Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Korean In-Laws in Australia!

So, my Korean in-laws finally stepped-out of Korea.  For the first time in their lives they made it to another country.  And I missed it!

I was actually really gutted.  I had longed planned a big cycle touring trip of Australasia; firstly cycling from Darwin to Melbourne in Australia and then cycling all around New Zealand over a period of about 3 months or so.

Unfortunately, this coincided with their trip to see my wife, which occurred fairly last-minute due to my wife having a short gap between jobs.  Seeing as my wife had some time-off they jumped at the chance to come visit.

I had always looked-forward to observing how my in-laws would react in a Western English-speaking country that was well outside of their comfort zone.  My in-laws are both from Suncheon, a smallish city in Jeollanamdo, quite possibly the most rural province in Korea and quite far from the international hubs of Seoul and Busan.

In Korea, I was the stumbling, bumbling fool, who got around with limited Korean and was ignorant of a wide variety of cultural practices and things going on around me. Now it was their turn.

I wasn't just interested in a bit of schadenfreude, however (although it would have been wonderful), I was actually really curious to see how they'd react to it all.  Fortunately, my wife kept me up to date with what was going on.

As I suspected, my mother in-law appeared to be quite fascinated with everything and open-minded, especially with regard to food.  My father in-law, not so much.

The first thing they did after leaving the airport in Melbourne was go to the nearest Korean restaurant, even before going home to freshen up.  My wife told me that in the week her father was there, he ate pork belly every single day (this is the cut used in samgyeopsal in Korea), and in the whole time he was there ate nothing but Korean food except on two occasions; once eating a warm jam doughnut at Victoria Market, and one time eating fish and chips while on the Great Ocean Road.  Apparently, the fish and chips made him literally sick later on that evening.  He was also quite pleased that he could buy an ample amount of soju to wash down the copious amount of pork belly he was consuming.

Surprisingly, perhaps, they commented that my wife should not come back to Korea, and that they really liked Australia.  Maybe some of this is to do with how successful my wife has been (after a tough 2 years) in Melbourne.  They beamed with pride about how my wife works as a surgery room nurse in the most prestigious public hospital in Melbourne, The Alfred.  One of their few requests for places to visit was the hospital itself, and they made sure all their friends back home knew about this.

Among the things that impressed my father in-law about Australia was the sheer scale of the place and the abundance of open land.  On their trip along the Great Ocean Road, my wife said he gazed in fascination out of the window for most of the journey, even when there was little to see.  To be fair Australia's wide expanses of flat, baron land must be quite a difference to the lifetime of forested mountains he must have been used to, with cities and buildings squeezed into the flat spaces in between (he should cycle through the centre of the country for a real shock).

Of course, the thing that gave him the most joy was the cost of pork belly, which was quite a bit less expensive than Korea.  Apparently, the jam doughnut in Victoria Market was the only distraction from him salivating over the cheap choice cuts of pork belly at the butchers there.

My mother in-law was taken aback by the number of men she saw pushing prams and carrying babies.  She thought this was a great thing, and something she never really saw in Korea.  She was also very happy with how politely she was treated by the young men she came into contact with generally.  She was less impressed with the women, however, who she perceived as being a little more cold, self-entitled, and uptight than she expected.

Another thing that caught her eye was just how individual people were in their sense of style.  Melbourne is perhaps an especially noticeable place for things like this, with St Kilda where I live being a particularly eccentric place.  She was intrigued about how people mostly didn't give a damn about what they were wearing or how they were acting.

My mother in-law stayed on for 2 weeks longer than my father in-law, who had work commitments after one week.  She was able to go on an extra trip over to the Grampians, a range of unique-looking mountains a couple of hours North-West of Melbourne.  Unfortunately for her, this coach trip was also frequented by a large number of Indians, who were apparently smelling strongly of curry and body odour (I promise you these are her and my wife's words, not mine).  Knowing that my wife and my mother in-law are a pair of bloodhounds when it comes to their sense of smell (they have both put me to the sword at times for "Western smell"), and rather intolerant of unwelcome odours, this put a smile on my face while I was cycling through New Zealand.  Apparently they moved seats several times to escape the worst of the stench, but to no avail.  They were also highly critical of the punctuality of a pair of young German girls who were always late, and the last ones to get on the bus at the end of each stop.

Apart from the odd bit of culture shock, like this, however, I was pleasantly surprised about how well they adjusted to such a brave new world.  Amazingly, they encouraged my wife not to even visit them in Korea, but just to wait until they visited her in Australia, or even meet up somewhere else in the world.  My mother in-law, especially, has always wanted to go to Germany, a place where she dreamed of working as a nurse once (perhaps this is where my wife got her ambitions from).

Funnily enough, though, she doesn't have much interest in visiting England, and my hometown in particular.  Curiously, this has a lot to do with my mother, who she feels slightly uncomfortable intruding upon, and is convinced that her daughter is not a good daughter in-law as well.  Despite numerous attempts to allay her fears on this subject, she is convinced that because my wife did not cook for her and clean the house when we were there (and knowing her character generally), my mother must think ill of her for bringing such a rotten daughter in-law into the world.  The truth being to the contrary, that my mother thinks my wife is lovely, and surely wouldn't harbour such thoughts against her mothering skills, and would certainly be delighted to be a host if my mother in-law ever chose to visit.

The only problem for my wife is that her brother misses out.  He, like many thirty-something Koreans, is tied to a job with a scant amount of holiday time, if any at all, so visiting Australia, or indeed almost anywhere overseas except China and Japan is extremely difficult.  I think he really misses his sister.

It seems though, as if both my in-laws have caught the travel bug now, they are keen to visit again and to as many countries as possible.  With this in mind then, I am sure I will get my wish, and see them out of their comfort zone for myself in the near future.

Note:  This is a delayed post, as I forgot about it completely.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Do Koreans Integrate into Australian Society? And Does it Matter?

Hi everyone, it's been a long time.  I keep meaning to post more, but Korea is less relevant to me these days.  I still blog, but now it is usually only about cycle touring, which has been a new and exciting hobby I have been doing since coming to Australia.

Anyway, I thought I'd address the controversial topics of immigration and integration for my first post since over a year ago, and relate it to Korea to keep things relevant.

Firstly, I'll let you know where my bias lies on this topic.  I can't speak for other countries, but when it comes to Britain, I think mass immigration is doing a fair amount of harm at the moment, and I am especially concerned about immigration from the Islamic world.  Unlike the US, whose Muslim population is comparatively small (proportionately) and whose immigration system usually takes mostly well-qualified and vetted immigrants from the Islamic world.  The UK has old ties with countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which means we tend to have a fair amount of low-quality immigrants from these nations that do not benefit British society.

So how do I tie this in with Korea?  Well, I love a comparison, as you may know, so I thought I'd do one here between Korean immigrants to Australia and Muslim immigrants to the UK.

My biggest issue with Muslim immigrants to the UK, and perhaps more importantly to other countries in Europe, is that those already there appear to be living solely in their own communities and struggling to integrate, yet still huge numbers are coming in, making assimilation into British and European culture even harder.

I am currently living in Melbourne, and I am often struck with amazement cycling my way through the city about just how many East Asians there are.  It feels like the ratio is almost 50/50, and filling a percentage of this does appear to be a fair amount of Koreans.

Looking at the latest figures I could find, the 2011 census data, the number of Korean-born people in Australia was only about 75 000.  Now this doesn't account for those born in Australia of Korean ancestry, but the number is far far less than say Muslims in the UK.

However, the key issue I am concerned with is integration.  Do Koreans integrate into Australian society?  It is a tricky question to answer with statistics alone, so with that in mind, I am going to give my observations of what I have seen in Melbourne through connections with my wife.

I like to make things absolutely clear for readers, because I have absorbed a fair amount of criticism on this blog, so what I am about to say is an observation, not a statement of fact (and this has always been the case, and was even written into the description of my blog).  I am writing this blog as an observer, not a journalist.  I don't have the time to sift through data or interview community leaders.  These are my opinions based, not solely, but mainly on my own observations.

So, do Koreans integrate?  My answer would be largely, no.  I find they mainly stick to having Korean friends and associations. You will always find examples of people who do, and I think it is obvious to say that the children of Korean immigrants in the past are far more likely to do so, but in general the Koreans I have met don't really integrate into wider Australian society.

What I think you'll find happening more and more in western countries is also that foreign communities will begin to integrate less and less due to the high volumes of their own country men and women coming over.  The reason for this is that in the past, the first immigrants had to associate with wider society in a range of areas; for schooling, services, and friendship.  However today, increasingly all these things can just be comfortably done within their own communities.  For instance, what you'll find in many Muslim dense areas of the UK is that kids go to Islamic schools, you can hire a Muslim plumber, go to a Muslim-owned grocery store, and people only socialise with other Muslims.  They might as well be in their own countries.

The Korean community in Melbourne often works to my benefit, as I find that having access to them through my wife can be very useful.  If I ever want a job done well, I usually hire a Korean.  If I need a taxi to the airport, someone to help move house, a builder, a visa agent, etc, I get my wife to look into the Korean community first.  I usually find them cheaper, quicker, better quality, easier to get a hold of, and generally less bogged-down in bureaucratic procedures.  I am sure they do all these services without the proper government-approved license, but quite frankly, I am glad of that as they are better at what they do as a result.

I am not suggesting that this lack of integration is the fault of Korean people (or indeed Muslims) either, I just think this is a bit of a fact of life that, in reality, happens in most foreign communities.  After all when in Korea, the same occurs with people from English speaking nations, they all hang around together.  The critical thing is, though, does this lack of integration really matter? In the case of Korean people, I think it doesn't.

With very few exceptions, Korean people have cultural values which enable them to be excellent newcomers to Western societies.  They are hard-working, law abiding, and tolerant of and adaptable to the different way of life that they have migrated into. Many even embrace the ability to throw off the shackles of Korean society and just be themselves.  But even if Koreans don't enjoy Western liberalism, individualism, and life in general, they usually just deal with it and get on with their lives without complaint.

Perhaps I am just ignorant of any downsides, but I cannot recall any problems Far-Eastern communities have caused in Western countries.  I just don't hear of any unrest involving Koreans, Chinese, or Japanese.  Individual exceptions again will always crop-up, but they really do seem like rogue individuals, out of sync and unrelated in their behaviour with their wider community.

Contrast this with Muslim communities in many Western countries, especially in Europe. Now I know there is a lot of right-wing media out there cooking-up a storm about this, but at least some of it does appear to be quite valid.

It isn't just the terrorism, in Britain we have had issues with Muslim rape gangs, tens of thousands of cases of Female Genital Mutilation going completely unprosecuted, and death threats to journalists and public figures for, sometimes the most benign acts of freedom of expression against the prophet Mohammed.

Like it or not, there is an extreme side of many inside Muslim communities in the West that not only doesn't integrate, like Koreans, but appears to actually want to defy the laws and customs of the countries they come into and have their own power.  They want their own legal system, their own areas, and seek special privileges (especially the right to not have their religion mocked or prophets depicted).  On top of this, there looks as though there is an issue with members of the Muslim community not speaking-up against truly unsavoury, dangerous extremists who exist within their communities. This is both out of solidarity with them as fellow Muslims and out of fear of violence against them.

From my observations of Koreans and what they say, they don't hold nearly the same fears or feelings of loyalty with fellow Koreans (not to mention their lack of extreme behaviour).  Indeed many of them don't want to make too close friends with other Koreans, as they end up facing the same issues with societal pressure just in a different land.  For this reason, I am sure there are a number of pretty lonely Koreans in Australia, who find it difficult to make friends with non-Koreans, yet also don't wish to get too close with the Korean community either.

I hear a lot of generalisations about immigration, but really we have to be quite specific about it if we want to realistically make multi-culturalism work, if it can work at all.  As I have said many times in this blog, culture matters, and different cultures can throw-up different challenges when it comes to living side by side with each other.  Some cultures, like Korean culture, can be radically different to ours yet in ways that make them easy to be neighbours with, and some can be different in divisive ways that cause trouble.

I think Western culture generally has far more in common with many Islamic cultures than it does with the Far East, but the specific small differences between the West and some Islamic cultures (being general here, I am aware of the many cultures occurring in Islamic countries and indeed the subtle differences in Western countries also), are far more problematic than the big differences between the people of the West and the Far East when it comes to living with each other.

These subtleties are always lost when we talk about immigration.  Phrases like, "diversity is our strength", or, "immigration benefits our country", are far too broad to get to the heart of the matter.  The truth is that sometimes diversity is a good thing and sometimes immigration is of benefit to our countries, and that it very much depends who and where those coming in are from, and in what numbers, as to whether this immigration is of benefit to the economy and society as a whole.  I have yet to ever hear this nuance in any debate on the subject.

The migrant crisis in Europe would be problematic wherever these people were coming from, but I think it is stating the obvious to say that if we had millions of Koreans flooding into Europe right now, we'd have significantly less troubles than if it was millions of Muslims.  Before we can sit down and logically talk about uncomfortable truths such as this, I see no hope for multi-culturalism worldwide, and particularly in Europe, and I do fear for the well-being of my country of birth in the years to come.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Rules of the Road

Something that always fascinated me about living in Korea was the strict adherence to cultural rules and laws while at the same time a very loose following of actual state laws and rules.  From afar, it looks like Park Geun Hye is setting about trying to control more and more things through the government, yet it is difficult because as I have commented on before, many laws in Korea are selectively followed.  The country as a whole appears more governed day to day by cultural do's and don't's with significant others providing the watchful eye of a policeman.

It immediately struck me upon returning to the UK and now Australia that the reverse is true; there appears to be fewer consistent cultural rules (although cultural marxism seems to be quite prevalent), but many state rules, regulation, and advice.

Laws around general behaviour are infuriatingly abundant here in Melbourne, and makes me wonder whether the state gives any credit to it's citizens at all for being able to live their lives responsibly.  A trip to the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Boxing Day Test match reveals this quite starkly.  Every 15 minutes you are reminded of the various bad behaviours that can get you ejected from the stadium and heavily fined on the big screen.  Popular members of the current Australia cricket team are there to dispense the friendly advice.  One shouldn't:

- Swear
- Drink too much
- Throw anything onto the field of play
- Go onto the field of play
- Abuse officials, players or other spectators

Fines ranging from $1000 - $10 000.

Fine, all are unpleasant and should be discouraged, perhaps with a message at the start of the game.  However, the constant all-day reminders begin to grate on me.  Do people not know how to behave already?  In Korea, it mostly seemed like people did, crowds of people were in many respects self-policed (lucky as the Korean police force didn't really appear capable of handling big trouble).  In the past, I'm sure crowds at cricket grounds we the same; they sometimes ran onto the pitch, sometimes caused trouble, sometimes had a naughty bit of a laugh.  No one died, no one was ever really hurt, and people laughed often.  There was a behavioural boundary that was well understood and rarely crossed, although occasionally cheekily flirted with, but dealt with in mostly good humour and understood that it was a rare occurrence.  Perhaps because of the social status concerns, most of the bad behaviour you heard about in Korea occurred in the shadows.

The thing is that these rules do actually seem necessary here; people are more childish and more in need of being told how to behave than I ever remember in the UK in the past, and certainly in Korea.  This year I took stock of the number of people escorted out of the MCG stadium by police.  After lunchtime it was staggering just how many people fell foul of these rules, despite being reminded ad nauseam by some of their cricketing idols.

But it's not just at the cricket ground, rules are everywhere in Melbourne, and on top of that, advice from the government abounds also.

Driving my car in Melbourne is a real note of sourness for me, in fact having a car in general is a nuisance.  I feel like I come into contact with state laws far more often. Driving is still a useful convenience, but it's like I have a camera on me all the time, just waiting to pounce on any trivial mistake.  I don't think this is what law enforcement is all about.

I have had 5 speeding fines in Melbourne in 6 months, the first (and worst) written-off as a first offence.  I never had one in ten years driving in the UK.  All the fines came in two places, both of which were three lane carriageways and the limit only 40km/h, pitifully and unnecessarily slow.  Melbourne has changes in speed limits all over the city, often recently devised with road signs changed regularly, and new speed cameras craftily placed.  It can be very difficult to keep up with.  Make a mistake once, however, and you are unlikely to learn from it until 3 weeks later when you receive notice in the post.  In those three weeks, if you drove down the same road you are very likely to be fined again and again and again.  Speed cameras are not noticeably marked and do not conspicuously flash.  You have to wonder, if you don't learn from your mistakes until three weeks after, what job is this doing protecting the public (the stated reason for speed limits and cameras)?  If it were so dangerous going over 40km/h in these areas, then surely 3 weeks of making the same mistake, might cause an accident in that time.

Luckily, I drive rarely, preferring to bike (still managed to get my fair share of fines though, in a small number of car journeys).  Some people I know, however, I have been stung by these fines and points on their license extremely badly, and no one I have spoken to has a clean license (and I moan about this often to many people, you'd be surprised to hear).  I think it is safe to say that for many low-wage earners, they are likely to pay far more in speeding and parking fines (the parking is overly-complicated too) than they pay in tax over a year.

TV adverts constantly paint the police as around for the benefit of public safety, especially on the roads.  Anti-speeding adverts ask, "How many deaths on the road are acceptable each year?"  When a man says "I don't know, maybe a 70?", 70 of his friends and family walk around the corner looking somber and teary hugs are the result.  None is the correct, and very unrealistic answer.  Anyway, how is constantly looking for roads signs and taking your eye off the road to check your speedometer on fast roads, with unnaturally slow speed limits, going to reduce accidents?  This is unrealistic, touchy-feely idealism, supported by the government for one reason and one reason alone; it makes them a tremendous amount of money.  It's not about saving lives, it's about convincing the public that all the speed cameras and fines are good for them.  Fear drives it, because at the end of the day, you don't want to be the one seeing your child's body being peeled off the tarmac.  Families buy into this lie the most because of this very natural aversion to the possibility of their child being in danger (this is a topic I will return to at a later date).

There are even 10km/h speed limits through a park that I cycle through every morning (I run/jog faster than that!).  Adverts on the TV say, "Don't drink and drive", "Don't take drugs and drive", "Don't speed", "Don't drink and swim", "Wear sunscreen".  There are so many more.  Is it that necessary to treat everyone like a child?  If it is, what's happened to society?  I don't remember everyone being this irresponsible.

We've been warned not to throw sticks for our dogs to prevent injury? I've thrown sticks for 35 yrs without a problem. Have sticks changed?

Above: An example from the UK on Twitter, while taking a break from writing this.  Can't imagine such concerns in Korea.

I know many of you will be thinking that this is all good advice, but I feel saturated by it.  I never once experienced this feeling in Korea, except when I was with my wife's family, where advice was dispensed on an almost minute by minute basis.  This was equally annoying, however innocent mistakes were met with initial annoyance, but then understanding.  Mistakes here equal money for the state government and they will contrive every which way to make sure you pay up.  They will wack a fine or a service charge on basically anything, leaving no stone unturned for the accruing of public revenue.

Of course, this is a moan born of the frustration of receiving too many large speeding fines for only just exceeding the limits ($190 for only a 5km/h mistake), but I think this is all a bit symptomatic of too much state involvement in the life of perfectly reasonable, otherwise law-abiding people, and also shows the lack of responsibility many people in Western countries appear to have (at least in the two I have lived in).  I do think the political trajectory over the past couple of decades has encouraged this lack of responsibility in people and is damaging our culture as a whole (again a topic for expansion on another day).

What's interesting is that I much maligned Korea as a place devoid of following logical laws and procedures with regard to safety, never more highlighted than in the Sewol disaster.  But that's the frustrating thing, the lack of middle ground.  Is it possible to have this middle ground, or is it inevitable that with time the prevailing cultural opinions of the masses will lead things this way?  I never used to think so, I perhaps naively thought that if enough people went to different parts of the world and brought back with them the knowledge of how things are done better elsewhere, that change for the better of everyone would occur.  My experience, in England and now Australia, is that this rarely happens, and when it does it is usually quite trivial.  No significant changes in culture, or the way a country is organised, ever seem to truly occur.

All this has perplexed and depressed me for sometime now, with any luck I'll be pleasantly surprised in the future, but experience has taught me not to hold my breath.

Friday, February 19, 2016

International Students Beware - Part 2

So, as promised, the plot thickens when it comes to my now ex-housemate.  First a bit of background.

After joining my wife in Melbourne, we decided we needed to be a bit closer to her university.  I arrived a few months before the start of her new course at the better university.

Most of the properties we viewed in the area close to the university were either tiny or dirty and old for the price we could afford, so with this in mind we decided to rent with someone else and get a rather nice place to live in.  The only interested party was a Chinese girl on the same English course prior to the start of the nursing course.  My wife knew little about her other than she seemed harmless enough.

Many of the courses that offered places to international students would have an English level requirement.  In most cases this was an IELTS 7.  This is quite hard to achieve, so most still offer places to international students if they complete an English course prior to the commencement of their main course, obviously at an extra cost.  Still, most institutions require at least a level 6 in all four disciplines.

They stipulate that a certain level (presumably the equivalent to IELTS 7) must be achieved in order to start the course, however, a problem occurs if the student's English level is still not good enough.  If the universities keep on failing students for their English, the likelihood is they won't pay the larger fees to start their actual course and once word of this gets out, less and less overseas students will come.  I therefore highly suspect that most universities will not fail students for their English more than once.  Why am I so cynical, you ask?  Well, for two reasons:

1) My housemate's English was awful, and when I say awful, I mean diabolical.  She rarely understood anything either I or my wife said to her.  On top of this, her basic speaking skills were terrible.  Stringing sentences together just didn't happen unless it was a commonly repeated phrase, like, "I got it", or "Okay sister", to my wife.  I remember once asking what she thought of my new car only for her to reply, "I am go meet friend".  She never ever, not once in about 9 months asked me to repeat what I said, she always guessed and was, at least 50% of the time, wrong.  She pronounced simple words like, "dollar" and "chili", wrong, saying "donar" and "chini", instead.  It was painful communicating with her.  My speaking and listening in Korean was better than her English, I understood more and I made less basic mistakes.  My Korean is not at all good, and certainly not good enough to do a degree in Korean.

I'd been an English teacher for a few years, so I think I can judge English level pretty decently.  This girl's English was no better than an average Middle school student in Korea at best.  I doubt whether her IELTS level got much past level 5, let alone approaching level 7.  How on earth was she accepted onto this course?

It turned out that my housemate failed her English course once and then was passed the second time.

2) As chance would have it, one of my personal training clients at work used to be an English tutor in one of these pre-degree course English schools.  I asked her why she left and she confirmed my suspicion that students could fail only once, that after one fail she was told to just pass them.  When it appeared that she had to lie in order to do her job, she quit (she could do this on principle as her spouse and family in general were very well-off).

Now there is no way her English was good enough to start a nursing degree, no way. What's wrong with this?  Where do I start?

While it seems the university was doing her a favour by letting her start her nursing course, it clearly was not.  How on earth would she ever pass the course (she still hasn't by the way, she is having to repeat a number of modules, at extra cost of course)?  If she did even somehow manage to pass the course, how could someone employ her?  If by some miracle someone did employ her, what would it mean for the patients she was helping treat?!

As well as all this, the personal cost to her family would be mounting and mounting.  She had already had to repeat her English course and then a number of modules on her nursing course.  This already must be up into the tens of thousands of donars, sorry, I mean dollars.

So where was my housemate getting all this money from; for her students fees, failed modules, and living costs while in Australia?  She had a rich family?  She worked tirelessly at a part-time job, right?  Wrong.  She never worked, and all the money her family poured into their daughter were in loans, this is all straight from the horses mouth, as we asked her.  She had already been in Australia for 2 years when I met her, and this was over a year ago.  By my calculations, the money spent by her family must be a six-figure sum.  Frightening.  The pressure on her and her family for her to pass must be immense.

All of this gave me an interesting first-hand insight into what must be going on when it comes to the economy in China.  It seemed like a microcosm of the the wider economic problem there, anecdotal, but telling evidence that money and wealth in the country appears mainly a sham.  Assuming that it isn't though, and that debts have to be re-paid, my housemate's family were being driven into bankruptcy.

The old saying, "sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind", seems to apply here.  In all honesty, she never should have been offered a place on any course in the English language (other than an English course) and the reality of the initial disappointment would have saved her and her family in the long-run.

This was a girl of mediocre talents from a small city Chinese background, not ready at all for life outside of China, and it showed in everything she did.  It is impossible that the university couldn't see that this was the case.

I can't figure out how she even survived or passed any modules on her course at all.  Although there were rumours of vast resources for cheating in the Chinese student community.

I bemoaned the online element of the course in the previous post, and it is relevant here also.  Many tests could be cheated on because of this.  Students can all sit in a group and use each other to find answers, perhaps this is how she managed it.

Believe me, I felt very sorry for this girl.  She spent 99% of her time in her room, especially when she was on vacation from university.  She never went anywhere, other than to get food from the shops.  She had no one, and no knowledge whatsoever of the country she was in.  We tried to be friendly, but she often purposely avoided contact with either my wife or me.  To say she was anti-social was an understatement.  How would she ever improve her communication in English?

Here are a couple of examples to show how disconnected and incompetent she was:

- After living in Australia for nearly 3 years, she had no idea what cricket was.  This became clear after my cricket birthday cake was shared with her and we discussed it (with difficulty).

- She did not know how to pay at restaurants.  Most embarrassingly for my wife, our housemate just shoved money into the hand of a waitress after lunch with her one time.

- Worryingly for her potential future profession, she was incredibly negligent and unaware of some very basic things, including some which were potentially dangerous. She would often forget she was cooking, leaving food on the stove for hours; she would wash one piece of clothing in the washing machine until one day I caught her and told her off for it; she put plastic in the microwave twice; her personal hygiene was awful.

- She would only turn the heating and air-conditioning on when we were not there. We only found out because clearly she had forgotten that she had turned it on sometimes and the house was either like a sauna or a refrigerator when we got home.

- She would put the air conditioning on while having the windows wide open.  She would also leave windows wide open in the winter and run the heating, or at least let all the cold air in.  This infuriated me no end because of the extra cost in bills and the inconvenience of always coming home to a house too hot or too cold, solely caused by a weird desire of one person to leave the windows open all the time, regardless of the weather.

To be quite honest, I don't know how we put up with her.  I suppose the fact that she was in her room the whole time helped.  All in all, I am thankful she didn't burn the house down or something, it was a relief to see her go.

The picture I'm painting is of a person you would least like to be a nurse.  Frankly, she was ignorant, unable to speak the language, negligent, dishonest, and unable to perform or remember to do the most basic of tasks.  The fact she was on a degree course in Australia was truly unfathomable.

There is so much more to tell on this subject, but I worry I'd be going on too much.

I wrote this whole post with nothing more than a suspicion that something fishy was going on, based on my own experiences.  However, after I wrote part one, one of my readers sent a link to a very interesting investigation on the topic, and it appears my fears are very well-founded, indeed, they are exactly as I suspected and the story I tell here fits in nicely with the following documentary:

There are a number of victims in all of this, international students and their families and society as a whole are put in real strife and possible danger because of this.  Thinking of specifically nursing, how happy would you be to have incompetent people looking after your health?  But a whole host of people could be graduating from university, in a variety of different professions, that are simply not capable doing what the universities said they can do.

On a personal note, it is gnarling for my wife.  She has already received a frosty reception on her first few days of hospital placements.  This eventually evaporates as it becomes clear that she can understand English and is capable, but a prejudice and suspicion is occurring of international student nurses, and in a way, the staff at the hospitals can't be blamed for that.  This is why many international students who graduate end up doing their nursing in old people's homes, and who could be more vulnerable than the elderly?  What a scandal, what a mess, what is going on, and is it going on in other Western countries too?  I suspect so.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

International Students Beware: Sneaky Sneaky Universities - Part 1

My wife has now finished her nursing course in Australia.  This was a huge achievement; I can't imagine how hard it must be to complete a degree in another language, so she deserves a lot of credit.

The whole experience of my wife being an international student in Australia did give me an interesting perspective into what's going on with the universities here.  It is not an understatement when I say I found what they were up to a smidge immoral.

This actually has less to do with my wife's time at university and more to do with our ex-housemate's.  Before I get on to our dear little lodger, however, I shall first explain what my wife and I have had to deal with, and in part two, I will write about the far worse scenario that went on with our housemate.

Firstly, I am not going to complain about the fees - exorbitant though they are - more what you are getting for the fees and the level of dishonesty surrounding what the universities are doing.  I also will not name the learning institutions involved, just in case, and because I think it is largely irrelevant anyway, as I have learned that this behaviour is fairly endemic across the board.

To begin with, my wife enrolled in a course at a well-known TAFE in Melbourne.  These are smaller college-like campuses, still offering degrees for many subjects.  They often have the advantage of having less students per member of staff, and therefore provide greater support and usually for less money also.  My wife's course was to be 2 years full-time, with one year part-time because of partial credit for what she had already done in Korea.

However, as soon as time came to start her course, things changed.  Instead of doing one or two modules per semester in year one - as offered before she left Korea - all of a sudden she had to take extra modules because they were not satisfied with her previous knowledge.  Unsurprisingly, this would come at extra cost, about $8000.

Having carefully planned our outgoings before we embarked on this venture, this was unacceptable, not just for the extra charge, but for the amount of time it took away from my wife's ability to work in that first year in order to help out with finances (for much of the first year she was on her own in Australia, as I stayed in Korea to finish my teaching contract and save money).

To put it mildly, I was not a happy bunny.  What made things even worse was that speaking to somebody about this was extremely difficult.  My wife tried, but I had the feeling they were purposely confusing her and fobbing her off with weak excuses and promises.  I wanted to speak with them, but a familiar problem I experienced in England, as well as Australia, occurred, the complete lack of someone to speak to when you really need to. It took a lot of skype calls from South Korea and an incredible amount of quite strident complaining to find someone that could speak to me about it.  After making them all feel very uncomfortable indeed, they delayed charging us extra and putting my wife on extra modules until the following semester, before which my wife and I decided to pull out of the course and join another university.

Luckily, this university had some prestige in the area of nursing and offered just a one-year course, giving my wife credit for the time she worked as a nurse in Korea and the learning she had already done at the TAFE.  Curious, I thought, that a better university thought her experience warranted just doing the last year of a nursing degree (which she then passed fairly comfortably), while the lesser institution demanded two and a bit years, and then more when we arrived.

I think the reason for this is that once an international student arrives in Australia, most of them have no choice but to give way to the universities demands for extra tuition at extra cost.  Even before they arrive they can also call for more study than is necessary, again in order to swell their pockets.  Once we were in Australia, knew the system and knew others that had been through it, we could find a better offer.  How many international students have this knowledge or indeed have a miserly, moaning, old fart of a husband to truly hold the universities accountable for this sneaky trickery?

For most students, they had been sent to Australia with their family's money in order to make a career for themselves, mainly from China and India, but basically all parts of Asia.  What are you going to do if your son or daughter phones home and says they need more money than expected as they need to take extra modules?  Pull them out and send them back home, having already heavily invested in paying at least the first semester upfront and moving them half-way across the world, or pay up?  My suspicion is that the universities know full-well that the vast majority will simply pay up, especially as many international students and their families lack the English ability to put up much of a fight when it comes to putting their case across and complaining.

Most of the universities my wife had her choice of, once we left the TAFE in question, also were not advertised or made known to us in Korea.  Now that we are here, it seems different universities advertise in different parts of different countries, China, of course, being the most popular.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there.  My experience of university some 15 years or so ago seemed a lot different to what I saw with my wife.  I'm not talking about the social life or anything like that, but the way learning was structured.

Universities these days appear to take full advantage of the internet, making the online element of their courses gain larger and larger significance.  Far from aiding learning, I believe this has given universities the ability to save an extraordinary amount of money by being less hands on with students and this helps them by requiring less staff.

I used to regularly meet with my personal tutor at my university, at specified times, usually 3 or 4 times a month with 4 other students.  Other lecturers and tutors were also quite available to deal with any difficulties I might have had.  But this was before the sophistication of the internet was really adequate enough to run a course mainly from online, it really had to be done on a more person to person basis.  At my wife's university, the ratio is hundreds and hundreds to 1 of students to tutors.  Problems are dealt with online, and from what I saw, there were plenty of them as well, as regular maintenance problems with much of the material online.

With international students in particular, you could also make a case for them needing greater support, but it seemed less to me.  Did they really pay all this money for almost zero support except for a few vaguely answered questions on the university's online portal?

To top it all off, after receiving an awfully large sum of money from us, the graduation ceremony was to take place 100Km away in another campus at a charge of approximately $400 (more if you don't decide straight-away to attend).  This is annoying for us, but extremely disappointing for any international students wishing to attend, what for many is supposed to be one of the proudest days of their lives, as the graduation takes place 5 months after the finish of the their course.  Almost certainly, all those planning not to stay in Australia would have had their student visas run out by this time.  They either couldn't attend or would have to go home and then come back.

So, to sum things up, it looked to me that universities were out to squeeze all they could out of international students, and they'd do it with a mixture of bending the truth, shoddy service, and in my opinion some big fat lies to boot.  To put the icing on the cake, they also decide not to give a second thought or any effort to alleviating any of the many inconveniences and special issues international students might have compared to ordinary Australians at university.

If it wasn't for the qualification at the end of it all, it can only be described as one sneaky little con job, designed to extort vast sums of money from countries like China, India, and Korea, just some of the countries now where people have increasing sources of capital.  All in all it was a disgraceful case of the bottom line coming before human beings.  I wonder how many families in Asia universities have bankrupt, or put in severe debt, because of the innocent dreams of a better life for their sons and daughters and security for the family as a whole.

Now if this all sounds like I am making a mountain out of a mole hill or I am rather too suspicious of the motives of Australian universities, the story of my housemate in part 2 might sway you into my highly cynical position on them.  I can't say this girl was my favourite person in the world, but I did feel mightily sorry for her.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Returning to Korea? Why Not?

Let's get stuck in with the first real post back.  Now I have to admit to entertaining the thought of returning to Korea on a number of occasions, my reasons for not doing so I won't bore you with again as I have already touched on them in my post, "The Reasons I left Korea".  All I can say was that the temptation was great.  On each occasion after I left (I did so before, to live back in England for a year), it soon became apparent to me that I had a pretty great time in Korea.

I can't say that without my wife that I would have returned, but my wife certainly was quite steadfast against returning, much more so than me.  This seemed odd to me as she has clearly missed home very much and moans quite regularly about the many nuisances of living in a Western country.  She is also much more attached to family than me, as are they attached to her.  At times, adjusting to life in Australia, along with the lack of money (due to the international student fees we have had to pay), has been a real burden on her.

We have both worked exceptionally hard and only recently have we began to see the fruits of our labours.  But trust me, it's been tough.  Every time we have tried to get some money together, the cost of living bites, every time we sort anything out - like internet, visas, finding a house, going away, etc - we have to work through mountains of bureaucracy, bad service, and unnecessary rules, regulations and charges.

So what's going on?  In my wife's eyes, and in mine, Korea is a much nicer place to live. Everything is organised better, life is more convenient, less stressful, we go out more often, and I have more holiday.  For my wife, all her friends and family are there too.  So why is she so against returning?

The answer lies in how the people she knows treat her; family, work colleagues, friends, and acquaintances.  Societal pressure and expectations in Korea are astoundingly strong and I have been quick to criticise how Koreans treat one another before on this blog based on quite inflexible views on life and the duties that are expected of each other. Us foreigners who have experienced Korea often bemoan how we are treated by Koreans, but like I have said time and time again on this blog, we really don't know the half of it. Koreans themselves get treated far worse by other Koreans than we ever are.  We can play the foreigner card and get away with an awful amount.

Korean working culture is often cited as a big reason why people want to leave the country, but my wife would often comment that she didn't mind working so hard if the people she was working with could treat her like more of an individual and with a bit of empathy and understanding.

When you think about it, the despair many Koreans feel surrounding work and education is rooted in how others treat them and what's expected of them.  It is the pressure parents put on their kids to learn - which comes from the pressure society puts on them - that makes education the way it is and so unbearable for students, for example.  The inflexibility of the working environment and the long hours is also something more controlled by society and the perceptions of work and duty than by the government or business (although both take advantage of it, I'm sure).

It's a shame, because I reckon that if my wife were to make a list of pro's and con's about Korea and Australia, she would have a long list of pro's for Korea and only one or two con's.  It's just that these one or two are so powerful, it is out of the question for her to entertain returning.  She is currently visiting friends and family in chilly Korea right now, and although it has obviously been nice to go back home, after less than a week away, she can understand why she left, and yearns for a return to Melbourne (despite having more than a few complaints about living there).

Sergey Kustov -

It's a sad state of affairs in what would otherwise be a fine country to live in.  Not only do many Koreans not want to return to Korea, but an alarming amount want to leave. There is a real sensation that many Koreans are truly fed up with the direction the country is taking, they just don't know how to change things and hence simply leave it (one way or another).

A couple of weeks ago, I got a haircut and coincidentally it was a Korean lady who did it and she was very open and talkative - as well as being able to do a Western haircut. (Funnily enough, I reckon most of my haircuts have been done by Koreans since coming to Melbourne.  This is because it was one of the easiest avenues to obtaining a visa some years ago).  She commented on travelling last year; she had travelled for about 5 months to South East Asia, Japan, and back home to Korea in two, two week stints.  After her first visit to Korea for about 8 years she remarked, "I planned on staying for a month, but after 2 weeks I couldn't take it anymore.  My mum nagged and nagged, you know, and the rest of my family told me, 'why can't you do this, why can't you do that'".  I couldn't take it so I went to Japan for two weeks before going back to Korea for one more week and then returning to Melbourne."

I have met a number of Koreans in Melbourne through my wife, and it is much the same story for them.  They have all been a rather different breed to the Koreans I met in Korea.  None appear to be living the dream in Australia and really enjoying the place, but none want to go home. They are far more individual also, although coming from a culture that values a rather close-knit group and dependency on others, none seem particularly happy.  My own take on their situation is that they would love to return to Korea, but all want to keep the ability to be themselves and make their own decisions without being pressured into a way of living that is not for them.  This is all impossible in Korea.

Perhaps it is just the nostalgia talking, but what a shame this all is because when I look back at my time there, it is a country that has so much to like about it.
And on a site in English:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Different Perspective

Well, I know I said I'd be back over a year ago and haven't posted since.  However, new year and a new start.  I am well and truly settled in to living in Australia now and although things are running pretty smoothly, there are still plenty of things to complain about (and that's essentially what this blog was all about, right?), so some cathartic writing is in order and the blog has been resurrected from the ashes.

I must also thank one of my readers for helping me contemplate getting things restarted, I forgot just how much I enjoyed putting my thoughts into writing.  Having no artistic ability at all, this seems one of the few ways I can actually create something, and of course, I love a good argument.

I would often receive criticism in Korea from readers saying something like, "Why don't you criticise your own culture?"  Well, I'd like to think my blogs on Korea weren't all negative, I did have many positive things to say.  I do quite like to moan though, and I can see how I could come across as a bit of an old curmudgeon towards Korean culture. I did always retort that I had just as many dislikes about my own dear culture, and here is the blog that will prove it.  I am quite sure that I won't have many people berating me for criticising Western culture, Australian and British specifically.

So why connect what may essentially be a diatribe against certain aspects of life in the Western world with Korea?  Well, mainly because many of the things that now irk me about living in Australia and some of the issues I see from afar happening to my dear country of birth, bother me precisely because I lived in Korea.  What was good about Korea is often bad in Australia or Britain and vice versa, from a perspective that is quite possibly only available to someone who has lived in a radically different culture.  Korea will be very relevant to much of what I write in future months.

Plato's "Allegory of the Cave", drawing by Markus Maurer
There are many things I am troubled by upon returning from topsy-turvy land and an unrest created by a reverse culture shock.  Why can't we have the best of both worlds?  Is that even possible?  Will I ever be truly comfortable living anywhere now or will the knowledge that things can be done better elsewhere get the better of me?

Can't live here, can't live there, stuck in the middle, this is often what my wife tells me about her feelings on that matter.  I must admit to giving thought to the idea of returning to my cosy existence in Korea, as there was much to like and life seems much more complicated in Australia.  I console myself with the thought, borrowed from Plato, that while I may be wholly content sitting in the cave, walking outside into the light, while painful at first, can produce a richer, more fulfilling existence.  I think this may be a thought many who have lived in lands far away (and certainly in Korea) can relate to.

So on that very profound note, I hope you enjoy the posts to come.