Saturday, April 27, 2013

Should We Respect North Korea?

The short and obvious answer to this question is of course not, they are not worthy of any respect at all.  Their actions are ridiculous, dangerous, and the regime are more interested in respect than the well-being of their people.  Therefore we should hold our ground and give them nothing, right?

The thing is though, after reading an article about the North Korea issue from the Huffington Post, I was given pause to think about whether sticking to our principles is the right way forward and if we could all do with thinking about the problem from another angle.   The article is fairly correct in a few ways (Note: before I get accusations of supporting the entirety of this article and being anti-american, I should just say that I do not believe the US is the cause of most of the world's problems, but I do think they try and sort everything out when it is perhaps beyond their ability to do so) but I am going to focus on one aspect in particular because I have written so much about the subject on this blog, summed-up by this line:
"North Korea wants respect, not war."
For anyone who has spent any time living in South Korea, this one line should be blindingly obvious when you think about it.  I have written on this blog, perhaps ad nauseam, about the role respect culture plays in every day life in South Korea and how those of higher status want your respect and compliance.  They are not after a debate, conflict, or finding the truth about things that even they would be better off knowing a bit about, they want you to conform to their wishes and show respect, this is of prime importance.

If showing respect and conforming means telling some of the most transparent lies possible and simply placating them then that is fine.  I have found that South Koreans who believe they are of higher status will accept even the most hollow of shows of respect to avoid any conflict.  This is especially true when dealing with the older generation who, as I mentioned over at Asiapundits, are starkly different to the younger generation and share far more in common with those in North Korea.

If any country in the world must be suffering from a bout of bruised pride then North Korea must surely be one the the best candidates for it.  For those in the country that know the situation in the South and the economic success of the USA, it must grate like nails on a chalk board.  The US have respect, the South has it too, and the North has none, it is a joke, a crazy crackpot regime, stuck in the past in more ways than one and is fit to be made fun of time and time again.  What is the only thing they have to get the rest of the world to take them seriously?  The potential for a nuclear bomb, and it uses the threat of it frequently in order to gain some respect and it works.  Why would they want to give that up?  War would be the last thing they would want to do, because as weird and crazy as the North is, they are not suicidal.  However, they want to be noticed and recognised as a player on the world scene and the sabre-rattling achieves this nicely.

I think that for a Western mindset it is sometimes positively skin-crawling to bow down and give respect to those who you think don't deserve it.  An American friend of mine from a few years ago would never do it to anyone in Korea or when he lived in Japan, and in principle at least, I kind of agree with him.  To me, when I think about it too much, bowing is offensive in more ways than one. As much as anything else, you are being dishonest by showing respect when you don't really believe it (this happens on some occasions) and to me this seems even less respectful.  The moral value of equality also appears to be compromised in many of the situations I find myself bowing in.

That matters not on the Korean peninsula, many South Koreans and the North Korean regime don't give a damn if things aren't fair, aren't honest, or whether your pride is compromised and they certainly don't give a damn about logic and moral principles.  What is right is what the higher status person says is right, plain and simple.  If you have ever wondered why Korean people appear to have some strange logic sometimes, it is precisely because of this.  Questioning the status quo does not come naturally and when an outsider or someone younger points out any problems or argues against this, they are not credited with knowing anything as they are not worthy of high status and therefore respect.  The old ways change in South Korea only when they are shown to be unprofitable or are embarrassing to the people as a whole.

What to do then with North Korea?  Placate them; do the same as all of us do who live in South Korea and want an easy ride, suck up to them a little, tell them exactly what they want to hear and don't believe any of it.  We don't have to be clever, we don't even need to really back up what we say with any meaningful actions, we just need to make a bit of a show to save the face of the North Korean regime and Kim Jong Un.  The question is, can the world do this with North Korea and should we do this with North Korea?  If the answer to both questions is no, then surely it is wrong for anyone to do it with the elders of the South, but we do it everyday nonetheless under the name of getting by in the world.

In principle, I am totally with those on the right of the argument, we are in the right, our values trump those of North Korea and they are the ones who need to start acting responsibly and change their ways.  But in practice, I am on the left, but only out of a sense of the reality of the difficulty of the situation. The US and its allies are not big enough to benevolently change the whole world, we learned this the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Again, in principle, it is a good thing to rid the world of Saddam Hussain, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda but changing the hearts, minds, and culture embedded in people through thousands of years of history is beyond us all at this moment in time and is largely a futile exercise.

Standing up for Western principles is something we should never be ashamed to do within our own countries and even promoting them to others through dialogue is not a bad idea, but we cannot really hope to force the issue effectively away from home, as much as we would love to show the whole world the way forward (and I genuinely believe that the Western world is the most enlightened at this period of time, but that is not to say it is perfect).  Some radical elements of the Muslim world live among us in our countries and in Europe increasing Muslim populations - many with wholly differing values - are coming head to head with Western principles.  We must hold firm to this challenge and assert our belief that personal freedom, freedom of speech, reasoned argument, equality, and human rights for all will never be suppressed and if anyone doesn't like this they are more than welcome to go to a country without any of them and see how they like living there.

I would love to see the North Korean regime get its just desserts, it is mad and causes untold suffering among its own people.  But it is difficult to help people who don't want to be helped and if in the process of pitting our values against theirs it causes the deaths of possibly hundreds and thousands of people, I think I might be able to swallow my pride and placate them a little, pretty much exactly like I do every day in South Korea to live an easier life.  The thing that really makes me unsure, however, is standing-by all these years has undoubtedly caused the deaths of possibly millions of North Koreans.  This causes a genuine moral dilemma.  Would it in fact be worth risking the destruction of a city like Seoul or Tokyo in order to save potentially millions of North Koreans now and in the future?  Maybe it is easy to understand why the world has not reached a satisfactory solution to the problem and the stalemate will probably continue for some time yet.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Hidden Meanings of 'Gentleman' and 'Gangnam Style' are Completely Lost on Korea and the World (and Maybe Even on PSY)

This post follows on from an article I wrote for asiapundits last week, where I called into question the image that Psy is creating for himself, and that because the country is so much in his corner, the image of Korea in many people's eyes also. 

If you hadn't figured it out, yes there are hidden messages in Psy's new song 'Gentleman' so perhaps it isn't all that bad after all.  This maybe no surprise, but they are fiendishly difficult to detect for most and especially those who live outside Korea.  Let's analyse the song in a bit more detail.

The translated lyrics first:

-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
Gonna make you sweat
Gonna make you wet
You know who I am, west side
Gonna make you sweat
Gonna make you wet
You know who I am, west side
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman

I don't know if you know why it needs to be hot 
I don't know if you know why it needs to be clean 
I don't know if you know, it'll be a problem if you're confused 
I don't know if you know but we like, we we we like to party
Hey there
If I'm going to introduce myself 
I'm a cool guy with courage, spirit and craziness 
What you wanna hear, what you wanna do is me 
Damn! Girl! You so freakin sexy!
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a...
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a... 
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a...
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a... 
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a, ah I'm a
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a, ah I'm a
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a, ah I'm a
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman
I don't know if you know why it needs to be smooth
I don't know if you know why it needs to be sexy 
I don't know if you know darling, hurry and come be crazy 
I don't know if you know, it's crazy, crazy, hurry up

Hey there
Your head, waist, legs, calves 
Good! Feeling feeling? Good! It's soft 
I'll make you gasp and I'll make you scream 
Damn! Girl! I'm a party mafia!
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a...
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a... 
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a...
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a... 
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a, ah I'm a
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman
Gonna make you sweat.
Gonna make you wet 
You know who I am Wet PSY
Gonna make you sweat.
Gonna make you wet. 
You know who I am 
Wet PSY! Wet PSY! Wet PSY! Wet PSY! PSY! PSY! PSY! 

Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a,  ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a, 
 I'm a mother father gentleman
Mother father gentleman
Mother father gentleman 


Alright, so maybe the lyrics aren't that great, but we are assured that there is cutting satire at the heart of it all when combined with the video; I will let a blog in the Wall Street Journal explain:
  • If it ain’t broke: PSY could have appeased critics by releasing something completely different from his shock blockbuster; instead, he deliberately chose not to jolt fans, issuing a song that’s candidly similar in sound, and pairing it with a video that’s not just familiar, it’s arguably a direct continuation of the first viral clip — set in the same surreal version of Seoul and featuring many of the same characters. Which should make it clear that PSY is trying to…
  • Tell a continuing story: In case this needs reinforcement, the PSY we see in “Gangnam Style” and “Gentleman” is a fictional character; he bears little relationship to Park Jae-Song, the artist who plays that role (Park is, by all reports, a rather nice guy). But PSY, which is short for “psycho,” is a persona that Park has been workshopping for over a decade, across six albums, each of which can be seen as chapters in PSY’s evolution (they’re even more or less presented that way — after his debut, PSY from the PSYcho World, his subsequent releases have mostly been numbered, with his current EP, PSY 6, coming on the heels of his last full album PSYfive). People soon realized that “Gangnam Style” was more than just prankster dada — it was a sly, intentional riff on Korean materialism and classist inequality; “Gentleman” could be seen as planting the same satirical barb into the world of the gender dynamics of Korean society, which is decidedly male-dominated. No, Korean men don’t usually give women the stinkfinger or yank chairs out from under them — but, PSY seems to suggest, the way that males treat females in a patriarchal Confucian society isn’t really that different. He also allows Son Ga-In to give him his comeuppance at the video’s end, before closing off with scenes that show both Ga-In and PSY hilariously aping the cliche exotic-dancer inspired moves that mark both Western hip hop and a growing number of K-Pop videos. (I would be surprised if there weren’t at least a third chapter to the “PSY trilogy” that tips another of Korea’s sacred cows. PSY dancing in the DMZ? Haha, we’ll see. Meanwhile, the details above show how PSY is always careful to…
  • Pay attention to the little things: PSY is as close as you get to an artist-auteur as you’ll see in Korean pop music’s hyper-managed ecology — he writes his music and lyrics, co-directs his videos and actively participates in choreographing the outlandish dance moves that go with his grooves. (For “Gentleman,” he adapted the Brown Eyed Girls’ well-known “Arrogance Dance” from 2009’s “Abracadabra,” even paying a fee to that song’s choreography team, Yama & Hotchicks, for the right to do so.) PSY’s level of meticulousness can be seen in nuances like the hypnotically switching ponytails of the dancers during the song’s signature hipsway, as well as the song’s tongue-in-cheek gangsta elements — the “mother father gentleman” chorus and the shoutout at the end, not to the West Side, but to “Wet PSY.”
Let's do a little analysis of this shall we.

Point 1 

Psy is simply a genius for sticking with the same 'tired and tested' formula (sorry 'tried and tested'), he could have appeased his critics but he chose to do a song and video that are so similar that everyone who was happy with 'Gangnam Style' must surely be happy with 'Gentleman'.  Good on him.  Or could it just be that he could not have produced anything else and was worried that any originality would not create the desired response?

Point 2

He is a genius again this time for producing two songs that are so subtle in poking fun at first materialism and second the treatment of women in a patriarchal society like Korea.  It is surprising and shows greater depth to his music than anyone thought there could be.

Seeing as Psy is so smart, perhaps he should realise that the overwhelming message that both 'Gangnam Style' and 'Gentleman' sends is that of horsing around (quite literally), which there is nothing wrong with but let's not try to give it anymore credit than that.  The message is so subtle and so covered in dirt in the video of 'Gentleman' that you wouldn't know there was a message there at all unless you were told so.  The deeper message in 'Gentleman' is comparable to belching and farting the tune to REM's 'Everybody Hurts' and expecting those grieving lost loved ones to find it meaningful.  'Gentleman' is not likely to highlight or improve the plight of woman in a patriarchal Confucian society (unless he does some serious work outside of the song to campaign for better treatment), but there might be a few more farts flying in their faces and stolen bikinis. 

Since the release of 'Gangnam Style' I have not noticed Koreans or people from any other country changing the way they look at their increasingly materialistic lifestyles, the underlying statement of that song has gone almost completely unnoticed by people in his own country and it is therefore highly likely in the rest of the world also.  I can't also help but notice that Psy has promoted countless products in TV adverts since his big hit, including products from LG and Samsung, he also advertised beer, soju, facial products, Ramen and many more.  It seems that the hidden messages aren't even getting through to him.  He himself appears to be a Gangnam 'Oppa' and proud of it.

Point 3

He is a genius, he is a music artist that writes his own songs (not always) and co-directs his videos (rare in South Korea maybe, but not in the rest of the world).  He is also a genius for not coming up with an original dance routine but copying another one from another group and including them in the video.  Or could it just be that he was desperate to develop another crazy dance move and was finding it difficult to come up with anything that hadn't been done before.  Again, there really is nothing wrong with any of this, but let's not attribute any of this to nuance and genius.

There is more.  This post from the Korean Gender Cafe shows even more hints of Psy's refinement and meticulous nature in producing his music and videos.  I know he is from Korea, and it is understandable he is aiming all the subtlety at his Korean audience, but I wonder how many of them get it either.  Will they only understand these subtle messages if someone ends up pointing it out to them?

This post is turning into a bit of a rant on my part, and I am not usually persuaded to use this style of writing and perhaps I am wrong about Psy and he really is showing an extremely deep and meaningful side to his art.  He is certainly intelligent, I will give him that, he has produced a song that has rocked the world and now maybe a second, and they aren't even that good.  He must know what the people want.

I don't really dislike Psy or any of his work that much really, but the hype over it, and the meaning some are attributing to it, is starting to get my goat a little bit.  The tireless promotion and obsession about Psy by many South Koreans also makes me worry just how other countries will view Korean culture as a whole - as I wrote about in asiapundits - in that, although the deep hidden message isn't vulgar and crude, the crassness of it all is precisely what most of the world will see and the obsessive pride Koreans have in it. 

I wonder what the true motivation for making his music videos really is.  Is it to highlight problems in society and bring about social change or is it simply to be clever?  Or is to make a crude video that gets panned by supposed intellectuals just so he can then turn round and say 'haha, I am really smarter than you, you didn't see all this stuff.'  He is right most of us did need some help to see it, but it is still simply an excuse for a crude video in my eyes.  Bit of fun, maybe, enlightened and concerned social commentator and activist, I don't buy it.

Psy is smart, no doubt, and many attribute more to his music than there is to see at first glance, so if he is so smart why can't he see that his style is counter-productive to getting any deeper information over to the public?  Perhaps it really is not his intention to convey anything deep, just to create an interesting piece of music and video, but he does seem to take extraordinary care in placing these subtle aspects into his music.  The problem is, however, the serious stuff can't be taken seriously when the overall tone is so crude.  To me it seems a bit of a waste of time to put all this time in to a video that hardly anyone will understand and, if they do, will largely ignore anyway.  But who knows, maybe that is why I am not a successful music artist.

One other thing I am curious about, is if I were really concerned about how people in my country were too materialistic, or too misogynistic I would be really anxious to make sure my music was understood for what the true meaning is.  Maybe I am wrong, but Psy doesn't seem too bothered that the vast majority of his audience don't care for or at least don't notice his messages.  I don't know anything about the man, so this is just a theory; I think that he is not too worried as long as the money and the youtube views keep rolling in, but I am waiting to be proved wrong about that.

'Gentleman' is simply bad taste, full-stop, no amount of disguised nuance can take that away and the vast majority of all those millions that will watch on youtube and buy his music will take the childish messages rather than the enlightened ones.  I don't want to sound snobby but his kind of music will not appeal to the kind of people who will understand or receive the nuance meaning of it all. 

Each to his own, and if 'Gentleman' is as successful as 'Gangnam Style' you would have to say well done.  I am not knocking the guy really, if he wants to produce music and videos like this, then great, but let us not big him up to anything other than finding a formula that is appealing to the masses.  I would urge Korean people not to get too preoccupied with promoting him (or using him to promote Korea) because the association could very well end up back-firing on the culture at large in the long-run.  Without the hype, honestly, is the music really that good and is it really worth being proud of?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Joys of Living in Korea

Out of a very British sense of fairness perhaps, I am feeling a little uncomfortable with the amount of bad news or negative stories I have been writing about Korea recently on this blog and the general malaise about North Korea as well.  Believe me when I say that things aren't all bad, indeed they are very often good and better than back home in England in many regards.  This goes without saying really when you think about it, because if everything is bad then why the hell have I stayed here for so long?

So here is a list of reasons why I think Korea is actually a pretty decent place to live most of the time. 

Life is simplified (for a foreigner or native English teacher)

It really is stupidly easy to live here, even if you cannot speak the language.  When you arrive everything is usually sorted out for you; you have an apartment without looking for one, furniture without shopping, and are set up with a bank account. 

Life generally is made exceptionally easy with great delivery services, you don't have to search around for the best energy providers, public transport is efficient and cheap, and if you live in even a small city or town a convenience store, supermarket, gym, department store, doctors, dentists, pharmacy, a variety of restaurants, and all the services you can possibly need are all just around the corner.

Korean Food

As a man who is from a country well known for terrible food (for good reason), I can tell you that I really love the food here, and enjoy being introduced to such a wide variety of different Korean foods.  Korean people take great pride in their food, and for this reason I am never short of generous souls to take me out for lunch or dinner to a different restaurant so they can watch me gleefully gorge myself on another new Korean dish.  I have met some foreigners who say there is little variety and that it is all the same spicy taste, but I think they have simply not gone out there and experimented or tried enough different Korean foods.  There is great variety here, and most of it is extremely healthy, yet another tick in the box for Korean cuisine.  You can even travel to experience specialty food, something that I seem to be doing more often.  Korea has a rich culinary tradition and certain foods are considered especially delicious in different parts of the country where they specialise in them and this is well worth exploring.

Finding Work and the Work Itself

As a native English speaker, finding work in Korea is easy and for me as a man who is married to a Korean it becomes exceptionally easy.  As long as you give your work as a teacher here its own meaning and try to excel at your job, you will be appreciated and at the same time as finding work as an English teacher quite undemanding, you will be challenged enough to make things interesting.  This challenge is greater when you have to plan all your lessons without the aid of textbooks or any syllabus, like I have to.  This takes extra time and effort but is rewarding as it gives me an intellectual freedom in my job that I really enjoy.  Even for teachers without this amount of freedom, relishing the challenge of teaching and motivating students whose language it not your own is the key to enjoying the native English teacher experience.

The Lack of Petty Crime

There will always be stories that can be shared that are exceptions to this rule, but it is nice to be able to walk around with at least some level of faith that nothing will be stolen or if you lose something it might get returned to you.  As I have mentioned before on this blog, some shop owners just store their stock outside on the street under some shelter from the rain and no one steals anything.  I could not imagine this happening in Britain.  Also, if you lose your wallet you do have a great chance of getting it back with everything still inside.  Reckless vandalism also appears to be almost non-existent.  Perhaps much of this is because of a Confucian based culture's greater respect for authority, an aspect of their culture to which I have pointed out a fair amount of downsides to, but this happens to be a happy result of it.

The Lack of Politically Correct Nonsense

Sometimes in my British world of forcing school kids to wear goggles for a game of conkers, law suits for tripping on cracks in the street, failure to criticise anyone within a group of people for fear of giving offence, and everyone wins sports for the young, I yearn for some spade calling bluntness and this is what you can get in Korea.  Kids are wondering around at night buying street-food without fear of abduction or anyone reporting their parents to social services, obese people are called lazy people who need to exercise more and this is widely accepted, my high schoolers are given the responsibility for cleaning their classrooms and changing light bulbs without the fear of them having an asthma attack from dust or killing themselves with electric shocks (no one has died yet), and people trip up and make a mistake by not looking where they are going and slink off in an embarrassed manner without looking for the nearest person to claim money off of.  There are many more examples I could go through.  Sometimes they are too harsh, too blunt, and don't consider individuals very much or empathise with them but mostly I do appreciate their clarity and no-nonsense approach.

Random Acts of Kindness

I sometimes experience a level of sweetness in Korea that I rarely experience back home.  This can be in the form of offering food, surrendering an umbrella or lending one when it is raining, the offering of lifts in a car when I have looked lost and other kind gestures.  Whether these acts occur out of a sense of duty or not they can be very heart-warming.  One of the situations where I often find kind acts being done to me is while hiking, where offers of food, drink or assistance seem to be particularly common.

Exploring the Country

With a little bit of knowledge of Korean it is possible to explore the whole country just by taking public transport - which ties in with what I said about the ease of living.  With mountains, beaches, gorges, forests, islands, different foods, temples and historical landmarks, Korea is a great place to travel around with the added bonus - especially for a skin-flint like me - of not breaking the bank either.  It is a great country to explore and one that is still relatively free of tourists, so a genuine feel of the culture can be experienced.

Young People

I am very fond of young people in Korea, especially between the ages of about 11-20.  Really young kids just annoy me, period, regardless of their nationality, but that is just my personality.  Young people in Korea, in my opinion are especially kind, fun, friendly, open-minded, and polite.  Contrary to what some believe, I find them generally highly respectful of foreign teachers - something I explained in a previous post, here.  Reverse the situation and have Koreans teaching in English schools and I doubt whether student behaviour would be so kindly.  The reason for their affability might be because of their respect culture and the fact they are slightly oppressed by it, both in their dealings everyday with elders and their monumental amounts of study.  Respect culture is something I profoundly dislike but I must admit it does seem to create nice kids, perhaps exactly because they are slightly down-trodden by it.

There is Always Plenty of Controversy and Conflict

Some might think that this is a bad thing, but if you can embrace the difference in the culture here, you will never be short of a talking point over dinner.  Some people think embracing a culture means accepting it, I disagree.  Arguing against things you believe are wrong is important regardless of culture.  I have conflicts with Korean culture all the time but I don't necessarily accept their point of view as equally valid, I enjoy the battle against it, even if many of these battles have to be fought in my head or keyboard in hand on my blog.  If you want a debate, to write, or to be intellectually stimulated, there can be few better places to be in the world than in Korea with so much up for discussion.  This more than makes up for the stresses of clashing with the culture sometimes.  If you want a stress-free life that doesn't challenge your principles, go home or stay away.  If you want a bit of spice and interest and have your worldviews challenged, come to Korea and enjoy the ride.

People are Genuinely Interested in you

A year or so ago I took a trip to Indonesia and I was constantly disappointed by how many times someone would start a friendly conversation with me that always, in the end, turned out to be an emotional blackmailing tactic for me to buy something off of them.  You just never experience this in Korea, people are genuinely interested in you and where you come from or they want to practice their English with you.  It leads to many unexpected and pleasant conversations that can put a little smile on your face.  I have always felt a touch of innocence in many of the people in Korea in this regard and it is a very charming trait about them.

These are my own personal joys about living in Korea.  If any of my readers would like to add to this, by commenting below, I would be really interested to know if I have left anything out.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


This is a short announcement for any followers of my blog.

I am currently writing some articles for, as well as writing on here, and here is a list of recent articles in case any of you are interested.  I usually don't re-blog these articles on my site but I might occasionally in the future.  All of the articles listed below have not appeared on my site.

1. Deals with the similarities between North and South Korea.

2. Private schools from the perspective of Korean students, showing what a misery they can be.

3. Examining the big differences between the old and the young in Korea.

4. The old chestnut of prejudice of white Western men and Asian women, but why do the same issues keep cropping-up?  A reminder of what can be experienced by such a couple.

5. Sexual harassment of nurses in Korea.

6. Stories of the past in Korea told by my Korean grandmother.

7. Chinese tourists are becoming more prevalent and create real issues.

8. Bullying in South Korea, especially in the workplace.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Response to Wangjangnim's Rebuttal on Hagwons in Korea

The debate I am currently having with a hagwon (private academy) owner at is proving more topical than I realised because of the reaction to some adverts aimed at students in Korea involving getting down to study in Korea.  Have a look at this post from Koreabang.

Last week I posted about an ethical dilemma posed by being a hagwon boss in Korea.  I highlighted a couple of articles I read from a website called  The writer of these posts was a hagwon owner himself and I thought he posed some interesting issues on a very thoughtful blog.

He posted a rebuttal to my article which can be viewed here.  I actually think on reading this last post that we agree far more than maybe we both realised to begin with, but we still do have some differences.  What is interesting is that we do come at the problem from two different perspectives, me as a teacher and someone who has close connections with Koreans through my wife's family, and he as an actual owner of a hagwon.  Here is my response to his points.

Point 1 - Excess Study

I entirely agree with everything he wrote on this point, and yes it is easy to condemn, but I do not think that it is therefore wrong to condemn excess study.  I was trying to be objective.  Without voicing disapproval of such things, nothing changes.

Point 2 - Feeling Sorry and Western Arrogance

I do feel sorry for the kids, I can't help it.  I think they are being let down by the Korean mindset with regard to progressing in life.  If this is arrogant to say, then I admit to being an arrogant Westerner.  My wife is a hagwon teacher too and she feels desperately sorry for not just hagwon students but most students in Korea, she lived through it and rebelled against it in her youth and I think it is fair to say she hates the system far more than me.  She learned far more English when she left full-time education and persued an interest in it by travelling to other countries.  She was motivated and this is the key.  Is she arrogant as well for having the same opinion as me?

Point 3 - Ignorance of Hagwon Regulations

I will freely admit that this was a little bit of a woolly assertion on my part as I don't know about regulations.  Wangjangnim is in a better position to know about it than me, but I do know of Koreans who have started study rooms (a bit like small Hagwons) that are not subject to any regulations if they don't have a foreign teacher.  My other question that I raised on the asiapundits website still stands and this is about the regulations regarding Korean owners of Hagwons - not foreigners like wangjangnim - and are there any regulations regarding the quality of the books and materials they use to teach and assessments of the quality of the teaching?

Point 4 - Value over Content?

Not 100% clear on this point but my point of view is that parents are making sacrifices in an ever increasing arms race to better equip their children.  Whether they need to make such sacrifices is debatable, but even if they did have to, I think the system is broken and it shouldn't have to be that way.  I accept that with the way the system currently operates, it is difficult as a parent to break free of this way of educating children.  I also acknowledge that many parents work and that hagwons are serving as a babysitter for them.

Point 5 - I Don't Hear you Complaining About Fast Food Businesses

This is because I am writing a blog about South Korea and issues that effect Korean students.  If I was writing about an obesity problem I might well have a problem with fast food restaurants but even then the comparison is not entirely fair.  I would hope that most people know the ramifications of eating too much fast food and know that it is unhealthy.  They are therefore making and informed free choice to be unhealthy when they go, fair enough.  The lack of understanding of English in Korea makes knowledge of progress rather unclear I think, both for the student (because they maybe too young to understand) and the parent (who often has no knowledge of English).  The industry is also almost solely focused on giving a service to children and it is their time and effort they are taking.  Parents are responsible for what children eat to a large extent and their money buys fast food.  They know it is unhealthy yet they still buy it or give them the money for it, therefore I believe the moral responsibility lies more towards them than the business.  I am only saying there is a more equal balance in the case of hagwons.  I do think fast-food restaurants have moral responsibility for the effects of their food when they market so heavily to young people, though.

Point 6 - Teachers are not the Miracle Solution

I fully concede your point.  The wider point I was making, however, is that the strategies many hagwons use for their foreign teachers are poorly thought out and in many cases counter-productive and the teacher would be better off doing their own thing.  I never meant to imply they were a solution to anything.

Point 7 and 8 - A Dog Calling a Cat Stupid

There is of course no abuse in teaching children when they want to learn or even when they don't but it is in their best interests.  My worry, however, was that there are too many students being taught when they don't want to learn and it is not in their best interests or they are too exhausted to learn, having studied excessively already.  I actually didn't use the term abuse, but I do think it is wrong to inflict forced study on students to the excesses I mentioned in my article.  Students studying all day until 11pm and having homework, come on, these kids do not want to learn, they have had quite enough and it is not in their best interests to study anymore.  Maybe not all students have had enough by the evening but my long experience in Korea, and the testimony of many a Korean, says that most of them want to have a rest and have some fun.  I am not basing this on my own experiences of childhood but on Koreans themselves.

Point 9 - Western Education Better?

I never claimed the above point.  I actually think that a combination of both cultures attitudes to education would do the world of good on both sides.  There are things I like about Korean education and things I dislike, just the same as my views on Western (or should I say British education).  I taught in England too and had many a grumble about the way we do things as well, like the way we wrap students in cotton wool and give way to their every need for an easy life.  Korean education goes in the other direction.  In the East, the child is seen as strong, flexible, and adaptable, they can take a lot of hardship.  In the West, we see children from the opposite point of view; children are weak, vulnerable and need to be protected at all costs.  I believe there is some room for a good deal of middle-ground between the two ways of viewing children.

Point 10 - Understanding Koreans

I think I understand why Koreans do as they do, but that really was not the point of my original article, which was aimed at showing the point of view of a student.  I did, however, through in the odd claim which you quite rightly corrected or at least pointed out needed greater explanation.  I know Koreans have a deep love for their children (I don't think this is greater than in the West, just equally great).  They want what is best for them, of course, and they feel guilt and pressure from society to make them successful.  They are also more reliant on their children when they are older, this is obvious as a group culture will rely on a family group more than an individualistic culture.  I do think this is a factor in wanting to make their children successful and they do - not so gently - push their children into professions they might not otherwise want to do.

I believe the well-being of students in Korea is pretty low and I think there is a better way forward, so therefore I think the current way is wrong.  I was not saying that the current way in the West was right.  The Western education system does not adequately prepare students for life and is increasingly not delving into subjects with enough detail and pandering to students too much, lowering standards (this is a very brief summary of what is wrong) I think this is wrong too.  Our expectations of students is simply lower in the West and this is why test scores are lower, we need to expect more from our students.  Also, is life and education really all about passing tests?

Regarding Criticism of Last Weeks Post

I have no idea of the situation and the student you describe so I can't really comment on you specifically, but again my wider point is that I suspect anyone with any work experience in a hagwon will know of the quiet, tired students who never speak and never improve and who have stayed at the hagwon, wasting their evenings for years.  That was the moral dilemma I was talking of; should hagwon owners keep taking their parents' money and wasting the children's time?  Even the best of intentioned hagwon owners do, I believe, or their businesses would fail, and I don't really blame them as the students they refuse would surely end up in another hagwon anyway.  That is why it is a dilemma and the system needs sorting out.  I never meant to tar all hagwon owners with the same brush of being bad people, I know they are not.

I simply don't believe that parental love is greater or more committed than in the West, it is surely the same.  It is just that love is shown in different ways.  Too much love can also be a bad thing and parents do need to step back and give their children breathing space sometimes.  They can't teach their children everything and realising this is a big step in helping them lead happy, successful, and fulfilling lives.  I worry that the culture as a whole is not getting to grips with this fact at the moment and that many young people in Korea are suffering because of it.

Confronting Criticisms I Hear a lot

I get slightly tired of defending myself against three points you raised here; arrogance, looking at things with Western blinkers on, and comparing Korean culture with my own. 

Regardless of where I am from, I think there is an objective position between other cultures where truth and the best way forward lie.  Sometimes, however, it just maybe that an aspect of one culture is right and the other culture is just wrong.  I am guarded against being too Western in my opinions and my wife usually helps me gauge when I have stepped over the line and entered into a Western-centric argument.  As a Korean, if she supports a Western aspect of culture over her own, does that mean she is only seeing things from a Western point of view?  I don't think so.  The fact is she and I weigh both sides and form an opinion.  Forming an opinion in disagreement with others is what many people do and calling it arrogant is a bizarre argument and in danger of being emotive rather than a logical.  I am being called arrogant for having an opinion, nothing more.  My opinion should be shot down with a logical argument nothing more, and the colour of my skin or where I was born should be irrelevant.

Finally, when it comes to the last point, I am damned if I do and damned if I don't.  I get heavily criticised for posts when I compare aspects of my own and Korean culture.  When I do it in favour of Korean culture I hear nothing, but when I do it in favour of my own I have calls of arrogance, ignorance, and even sometimes racism and only from Westerners.  I think this because of a kind of liberal-minded taboo that has been created in Western culture and a feeling that we should shut up and be sorry for our past prejudices and crimes.  When I don't compare mine and Korean culture (in my origin post on asiapundits and last week on this blog I did not do this other than the example of my summer holidays) I am assumed to be trumping my own cultures whole way of doing things, I can't win.  This is why I am seriously thinking of publishing another blog about the UK.  Writing a criticism on this blog of Korean culture and having to explain everything about my own in relation to it in one post is almost impossible.  I find it highly frustrating to have to defend myself against things I did not write, but are assumed of me, because I did not include it in an already long blog post.

Anyway, this one is becoming overly long so I'll wrap it up.  Many thanks to for replying so thoughtfully and I hope this post has cleared up my position.  I really don't think we disagree too much and I am sure we both have Korean student's happiness, futures, and well-being very much in mind, because if there is one thing I (and I suspect wangjangnim too) really love about Korea it is the young people and this is the sole reason I am so concerned about this subject.