Saturday, April 26, 2014

Lessons from the Buddha and the Sewol Disaster about Living in the Moment

I thought I'd focus on a theme that bears some relation to topics I have written about recently as well as a little more regarding the Sewol disaster, and that is the quality of life of teenagers in Korea.

One thing that makes this whole disaster possibly even more upsetting is the number of young people who were the victims of it, mostly high school students.

The tragic death of a student at my school a couple of months ago got me thinking how much of his short life seems to have been based on studying very hard for a future he will now sadly never experience.  Now, with the horrors of the Sewol disaster as well, this has hit me with even sharper focus.  I wonder whether the young survivors of the disaster will now look at their lives rather differently and strive for a richer life in the present and not simply search for their (or their parents) ideal future.

I am often saddened by the amount of times I ask the question, "What did you do this weekend?", to my students (of a range of ages across all the jobs I've had in Korea, but most recently my high school students) and their answer, even in the school holidays, is "Study".  I used to have a private student, of 13 years old, who spent 12 hours every Sunday in the library, and the vast majority of his waking hours on every other day of the week studying as well - not by choice I might add - and his situation was not unique.

In recent history, many people in the West have looked to the East for answers about how to live the good life and be happy, and specifically they have often looked to Buddhism to show the way (my own cousin can be named among these people).  The West's focus on material possessions, money and building for a better future are all called into question by a belief system that focuses on relinquishing the material and an inner peace in the here and now, rather than dwelling on the past or putting too much emphasis on a dream of a better future. Right here and now is all we really have, yet most people's attention is firmly rooted in the past or the future, never really appreciating the present moment.   I, like many people perhaps, often find myself looking forward too much and not enjoying the present enough.

I am no expert on, or a follower of, Buddhism, and I believe most of its claims to be bogus, but one thing I am not sceptical about is the value of practices like meditation to enlighten ourselves about the here and now and the importance of it and taking time to try and rid ourselves of the plethora of thoughts and worries buzzing around in our heads.

Despite Korea being a country with strong Buddhist traditions and a great deal of temples dotted around its mountainous landscape, Korean society appears to have totally lost touch with some of the principles of Buddhism that could really do it a lot of good.

Ironically, I have heard a number of Korean people criticising Western culture for being overly materialistic, but Korea is a place that values material wealth more than any other place I have ever visited.  It is also a culture obsessed with the future. People are always searching for a perfect tomorrow; to go to a good university, to get a good job, to get married, to have children, to help pay for their parents retirement, etc. Now we all do this to a degree, but many Koreans take this to the extreme and pressurise young people into thinking about their futures all the time in a very inflexible and expectant way, hence the crazy education culture, the general lack of sleep, and all those hours of hard work and study.

From my viewpoint, my hope is that the Sewol disaster might just serve to give Korea as a nation a wake up call (although I'm not terribly optimistic); not just about practices regarding safety, but as a reminder that all of us are just one second away to our ends, one step away from walking in front of a bus, one diagnosis away from falling terminally ill, and one journey away from never returning.  If this happens to us at any age, could we look back on our lives and say it was all worthwhile, that we lived as good a life as possible, or even simply that we enjoyed life while we had it?

We all need to plan for the future to some extent, but when I think of the all the high school students on that ferry my thoughts turn to just what the last few years of their lives would have been like.  If they are anything like the students I have come to know in Korea, most of their time will have been spent with their heads in books, night and day, and being pressured by parents and teachers to prepare for a tomorrow that might never actually come.  Korea is now an economically wealthy, well-developed country, isn't it about time it used this fact to make the people happier and aid them in living more fulfilling lives?  It feels like this aspect of the disaster has been somewhat ignored, so far at least.  With any luck at some point in the near future, the next time a young person dies, their short time on this earth won't seem to be as poorly spent when much greater happiness and life experiences were possible.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Sewol Ferry Disaster: Why we Must Question some Aspects of Korean Culture

jinjoo2713 (Naver User)

In the aftermath of great tragedies, one must be thorough in drawing conclusions about the causes and the way people respond in times of trouble and be careful not to explain away matters on handy scapegoats.  Asking pertinent questions is very much a part of this.

The captain of the Sewol and his crew were obviously in the wrong, their individual actions and orders cost lives and they should rightly be brought to justice.  However, the reasons behind their actions are complex.  It is convenient for everyone, including Park Geun Hye and her government, to brush away the issues highlighted by this disaster as the result of solely individual errors and incompetence.  This may be so, but they have to be more thorough than that.

There have been a variety of articles written that place a fair amount of blame on Korean culture for what happened (many from Koreans themselves), and inevitably people have become upset, calling this simplistic and racist (mostly non-Koreans).  I have two thoughts on this; 1) Yes, it is simplistic to say that culture is the sole cause for the disaster, of course it's not, but I have not heard anyone make this claim, only that it may be part of the reason for it or exacerbated it; 2) It is not racist, how can it be?  We are talking about culture, not DNA. People that constantly make this claim are using a kind of language which is not true, unhelpful, and emotive.

The truth is, individuals are significantly influenced by the culture in which they are brought up and this drastically impacts on their individual thoughts and actions.  It is too simplistic to say culture caused the disaster, but did it play a role?  I would argue that the evidence so far suggests it may very well have done, and it is not wrong to suggest it as a possibility and should not be insulting to do so.

I think there are two main aspects of Korean culture which may have helped cause or exacerbate the catastrophe (and I think they are linked):

  1. Hierarchical Respect Culture
  2. A disregard for rules and regulations and lack of knowledge of safety procedures

Of the two factors, number 2 might be the most important.  "But this hasn't got anything to do with culture", I hear you say.  But you'd be wrong.  Sure, one can't blame it on Confucianism (the usual turn-to) or pinpoint it to other parts of cultural history, but a lack of respect for safety protocols, rules, and regulations is a modern day cultural issue in Korea and is something all of us who live here regularly see. This is why I shake my head in disbelief that articles like this pop-up, titled "Stop Blaming Korean Culture for Last Week's Ferry Disaster", especially when they go on to write this:

"The real problem, at all levels, seems to be protocol—or rather, the absence of one. Kim Su Bin, a classmate of Lim’s at Danwon High School in Ansan, pointed out that passengers did not receive any safety instruction before or during the trip, and that life jackets were available on the fourth floor but not on the third. A communication’s officer for the Sewol has admitted to the crew’s lack of evacuation training, or the enforcement thereof. And the indecision written all over the transcripts between harbor officials and the Sewol crew reveals an apparent dearth of actionable protocol for either side in the event of such a calamity."
The author then goes on to quote a journalist in South Korea:

“The main point is not culture,” said Jaehwan Cho, a Seoul-based journalist covering the events on his Twitter, in an interview on Sunday. “The main point is government structure... We need to turn our eyes to the government situation, government atmosphere. If we can revise those things, I don’t think this kind of disaster will happen again.”

He is at least partly right, government is an issue, but the lack of a safety protocol, instructions, lack of training, etc, could very well be heavily linked to culture because this is not something unique to this situation and it is not all the government's fault.  And after all, where does government come from if not the people and the culture that created it?

When I spoke to my wife about all this, she told me that when she worked as a nurse in a hospital in Korea she was given no fire safety training, but legally she was supposed to, she was even given a form to sign to say she had.  When she said she had no such training, she was simply told to sign it by her superiors anyway.  Irresponsible of my wife? In the atmosphere of the Korean workplace, in reality she had no choice whatsoever, you simply can't question your superiors, if she had refused, her life would have been made very difficult (a subtle way respect hierarchies reduce safety).

So, if there was a fire in that hospital, you might well have had a similar situation occurring as to what happened on the Sewol; panicked people searching for members of staff to tell them where to go and what to do and the response and information would have been poor because the problem is that the patients in the hospital and the passengers on the ferry would have had about as much information on safety as the people who were supposed to be in charge.

Also, people in junior positions are regularly thrown into the deep end and given responsibility for things they perhaps should have been better trained and equipped for. In my wife's case, she became a surgery room nurse and her training consisted of sitting-in on only one or two surgeries and watching (she did many different kinds of joint surgery) and then told to learn terms and instruments at home on her own time. Basically, she had no training and learnt on the job - and was often shouted at and bullied by doctors when she made inevitable mistakes every now and then.  To make matters worse, in the quest for profits and the busy world of Korea, she was forced to rush from patient to patient, hastily sterilising instruments (and often having minor accidents as a result; cuts, burns etc), and feeling extreme pressure to finish important and possibly hazardous tasks quickly (빨리 빨리!).

I see this kind of thing everywhere in Korea, therefore I think it is fair to say that this has become part of the culture and needs changing.  Whether you agree with this or not, my hypothesis is not racist because I am saying it is cultural, not racial, and because it is not about race, it is something that can be changed; it is not written in their DNA and not set in stone.

The exact reason why I believe hierarchical respect culture was a factor is different to most other commentators on this subject.  I simply don't know what passengers from Western countries would have done had they been given the same orders to stay below deck by the captain.  I actually think saying they were being overly obedient is probably a bit simplistic, perhaps this was a factor, but I think this is something we can't really know and it is harsh and insensitive to blame the passengers, who were obviously scared victims of someone else's mistakes and a desperately unfortunate situation.

As I have mentioned already the effect of respect culture is probably more subtle on this disaster.  It is the role of the crew and the captain that needs more focus and these are the questions I would ask:

  1. Why didn't any of the crew question the captain's orders, and if they did, why did it not have any effect?
  2. Why was the captain away from the bridge when the accident occurred?
  3. Why did it take so long to correct the original order of staying below deck?
  4. Why did they go off the original course in the first place?
  5. Why was the response so slow by rescue teams?

Of course we don't know the answers to any of these questions yet, but I am going to highlight some of the side effects I see day to day in Korea of rigid respect hierarchies and I will leave it to you to connect the dots:

  1. People rarely question orders of superiors, even when they are obviously wrong sometimes.
  2. The sense of entitlement being of higher age or rank gives people often affords them the luxury of sitting back and letting those below them do most of the difficult work.
  3. When mistakes are made by elders or those of superior rank, they can be very stubborn in admitting them and will often carry on regardless or hope everything will be alright in order to save face.
  4. Protocol, rules, and regulations are often ignored by people who have high status because they feel they know better and are above them.
  5. Respect hierarchies are inefficient, causing a lack of initiative in individuals and can cause slow responses by waiting for orders of superiors.

Now I am not saying these factors are all definitely related and this is exactly what happened, but it is everyone's responsibility to consider all of these a possibility.  In fact they are questions you could ask people of any culture, but Korean culture accentuates things when it comes to issues of status and respect.  If you refuse to acknowledge them for fear of being a racist or upsetting those of another culture, you may be sending others to their doom in the future.  People's lives, whoever and wherever they are, are more important than the risk of offending cultural sensibilities.

Finally, if someone were to hypothesise that the 7/7 bombings in the UK had something to do with British culture, why on earth would I be offended?  I just don't understand it.  In fact, one could make a good argument that British culture played a role (over-politeness, political correctness, and tolerance of even the dangerous and intolerant for fear of giving offence) in the creation of the Muslim radicals (the UK seems to be quite good at cultivating them) who hatched the plot and carried it out.  Not only that, but even if it had nothing to do with British culture in the end, it would have been our responsibility to question it (and many did) and at least rule it out.

In fact the two examples correlate rather nicely because in the case of the 7/7 bombings it was the actions of psychotic and brainwashed individuals; in the Sewol disaster it seems it was the actions of incompetent individuals in positions of responsibility.  We can leave it at that on both disasters and hope both never happen again, but it must be discovered whether in each case such disasters were a one-off or whether there is something about each culture that might encourage future similar events.  In the case of British culture, might it encourage radical Muslims to flourish?  And is there something about Korean culture that encourages incompetence, danger and confusion, in potentially dangerous situations, to flourish?

The only way to find out and be as thorough as possible in avoiding future disasters is to ask questions, which it seems is easy and not at all insulting to do with British or American culture, but when we do it to non-Western cultures like Korea, we suddenly turn into racist simpletons.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Korean Teenagers and Well-Being

Over the past two years or so I have written frequently about what a stressful and depressing life Korean teenagers are having in Korea, so it was to my surprise that South Korea came third recently in a study of well-being in teenagers from different countries.

In the linked article above, I do think the title is a little deceptive, in that although well-being and happiness are linked, they are not the same.  I would argue strongly that South Korea is not an example of a country with especially happy teenagers, and I'm sure many would be on my side.  Korea's notorious suicide statistics and a recent poll finding that about half of all teenagers have contemplated suicide, would also seem to contradict the notion that South Korean teenagers are the third happiest in the world.

It is interesting to see how the study was compiled and how it favoured Korea in the parameters it measured:

"To create the index, the researchers looked at 40 indicators to assess "citizen participation, economic opportunity, education, health, information and communications technology (ICT), and safety and security" among the world's youth (defined as people 12 to 24)."

Listed in among the factors quoted are some of the really fantastic things about Korea. There is no doubt that in some departments Korea has done many things right, especially the last three; health (in young people), ICT, and safety and security.  General organisation and efficiency in Korea is also something I find much better than in many countries, particularly my own.  Life for teenagers in Korea is certainly convenient, well-organised, and relatively free from dangerous temptations and situations.

However, the problem with fairly narrow studies like this is the lack of attention to detail and the message it may send out.  Education is a perfect example; while I am sure Korea scored highly for education (it regularly tops world league tables), Korean education of the young is something that significantly contributes to unhappiness.  One can't help but also notice that if you keep students cooped-up in a classroom all day (and on many occasions, all-night), of course they'll be safer.  Just like house cats have less danger and tend to live longer than those that are given free reign to go outside and come and go as they please.  But what kind of cat would you rather be?

Economic opportunities is another thing to be careful in making assumptions about happiness, because while Koreans do have opportunities and in my experience finding a job is much easier (for Koreans and non-Koreans) than in my own country (Korea has the lowest unemployment rate in the OECD), work life in Korea is stressful.  Koreans work some of the longest hours, taking away time with family and friends and time for relaxation. Hierarchies at work also cause troubles, giving their bosses too much control of their lives.  Young people are always at the bottom of these hierarchies, often leading to the worst of working conditions, and the lowest levels of respect and job satisfaction.

But even if it was crystal clear that South Korea was doing a better job than most other countries with regard to the well-being of its youth, does this mean it is doing good enough?

What has always fascinated me about Korea is that its problems are so obvious, and what's more Koreans are so aware of the problems they have in their society, they just seem powerless or unwilling to change them.  It is not a question of Johny foreigner coming over here and noticing the problems they can't see, in my experience very few Koreans are ignorant of the issues they have in society.

In a heartbeat South Korean society could make things so much better for young people if they simply took some of the weight off their shoulders.  The obsessive compulsive nature of education in Korea is the major culprit of unhappiness.

Even small steps would make a great difference; students could still study long hours for example, just give them less homework and encourage more sleep.  As I said in last week's post, why are Korean high school students sleeping only 4 or 5 hours a night? Surely, a healthy amount of sleep would improve their performance and make them happier at the same time.

The study on well-being actually does show some huge positives for the way Korean society has been organised.  Korea is so close to being a place that is really great to live.  There are many ways in which Korea trumps other places in the world to live, but fails in ways that are so unnecessary it becomes frustrating to be a part of it all.

In my own personal opinion, there are a few key issues that would really make Korea a wonderful place to live if they could change their ways slightly:

1. A less rigid adherence to respect culture hierarchies.
2. A greater respect for worker's rights (and individual rights generally).
3. Less concern with petty status games and jealousy.
4. Being less OCD when it comes to education.
5. Being less nationalistic.
6. Enforcing laws (e.g. traffic laws).

Korea has always struck me as a nation of extremes in these regards; it would only take a little adjustment of each of these factors and one might see Korea rising to the top of more positive tables and statistics, like those concerned with well-being, and lifting off the bottom of the less desirable measures of societies, like suicides.