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.


  1. I pretty much agree with you.

    The whole "bend over" mindset many westerners has to culture, destroys any kind of progress we as humanity has cleared. It nullifies the "truth seeking", and as result we will never experience the "best" society possible, since people are afraid to challenge anything.
    It's all so darn passive aggressive, and regardless of what ones views may be on something like this, passive aggression is still aggression. Saying yes when you mean no, isn't productive. Not for yourself, and certainly not for others.

  2. I am a Korean Australian living in Australia and I experience the same fatigue in Australia. Many of my friends from overseas especially from Europe say the same thing. Alot of cultures, Western and Eastern expect conformity.
    I have also lived in England and I had a wonderful time there but still felt pressure to conform. The only difference was that people wouldn't directly tell you or confront you. It was more subtle, glares, may put into conversation in a round about way that you don't do something that way, ignore you, talk about you behind your back, my father-in-law even gave me a book as a gift on parenting advice (very thoughtful and very insulting), etc. I find this much better however because it wasn't in my face and I didn't have to deal with it.
    Whereas in Australia, I have to deal with racism everyday with people insulting me and others directly but if I challenge this in anyway they usually say "can't you take a joke?" "I wasn't saying anything racism, that guy is an asian **@#. hahaha!" or there can be threats of physical violence. You have strangers coming up to you to tell you in a very public way what is wrong with you. Some absolutely love seeing the pain in your face and be encouraged to shout louder.
    I have been back to Korea once for 5 days and people did come up to me and my family to give unwanted advice or tell me to do something a different way but they never insulted me to my face and it wasn't about trying to make me feel pain or hurt. I politely thanked them and just didn't do what they advised and/or moved away. This is a difficult strategy for you to use as you have pressure from the family you see regularly and it isn't a 5 day visit.
    What I do here in Australia is that I have a huge group of friends, an alternative community, some of whom may have very different views from me but above it all respect me. I choose to not interact with the mainstream culture as much as possible. Overall, I try to have more good experiences and people in my life who are positive to counteract the bad moments. This helps. However, it is exhausting to not be myself and have to watch what I am doing, saying, looking, etc. I can't talk in korean in public if so in whispers and counteract this with talking really loudly in english. I have to watch what I am doing with my kids or lie about what we do in fear of being criticised. I don't talk about politics with anyone but a few and don't mention how I really feel because no one wants to know.

    Well, with my Korean family, I have to compromise like I do with my English family (my husband was born in England) and show only what they want to see. I don't want to get into what happened after I gave birth to my third child and what the two sides expected me to do based on tradition(Korean beliefs) or for my health(English beliefs) when all I wanted to do was rest and have some peace. Quite funny now and this was a clear illustration of others wanting me to conform to their views.
    One more thing, I have a very good Korean friend who is my b.s.ometer and I go to her when my family expect me to do something because they say it is the Korean way. I have found out most things are just their peculiar way of doing things. I guess it is just the Confusian order to listen to your elders even if they are crazy.

    1. Thanks for this. What you say reminds me of some of the treatment my wife received in England on the racism front. I think people from Western countries have prejudices like everywhere else but when we do it, it is very in your face, a nasty little part of our culture for sure.

      Most of what you describe sounds like prejudice to me. The racist slurs particularly, but your father in-law giving a parenting book also was simply uncalled for and if my dad did so to my wife, to be honest I would tell him where to go.

      Perhaps I am speaking too generally when I say Western culture in my blogs. My values come from Western Enlightenment, tolerance, valuing individuality and reason, this is the best of Western culture. I have called out some of the worst aspects in other blogs but perhaps not enough in this one. I must again say that I have many frustration about my own culture, and I will write about them in detail when I go home no doubt.

      I will be honest my major problem with Korean culture is not one of being unaccepted, it is being accepted. The more Koreans like me the less I like them because that is when they force conformity on me even more. It is not a prejudice issue because I see other Koreans suffer with this problem also, I see very little honest dialogue between people here, which I find exhausting.

      I truly think that group culture of any kind is not good. We have in Western countries under the guise of nationalism, displayed most often by the growing underclass that is being created by the gap between rich and poor. They use people from other countries as scapegoats for their frustrations instead of treating them like individuals like they should.

      I feel really sad to hear that you have to watch what you are doing, this should never be and is a sad reflection on Western culture, which should be about valuing all individuals for who they are and not judging them harshly unless they break the laws of the land.

    2. Also, the only antidote to this, all over the world is to think for ourselves, be reasoned, be honest with each other and value individual differences.

      I have to tell you, I don't like Korean culture, I think it is against all of the above in a way that Western culture is not (although you are right that in practice they operate pretty similarly), but I would never treat any Korean any different to anyone else and value their differences and their presence in my country as long as they a good people and law abiding citizens, the same way as I would judge anyone from any country including my own. I like most Korean people but the culture gets in the way so much.

      Most Koreans I know are good people and the good and bad ones are roughly the same in number as back home in England. I would stick up for yourself a bit more with people you know in Australia and in England. I have to do it too when I'm in England with people, but most will respect that you do things differently in the end I am sure, and if they don't, well, f@*k 'em and do what you want anyway but ignore the morons like we all have to.

  3. There is no doubt that Korean has a unique cultural energy and cultural fatigue (to coin a new phrase perhaps). I don't think Koreans realise how hard it can be living and working in Korea and I don't think people back home (England for me) understand either. The later think your life resembles something like a Lonely Planet guide book, something like a Match of the Day highlight reel and it just isn't true.

    Korea is a place where even the simplest of tasks can become mentally very draining and fatigue inducing. That goes for everything from using the internet to having a haircut to going to the gym; each is a cultural midfield with seemingly endless pitfalls around you. 'Culture' or 'cultural differences' is the eternal intangible; its the dog-ate-my-homework excuse that can always be used to 'explain' these situations (I find).

    In terms of Koreans they tend to view all foreigner related problems in Korea through a prism and what we experience just doesn't cross over with what they experience. They are taught that their country is an ensemble of success and uniqueness hence its very difficult for them to understand the problems we face or for them to have any perspective on issues that effect us. The difference with Western culture is that we are more accustomed to talking about problems and hearing them out where as Korea and Korean culture is the complete diametric opposite in that then shun introspective debate and even the smallest kind of self-criticism.

    You are right in that the problem lies with people you have a relationship with and who like you. The closer you become with people the greater the obligations become; where as in many other cultures the closer you become the more relaxed and at ease you are with that person.

    Another thing I find, as you allude to, that not being able to speak freely and candidly about issues is a big obstacle to establishing friendship on our terms as we see it. If I am constantly overlooking important issues at the other parties’ expense I don’t feel like I can ever truly consider them friends. I think we have that problem in Britain regarding various other racial and religious groups if I am being honest and I think other multicultural societies do as well from what I gather. I think this is a particularly big problem in places of work whereby co-workers are given carte blanche to say whatever they want about you and your country and [perceived] culture but this privilege isn’t something we can safely practice in return. It’s so frustrating and in all honesty I would rather not speak with anyone than conduct conversations on those terms.

    You are right though, it always seems to me as if I am the one making the effort to adapt and understand and that this isn’t a shared experience between Koreans. I find this to be true especially of Koreans that haven’t been abroad or who haven’t engaged much with foreigners (though, admittedly, that is to be expected to a large degree).

    Your phrasing and expression is spot on Christopher, that's what I have grown to like about your blog.

    1. Many thanks. Glad it is not just me that feels the burn.

      The relationships thing is the most frustrating of all. I was determined to try and make Korean friends in Korea and not just hang around with the foreigners. But as time has gone by I have grown wary of making Korean friends or forming a more affable relationship with work colleagues because you are drawn into all the cultural obligations. It is slightly different with my wife - and in actual fact women generally are easier to feel at ease with - because she is more open-minded and less rigid with all the cultural etiquette.

    2. Exactly. I think its a red herring to just say that our experience in Korea directly parallels those of Koreans in Western countries as it just isn't an even playing field. Western countries are built on tolerance and accepting different attitudes and people; Korean culture is the opposite built on conformity and rigid vertical relationships that emphasize sacrificing personal pursuit for group harmony and basically doing what the most senior person says.

      At a basic fundamental level, Koreans just aren’t very good at accepting people who are different from them; either racially, culturally or anything else even if in the day and age we live in it just isn’t politically correct to say this kind of thing. The problem I find is that you are constantly walking on egg shells and you are only one small remark from being ostracised and
      heavily resented.

      Koreans tolerate foreigners a lot more than accepting or embracing them. They endure what they have to (English teachers, soldiers, labourers) because they know that this is ultimately in the best interests of their country.

  4. Also the never ending and unhealthy obsession with the Japanese

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