Harsh, not Hostile

In the past 24 hours a close friend and a closer family member have expressed concern at how negative on Korea I’m coming across.

I forgot the the Toastmasters maxim on how to provide feedback: positive first, then critique, then positive again.

So let me be clear here: I really do like Korea

Seoul has come a mind-boggling distance from when I visited as a kid: it’s bright, pretty, efficient, energetic, and above all optimistic.  It holds its own next to the other great cities I’ve lived in – Los Angeles, New York, London, and San Francisco – and exceeds them in certain regards (notably crime vis a vis Oakland).

More importantly, I’ve met a lot of great people here, not just foreigners and gyopos like me but native Koreans: Changha, Gaeun, and Hyunju at my old guesthouse; Jiyoung, Soonchul, and Jia at TM; numerous others from various walks of life.

My condemnation is directed at the system that chews up and grinds down these friends.  The vehemence in my writing comes from the stories they’ve told me about the pressure, fear, cost, and anxiety they endure.

Koreans work the longest hours, are the most unhappy, and have the highest suicide rate.

One friend of mine recently married.  He’s a terrific guy, his wife is really sweet, and I really wish them the best.

On an average night he gets home at 10pm, and that’s after he transferred out of a different team that was far more intense.  I wish he could be free to rush home to his new wife as soon as he finishes work without having to linger until his boss decides to call it quits, only to feel pressured to “be a team player” and go out for drinks with the lads, ending the night at a sketchy karaoke bar where the younger single guys (and the much older married ones) might hire a “hostess” to sit on their lap and whatever else.

I want his wife to be free of the doubt as to whether he’s actually at work or out drinking or worse.  Or if she chooses, to be free to get a job without being judged first and foremost by the photo on the top left corner of her resume.

And heck let’s forget newlyweds, the pressure has spread down to high school students.

So yeah, I am unsparing in my critique of the system. But my motivation is sympathy for those who are trapped inside it, not malice.

The Arc of History Does Not Bend of Its Own Accord

Now in all fairness, Korea has come a long way.  In many ways there’s a much greater appreciation for freedom, independent thinking, creativity and liberalism than even a decade ago.  But in other ways the old mindset is still deeply entrenched, even as the general societal pressure it causes has intensified.

And I don’t see changing of those most entrenched elements as inevitable.

It wasn’t for Japan, which during the 80’s seemed on an inevitable path to taking over America with their superior work ethic and bilingualism, but are now stagnant and perhaps have even regressed on language and western orientation.

So who’s going to effect that change in Korea?

Due to the very pressure they’re under, most Koreans don’t have time to look up from their day-to-day to deal with the big picture stuff.  And even if they did, it’s hard to learn outside-the-box-thinking from inside the box.

Of course, that’s precisely why Korea has hired foreigners by the droves to teach English the past 10 years – can’t they handle it?  Maybe, if you assume that cultural values transmit by osmosis.  But many English teachers are straight out of college with little interest beyond getting drunk and maybe laid next weekend: hardly poster children of western society.  Especially weighed against the cost (> 2% GDP), there may well be a backlash against the ESL program before the deepest changes take root.

There are of course plenty of foreigners who are high-minded and look at the big picture – I’ve met several through Toastmasters – but in many cases their focus is solely on business practices.  Even if they do offer cogent critique at the societal level, natives can play the race card and dismiss it as “culturally insensitive”.

Hence my putting together this series on Confucianism (which I’ll wrap up soon).  More than just an unhinged rant, I’m hoping to come away with a coherent and succinct platform of recommendations on how to most effectively narrow the gap between Korea and the liberal ideals it itself has been actively trying to effect.

Avatar of Engineering

I know this sounds like I’m developing some sort of a messiah complex to “fix” Korea.  It feels like when Avatar came out in 2010 and everyone started screaming about the “White Savior” meme (I’ll let you review the name of this blog while you mull over that imagery).

So let’s start by deflating the ego bubble: the greatest likelihood is that nothing is going to come of these posts.  Assuming I manage to suppress my ADD long enough to finish writing them, I might achieve catharsis and end there.  Even if I choose to continue, I may well get distracted with other work, run out of ideas on how to follow through, or simply lack the audience to take it anywhere.

Also, in the remote chance my critiques and recommendations gain any traction, the Korean government has the right to shut me down: it takes very little to trump up an anti-defamation case against a non-citizen (though such a situation would be so ironic it might actually garner attention to the cause).

But putting aside the grandstanding and drama, I’m an engineer at core.  When I see a system – whether it’s social, procedural, or social – my first instinct is to analyze for ways to enhance.  And in this case, it just so happens that I’m uniquely positioned:

  • as an ethnic Korean, to identify and appreciate the issues down to the root level
  • as a westerner, to articulate enhancements and promote them in writing and speech
  • as a 30-something with a solid resume and some savings, to afford the time and risk this project entails

Put more simply, I am in the luxurious position of not only being able to see the forest for the trees, but having time to articulate what I see.

So at least for a while, I’m going to stretch out my voice to make a map of reform that might, in the long run, help my Korean friends who are lost inside the jungle of Confucian competition, stress, and pressure.

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One Response to Harsh, not Hostile

  1. susan chung says:

    Many young Koreans,who are lucky enough to be your friends ,will appreciate your sympathy and willingness to improve the stressful situation they are living in.There are some slow changes in Korean society that I have read such as some colleges ( 외국어 대학,for example) have a system of 7 plus 1 meaning their college curriculum should include one semester to be done outside of Korea.With more young generation, exposed to the different culture in their youth I hope some societal changes can take place gradually.
    I like the system of TM praising a person first so that he will be in a relaxed, happy mood, which will prepare him to listen intently without much resistance for the upcoming negative comments.Since the listener already felt the positive rapport from the evaluator, he can accept the criticism in more mature attitude. By praising again , the criticism will be remembered with a long lasting ,positive way.
    TM will give you a good model for running the business too.

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