or you can insert whatever country you like) are a trifle confusing.  What exactly are you proud about?  That your country is powerful, rich, a nice place to live, or has a beautiful landscape?  OK, so what part did you play in all this?  Personally, I did not have a hand in making Britain a past world power with a great cultural influence on the world, I did not play a part in developing its culture to a point where it became reasonably civilised, and I certainly did not make any difference whatsoever in sculpting its often idyllic countryside.  Maybe there are people alive today that can take some credit for these things, but in truth their can't be that many.

You may be wondering how this has any relevance to South Korea, but I will come to that.  Right now, let's just ignore what I just said about pride in one's country, to some extent, and have a think about what could make us proud to say we are British/American/Canadian/Irish/Korean/Chinese/etc.

Perhaps, instead of thinking about what would make us proud we should eliminate the things that we should not be proud about:

Currently it is the Americans that are the great power of the world, increasingly being caught up by the Chinese.  This is achieved through a strong economy and military might.  A strong economy could be something to be proud of but if it is a strong economy built on exploitation of people, this might not count.  This is what I worry about with regard to the Chinese.  Military might is something the British did very well before the rise of the US, but is this really a good thing?

If it is fame for great kindness then OK, but if it simply notoriety for it's own sake, I am not convinced.

Fame and power might buy you a higher status as a country.

Maybe you can see where I am going with this, but it seems to me that the main concern of South Koreans and indeed of the Chinese is to elevate their country in these three categories to gain the feeling of high status in the world.  It is no surprise that this is the case given the importance of status to people generally in these countries.

I have already mentioned the Chinese rush to become a powerful nation and their exploitation of their workforce and Korea has this to a lesser extent but Korea seems to accept the fact that it is simply too small to be the strongest of world powers, so it is going for notoriety.  Korea is so keen on promoting itself it becomes a little tiresome for the rest of us and I know from previous experience of talking with people who previously lived in Korea that they often got a little sick of the relentless self-promotion as well.

Korea has the best culture, history, food, landscape, music, and electronics, they are also the kindest and smartest with the purest bloodlines, don't you know.  I am taking a bit of a sarcastic swipe at an attitude present in quite a few of the Korean people I have met here, as I have heard this kind of thing mind-blowingly often, I nod, agree and then roll my eyes once they have left.

The truth, however, is neither a story of great Korea nor a complete downer on everything Korean.  In many ways I really like parts of their culture, food, landscape, etc.  I also think many Koreans I have met are kind and smart.  I couldn't give a monkeys about their bloodline.

This is what I see when I look at the majority of countries, including my own.  There are some things I like, some things I dislike.  Many countries promote what they can about themselves, most often to encourage visitors, but pride plays a large part in this.  But in the the Western world, people increasingly look at their own country and others and are proud of or admire the quality of life, the morality, or the reasonableness of it's people and the realisation that the job is still not complete in all of these departments.

Who cares how powerful a nation is or how famous it is, if the people within it are unhappy, unhealthy, or mistreated.  To me, this is what China and Korea are confusing very gravely when it comes to their greater prominence on the world stage.  In two cultures where respect and status is seen as so important, they are now expecting the once most powerful countries of the West to respect them for their power, for their wealth, or for their popularity and make no mistake they do crave our respect.

Much like an old man in these countries expects to be respected, bowed at, talked to politely, and not questioned, this is how the Chinese and Koreans want us to be with them.  Yet while they are undoubtedly making admirable progress in their societies they are mostly ignoring the things guaranteed to achieve true respect and maybe even envy from the rest of us, to build societies where people are, happy, treated fairly and with respect, have a working system of justice, equality, freedom of speech and freedom generally, fair-play and morality in business, and exhibit kindness and charity to everyone, including animals and the environment.

If there is a reason or justification for some Westerners smugly walking around with an air of arrogance about where they are from it is the fact that, for all the creases that still need to ironed out in their societies, their countries are much closer in achieving these ideals.  Let's briefly examine South Korea and China on all these factors:

Happiness - Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world and Japan is not far behind.  China, despite being the second-largest economy in the world, does not even come close to being one of the best places to live in the world.

People are treated fairly with respect - in Korea people work some of the longest hours, many work overtime without pay, have few holidays, are bullied at work, and are required to placate seniors and work harder than them.  The Chinese are world renown for exploitation of their workforce by giving them extreme hours and high standards of speed and accuracy with low pay. Indeed Western companies exploit this too, but do we respect them for it?  I guess we still do buy their products.

A Working System of Justice - before it sounds like a complete butt kissing on my part for my own culture, I should say that the libel laws in my own country are a joke so don't think that all is rosy in the West also, and the fact is that worldwide you can buy your way out of trouble in many cases.  The justice system in China, however, is almost continuously questioned for a lack of transparency and a high amount of corruption.  Korea has, to a lesser degree, some of the same issues and added to this is a string of laws that are not enforced by the police and not followed by the people.

Equality - you might say that I am imposing Western values on Far Eastern culture here and with freedom as well, but societies that are not built on these principles have oppressed people, oppressed minorities, and in the case of age discrimination in China and Korea, lack some efficiency also.

Freedom of Speech - is vital, and just think about what happens in countries where it is curtailed; human rights abuses tend to be frequent and are able to be covered-up and progress in all areas is stunted.  This is one of the most common criticisms of China and South Korea is still not especially comfortable with the idea.  Do I need to mention the North?

Morality in business - we all know that Western governments are not innocent in this regard, think of arms dealings in particular, and corporate control of government policies.  But when it comes to demanding high standards of the treatment of workers, both in our own countries and in others when we have dealings with them, Western countries are more likely to be seeking a fair deal for all (note, more likely) than in Korea and especially China, where laws and practices on treatment of workers, animals and the environment are not so rigorous or enforced when they are broken.

Kindness and Charity - surely something that could be improved upon in all countries, but human rights abuses in China and the poor treatment of animals in both China and Korea leave me suspicious as to the development of these countries morally.  There have been various anecdotal examples on the news of heartlessness in various situations caught on video in China, but maybe you could say that Western news media latches onto these with too much vigour.  It is difficult to find statistics on animal cruelty but trade in body parts from endangered species is almost entirely dominated by China, think sharks-fin soup, ivory from elephants and Chinese medicine derived from tiger and rhino parts.

The Environment - when it comes to the environment Western countries must surely shoulder a large portion of the blame, other countries are now polluting the same as us and we criticise them for it, a tad hypocritical I know.  That said though, do I think that in the present day most of the major Western countries are more concerned with how their practices will affect the environment?  Yes, I think they are.  Look to the high levels of pollution in China, and the slightly dated attitude towards pollution and littering in Korea.

Now I'd like to run a thought experiment; think of a news report about your country on each of these categories, where it had been shown that a company, the government or the people had been deficient in one or a few of these factors.  For example, Germany is 18th in the world in the list of best places to live, the US has one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor, the Australians give less money to charity than other Western nations, a UK firm creates one of the greatest environmental disasters in an oil spill at one of its refineries, in Canada someone goes to jail for criticising one of the governments policies, South Africa has a high rates of crime (note, some of these are based on truth others are just hypothetical for the sake of argument).

As a resident of these countries, would the fact that you are rich, powerful, are a great tourist destination, or are famous for music or film culture make you any less ashamed of any of the above? Could you be proud of your country if it were shown to be guilty of human rights abuses, were bottom of the league tables for happiness, had one of the highest crime rates, oppressed innocent minorities, or caused greater environmental damage than other countries?  As an Englishman of at least average moral standing I would expect change or some heads to roll for any of the above and this is the general attitude I see in most developed countries, but particularly in the West.  There are, of course corrupt people in government, greedy people, and unscrupulous companies but the trend is that we want to see improvement in all the areas I have mentioned above.  If someone or a group is seen as going backwards in any of these they are roundly pounced upon in our cultures, at least by the populace (many big companies still get away with it all, like banks for example).  It is these issues that concern us and rightly so.  When my students say they are proud of Samsung, for instance, it is not encouraging considering its record of ethical issues.

In the case of China, it may soon become the most powerful economy in the world but it will not have the respect of other countries because in seeking that power all the things that really matter have been forgotten. How can we respect a country where it is unsafe to breathe the air in the capital city, where people work all hours under high pressure for low pay, where people are jailed and never seen again for uttering unwelcome thoughts or where the quality of living for all but the richest minority is desperately poor.  How can we respect them being so successful at the Olympics when stories of the mistreatment of young athletes tarnish all the gold medals.

In Korea's case, who cares how many youtube hits Gangnam Style gets, if people are knocking themselves off in record numbers, are constantly being treated unfairly at work, or if people spend most of their young lives with their head in a book and not have the freedom to express themselves. Any sensible person knows the priorities of their culture at large is wrong just like any sensible person knows the priorities of the showbiz and materially obsessed Westerners are wrong.

There are always individuals that buck the trend in all countries, you never can tell about a person until you know them, but the pattern as a whole is that one of the major cultural priorities in the East is respect and status, and this plays out in their attitude to some key elements of life.  Collective status seems to be a major preoccupation in China and Korea that trumps many other more pressing concerns.  I hope to see a change, but for now the increased wealth and power of the Far East is not something that fills me with optimism for how the little guy is going to be treated in these countries in the near future.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Korea's 4 Seasons

In case you haven't heard about it; Korea has 4 distinct seasons, it's wonderful.  Perhaps you can detect more than a hint of sarcasm?  Well, this will be understood by my fellow NET readers, but for the rest of you the reason for this is because we here about it a lot from Korean people.  They are really quite proud of the fact, which is not something to be ridiculed as such, in fact I think it is quite nice that they are in touch with the nature of their own country and pride is not necessarily a bad thing all the time.  It is, however, a way of looking at your country's climate that I never thought of. So, although I am not knocking it I don't really understand why they are so proud of their 4 seasons. My country has the same seasons and at the same time of year and I have never met anyone who has pride in it, perhaps we should.

So as we are coming out of Winter and heading into spring, here is my breakdown of the seasons in Korea, starting with Summer.


Summer is the season in Korea that I dislike the most, contrary to England where it is undoubtedly the best.  In England we get the odd really hot day but generally it is warm rather than hot and affords me the opportunity to get outside enjoying the countryside and playing cricket.  In Korea Summer is stiflingly hot and for the period of about a month or so it becomes almost unbearable to spend any time outside, I just sit at home under the air conditioning wearing only my underwear.  I try to fight the heat by rising early in the morning and running at 6.30am but to no avail, the heat saps all the strength right out of me.  Sleeping also becomes difficult and I have to ignore warnings from many Korean people about fan death (the funny little superstition that if you sleep with the fan on it could lead to your untimely end) and have the fan and the air conditioning on overnight sometimes .

In the middle of summer (mid to late July) there is also the monsoon season, it's hot, humid, and rainy and no clothes can dry on the clothes hangers in our apartments.  If the rain doesn't make you wet, your own sweat will.  I remember leaving a pile of clothes in the washing machine one time for a couple of days over a weekend and because they were so sweaty, when I returned they smelled pretty funky and most stayed that way and I had to chuck them.

I think it is fair to say that even after just a couple of months of summer I am longing for Autumn and Winter.

What to do in Summer
- Stay inside, and if you go outside make sure you make regular stops for air conditioning.  Or, if you must go outside.....
- Go to a valley and enjoy the mountain streams.
- Go to the beach, but you can't in the monsoon season very easily and it can be almost too hot if you find a weather window.
- Go hiking.  While it is initially difficult, you can get some relief from the heat near the tops of the higher mountains, although beware of heat exhaustion.

What not to do in Summer
- Eat sushi and seafood generally.  I have been warned by a few different Korean people that eating sushi in summer can cause the odd stomach upset.
- Wear grey T-shirts.  Even walking for 2 minutes to catch a bus causes unwelcome sweat patches.
- Exercise outside (apart from hiking and swimming).  Going for a run in summer almost feels dangerous, if you do make plenty of water stops.


Probably my favourite month as the temperatures are pleasant and the country is probably at its most beautiful with all the different colours of foliage.  The cooler but still fairly mild temperatures make it a good time to be outside and do some exploring.  With plenty of mountains and hiking trails all close to towns and cities, Korea is one of the easiest places in the world for day hikes that can be reached and completed, and which enable you to return home.

The beginning of Autumn also brings the celebration of Chuseok, Korea's Thanksgiving day that has much to do with remembering their close relatives who have passed away.  This can be a bit of a nuisance for the foreign population in Korea, however, because of the extreme amounts of traffic on the roads down to people migrating out of the major cities to go back to their home towns for the holiday.  On the plus side it is a culturally rich time of year, and I myself am right in the thick of it with my Korean family which is sometimes a good thing and that I am honoured to be a part of but also it can be a real test of patience as long hours of family time (with lots of people) is not what I am used to back in England.

What to do in Autumn
- Go outside.  Hike, run a marathon, start an exercise regime, go to the park, have a picnic, even go to the beach (it is often still warm enough, especially in early Autumn).
- Get your camera out.  Trees on the mountains are everywhere and they look beautiful, you never have to go far for a great shot.
- Go on a trip.  Comfortable temperatures mean this is the time to go away for the weekend and visit historic cities, go to Seoul or Busan, or wonder around for the weekend somewhere new.

What not to do in Autumn
- Honestly, I can't think of anything.


Although freezing cold, and consistently so, I quite enjoy Korean Winter.  I find that it is the time of the year that their food really tastes even better than normal.  I am a real fan of Korean street food, which is absolutely perfect for warming yourself up with; tteokpoggi, odeng, sundae, pajeon, ho duk, and pungopbang all do the trick very nicely.  Korea's normally spicy food seems perfect for the chilly Winters.

Winter back home in England is a bit of a dark and dismal affair.  It is dark by 3 o'clock sometimes and very often cloudy, so getting out and about and being outside doing activities is very difficult.  Korean Winter, on the other hand, is very cold but sunny and dry with more hours of sunlight in the day.  This affords the opportunity for hiking, skiing, and generally being a bit more active outside.  The only drawback is that in my area of the country is rarely snows and this makes for a rather drab, brown, and dead appearance to all of the nature around.  It is therefore not the prettiest month, at least not for me down south.

What to do in Winter
- Go skiing.  It is very affordable but it is very often extremely busy.  If you are already a good skier, the harder slopes are much less busy in places like Muju.
- Eat street food.
- If you are a hardy kind of person, hiking in the Winter to some of the National parks is really beautiful.  But be warned the thick snow and plunging temperatures are not for the faint-hearted or ill-prepared.
- Go on a vacation.  The Winter cold can drag on and a trip to a warm country to break things up is very welcome.

What not to do in Winter
- Go to the coast.  The freezing cold wind makes it feel even colder when you are by the sea.
- Be stuck in the house.  Sometimes people can just hibernate in the Winter, but Winter in Korea also harbours some of the clearest weather with a good deal of sunshine.  Try to find ways to wrap up warm and go outside.


Is as pleasant, temperature-wise, as Autumn and is also quite pretty with the coming of various spring flowers and the cherry blossom in particular.  The only drawback is spring coincides with the dust brought over from the Gobi desert in China.  It can sometimes become quite unpleasant and as a keen runner and hiker the dust feels like it clogs-up the lungs a little and often spoils the view at the tops of mountains.  You can get an idea of the amount of dust and sand in the air by looking at the build-up on parked cars.

Spring is a good time to visit Korea, outside of the dust storms, because of the many festivals that are running in the Spring months.  These festivals take place all over the country and usually celebrate the particular foods, animals, and general qualities of the area in question.

What to do in Spring
- Go to a festival.  Towns and cities all over Korea have lots of festivals celebrating what is special about their particular area so are good places to get your culture fix.
- Go hiking (hang on, I think I have said this for every month).  Spring is the month for the blooming of flowers of course, the Royal Azaleas on the mountains can be really pretty.
- Go to a place with Cherry Blossom trees and have a picnic.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Korean New Year With The Seoul Family

I live in the deep south of South Korea and usually spend the Korean holidays in Suncheon with my father in-law's side of the family, but the other half of my wife's family live up in Seoul.  I was heading for Thailand right after the holiday so it made sense to spend some time in Seoul with the family beforehand and take the relatively short trip to Incheon airport.

I must admit, the two major holidays in Korea are a bit of a trying time for me for the reasons I have blogged about before in my previous posts on My Korean Family, Death Anniversaries in Korea, and Is a Clash of Cultures Inevitable and Irreconcilable?  This post will involve more information and less complaining, hopefully.  Although in the spirit of this blog, I shall have a little moan.

I stayed with my grandmother in-law in her apartment and because of her age and slight frailty we did most of our celebrations there.  The first thing that hit me as I entered her apartment was the amount of people crammed in.  It is not a big apartment but it somehow managed to fit about 20 family members.  I am used to about 6 maximum in a relatively large house and garden when I spend time with family back home in England so right from the word go it was already a little daunting and, of course, I tend to be the centre of attention.

One tradition of Seollal is doing a full bow to your elders to show respect and in return they often give some money.  This being my first Seollal with the family - I have missed it for various reasons in the last two years - I was unaware that they don't just do this with kids but with younger adults too, like myself.  The welcome surprise of about £40 between my three uncles in-law was the result, maybe it wasn't going to be all bad.

However, fairly immediately the unorthodoxy of my wife and I's relationship was coming into question.  Not only am I a foreigner - a bit of a shock for the family as it is - we don't plan on staying in Korea to live, we also don't plan on having a baby for at least another 3 years, and considering we have been married for nearly three years already this is more than a little strange to them.  Babies usually follow marriage in quite a short period of time in Korean culture.  In fact, I was encouraged (in a joking but strongly suggestive manner) by a couple of my uncles to get on with it in Thailand and get the job done and settle down in Korea.  I laughed, smiled politely and then told them to mind their own god dam business (the last part was inside my head).

I have heard that in most families in Korea there is always that one uncle that people just really can't stand and mine is my uncle on my mother in-law's side.  He is the eldest and he perceives this as giving him the entitlement to tell everybody what they should be doing with their lives.  He is a conservative-minded Korean and so everyone else should be in his eyes.  I also find him rather materialistic and arrogant.  My other two uncles in-law on this side of the family are just fine.  One seems to have a lot more going on upstairs, appears to understand me quite well and holds fast on the advice giving, and the other is kind, sincere, and generous, despite not being as wealthy as the other two.

Anyway, we ate, were given some advice, ate a bit more, were given some more advice, ate again....well you get the picture.  I ate, smiled politely, nodded in agreement, and again told them to mind their own business (of course, in my head again).

Everyone left and I was pretty shattered as I also had to be up early to take the bus to Seoul in the first place, which took about 4 hours.  My wife and my mother in-law were busy though, tidying up for grandmother, who obviously could not be expected to do it all.  They also cleaned the whole apartment from top to bottom as it needed a thorough clean.  They were both angry at how none of the family that lived in Seoul helped my grandmother in-law clean up, but couldn't say anything to their face, especially as the oldest uncle (the one I dislike) paid for the apartment and any criticism of himself or his wife might well end up in them caring less or being less generous.  So while they were around my mother in-law just had to suck-up her frustrations and be ultra-nice to them because they held all the cards.  I tried to help but was ordered not to and anyway my wife knows that dirt and dust tend to follow me around wherever I go anyway, even when my intention is to clean-up.

The next morning, we had to go to my grandfather in-law's grave-site to give our respects, which usually involves an offering of food and soju and some bowing.  His grave was part of an extraordinary cemetery on the outskirts of Seoul with thousands of people buried on the mountainside.  I desperately wanted to take a picture of the place, which was coated in snow, as it looked quite beautiful and was extraordinarily large but refrained for fear of being disrespectful, something that is very easy to do in that kind of situation.

Then it was time to take a trip to my eldest uncle's local temple, which he frequents on a regular basis and so is friendly with the monks.  My mother in-laws side of the family are Buddhist and I think even my wife might call herself culturally Buddhist, much like people back home in England are culturally Christian but don't believe in any of the nonsense and don't really believe in god.  They all got the cushions out in the temple and did their deep bows to their knees to Buddha as I just watched.  We all then went back to a kind of portacabin with lots of computers and a warm fire where a monk sat and made us all coffee between boxes of artistic Buddhist calendars that they were selling, which left me thinking I needed to do a little bit more study about what it meant to be a Buddhist.  I was also confounded by my rather brand name, money, and materially obsessed eldest uncle's devotion to Buddhism and his local temple.  The monk then proceeded to give me and my wife some advice, so I smiled and nodded politely and then told him to mind his own business (last part... you get the idea).

Fortunately for me, we were quite close to a place called Uijeongbu, which is famous for having a large base for American soldiers but more importantly is the home of the best Budae Jiggae in Korea, one of my favourite dishes, so we headed to a restaurant for lunch.  Budae Jiggae is a spicy soup with noodles, some processed meat like spam and little frankfurters, and a few other things thrown into the mix as well.  It is no coincidence that Uijeongbu is famous for this and American soldiers.  The dish is a fusion of traditional Korean flavoured spicy soup with the kinds of ingredients available to them during and after the Korean War, brought by American soldiers, i.e. processed meat like spam and baked beans.  Needless to say, I lapped it all up like a dog that hadn't eaten for a week, much to the delight and amazement of most of the Koreans around me - it never ceases to amaze them that a foreigner likes their food and has the ability to eat it in the first place on account of how spicy it is.

It was time to go back to grandma's place and relax before I flew to Thailand in the morning.  On the way we had a conversation about how rainy it is in England, the smog in London, and a few other stereotypical things about England, which prepared the way for a more serious and stern advice giving session from my eldest uncle when we got home, reiterating the need to settle-down and have a baby quickly, stay in Korea and help the family.  After a little more smiling, nodding, and the rest, Seollal was over and I could look forward to a relaxing vacation (which he made clear he did not approve of, but who cares) as my reward for all my patience and restraint.  Although amid all the irritations it was a fascinating couple of days of pure Korean culture, a privilege and a learning experience for this stubborn Englishman.