Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Korea Just Playing Catch-up With Morals and Manners?

The title of this post may sound a little insulting as no one likes to be called out as being behind the times with anything whether it be fashion, technology, efficiency, and especially morality and manners.  This subject just keeps on coming up, though, and some comparisons of current Korean culture with how my own country was about 50 years ago cannot go unnoticed.

Issues such as animal rights, divorce, single-parent families, women's equality, racism, workers rights, and corporal punishment all seem to be at a similar stage in evolution and discourse to what they were in the West when my father was a teenager.

Another reason for this subject coming to mind is my continuing marathon of reading Steven Pinker's epic book 'The Better Angels of Our Nature', which tracks a lot of the changes Western society has gone through to become more peaceful, moral, and civilized over time (shocking, I know, but the evidence does seem to show we live in the most peaceful time in history).  He gives so many examples of practices we no longer think about doing that still occur in Korea.  Because of many of our ways of reducing violence in society we also have the side-effect from it of political correctness, again something I do not experience so starkly in Korea.

Pinker goes into so much detail in his book on the reasons violence has declined (it is over 1000 pages long!), so I can't do it justice in a blog post, but it is mostly down to a gradual 'Civilizing Process' that has occurred over time, of which a number of things have contributed to; wealth, democracy, distribution of literature and ideas, secular humanism, and trade being some of the major factors.

It is noticeable that most of these major influences on the civilizing process have had a great deal more time in existence in the West and - much to the annoyance of many Koreans - in Japan.

Comparing Japan and Korea is an interesting exercise because of their similarities in culture compared to the massive difference to the West.  Japan's civilizing process has clearly had a longer time to develop due to their history as a strong power in the region and a stable society and it shows in their behaviour and manners and in their crime statistics.

Comparing crime statistics between countries is fraught with difficulty, however, as there are many variables involved, not least the efficiency and the ways in which individual countries report crime, but there are also a range of other complicated factors.  Korea has a pretty low crime rate to its credit but there does feel like the country has some issues with civility, manners, and morals in certain areas.  (Note: The comparison in crime statistics over time, however, can be reliable as crime rates within the same countries and cultures can be analysed with much greater confidence and accuracy)

It also sometimes feels as if the Korean government and Korean intellectuals know all too well that the Korean populace is still catching up on many moral issues and this is the reason for some of the laws Korea has that are not followed and the concealing of certain aspects of their everyday culture to foreign eyes.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, abortion and the trade in dog meat are against the law but are still practiced without much effort to cover it up.  No action is ever taken by the government to prosecute wrong-doers, so people continue (I should add here that I do not think those having abortions are doing wrong, merely that it is against the law in Korea in most cases).

Despite this, one gets the feeling that in the Korean government they are concerned with how some of their cultural practices are viewed overseas.  I think this started with the law banning abortions in 1953, which must have a great deal to do with American presence and influence at the time as the culture does not seem to be at all against abortion generally.  This law is dated and needs to change.  It has continued with the laws making dog meat illegal.  There is only one reason that this law exists in my opinion, and that is to show people from other countries that they do not condone the practice.  And practically, because the dog meat law is not properly enforced, it is undoubtedly making the welfare of dogs suffer as a result.

Controversial issues regarding dog meat have never been far away when Korea has hosted important events.  During the 1988 Seoul Olympics the government actually encouraged the public not to consume dog meat for fear of bad publicity.  The problem also reared its ugly head again in the 2002 world cup.

Traffic laws are also regularly flouted without any fear of punishment, apart from the speed cameras on highways.  Drink driving appears to be a major problem in Korea - the number of occasions I have seen or heard about people doing it is extremely worrying - and talking to people on the phone while driving can problem be witnessed by anyone to steps outside at this very moment and looks at a even a few people driving on the roads.  (By the way, apparently you can make a buck or two in Korea if you take a picture of someone in the act of driving while talking on the phone or smoking.  Take a picture of someone doing this along with their car registration number, send it to the police and you can claim a cash reward)

An orderly driving environment is a good and easy place to start in figuring out just how civilized somewhere really is.  Go to the mad house driving environments of India, Indonesia, and some other less developed nations and it is easy to see.  Despite having a strong economy, one can see the lack of civility in much of the population of India.  Korea is an example of a country with the most amazing infrastructure but because of Korea's relatively short time as a stable, wealthy society, their driving betrays the true nature of a country still catching up on manners and morals.

Korean people cannot be blamed for this.  Western culture has developed it manners and morals through a constant developing process over centuries of stable countries and a steady flow of new ideas.  We have made the mistakes and learnt from them, are still learning from them and many of our issues with political correctness have to do with an over-reaction to things that have happened in the past.

From Pinker's massive book it is clear that he attributes the freedom of expression of new ideas and the publication of books, both non-fiction and fiction, as being one of the central reasons for the decline of violence and the civilizing process.  He describes that stories enable people to put themselves in the position of the characters (indeed this is what you do when you read a book or watch a movie) and empathize with them, increasing the amount of empathy you have with real individuals in similar situations.  Enlightenment philosophers penned their ideas on morality and their ideas seeped through the social classes and changed the attitudes of the entire Western world in a relatively short period of time.

Countries and cultures that restrict the free flow of ideas have also restricted their progress in these regards.  The Islamic world is an example of this.  The fact of the matter is that Spain translates more books into Spanish each year than the whole Islamic world has into Arabic since the ninth century.  Korea also used to have a very isolationist philosophy (and was called the 'Hermit Kingdom' because of it), although these days, with the amount of books that students read, they must be making up for lost time.

This blog sounds like a bit of a downer on Korea, but I would like to switch perspectives.  In many ways it is extraordinary to think that Korea is as civilized as it is, how many countries with such a short time in the sun can boast of such low crime rates and a decent society with low rates of poverty.  It is only because of the impressive nature of Korea's infrastructure, its modernity, its economy, its efficiency, and its general sophistication that we become upset about some of their manners, odd opinions, and those regular face to palm moments.

Get mugged in Central America, asked for a bribe by police in Indonesia (so they don't arrest you), see unhygienic food preparation in India, or experience general bad manners and staring in a third world country and it is to be expected.  We are annoyed, shocked, sick, or upset by it, but we don't tend to have a go at the culture at large or hold them too accountable for it, we understand it and excuse it to some extent.  This is not what happens in Korea, where Westerners really have a moan about the culture and the manners (myself included).

Korea's outward persona of a super-modern, rich, and technologically sophisticated society makes us think that they are as developed in all areas as those in the West.  This is not the case and it would be impossible to be so considering their history.  Korea does have a marvelous opportunity, however, and that is to grow in their moral understanding, learn from our mistakes through literature and the media, and build a sounder moral basis for their society that is free from the political correctness that is plaguing Western discourse at this moment in time.  Judging by the amount of books my students are reading, if Pinker is correct in his theories, this may only be a matter of a short period of time.

'The Better Angels of Our Nature' by Steven Pinker (Paperback)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Are Korean Students Respectful To Their Foreign Teachers?

I have often been surprised by the amount of reports I hear from fellow English teachers who think that Korean students are disrespectful, difficult to teach, and are generally not very nice.  I say surprised because this is not the experience I have had with Korean students at all, but maybe my perspective and expectations of Koreans students is a little different.

Before I left for Korea, I had the impression that some of my friends thought that I was doing a really noble thing teaching English in South Korea, it was almost like I was doing Koreans a favour just by going there to work.  Nothing could really be further from the truth; I didn't have many job prospects in England and although the adventure of a new culture excited me, the major motivation was the money.

Some other friends assumed teaching in Asia generally must be an easy job, with their respect culture and hard-work attitude.  They thought all I needed to do was speak and they would listen.  Combine this with  TV programs showing volunteers teaching in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and India and word of mouth experiences from such endeavours, where students are attentive, smiley  respectful, and sweet and one can get the impression that this teaching malarkey in Asia is easy and rewarding. Perhaps this is what many assume when they first come to Korea.

I came from a slightly different direction, however.  I had taught science in England as a trainee teacher for one year.  I hated it, and although the students were a challenge, it was not for this reason; the job took up my whole life, mostly with bureaucratic nonsense but also I never agreed with how my country went about teaching young people, however this is another story.

I also had quite a lot of experience working in a school environment as a learning assistant and science technician.  I had first hand experience about just how tricky young people in school can be.  I was already well practiced in handling disrespectful, noisy, and naughty young kids.  English students gave me plenty of  chances to refine my skills in dealing with them.

I came to Korea with an open mind, I had no real idea what to expect but I did have some expectations that Korean students would be better behaved.  After about three years teaching in Korea, I still think they are better behaved, more respectful, and generally much more friendly and pleasant to teach than students back home.

However, it has not slipped by me that many people who comment on the behaviour of Korean students are themselves also teachers back home in their own countries.  I am pretty sure that when they say their students back home are more respectful they are not lying, so what is going on?  Is it only English students who are difficult?

Perhaps the problem is that they are not comparing like with like.  There really is no comparison with our positions as teachers in Korea and teaching back home in our respective countries.  Native teachers in Korea can be placed in an awkward and difficult position to gain respect from their students.  Even young students aren't stupid, most of them know the following:

- The NET cannot usually speak Korean
- There is no importance (test wise) on the NET's class
- The NET may well not be a qualified teacher
- The NET may not have the full support of their school, i.e. many schools in Korea have far greater trust in their pupils than the foreign teacher (and it shows sometimes).
- The NET is regularly confused with what is happening within the school
- The NET may be gone in a year
- The NET has a helper, or maybe even a boss, in class (i.e. their co-teacher)

These are all factors that are not comparable to back home; we speak the same language, our classes have importance, we are qualified, we have the support of the school, we usually know what is happening on a day to day basis, most teachers stay in their jobs for longer periods of time, and we are in control of our classes (the students answer to us).

If we turned the situation on its head and had Korean teachers in Western schools, speaking little or no English and stumbling around in many situations without the full support of the school, it would be carnage for them, at least from my perspective as a teacher in England.

The fact is that this will never happen, and if there were Korean native teachers in our schools they would receive a hell of a lot more support and assistance than we do.  Much of the respect issues many of us have are more to do with the school's attitude to foreign teachers than the actual student's attitudes, which in my mind are pretty darn good considering the circumstances.

Further evidence of this, for me personally, came from my first two jobs in Korea, both Hagwon (private school) jobs.  The first was great, a well organised school who put trust and responsibility on their foreign teacher and who also had a sensible and well thought out behaviour management strategy.  As a result of this the students were a pleasure to teach and I rarely had cause to discipline them.

My second job, however, was a completely different story; a poorly run Hagwon with a horror boss who was overly obsessed with his own importance and power and who went through Korean and foreign teachers alike, like the daily pots of Ramen he slurped noisily away at everyday.  The students knew the boss had no respect for his employees and there was no strategy for coping with unruly children.  My classes, because of this, were a complete nightmare.  My students oozed contempt for me out of every orifice and I had to work extremely hard to make my classes tolerable while receiving absolutely no assistance whatsoever from my boss.  My experiences with these Hagwons very much confirm what I suspect, that it is the system and the schools that are the problem, not the students, they can be won round eventually, however bad the school might be.

There is another factor and that is the everyday life of a student in Korea.  Koreans students are saturated with education, pressure from parents, and exams.  Many of my high school students are at school for 14 hours a day and, unbelievably, some even have to go to a Hagwon (private school) after this as well.  Middle school and Elementary students have less time at school but, again, many go to Hagwons after school.  When it comes to our classes, is it any wonder they see it as an opportunity to have a little sleep or a break from the monotony of their other lessons and mess around and have fun in them.  I have a great deal of sympathy with them as I am pretty sure that, back when I was a kid, I would have taken exactly the same chance for a rest.

The combination of student hardship and the lack of regard the schools (and the education system as a whole) have for NETs makes it completely understandable why some find their students are not giving them the expected level of respect.  All the actions of the schools and the Korean education system is saying NET's classes are not that important and the over-worked students read this message loud and clear.  We earn our monthly wage by overcoming this attitude and earning their respect.

Fortunately, we are interesting, especially compared to most of their Korean teachers.  We are interesting by nature because we are different and many of us work quite hard to make our lessons interesting as well.  Add a consistent behaviour management strategy, some patience, and understanding and we can win them round.  Like most young people everywhere, get beneath the exterior of posturing, bravado, and showing-off to friends and you have great youngsters in Korea, who are naturally compliant and respectful and one of my great highlights of living in Korea.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Are So Many Koreans Committing Suicide?

In my last post, I suggested that part of the the reason for the high rate of suicides in Korea is because of respect culture.  I mentioned this because I have seen the amount of stress that this causes in Korean people and in me when I have dealings with many Koreans, including my wife's family.  

There are, however, many factors that contribute to Korea's suicide problem that are not talked about very much.  They are often problems shared by other countries but Korea has a toxic mix of ingredients, at quite a high potency, like no other country.

So here are the reasons, I believe, Koreans are killing themselves in greater numbers than any other country in the world, barring Lithuania, and in OECD members are comfortably atop the league table by a worryingly clear margin.

1. Respect Culture

I wrote about this in last weeks post but it is worth reiterating the situation here.  

I think it is fair to say that unless you spend everyday with your mates, you are going to need to have interactions with others of different ages and positions.  Of course, we all tend to respect authority and age world-wide, but when we really have issues or grievances that we need to air, we do it.  Think of a time when you had a problem with a superior at work or an older person, it is stressful.

But because of the senior expectation for respect, and the entitlement it is perceived as giving them, these troubles are not only more stressful when you get into them in Korea, but are by orders of magnitude more frequent in occurrence.  People of higher status use the culture's respect practices to belittle, bully, and promote themselves and the saddest thing is that this doesn't only happen when people are at work but it also hits them when they come home to their family as well.

Where is a person's freedom when they have to constantly bend to the will of someone else? Obedience is commanded at work and at home, saying 'no' to a senior person's requests is simply not acceptable.  I have personally done this a few times both at my job and with my in-laws and the friction and strife it causes is incredible.  I usually have three options; I either lie, play the foreigner-card, or give in to their demands, honesty is not an option.  Korean people only have two options; give in to demands or lie, and I am frequently shocked about just how much of family life in Korea - as I have experienced it - revolves around lying and denial.  

This stuff bugs the hell out of me, yet I have the foreigner-card up my sleeve and play it regularly, heaven knows how Korean people cope.  I do sometimes wonder in a certain amount of awe how patient and compliant they can be without simply flipping-out and going crazy. (Hang on, what's this post about again?)

2. Pressure

As a high school teacher in Korea, I know all about the pressure heaped on my poor students.  It is not only the country's obsession with education and the role a high-paid job plays in measures of success and status, but the family again has a massive role to play.

When I asked my students the other week, 'What are you scared of?' - in a lesson on fears - by far the most common answer was, 'My mother!'  Fair enough, many of these replies were tongue-in-cheek, but many a true word is said in jest.  At any age, I cannot ever imagine replying to a question about what I was scared of with the answer, 'My mother', but maybe I just have a nice mum.

I am afraid, though, that this is a small sign of the level of expectancy parents place upon their children, which is felt right up until their death.  Their children must not only provide for them economically when they are older but also make them proud and give them something to boast about to their friends (no joke this is what happens in my experience).  I have often wondered - rather distastefully, I admit - whether some Korean people are relieved when their parents pass-away, I think I would be in the same situation.

This attitude has fueled the over-bearing education system, competition for jobs, and the already high pressure created culturally to submit to the employer's will, being the elder and superior.  Employer's understand just how important jobs are to people for these reasons (over and above the need for money, like everywhere else) and they take advantage of it.  There is a real need to protect employees rights in this country because of this, as currently many employers do as they please, demanding a level of subjugation from their employees that is totally uncalled for.

3. Working Hours

I used to think this was a major factor in suicides but I am now not so sure, although it certainly can't help.

Korean people work some of the longest hours in the world.  However, I don't think it is so much the stress of time spent at work as the stress of relationships within the working environment that is the real issue.  The fact is that the longer you spend at work, the longer you have to spend in the company of people you have to respect, take abuse from, and be generally be submissive to, like I mentioned earlier.  

Working hours and lack of holiday do, however, contribute to feelings of discontents because of the lack of time to relax and spend with loved ones.  When you spend your whole life grinding away at work and rarely experiencing anything else and not seeing those you love, it is easy to see how this could push people over the edge also.

4. Concerns About Status

In my post 'Brand Namesand Status Games' I went over just how important it is for people that they are seen as better than somebody else.  It motivates many of us all over the world and it is something that, when we feel it, we often castigate ourselves for because we know that jealousy is not the path to happiness.  It really does amaze me how huge a part status plays in Korean culture, though, and plays a massive role in personal debt because of the need to show their wealth and prosperity to others, even if they don't have it.  I have been present while my in-laws socialise with friends they have known since high school and there always seems to be a constant battle for one upmanship, it dominates most conversations.

If you are constantly feeling like others are more successful or happier than you, this is another guaranteed path to unhappiness and if you throw in a big credit card bill caused by funding trinkets for your insecurity, things don't get any better.

5. Traditions

Many religions have a taboo on suicides and as religion has often played a key role in shaping present culture, this might also have an effect on just how powerful the urge is to contemplate suicide.  Korea has many Christians and Buddhists but traditionally it is Confucian and this is what drives much of what you see around you everyday in Korea regarding cultural practices.  The concept of 'Han' is another part of the equation; a deep feeling of anger, resentment when facing difficult situations that is buried deep in the Korean cultural psyche.

"When a situation is bad and they can't show their cool selves, Koreans tend to get frustrated, give up and take drastic choices," Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University.

I am by no means an expert on this, but maybe this does play a role in making suicide, culturally, an easier and more appealing option.  

6. Rapid Change and the Erosion of Traditional Values

This is a commonly stated reason for the high suicide rate in Korea, especially among Korean intellectuals, but also seems to make a fair bit of sense.

Far from the gradual loss of traditional values in the face of modernity, I strongly believe that it is the refusal to adapt to the changes in culture and to stubbornly persist with traditional ways that is causing all the problems.  Troublesome traditions are often kept in the name of 'Korean culture', respect culture being the most obvious. 

Older people commit suicide for different reasons to the young; they have expectations of their family to adhere to tradition values and when they don't, it is all too much, especially when they don't see them very often or provide for them when they are older.  Older people rely heavily on their children to make them happy, they really are everything to them.  This is sweet but relying on such a narrow focus for your happiness is trouble in the making if your children don't follow your wishes or, heaven forbid, perish before you do.  

For young people, the modern pressures of longer working hours, big business deals, buying nice things, and imported Western ideals mean it is harder for them to adhere to the traditional values their parents expect.

Many of the problems can be summed up between the clash of modern Capitalism with ancient Confucianism, especially when it comes to business and people's status obsession with buying shiny new things to impress others.


7. Koreans Like To Drown Their Sorrows
Koreans drink a lot, amazingly even more than the British (and that is going some).  People all over the world like to drown their sorrows in a bar after work but Koreans, with all of these issues, take it to a new level.  Alcohol, although appearing to make things better, never actually works and is often a sure-fire way to worsen a situation or help those with the option of suicide in the back of their minds take the next step to contemplate and carry out the unthinkable.  This is something I have noticed with the Koreans close to me, they tend to drink a lot when they are stressed and depressed.  Not a good option.

8. Freedom

I have had conversations with many people both Koreans and non-Koreans who say that being free to do what you choose and express yourself is not that important to Korean people.  They tolerate the situations that frustrate Westerners because they just do not feel the same way as us when their elders, bosses, and family members strip away their personal liberty.  I have no study to point to, but in my experience this is total utter hogwash.  

Westerners have principles to back up their feelings of inner turmoil when someone tries to take away their freedom but I am confident that, inside, Korean people's blood boils just the same, they have merely learnt to suppress it - although not altogether convincingly sometimes.  I see the pain on their faces when they are forced to do something they would rather not, that is unreasonable and that a Westerner wouldn't have to do, they are actually pretty bad actors when you know what to look for, it is just that their tormentors don't really care that much if they like it or not as long as they do it.

Many of the previous factors; respect, pressure, working hours, traditional values, and status all work together to restrict personal freedoms.
Make no mistake, people all around the world feel the same pressures as I have listed above: We all have to show respect for people we don't like, we all have social pressures, we all go to work for longer than we would like, we all have concerns about how other people see us, some of us drown our sorrows with a drink or two, and most people are not as free as they would like to be.  But in Korea each of these areas is extreme and beyond anything most of us would normally experience.  It has baffled me personally how Koreans deal with this stuff every day.  The history, and rapid change pile on the likelihood of suicide becoming a viable option for people and it is these factors that are commonly stated as the major reasons.  History is surely a massive influence but the historical effect of 'Han' on the Korean mindset for suicide covers up the fact that people must also be genuinely unhappy, to begin with, to end their life.

Despite the criticisms I have of Korean culture, I really admire how the Korean people have the ability to soak this all up.  The unfortunate thing is that they lash-out by taking their lives too often. The suicide rate is not just 'one of those things' it is a crisis shouting out for a change in the way people are living their lives.  

In research for this post, I have looked at several articles on online news websites, none have given a convincing set of reasons for suicides in Korea, many say it is a mystery, especially considering the rise of the economy, or that it is a complicated and mysterious problem.  Well then, somebody best get working on it, shouldn't they?  South Korea has topped the list of OECD countries for suicide for the last 8 years, it is not a new problem, so it needs to be addressed and I see precious little being done.  They only theorise that rapid change has caused some clashes with traditional values, well obviously, details would be nice.  

Reasons 5 and 6 are the ones most favoured by Korean intellectuals, but they are also the ones which either point the finger at outside influences (6) or mask the problem by inferring it is not because people are less happy than other countries, it is just they have different ways of dealing with stress (5).  These sound like the easiest of reasons to brush off suicides in Korea as something which cannot be helped.

If you think what I have written above on this sensitive subject is harsh on Korean culture, perhaps you are right and maybe I am wrong in my observations, but the reason I write this way is because I am outraged and upset.  People are people, no matter where you live.  If Britain had a massive problem with suicides I would be asking tough questions too (indeed I do ask tough questions about my culture regarding general thuggery and drunken behaviour), but why should I only care about people from my own nation?  I do care about Koreans (my wife in particular and also my students), I am frustrated about certain aspects of their culture on their behalf as much as anything else, especially as I can manage a pass out of some of the more awkward and troublesome situations.  I hope this comes across in when I attack certain aspects about what is happening in Korea.