Saturday, December 29, 2012

Korean Kindness

If you speak to Koreans about kindness they will say that Korea is the most warm-hearted of all the countries in it's vicinity.  Now we all know that Koreans never really like to blow their own trumpet about their culture so this must be true.

Seriously though, I have experienced many examples of great kindness from Korean people.  The instances which have been the most touching, and indeed helpful, have been acts of kindness from strangers when I or my friends have been most in need of help. 

Korean people will have an explanation for this kindness and it is the concept of '정' (Jeong).  This roughly translates to a warm-heartedness, affection, care, and sentiment.  People who live in the countryside will often display '정' to complete strangers with tender acts of kindness such as allowing them a place to sleep.  Indeed one of the co-teachers at my school travelled all over Korea and stayed mostly in strangers houses because he said he had a very pleasant attitude towards people which made them want to be kind to him (although this man sounds almost as big a cheap-skate as me, he is indeed very amiable).

It is in the countryside that most of my fondest memories of Korean people are situated.  I go hiking regularly, and not just to the national parks and well-known mountains but all over the place and sometimes well off the beaten track.  This means that I have got lost countless times, ended up in odd little villages, and had no way of getting home sometimes because of a lack of knowledge of the local public transport system.

It is in these situations where Korean people really have been great.  My friends and I have received a number of lifts to local bus stations from drivers who pass us by when we were looking very lost.  Each time we have been visibly muddy, sweaty, and smelly but that has not deterred them.

While hiking, Korean people regularly offer us food and drink and are ready to help us out whenever they can.  Just last week we were helped out with our cooking equipment on top of Jirisan mountain.  We had a rather dated gas burner and rather tiny pot for our noodles so a man gave us a bigger pot and a better burner to cook on and we experienced similar little gestures throughout the trip.

Generally, I find that when I am outside of the cities, whether it be in the country or on top of a mountain Koreans are friendly, kind, helpful, and often interested in a pleasant chat with you.  When I travelled to Japan for hiking I did not find this so much.  The Japanese were super-polite and very considerate on the mountain by letting me through on tight trails (unlike the Korean freight train storming through) but they seemed far less inclined to stop and be friendly or offer food and assistance.

Even in the city Koreans have on occasion ran across the road to share an umbrella with me when it is raining when I did not have one, or even just given me an umbrella without any expectation of anything in return.  This is what I find so nice about the kindness of strangers and is key to my warm feelings of this part of their culture, it is a genuine act of kindness with no want of reciprocation.

I become far less comfortable with Korean kindness when it is with Korean people I know, i.e. co-workers, family, or acquaintances.  This is when I feel that their kindness is either forced out of duty or that they have have expectations of kindness in return.

This all sounds a little like I just want to receive acts of kindness without having to give out any myself, but that is not the point.  The reciprocal nature of gift buying here makes me a tad uncomfortable sometimes as on many occasions I don't even want a gift or help in something but I receive it anyway.  This then obligates me in some way to return the favour and indeed I have often felt pressure because of it.

Kindness can even turn into a problem with my Korean family who are so hospitable and so sweet that I just do not know what to do with myself, I have too much to feel grateful for and again all of their tendernesses are, it pains me to say, unwelcome.  I hate to say that because it sounds dreadfully horrible to such kind people.  The reason for it, however, is that there affection is based on duties of kindness and tradition and the sort of things they would like and not what I would like.

Here is a brief example of what I am talking about, which I had mentioned in a previous blog, but it worth repeating here: having seen a couple of weeks previously that I had greatly enjoyed eating chicken and kimchi round their house (to be fair I eat almost anything with enthusiasm but my mother in-law's kimchi is something rather special) my father in-law decided he would buy two chickens and slaughter them himself and starve them for 3 days tied up in a bag beforehand to improve the flavour, all just for my benefit.

Where my problem lies with this sort of kindness is the lack of empathy involved in it.  Eating a starved chicken is something that he would enjoy or a Korean might enjoy.  He did know, however, that I had been a vegetarian for most of my adult life and knew that my reasons had been because of the cruelty of intensive farming practices.  He knew that I only ate meat in Korea because of an effort to fit in with the culture both at work and with his family. 

There will be those that will say that this was just a well-meaning gesture and I am being too harsh, but this sort of thing happens too much in Korea.  All too often I have been given gifts and had favours done for me by a wide range of people that they must have known that I would not like.

I have one teacher at my school who always insists on buying a bottle of the strongest alcohol to share with me at staff dinners despite me having told him numerous times that I dislike drinking alcoholic beverages.

Even if all of this is caused by simple ignorance I still wonder at how little they are listening to us or have learned about people from Western cultures.

Their acts of kindness are very situational, very specific, and very duty bound in my experience.  I am not sure how much empathy is being displayed.  I would love to know what is going on inside of people's heads at the time of an act of kindness, are they thinking 'if I was this person I would really appreciate some help, so I will help them' or are they thinking 'this situation means I am duty-bound to offer assistance or give a gift.'

The answer is probably a subtle mixture of both, but I suspect most Westerners will err towards the first line of thought more often than Korean people.

Either way it is a kind act, I hear you say, so who cares?  But the troubling effect placing more importance on number 2 is that it is possible to ignore those in need (indeed those in most need) who are outside the traditional situations where duty-bound kindness is necessary.  I see this in Korea with people in lower positions at work, younger people, foreigners, and animals.  In the case of foreigners, they are wonderfully kind most of the time but regularly in ways that make us uncomfortable and ignore the times when we really could do with a bit of help but don't get any.

There is a positive to train of thought number 2, however, and that is that gestures of kindness may become more frequent when they are ingrained in a set moral duty.  In my country we tend to let people suffer minor inconveniences because, after-all, it is no big deal and it is difficult to feel so strongly as to act about someone who has merely an inferior gas stove to me when cooking noodles.  I cannot imagine an English person doing the kind deed of that Korean fellow on the mountain that I mentioned earlier.  So it is for these reasons that acts of kindness really are more frequent here than back home.

I think this may be the reason I experience the odd paradox of so much kindness in Korea whilst at the same time seem to notice so much heartlessness.  I, personally, am not a very unfortunate guy and a very self-reliant one who doesn't need gifts and doesn't need help but receive it in Korea anyway.  I feel saturated by kindness every day.

However, I can then see a poor old woman whose cardboard cart has fallen over trying to correct it and with all passers-by ignoring her, an emaciated dog chained up outside in the freezing cold, see the tears roll down my wife's face having been bullied at work for simply being one of the younger nurses, my students suffering with unnecessary workloads of study, and notice the extreme discomfort of younger teachers when they are forced to get drunk and tag along with the older teachers at staff dinners.  These are just the simple matters of everyday living with people and animals that fall outside the call of duty.

I think Westerners notice these sort of instances more because we more readily put ourselves in the place of these people or animals.  We imagine how we would feel if we were in each situation, whether it be outside in the cold, being forced to do things we don't want, being stressed from too much work, or being old and vulnerable and in need of some help.  We envision these things despite the social status of the individual or indeed the species of the individual concerned.

Surely Korean people do feel this way too, but I have to say that it appears less ingrained into their way of thinking as a whole.

In practice it appears as though our societies run very similarly, even allowing big differences in thinking.  Crime rates are similar, for example, (only in America is violent crime more prevalent) and on charity South Korea come out generally lower than Western countries but not all of them, so maybe it doesn't make a great deal of difference how you think about morals and kind deeds - whether they are done because of duty and social cohesion or out of an empathetic urge to not see suffering of others.

Perhaps the West could follow the Korean way a little more and make acts of kindness and morals more regular and set in stone in certain situations and Koreans be more empathetic, maybe this way society would be better for everyone concerned.

Korea has certainly left me with many great examples of kindness that I do not find in England and create a warm fuzzy glow in my heart but at the same time has also shown me some horrible examples of misdeeds that I would also never see in my country, leaving me cold and over-shadowing some of the sweeter moments of my Korean experience.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Korea Fatigue

Although I have lived in Korea for over three years now, I have done it in three different visits, which means that I have had regular breaks from Korean culture.  My current stretch in Korea is the longest, I am almost a year and a half into a two year stay.  At one stage I even contemplated this stint being much longer, but alas, I think this is impossible.

My current teaching position in Korea is the best job I have ever had, both in Korea and England.  I usually arrive 45 minutes early for work everyday.  It is an easy job but that is not the reason I like it.  It is great for two reasons:

1) It is intellectually stimulating as I write all my own lessons and it is a nice challenge to be able to motivate up to 40 over-worked high school students.

2) In practice I have no boss telling me what to do, my school just leaves me to it, I think because of a combination that they trust me to do a good job and that they just don't care about my class that much.  Either way it works out well for me.

The combination of having a wonderful job and also not living alone, but living happily with my wife, made the first year of the two very comfortable and I didn't miss home much. 

However, now that I am well into the second-half of my stay, now a number of factors are starting to bother me about living in Korea, despite the fact that my job and my wife are still as fantastic as ever.

I can sense my mood shifting.  I went from taking all the cultural differences in my stride to now being regularly irritated by them.  A change from an almost wholly positive state of mind to a slightly negative one makes all the difference in dealing with the challenges presented by living in another culture.  This is something I know all too well about because of my difficult first year in Korea back in 2008/9, which I wrote about in a previous post.

Any regular reader of my blogs will realise that I have my issues with Korea but understand that I have many gripes with the culture of my own country too.  The fact that I write less about them on this blog is simply a reflection that this blog about Korea and not about England.  The fact is, though, that England is my home and I am used to her ways and the irritating things about England don't ruffle my feathers quite as much.

There are obviously personal reasons for my increasing negativity, major ones being the missing of friends and family, the comforts of my own country, and enjoying the odd game of cricket.  But there is something else that wears me down like a soldier weary of too many battles.

I am a very self-relaint sort of fellow, I value my independence and the freedom to make my own choices and I am quite principled about this (maybe my blogs show this).  This makes me easily antagonised when I feel my, or indeed any other person's freedoms are compromised.  Unfortunately, personal freedoms are something that are continually compromised from small to large scales everyday in Korea.

For most Westerners living in Korea it is only small clashes that they have to experience, but even these, in a significant enough number, can begin to erode positivity.  I, on the other hand, have to put up with the odd larger confrontation as well, seeing that I have to cope with a Korean family also.

I often get lampooned for writing simple and blunt statements in my blogs, but here goes another one anyway.  It is simply much easier for someone to settle into a Western culture than into a Far Eastern culture, especially Korean culture.  Perhaps I should explain.

Western culture is far more welcoming.  Sure we have our issues with hate crimes sometimes, but in principle we are completely open.  When people of other cultures come to our countries we do our best to try and understand, accomodate, and accept their ways of doing things. 

There are many historical reasons for the higher diversities of people in Western countries but the fact is that there is still high demand for people of other countries to come to Western countries.  The reason why is that they know they will generally receive fair treatment and we as a culture are loathed to force people into a certain way of doing things.   Despite the wealth of Eastern cultures (think Far and Middle East), there is not so much of a rush into these countries with perhaps the exception being English teachers.

This tolerant attitude is often to our detriment as we also appear to be hessitant to enforce even our own laws on immigrants to our countries.  In England the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury (someone who is listened to, I don't know why) and Prince Charles famously suggested that we as a country should incorporate Sharia law into our own legal system, having different laws for Muslims and non-muslims.  This is cultural suicide.

Outside of our own countries there is a strange attitude present within Western people that takes the expression, 'When in Rome do as the Romans do', to its extreme and we only really utilise it for ourselves and not for people who come to our own countries.  I will use the analogy of my family situation to illustrate this;

I do think that I have a more difficult time with my wife's family than she does with mine.  I don't resent this, it is a fact of cross cultural relationships between West and East, I am merely stating a fact.  I gladly tolerate the tough times for the sake of my relationship.

Conversely, when my wife comes to England she can spend as much time with my family as she likes; when she is tired she can choose to go home, there is no special cultural etiquettes she needs to be aware of or follow, she can be open and honest with my parents, and generally my parents expect nothing of her except to treat me well in a loving relationship.  This, in a nutshell, is the Western position on cross-cultural affairs, 'do what you want, just don't hurt people.'  At least this is the Western position in principle.

There is a stark contrast in what happens in dealings with me and my wife's family, of which I have described before inposts on 'My Korean Family', 'Death Anniversaries in Korea', 'Is a Clash of Culture Inevitable and Irreconcilable?', and 'Korean Family 'Pension' Outing.' 

To be frank, I like my Korean family they are good people, but they are not - even in the least bit - really trying to understand where I come from or respect my opinions or culture.  They want me to conform, plain and simple, and on the rare occasions when I don't they appear to be in a state of denial about it.  Even those who don't have Korean family connections can experience this when living and working in Korea through their schools, and in everyday situations.

We all seem to accept that the correct way to behave in these situations is to 'do as the Romans do' to conform and do what they wish us to do.  I think this can be a form of dishonesty when we feel forced into doing things we are uncomfortable with.  Those moments when inside you are screaming, 'I don't want to do this, drink this or eat this', but outside you are smiling and saying 'sure, that's fine, no problem.'

Whether this dishonesty is inherently wrong is debatable, but be sure we are conforming for a smooth ride and not to upset people and I find this can make most of the Korean people I know very difficult to be friends with, or really enjoy their company that much.  You enjoy people's company when you trust them, understand them, and can be yourself with them and vice versa.  When we conform to their wishes all the time we cannot achieve this relationship.

This was never more apparent than when I took a bus home from a marathon race I did a few weeks ago.  I met a New Zealander at the race who was also doing the marathon and he said there were spaces on his marathon club's bus and that I could join them for the journey home.  I accepted his kind offer as I actually did not know where to take the public bus home.  On the way back we were treated to the usual delights of a group bus journey in Korea, kareoke, soju drinking, and strange food eating.  One woman in particular kept on forcing food and soju on my new friend and he accepted, despite really not wanting any of it.  She and many others then continually asked him to perform a song for them in front of a bus load of people, but he refused.  I refused the strange seafood, the soju, and the singing, again despite being pestered continuously about it for most of the hour and a half journey back home.

Now ask yourself, would this ever happen in the West?  A Korean is on a bus full of Westerners and he doesn't speak much English, would we be forcing them to drink beer, eat greasy and oily food like fish and chips, that they don't like (Koreans usually dislike oily food), and sing songs in front of us?  We might ask them once, sure, but they would not be made to feel obligated like we were on that Korean bus.  Yes, they were doing me a favour by taking me but that does not obligate me to do everything they want of me.

The fact is that the only Korean I am honest with is my wife, every other Korean I meet I have to be dishonest with.  I have to suppress my principles and feelings, and this is energy sapping, this is the source of my Korea fatigue.

Once the fatigue sets in, then a range of things can begin to get up your nose, like Korean driving, men spitting, lack of personal space manners, smoking on the street, communication problems, etc.  This can then spiral into even greater fatigue.  There are different irritating problems I have in England but the fatigue does not present itself with the same intensity because I can be honest with almost everyone I have dealings with on a day to day basis and if I have a problem with them or a situation, I can speak out about it.

In my head and in my writings, I am trying to be objective and not pit one culture against another, but I cannot help make one observation about an important difference between our cultures.  Maybe I am wrong and I will readily accept a rebuke, but here it is; there is only one side that is trying to understand the other, only one side that wants an open and honest discussion, and only one side that is prepared to, or indeed has to conform to the other.  Again there are exceptions in individuals - I have a sample of one that I am pretty sure about, in my wife - but there is a great deal more compromise and understanding inherent in Western culture at this moment and I think it is time to be honest about it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Ministry of Gender Equality and the Banning of Tetris, Sugar Puffs, and Car Lights?

I came across an interesting department of the Korean government the other day while my wife was reading an article about how men who have only one child who is female are the most likely people to support the equality of men and women in Korea.  The report also showed other trends and biases of Korean people based on the gender of their children.  The research was carried out by the Ministry of Gender Equality (여성부). 

I was curious, and I remembered my students (all boys high school) mentioning something about this department before, which wasn't at all kind.  So I questioned them further.  It turns out that the rather interesting study they funded, was a significant improvement on past endeavours.

Korean High School Boys Vs the 여성부

I asked my students what they thought of the Ministry of Gender Equality (or Women's Affairs) and I was met with a groan of disapproval and detected the odd Korean swear-word mixed in.  It turns out that this particular department is responsible for taking away much of what they find enjoyable in life.  I checked out what they said and it all seems to be legitimate, so let's see what they have been up to.

1. Banned - The Computer Game Shutdown Law
This is a law that stops all internet gaming after midnight and is obviously highly unpopular with my students, especially as most of them probably don't get back from school until midnight.  Their favourite waste of time has been restricted by Korea's version of the Ministry of Truth, well that's how my students see it anyway.

2. Banned - 죠리퐁 (sugar puffs in snack form)
Apparently, students around Korea used to make fun of the appearance of this innocent snack by saying it looked like the female genitalia.  This was deemed enough of a menace to society by the 여성부 (we'll call it the Minstry of Plenty this time) to outlaw this particular snack.  I can remember the offending snack, they were the equivalent of a breakfast cereal called 'Sugar Puffs' in my country, England.  I have a fairly dirty mind sometimes, but I have never looked at a sugar puff and thought of a woman's vagina.  These Korean kids have some vivid imaginations, but banning puffed wheat, are you kidding? 

This snack has recently been recalled to the sanck shelves.

3. Banned - online Tetris
What could possibly be wrong with Tetris, I hear you say.  Well, it seems that Korean young people's sexual comparisons do not stop at sweet treats but also make their way into computer games too.  You know when you make a line in Tetris and it leaves a big hole to be filled by the long straight piece?  When you can perfectly fit that long one into a hole it feels almost orgasmic doesn't it?  Yep, Tetris was banned because of this little innuendo, although this law has recently been rescinded.  The madness of it is that surely you would have to ban an awful lot of things to block us all from sexual punnery.  Here is a list of other possibly offensive things based on this argument:

A USB stick into a computer
A key into a door
A straw into a fizzy drinks bottle
A book-mark into a book
A letter into a letter-box
A biscuit into a cup of tea (almost equally pleasurable, especially for an Englishman)
Eating bananas
A CD into a CD player
A pencil into a pencil sharpener
Connecting your charger to your phone, in fact, plugging almost anything in.
Digging a hole and putting a post in it
Picking your nose
Launching a rocket, etc, etc, etc...

4. Banned - Websites that show adult videos
I never remember pornography being such a hit when I was at school, but maybe the internet has brought this into young people's lives.  When I was their age the internet was not quite so developed, I didn't even have a computer (bloody hell I am getting old).  Needless to say, however, if popularity with young men was what the Gender Equality Ministry were after, they could have done no worse than block adult videos.  As we have already seen, though, they seem to be Korea's version of Mary Whitehouse, the supreme Killjoys.  Perhaps this might not be the worst thing they have done, though, maybe Korean boy students do have a little too strong a fascination with it all.

5. Banned - Hyundai Sonata III's car lights
At this point The Ministry of Gender Equality was starting to remind me of an old joke about the writer of the first dictionary, Samuel Johnson, retold in one of my favourite speeches by Christopher Hitchens on the issue of freedom of speech:

The ladies said, "Dr Johnson, we are delighted to find that you haven't included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary."
Dr Johnson replied, "Ladies, I congratulate you on being able to look them up."

Hitchens went on to say that there are those that will search through a treasure trove of English in order to be offended and accused many of the religious in this world of similar behaviour.  One wonders if this is what the 여성부 are doing, except they are not looking for words but for things that look like parts of sexual anatomy.

They outlawed this particular thing because of its phallic resemblance - which, now that they mention it, does indeed look rather suspicious.  However, again if we were to ban all things that could be linked to the look of a penis we would be extremely busy.

Pepperamis (maybe UK only)
Bananas (again, pesky things)
Gear sticks
Mushrooms, etc.

I could go on and on again, but wait... sorry the other thing banned for phallic resemblance - at least in school dinners - is indeed a certain kind of Korean mushroom.

Bizarrely, those ice lollies they sell here that come in a hard plastic covering are not banned.  To me they have always looked like ice cream in a hard condom.

Now I can see the reason for the hatred of the Ministry of Gender Equality in my students.  I think they have covered most of the major interests in their lives in their policies; pornography, computer games, sexual innuendos and jokes, and snack food. 

However, if they start banning skimpy K-Pop outfits on girl groups they better be prepared for war as that could be the straw that breaks the camels back and cause a student push back.  I might even join them on the front line. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Korean Obsession with Being Warm

In many of my blog posts I have compared ways of thinking and doing things between my culture and Korean culture and come to conclusions that certain aspects of one or the other really are better.  I have come in for some abuse for saying this, not so much on my website but on sites that republish my blog or write articles for.

Sometimes I fall on the side of Western culture, but I have often fallen on the side of Korean culture too, much to some people's annoyance.

There are some issues, however, that are not really a matter of right or wrong or better or worse, these are the strange little things we perceive each other as doing that are simply culturally different.  This is not to say they are benign, though, they can often delight or regularly frustrate.  They are difficult to make a judgment about as they appear to be heavily rooted in culture and what suits one culture does not always suit another.

The Korean obsession with being warm is one of these little oddities, at least from my perspective.

Whenever I walk into a Korean's house I notice immediately that the temperature is about 5 degrees hotter than in mine, jjim jil bangs (kind of like warm relaxing communal areas, usually part of a public sauna or gym, for those with little experience in Korea) are popular, my wife sleeps on a heat mat along with many other Koreans I know, Koreans sleep on the floor which is heated, and in summer Korean people walk around with, what seems to me, excessive clothing - this has a lot to do with not getting a sun-tan but how they are not too hot has always amazed me.

Korean people also place a very high importance on warm food, of which they usually have three hot meals a day.  My Korean family doesn't understand how I can start the day without hot food and just eat cereal.

I came across another example of the importance of being warm (I think hot) when my wife was rushed to hospital the other day for emergency surgery.  She suffered a ruptured ovarian cyst, which meant that she had to go to a specialist hospital dealing with mainly women and pregnancy.

The doctors did a great job and she was fine, but when I visited the hospital I couldn't help but notice it was like stepping into a sauna.  The temperature in the room my wife was recovering in was 30 degrees on the thermostat.  When I went to visit the next day I came prepared wearing a vest and bermuda shorts as I sat at her bedside and I was still unbearably hot.  Needless to say my wife was fine and my mother in-law was sitting there still wearing a scarf and a jumper wondering what on earth I was complaining about.

It turns out that being extra-warm is particularly important with regard to pregnant mothers, new born children, mothers who have just given birth, and sick people generally.  This is fairly obvious, but I have never known the temperature to be so high in England for the sick in hospitals or when they are recovering at home.

I can easily theorize why this line of thinking appears in Korean culture.  Korea has harsh, freezing cold winters and I can imagine many people used to die because of them in the not so distant past, and especially the vulnerable like babies and sick people.  They have harsh summers too but, while it is possible to die from the heat, it is far more likely to die in the cold or exacerbate sickness through cold weather.

Keeping almost overly warm is a tradition that has lingered into modern Korean culture, and I would say that it has become a superstition and something that is now over emphasized and not necessary.  That is only from my point of view, though, and I have to admit I have rarely experienced Korean people showing discomfort in the kind of situations where they usually promote being warm.  Maybe they are so used to it, it is what suits them best and I am simply a cooler weather person coming from the famously inclement weather of the UK.

This problem with the heat I have could even be personal, I don't know.  Maybe Westerners coming to Korea love the idea of warm places like jjim jil bangs and being extra warm (over and above what we would normally do in the West) when they are resting or sick.  The only thing is, it does actually give me a few problems from time to time.

Last week my mother in-law was quite a drag, demanding that I sleep on the floor next to my wife at the hospital.  To keep her happy I said I would but it didn't take long for me to change my mind.  I felt a little guilty, but my wife was stable and at no risk after her operation and I did not see that it was integral to her recovery that I suffer with no sleep on a hot hard floor every night for 3 days, and neither did she.

It is also extraordinarily how hot my wife's sleeping mat is, which she uses regardless of whether she is sick or not.  I find it truly unfathomable that she can sleep on it, it makes me bake going anywhere near it and feels uncomfortably hot to the touch.

Needless to say, the issue of feeling the heat is a minor one, and the difference is because of culture and there is no right or wrong answer to the behaviour, it is just different.  Some cultural attitudes, thinking, and practices (whether Western, Eastern, English, Korean, or indeed religious), however, can and should be judged as right or wrong for logical and moral reasons. 

I am a cultural relativist when it comes to matters of what temperatures we find comfortable to live in, but not in all matters.  Finding the line between relativism, cultural bias, and truth is a tricky one but also of high importance.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reasons for the Poor Treatment of Dogs in Korea

Well, it finally had to happen, a blog post about the treatment of dogs in Korea.  I have been trying to avoid it as it is just so obvious, but I have touched on the subject briefly in a few blogs already. 

Due to an interesting disagreement with a reader of my blogs I thought it would be wise to spend a little more time and effort on the subject.

I have always argued that dogs are something special and that we have a deeper relationship and connection with them than any other animal and this is precisely the reason I find the treatment of our best friends in the animal world so abhorrent in Korea.  There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that there is indeed a close connection between us.

Very briefly, I will describe some of the problems involving dogs in Korea.  Everyone, I dare say, knows that some Korean people eat dogs, but it is not the killing of them for food that is the biggest evil, it is the care of them while they are alive that leaves little to be desired.

In the dog meat trade they have a reputation for beating or hanging dogs to death, slowly and painfully because they feel that the adrenalin produced by the stress makes the meat more tender and delicious.  Many also spend most of their lives rotting away in the filth and squalor of their own and other dogs feces and urine, tightly packed into cages.  This is all illegal, but the laws are rarely enforced.

Outside of the dog meat trade, unless they are small dogs - which are pampered house pets with often coloured paws, ears, and tails - a dog can look forward to a life sitting outside of the house, tied up on a small leash and rarely, if ever, let off it in all weathers.  I am fairly confident that almost every foreigner living in Korea will have seen examples of this, it is extremely widespread.

In my post on abortion in Korea, I made a judgment about Korean culture partly based on its treatment of dogs, which was that they had a lower respect for life generally than in Western culture (bear in mind that I do realize that all individuals are different and that there are many Westerners that have less respect for life and dogs, I am merely commenting on general observable trends I have noticed).  This does not mean that I do not think Korean culture has no respect for life, of course it does.

What I do regret about that particular post is not the conclusions but the fact that I did not explain fully where I thought attitudes to life, abortion and the treatment of dogs came from.  I think this made the post seem overly judgmental and lacking in empathy and understanding of their situation.  The reader I mentioned earlier quite rightly pointed to an important point that I failed to include.

It has only really been about 30 or 40 years since Korea has been a developed nation and not in the midst of stark poverty.  The change in the country's fortunes is unlike any other country in history and there are bound to be issues involved with it. 

When we talk of Western culture we must realize that we have lived in relative affluence for much longer, and the higher levels of our society have had the means to live comfortable lives for hundreds of years.  This makes thinking about morals in detail much more possible and it makes treating others around us with affection a lot easier, whether they are human or not.  Even in the West today, poverty is obviously related with higher rates of crime and animal cruelty.  Morals are not exclusively a luxury of people who can afford them, but it sure helps.

If you can't scrape enough food together to feed your family, you are hardly going to worry about the moral value of animals, and if any of us were in that position we would kill dogs and eat them if they couldn't help us find food in other ways.  This is exactly the situation as it was in Korea, and not that long ago.  There are probably many people alive today who faced that level of poverty in this country and in North Korea (although it is hard to know exactly what is going on there) this problem still exists.  North Korea can help us paint a picture of how the South once was.

This extreme need may have even reinforced their already ingrained culture of the group, helping each other survive (mainly family), and may also reduce the thought of welfare of outsiders, again whether this be animal or human because they had enough to worry about keeping themselves fed and warm.  Within the group or family unit the value of life is as high as anywhere and any culture, it is outside of the group that I am really arguing about.

It is difficult to say these things without sounding rather blunt and harsh but our own culture can be no better, as the bloody history of Western Europe shows.  We will have no equal in the level of cruelty our ancestors reaped on animals and people, and the sheer enjoyment they experienced from it.

For example, medieval European crowds used to gather at such wonderful spectacles as bear baiting - tying a bear to a post and unleashing a pack of dogs to see which would tear each other apart first, which unfortunately still occurs in many countries - and cat burning - where cats were bundled together in a bag and slowly burned over a fire while crowds of people laughed at the shrieks of pain as the animals were roasted alive.  People still enjoy cock fights and dog fights in the nasty little underbelly of our culture and it also is quite observable just how much violence is present in Western movies compared to in the East.

Europeans also perfected the art of torture, especially the Spanish Inquisition.  It took hundreds of years to combat these ways of thinking with gradual moral progress.  The Korean 'Civilizing Process' has not had nearly enough time to seep into the culture as a whole. (Note: the term 'Civilizing Process' and descriptions of torture in the last couple of paragraphs are sourced from Steven Pinker's book 'The Better Angels of Our Nature').

Right, back to dogs.  Western cultures, I believe, amplify the connection between dogs and people.  We are individualistic and because of this I think Western people put themselves in the position of other individuals a little more naturally.  We humanize dogs because of this. 

Dogs as companions also have more relevance to us.  In Korea, when people are older, they tend to have a closer relationship with grandchildren and therefore the whole family.  Family groups usually stick together a little better, at least that is my observation.  In the West, dogs are often seen as a friend for older people and take the place of family members when they cannot be around. 

Westerners are also more prone to live alone generally, making the dog more likely to give good company.  Even attitudes toward cleanliness in our houses may make it easier for us to welcome dogs into our lives.  Most Koreans I have met do not like the idea of dogs dirtying the house with hair, mud, and dirt from outside.

It could also be that the topography of Korea has not helped in building a bond between man and dog.  With such a mountainous country Korea does not have the perfect kind of land for rearing animals on wide open stretches of pasture, because of this they may have not had much need of dogs except as guard dogs and as early warning systems of intruders - this still appears to be their main job, tied up outside in front of houses.

The fact is that if we had grown up in Korea, with a Korean family and friends, our attitude to dogs would be exactly the same.  This makes it impossible to characterize Koreans as evil or inhumane, even if that is the first thought that leaps into our minds when we see what looks like the abuse of our furry friends.

It is so easy to look at controversial practices in other cultures and be so shocked or even horrified about what is happening and demonize those that are doing it.  If I, in this post or any other, seem like I am doing this, it is not my intention but I think it is important to speak out about things and being offensive appears to be a fiendishly easy thing to do on touchy subjects like culture, race, and religion. 

People will cling on to traditions of the past even if they are bad ones, calling them out is the only way forward and having some understanding helps cushion the blow that these criticisms have.  Perhaps it was this understanding and sensitivity that I was missing on my post on abortion and the value of life in Korea.

The only problem is that as soon as I write with some sensitivity, I can't help but notice the tone changes to condescending.  'Give them a little while longer and they could be as moral and civilized as we are.'  I think that sounds almost just as bad, but maybe I can provide something a little more palatable. 

I think it is a legitimate exercise to judge some aspects of culture good or bad and this can be helpful in identifying which practices should be encouraged and discouraged with your own culture.  Saying a whole culture is good or bad, right or wrong, however, is never helpful. 

When it comes to their current treatment of dogs specifically, I am judging it as bad and I claim the right to say it.  Too many people have almost no thought for the suffering of the animal and it is a sad sight to see.  This does not mean that I do not understand why they behave this way or judge the culture as a whole as wicked or inferior.  Indeed, in many of my blog posts I have highlighted many other aspects of Korean culture that are superior to our own.  It is a question of give and take, but taboos about what we can say or write about are still very relevant, and anybody who questions the practices of other cultures, especially anything to do with morals and ethics, better be prepared to take some abuse for it.

Sources: Again an update to prove I am not making this stuff up about the killing of dogs in Korea, but my sources were Korean people that still admit that it goes on. (search on youtube for dog cruelty in Korea: warning, videos have the potential to upset people)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Medical Treatments in Korea

Korea has perhaps an unexpectedly good and efficient healthcare system, with doctors surgeries and hospitals aplenty in the average city.  If you get sick in Korea and you have medical insurance you will receive some of the best quality care going, but there are some strange little oddities that go on from time to time.


I don't know if Korean people are just overly paranoid about their health or they simply want to fully utilise their health cover to the best of their ability, but they do seem to have some seriously over the top treatments at times. 

If you are sick with a cold or a stomach bug and go to the doctors in Korea for some medicine they are likely to put you on a saline drip or at least offer to.  I had never been on one before I came here but I was sort of bullied into it the other day when I had a stomach complaint.  It did cost me a little extra money, although I have to admit I felt about a hundred times better after having it.  I don't know that it was wholly necessary though (maybe the Koreans are on to something though, as I said it did make me feel much better).  My wife does it all the time and because she is a nurse she even does it herself or does it for friends and family for ordinary cold symptoms.  It is all quite normal.

When I sprained my ankle a couple of years ago in Korea, I knew what I had done because it had happened to me before.  Although painful, I refused to go to the doctors because I knew what would happen.  Any, even very minor injury, is often treated by placing unnecessary strapping or casts to the affected area.  At the all-boys high school where I work there are always students hobbling around on casts, wearing neck braces, or have bandages over arms.  At the time of writing I have just taught a class where a student came in looking like he had been in a car crash with a big neck brace.  It turned out that when I asked him what he did, he had just slept strangely and woken up with a sore neck in the morning.

Korean Alternative Therapies

The popular traditional therapies in Korea appear to be some different forms of acupuncture and Chinese medicine.  As a proponent of the scientific method, I have always been sceptical of alternative therapies because, essentially, by being called 'alternative' it means that they are unproven.  This especially relevant to Chinese medicine and acupuncture because they have both been extensively tested and found to be no better than placebo time and time again.  Some ingredients in Chinese medicine have been shown effective but these don't come around very often.

Everybody knows what acupuncture entails but there is an interesting type of acupuncture in Korea called moxibustion.  This involves applying heat to the body with a stick or a burning cone of mugwort.  This is then placed over injuries or pressure points to stimulate and strengthen the blood - although what exactly 'strengthening' the blood does is a bit of a mystery to me.  This technique is often used alongside the more conventional form of acupuncture and the use of round glass jars with the burning mugwort inside is common.  This results in dark circles forming temporarily on the backs of the patients, which many foreigners may have seen in the showers (resembling an attack from a giant octopus) if they use the public baths or go to the gym.

Eating Korean Porridge (죽)

If you are sick, Korean doctors, bosses, and everyone will recommend that you eat porridge.  When I was first in Korea I was a little confused as I thought that meant good old-fashioned oat porridge with a bit of jam and sugar.  In Korea, though, porridge is rice based and is sort of a gloopy, soupy mixture of rice, vegetables, mushrooms, and sometimes meat or fish.  This description doesn't make it sound all that appetising but it is really good, healthy, and easy to digest, and for this reason it makes perfect sense to prescribe it.

Drips in the Streets

One of the iconic sights of Korea, I reckon.  Hospital patients can regularly be seen outside hospitals or even down the local supermarket with a saline drip attached to them, walking around with it.  People even sit outside on a drip and smoke cigarettes.  In my view, if they are sick enough to need a drip they should not be out and about.  The reason that they are walking around with them is that they don't really need them, harping back to the first point I made in this blog post.

The Injection in the Butt

I am sure that anyone living in Korea for an extended period of time or anyone who has been a little sick here would have had the needle in the backside treatment.  I had it done a couple of times when I was very new to Korea and suffering with acute irritable bowel syndrome brought on by eating their bread, which is made with milk (I am lactose intolerant).  Bent over in painful stomach cramps I went to my employer for help in going to a doctor before I started my day's work.  I said it was unlikely that I would be able to work that day.  My boss simply took me to a doctor's surgery where they gave me the injection.  I was then told to have an hours rest and come to work as normal.  It did not make any difference whatsoever.

Korean Pills

Go to a pharmacy in Korea and you will be likely to receive an array of brightly coloured pills for even mild complaints.  It all seems a bit worrying but apparently it is only this way because in Korea they do not combine all the ingredients into one pill and prefer to leave them separate.  In all likelyhood 3 or 4 brightly coloured pills have exactly the same effect as just the normal one or two in our countries. 

The Koreans may well be on to something, however, as numerous studies on the placebo effect have shown that sugar pills with brighter colours tend to make people feel better than a simple colourless pill.  Also, expensive brand pills in supermarkets often have the same result in making people feel better than cheaper brands do, despite there being exactly the same quantities of active ingredient in them.  Maybe they are trying to boost the psychological effects of taking the medicine.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Attitudes to Abortion in Korea

In August this year South Korea's constitutional court upheld a 59 year long ban on having abortions.  South Korea banned abortion in 1953 with exceptions for rape, incest or severe genetic disorders. 

This may come as a surprise for anyone living in Korea who keeps their eyes and ears open. With my close connections in Korea I have known a number of Korean women of varying ages who have had abortions.

This week abortion hit the headlines with a case of an Indian woman in Ireland who was refused an abortion despite being in severe pain from the pregnancy.  She later died of septicemia brought on by an obviously invalid pregnancy.  So are Korean attitudes to abortion similar to those in Ireland, a country which has the same laws against abortion?  The answer is that, strangely, despite the similarity in guidelines, the two countries are poles apart.

Abortions in Korea take place in hospitals and apparently sometimes without anesthetic because hospitals have to register each time they use it, and since abortion is supposed to be illegal they do not want to do this.

The most shocking thing about abortion in Korea, however, appears to be the flippancy and the ease with which it is undertaken, made even more surprising because it is against the law.

UN statistics estimate abortions to run at about 20 per 1000 births in Korea, which is exactly the same as the US (there must be a lot of rape, incest and/or genetic disorders in Korea as abortion is legal in most of the US), but in Korea many abortions go unreported.  I would shudder to think of the actual figures; this is a problem that could be getting out of hand.  The behind closed doors and prudish nature of the Korean people towards sex could also be causing a lack of knowledge in the family planning department.  Fear of family reactions to news of an unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy before marriage may also push young people to have abortions in secret.

Back in England I had known a few people who had abortions and it literally wreaked havoc to their mental health, causing some level of depression in everyone I had known to have the procedure.  The women I knew who had abortions were guilt-ridden and clearly emotionally damaged by the whole experience.  What I have seen in Korea does not match the consequences of abortion that I saw in England.

The process itself is obviously never an easy experience and as a man, and someone who has not experienced it through a partner, I cannot comment on the procedure itself but I cannot imagine it is pleasant. 

But it is not so much the speed of the physical recovery that is shocking but the mental recovery and the relative ease with which some of the Korean women, and their partners I have heard about, come to their decision.  Sometimes the reasons for their abortions have seemed of mere inconvenience rather than a genuine problem of bringing up the child.

Being a non-religious man and erring slightly liberal in my political opinion, I am actually in favour of pro-choice and not of a ban on abortions generally, but it still troubles me when it looks like such an important decision is taken without too much due care and attention and appears to not overly perturb the person in question.

Of course, it should not be a surprise that Koreans do not follow this law banning abortions.  Korean people are regularly quite selective with the supposed requirements of their government.  Think of traffic laws (as I have said before there must be some), employment laws - such as those requiring Koreans to work no more than 40 hours a week unless they are paid overtime (there is a loophole that says maybe 52 hours but they even exceed that) - and rules on dog meat which Korean Food Sanitary Law states is an illegal food ingredient and the Seoul Metropolitan government categorizes as 'repugnant food'.  All of these rules and regulations are flouted everyday in plain view of anyone who cares to look and not bury their heads in the sand.

It is the social attitude towards it all, though, that is most disturbing of all.  To my eyes it is as clear as day that the value and sanctity of life is not as high here, whether it be human or animal.  This also includes the care and treatment people and non-humans receive during life and not in matters of just life and death.

For another example of this, I needed to not look any further than my own Korean family.  My uncle in-law used to have two Jindo dogs (a famous and traditional Korean breed)  for a number of years.  While they were alive they were rarely if ever let off the short leash that they were tied to outside their house in all weather (it can get seriously cold in Korea in winter).  The younger dog would still get excited when anyone came near, desperate for attention, but for the older dog it did seem that his life had broken him and taken away all of his spirit.  To make a sad story even sadder still, I went to the house for dinner a couple of months ago and the dogs were not there, they had both been sold to the dog meat trade.

Can we seriously think that people would do the same to a pet in the West?  There are obviously cases of abuse but these are among the poor, the uneducated, and the trouble-makers in our societies.  In the case of my uncle in-law and his family they are a perfectly pleasant and nice Korean family in every other respect.  It is clear that this is a cultural attitude and not a case of a few rotten eggs, that's the difference.  A further reason for thinking this way was because of the amount of students I have taught who had dogs in the past but told of how their parents had sold them for dog meat also.

The case of Koreans eating dogs is old hat and to be fair not many people do it anymore, but it has always been the treatment of them that has aggravated me more.  They too often display a callous lack of respect for the animal's life and I believe this also shows in their attitudes towards abortion.

Bring up the issue of dogs around a Korean and they often point to the hypocrisy the West shows towards animals, after all we keep pigs (and other animals) in small pens and kill them, with the average pig life having vastly more suffering than a pet dog in Korea.  They are in a way correct, but whilst logically I must agree, I have a moral intuition that there really is something special about a dog.  We have had a faithful partnership with them for thousands of years and it shows in how we dote on them and vice versa.  It feels like the betrayal of a trusted friends and I feel this guilt on behalf of everyone that does not care about their welfare.

The same argument can be made with abortion.  I recognize, and agree with the views of  people like Peter Singer who draw a comparison between abortions and killing animals for meat.  He says that a cow, for example, will suffer far more than an unborn fetus with a nervous system that is not fully developed.  Therefore, if we are so concerned about a fetus we should be, in fact, more concerned about the cow.  Again, there is great logic in this and perhaps he is 100% right and that it is just because we all merely favour our own species, but I have a niggling sense inside that we should not be so frivolous with the unborn, and abortions, although allowed, should be as a last resort with all the alternatives carefully considered.  This is not the feeling I get from many of the people I have talked to and learned about in Korea, who must for obvious reasons remain anonymous.

Of some of the older Korean women I have knowledge of, some have had multiple abortions and although I have obviously no idea what is going on inside their heads, I don't sense that much remorse in them, at least certainly not on the level that I could see in women in England.

Of course, you could throw the argument on its head by saying that we in the West are too caught up with the issue of the sanctity of human life.  The West has a Christian tradition and even if people are atheists like me, much of our moral intuitions are shaped by almost 2000 years of Christian culture.  Before the Christians, infanticide was a common cultural practice in ancient Greece and Rome, where parents would leave their sometimes only slightly disabled children on hilltops to die of exposure or even throw them off of cliffs.  This wasn't done because they had no heart or moral sense - indeed the Greeks, especially, had a famous and solid grasp of morals that was much ahead of their time - they simply had a different cultural philosophy.

In Christianity, the church ingrained a special value upon human life, even from the moment of conception which puts an extremely high value on all life.  This high value might seem a wonderful thing, but has consequences itself in stopping us from ending lives (even our own) when a high degree of suffering is making life not worth living, and obstructing possible life saving (and life improving) scientific research, such as that done using human stem cells.

Korea does not have a Christian history imprinted on the cultural make up, it has a Confucian tradition which values social harmony and the group.  With this way of thinking, individuals are not necessarily special, it is the group that comes first.  Under this line of thought it is therefore understandable to me how it might be easier for some Korean people to handle abortions with less emotional importance.

There are obviously Korean people and indeed Western people who reject or accept certain parts of their cultures to greater and lesser degrees and this is not applicable to everyone, but the pattern of behaviour cannot go unnoticed.

I am not a fan of Christianity and think we need to move on from it more quickly than we are doing, but it did give us this important sense of value of life, which although needs tweaking a little, is nonetheless quite precious.  Maybe, however, we could do with meeting Korean culture somewhere in the middle and perhaps the guilt experienced by many women from abortion is really quite unnecessary, a hangover from deep lessons of Christian inspired history and while abortion should never be taken lightly it could be thought of a little less gravely than it is currently in the West.

Update: Here are some sources that validate some of the conclusions which may seem to have been made from anecdotal evidence in the article.  These sources would seem to back up my observations.

Below are a number of articles that may validate my point about the casual nature of abortions in Korea.
Below is taken from the above link, an admittedly fairly old study (1996), but does seem to back up what I have noticed.
C. Abortion
In Korean law, an induced abortion, defined as the removing of a fetus before the twenty-eighth week of gestation, is allowed in cases of genetically inherited diseases, transmitted diseases, incest, rape, and those cases that may greatly harm maternal health. However, it has been used as a form of contraception in Korea, and the number of induced abortions runs between 1.5 to 2 million cases annually. There are 600,000 newborns in Korea each year, and the number of abortions is nearly three times the number of deliveries. The total number of abortions in Korea is the second highest in the world. One out of two married women has experienced an abortion. Eighty percent of abortions are done for gender-selection purposes, using an ultrasound scan to ascertain the gender and then selectively abort female fetuses. Those who seek abortions for reasons defined by the law account for only 20 percent of all abortions. Unmarried women have 18.5 percent of the induced abortions; 26.5 percent of these women were between ages 16 and 20. The overwhelming majority of women who had an abortion, 77.9 percent of married women and 71.3 percent of unmarried women, reported satisfaction with the results of the abortion. This reflects, perhaps, the fact that abortion has become commonplace in Korea (PPFK 1996).

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Is a Clash of Culture Inevitable and Irreconcilable?

From the perspective deep inside the culture of Korea with Korean in-laws it starts to become clearer to me why the East and West do have so many problems in relations.  There are some key differences based on our core values that are simply not compatible with each other.

Let's start with the West and our core values: freedom, equality, and individuality.  There are obviously others like fairness, for example, and even respect is important, it is just not as important and is over-shadowed by the others when push comes to shove.

In the East (focusing on Korea) the core values are contrary to the West: respect and duty.  This is not to say that freedom, equality, and individuality are not at all important but they are superseded by respect and duty.

Everyone, to some degree, is probably aware of these differences but some practical examples are needed to illustrate just how badly these can clash sometimes, and I can give some from personal experience.

In Korea, the old have a duty of care for the young and in return the young have a duty to respect and obey older people's wishes, especially that of family.  As a son in-law I fall into to this family dynamic and I am expected to obey my in-laws when they ask something of me.  Most of the time I accept this duty, not least because often they are not asking for the world and it is better to simply not cause any trouble.  This is not to say, however, that this cannot be tiresome on occasion as even the mundane, like going round for dinner, to a small degree, requires that I abandon my own core principles.

When I arrive, where we go, how I behave, and when I leave are all out of my hands, so that is freedom gone.  Throughout the whole time I have to respect the in-laws also, bowing, respectful language, turning away when I drink, etc.  Equality gone.  Individuality is the only thing that remains but even then I am required to conform, which is certainly not in my nature, so I think we can safely say that is all my core values jettisoned.

If this is beginning to sound like a moan, you maybe right, but honestly I accept most of this from week to week without that much trouble, only if I am tired or in a bit of a bad mood do I become slightly grizzly about it or if I have spent too long in their company.  It is clear that I need to compromise some of my own culture's beliefs in order to make things run smoothly with my wife and her family, so I don't mind too much, especially as my wife's parents are good people, they were merely brought up from the opposite side of the world to me.

Every now and then, however, (perhaps even as little as once a year) a situation comes up that reminds me of the fragile nature of the peace between our cultures.  I can think of a few instances where I have flat-out refused to do what my in-laws require of me, where what they have asked has just tip-toed over the line of what I believe is acceptable.  On a couple of these cases in point, my wife has lied to her parents to avoid conflict, not just little white lies, but some pretty whopping porky pies.  To a Western ear, lying to your parents sounds abhorrent but I have learned that this is common in Korea and what's more I believe this is preferred to honesty by parents themselves if the honesty causes any disruption in the social order or the family dynamic.  Some of the lies my wife has said to her parents have been so transparent they must have known she was lying, and I see this in the culture generally, it really seems as if lying is not that bad a thing to do if it maintains the status quo.

On two other occasions, however, no lie could save the situation.  The first is the situation I shared in the post on 'My Korean Family' where I met her (rather wealthy) uncle for the first time, who invited me for dinner with the rest of the family the next day and then about an hour before the scheduled meeting time informed me, via my wife, that he would like me to pay for all ten people present.  I refused as I had only met them for an hour or two the day before and felt this was stretching my charity to them a little too far.

The other occurred last week after I had just finished dinner at home on a Wednesday night at about 8 o'clock.  My wife received a phone call from her mother, who was drinking (and drunk) with a friend. Her friend decided to phone up her daughter and ask whether they could meet with them with her son in-law, and because they were Korean they dropped everything and joined them at short notice.  This is done more as a way of showing-off just how wonderful your family is, in Korean culture, and as cynical as it sounds, the most probable reason for her friend to call her daughter to meet was to make my mother in-law feel jealous.  These acts are painfully easy to see for what they really are, even if you do not have a great grasp of the language, but my mother in-law took the bait and was indeed jealous.  This was all the motivation she needed to call us over.

Now, there might be times where I would be a willing participant in this little status game to save any aggravation but that night was not one of them.  I was tired, ready to relax, and wanted to get up early for a run, and besides she had given us no notice whatsoever, just 'come now!'  My Western ideals started clapping like thunder inside my head, 'I am not here to be used and commanded by someone else' was my immediate reaction.  However, after a few minutes of seeing my wife looking a bit upset and wondering what on earth she was going to say to her mother, I offered a compromise and that was that I would go out but I did not want to sit in a smoky bar.  We could have gone to one of the many coffee shops around or even met around their house which was close by but that was not acceptable.  We had to meet on exactly her terms because that would show her friend what a dutiful and wonderful daughter and son in-law she had.

While I have some sympathy for my mother in-law in this situation - it is her culture after all - this was grossly unfair on me, and especially unfair on my poor wife who was stuck in the middle.  What should have happened was that she was fine to ask if we wanted to join her but not to demand it and certainly not to be upset with my wife when I did not go.  In my eyes, she was behaving like a dictator and from my point of view and my core values, I cannot respect this and in-fact I actively want to disobey this behaviour simply because it flies in the face of my principles.  From her perspective though, I was not respecting her wishes and not fulfilling my duty as a son in-law and she was probably as offended at my behaviour as I was of hers.  The difference is irreconcilable and the only thing that can be done is to paint over the cracks and forget about it.

Bring these same issues up to societal, country, and regional level and it is easy to see where we have problems in relations.  What we think is important and right, deep down inside, is not only different but opposed and actually clash head on.  I have a deeper understanding than most and I am keen for things to work out well because of my wife but most people do not have this close cultural connection or so much vested interest in a pleasant outcome.  No wonder we have problems in the world.

The important thing to remember, even though these differences are so damaging and cause a fair amount of anger and conflict, is that there is no doubt that my in-laws are good people and no doubt that most Koreans are good people, this goes for Chinese, Japanese, Iranians, Afghans, Russians and all the others we might have troubles with.  Travel teaches you this, most people are great, even if you don't enjoy their culture.  What's more I am good too, and so are the vast majority of people from Western countries also.  Just because we offend each other sometimes does not mean one side is evil and the other righteous.  On the other hand, maybe it is just because of where I was brought up but I genuinely think that Western core principles really are better, but many in the East will of course dispute this.  So we have come full circle again and it could be that there is no solution, we'll all just have to live with it the best we can, like I have to.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Brand Names and Status Games

One of the first observations my mother made of Korean people when she visited me a few weeks ago was that everyone wore such nice shoes, especially the women, but the men also.  A short time later she also noted that many of them had designer handbags, watches, and clothes. 

I suspect the reality of Korea was nothing like what she might have pictured when I first told her I was planning to work there.  I am guessing she would have had visions of Thailand or Vietnam, places where you can see development but also has its lion's share of poverty.

It does appear that everybody has money and is displaying this to everyone else.  It can be difficult to pick out the wealthy from the relatively poor.  It is almost like an arms race but it's not about who has the strongest weapons it's about who has the best brands and most expensive gear.

Status really matters in this part of the world, the Joseon Dynasty was the longest running Confucian empire and ideals of status within society run very deep in this line of thought.  High status used to be based on bloodlines, scholarly accomplishment, battlefield triumphs, or good business acumen, but these days it is increasingly displayed by what people wear and own.

As well as the status element to their culture, Korea also is a group centred culture, which makes fitting in and being accepted by your peers and others even more important than it is in Western culture.  This means if one person has brand name shoes or a designer watch everyone else tends to follow.

You can see the fall-out from all of this by just walking the streets but things become even worse when you are transported into a school.  There seem to be a few must-haves for my high school students; colourful brand name trainers, North Face jackets, and - something I have only recently noticed - big divers-like watches.

If I sound a little out of my depth here in talking about what is fashionable, you would not be wrong.  I have always distanced myself from all this brand name nonsense.  It has always looked like a perfect waste of money to me and it has a divisive and shallowing effect on society generally.

This is how the war of status is played out in the classrooms and streets of Korea with trinkets bought from some of the most over-priced and pretentious department stores you will ever see.  No wonder these places can afford to employ about 2 or 3 members of staff for every section and brand they sell.

I just do not know how Korean people afford all these things.  They work some of the longest hours in the world then flitter all their cash on over-hyped garbage that they simply don't need and won't make them happier.  It is all simply to make themselves either be as good as or better than the next person.  You don't have to be a philosopher to realise this is not a great recipe for living the good life.

So are we in the West so much more enlightened?  Well, when it comes to brand names maybe we do have more people who show disdain for them and because of our culture it may be a little more acceptable to not go along with the crowd.  Many people do, however, still have an obsession with it, indeed we are the originators of it and it is further fuelled by the celebrity obsessed masses.

It has to be said, though, that our status games are fought on a battlefield with slightly different rules.

My country has spawned the slightly cringe-worthy phrase 'Cool Britannia' and I think this sums things up quite nicely, essentially it's saying we are not powerful anymore, but we are at least trendier than everywhere else.  In the UK status is still important for people - it always will be in a social primate species - but it is not necessarily possessions that show-off someone's status it is their levels of confidence, arrogance, and sometimes their disdain for others, in short, how 'cool' they are.

Being 'cool' is how you are socially accepted and how you climb up the tree of status, exactly like the brand name obsession of Korea.  Now, brand names can aid in this, but - conversely to Korea - one biggest aspects is being individual, being crazy, standing out in a crowd or rebelling against 'the system', whatever that is.

While expressing your individuality might seem like a good idea that would breed a healthy unrepressed sort of society, actually the opposite is true.  There will always be the true characters that are genuinely different and that are natural and comfortable with being set apart from everybody else, but the fact is that most people are not like this at all, they only act this way to make others believe that they are.

'Statistics show that the average person doesn't think they are very average at all.'  I have always liked this quote because it really is so true.  This is also a little depressing for people from my culture who want to be different, wild, or crazy, because most just aren't.  So in the 99% of people you see that are acting in a confident, outlandish, or in a maverick kind of manner, most of them are doing just that, acting, and it is not for the benefit of letting their personality run free, it is for everyone else so they can climb that status ladder.  These people are on a par with those that are carrying the Prada bags, Gucci watches, and North Face jackets.

Coming back to Korea, it is not just us Brits that have this disease it has afflicted most of the Western world.  When foreigners display 'the bulldozer effect' - this being a lack of sensitivity in handling touchy cultural situations - it is often directly related to looking good.  One classic way of looking 'cool' is not caring about convention and doing things your way.  Well, if people do that here, many Koreans will be offended, but then again they don't care, right?  Offence is sometimes necessary, especially when there is injustice involved, but this is rarely the motivation behind most issues in Korea involving offence caused by foreigners.

English teachers living in South Korea provide an interesting experiment in status games because almost everyone is in the same boat; they have the same job, the same kind of apartment, and are mostly as unaware as each other of the culture in which they reside. 

Now don't take this the wrong way but I always thought there was just something a little strange about many of the foreigners that come to Korea, some do not appear to be that genuine.  Firstly, I should say that this does not apply to everyone I have met, but still a fair few fit into this bracket.  This could be because they are in a foreign situation with no friends they have known for a long time, so they try too hard to impress.  It could also be exactly because of the equality in jobs and lifestyles that they have to stand out somehow.

Some people who come to Korea to work have problems that are not of their own making as it is always a possibility (in any country) to meet unscrupulous people, but many create their own problems and this has a lot to do with the attitude they display in trying to elevate their status.  Whatever happened to acting humble in a unfamiliar place? 

Some people I have met in Korea have stepped off the plane in Incheon and approached each situation as bold as brass with a confidence and dare I say an arrogance which I could see would upset people, not only here but in any country.  It is like stepping onto a football field having never played before and expecting to be on the same level as professionals.  Everyone deserves respect but when the Western bulldozer comes through it must be hard for some Korean people to show it sometimes.

Finally, if anyone is having problems out there, you should know that status is so important here.  If you accept the position of lower status and swallow your pride it can enable an escape from a variety of sticky situations.  Transcend the brand names and status games in any culture and life usually tastes much sweeter, perhaps even more so in Korea.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Night "Study" Exposed

I know for a fact that most Korean students absolutely hate being at school for all hours of the day, but that does not stop them making the best of a bad situation.  Night study in my all-boys high school is normally self-study and the teachers just leave them to it without supervision most of the time I think.  This gives the students the opportunity to sneak in a bit of fun between bouts of learning.

The typical impression of Far Eastern people and especially their students back home in England is that of a population of serious, smart, nerdy computer geeks who all want to become doctors and therefore study unhumorously day and night.  Granted, many of them do like computer games and it does seem that many of them want to become doctors but the reality of a Korean student's everyday world could not be further from the classic stereotype of over-seriousness.

I sometimes experience a sneak preview of the kind of shenanigans that go on after dark in their behaviour between classes.  I am probably the only teacher in the school that arrives early for class to set up computers, sort things out, and just have a casual chat with the students, so I see a little of what they get up to.

Classroom Sports/Activities

1. Flip-flop table tennis
The students push four tables together to make the playing area and sandwich some flip-flops in the middle for a net, then use one more flip-flop for a bat/paddle.  This way they only need to remember the ball.  Some of them are amazingly good at it and have almost masterly control using only their slipper.

2. Baseball
They scrunch up paper into a tight ball and seal it with sellotape, thereby making a baseball, a small broom is then utilised as the bat.  Not much running can be done but they have a pitcher, some fielders, and a referee calling the strikes.  To add some atmosphere, sometimes a student will plug his MP3 into the TV speakers and play some encouraging music inbetween pitches.  Some students join in with chanting and cheerleading and some just sleep through it.

3. Hockey
Desks turned around make for perfect hockey goals and a golf ball is used for the hockey ball.  The students usually only have two small brooms per classroom so they have to borrow some more from the neighbours to have a full and interesting game.  This game tends to cause the most disruption as desks are cleared to make room for the playing area.  There are frequent breaks for lost balls under tables, bags and other obstructions.

4. Sirum
A traditional Korean sport, which is kind of a mix between sumo and wrestling.  I feel a smidgeon uncomfortable walking in on all of these activities but this one is probably the most dangerous as students go tumbling around.  Other teachers do not appear to be too bothered by what goes on in the classrooms in breaks between classes, so I try and be lenient.  I guess they figure that if they get injured in this time, it is their own fault and they will learn from their mistakes and it is their room and if they wreck it they have to fix it and clean it (now theres an idea).

5. Arm Wrestling
Probably the most common of the classroom sports and there is usually one student that particularly excels in each class.

6. Fighting
General fighting with punching, kicking, wrestling, and slapping is a regular feature of the ten minute breaks.  I have never seen anything turn nasty, however, although occasionally you can see students sitting on their own and studying outside classrooms, this is sometimes due to fighting and also smoking in the toilets.

7. Dancing
I rarely see this with my students but there are sometimes coordinated dance moves practiced with a group of boys.  Any search on youtube will show many more of these which they surely copy from K-Pop music stars.  I would not mind betting that the girl students are even worse with things like this but it does appear funnier when the boys do it.  Here some examples of what I have found on youtube  (Skip to just over 1 minute on the second video).

8. Annoying other students
Some students are simply plain annoying and try their best to irritate other students in a great many novel ways.  See the clip below.

9.  Random Events
Rather worryingly, I walked in on one student being held down and pants partly down with his boxer shorts out and being spanked.  He also had his mouth gagged by a belt.  Perhaps they were trying to replica their favourite pornography scene.  I just shook my head and walked on by without asking any questions.

Actually, one of the best things about schools in Korea is the responsibility they give to students.  After reading my previous posts on older people you would be forgiven for thinking that Korean kids never do anything of their own accord without being told what to do first, but oddly enough they are given a kind of freedom that in many ways would never happen in Western countries.

I have experience teaching in England and teachers would rarely trust students enough to leave them unsupervised in a classroom.  It is common that teachers lock classrooms to avoid students wrecking the place at breaks and lunchtimes.  Of course, usually students do not have their own rooms and they travel from class to class throughout a typical school day.  The great benefit of the Korean system is that they are responsible for their own room (and their school) - for maintaining it, repairing it, and cleaning it - and this makes them far less likely to trash it.  Despite all my Korean students mucking around I have never seen an incident that you would regard as unsafe or anything broken.

This system of responsibility is fantastic but it obviously cannot work on its own and the culture has much to do with why it is successful.  There are a couple of cultural reasons that Korean students are quite a bit easier to manage than Western students; the first has to do with a level of automatic respect they have for teachers and older people, and the second is their group centred culture.  The first is fairly self-explanatory, but the reason for the second is because if an individual does something wrong within the group, the whole group can be punished for not dealing with or preventing them from doing it.  This way you never have to argue about who did it and what is fair, the group will just accept the punishment (with maybe a little resistance) without feeling that their human rights have been violated. 

As a teacher you do not have to waste time being fair, you can simply punish the group and the group itself will make sure justice prevails in the end by admonishing the individual responsible themselves.  Again they are responsible, not only for their own, but for others behaviour.  This dramatically cuts down on teacher's time spent dealing with behavioural problems, you really can (most of the time) trust Korean students from about the age of 11 upwards in a way you would never do in most Western countries.

All this responsibility suggests a greater maturity among Korean students but it certainly does not feel this way when you teach them.  They have a childish like innocence, even the ones that you know are smoking in the toilets at lunchtime and talking about pornography (a favourite pastime for high school boys students in Korea in my experience).  Teaching a class of 16 and 17 year olds in Korea feels more like teaching 14 and 15 year olds in England. 

When my mother visited a couple of weeks ago she remarked on stories of my students with the belief that they were less mature and they do feel this way, but I am not so sure.  I think they are simply nicer, and - I hate to denigrate the young people of my own country - friendlier, with a much greater sense of fun than students of a similar age in England.  They make teaching a pure joy, I do not think I could have a better job.  I actually look forward to returning to work after a break and my mood is usually lifted after teaching a class rather than the opposite.  I am not one to overstate things like this, or indeed tend to find pleasure in working at all, and it is all down to my students, which is perhaps why you could forgive me on being so harsh in my previous posts on the culture of putting so much pressure on young people here in Korea.