Category Archives: Culture

Unintentional Self-Parody in Retail: Coffee and Cell Phones, Together at Last

Jamsil Cell Phone Stores

Apologies for the blurred artifacts in the middle of this photo. I took it with my phone’s “panorama” feature while my hands shook with excitement.

In the ancient Korean conception of the universe, the Earth was flat and sat atop a coffee shop at one end, and a cell phone store at the other. These in turn rested on more coffee shops and more cell phone stores.

One medieval scholar, asked by a student what was at the bottom, quipped over his rice cakes, “It’s coffee shops and cell phone stores all the way down.”

Okay, I lied. That’s actually the belief system of contemporary Korea. Or so one would be tempted to believe after walking around Seoul.

Consider the outlandishness depicted above. A store that sells phones with contracts for the three major Korean carrier companies will open less than 20 feet away from another store that sells phones with contracts for the three major Korean carrier companies.

The new phone store will be attached to a major coffee franchise. Unseen in the photo, the new coffee shop is around the corner from an independent coffee shop and across the street from a failed independent coffee shop. It is literally next door to a Paris Baguette store, which also serves coffee. It’s also a block away from the famed purveyor of coffee drinks, Dunkin’ Donuts.

Two coffee shops in Jamsil

Two coffee shops next to each other in Jamsil.

How much demand exists for these products? I have a cup of coffee several times a week at Paris Baguette. Sometimes it’s busy and sometimes it’s dead, but I’ve never had more than one person ahead of me in line.

What about phones? I’m skeptical. Even the manufacturers fear not much. That’s because the phone market is nearly saturated. There’s not much room for growth when even some 8-year-old children I taught in Bundang had phones better than my basic model. If you’re Korean and don’t own a smartphone by now, your flip phone is probably going to the grave with you.

One analysis even says there will be negative growth in Korea’s smartphone market by 2016. And yet, here it is, a phone store next to a phone store and less than 200 meters from another phone store. We’re talking about stores selling the exact same products at the exact same prices.

Worse, someone thought it was a good idea to invest in a month-long interior renovation to build a store combining cell phones and coffee. That’s right — they will sell phone contracts inside the coffee shop. It’s like all the jokes I ever make about Korea are slowly becoming real-life scenarios. (Hagwon teachers might want to take cover, since I also have joked that instead of killing themselves, disgruntled students will eventually figure out that terrorism is a far better method for venting their angst.)

I could be wrong, though. Seoulites seem eager to blow money on overpriced fru-fru coffees. But according to this academic paper citing government sources, Seoul had more than 12 thousand coffee shops in 2011, a 54 percent increase over the previous year. How many more lattes can the deeply indebted public afford to keep this bubble inflated?

I’m not the only one who suspects it’s a bubble. The Korea Times reported last year about the “cutthroat” nature of the Seoul coffee scene.

In a bubble, everyone invests without considering the downsides because there is no perceived downside. By the time clueless people have heard about a trend and decided to throw money at it, it’s already inflated most of the way.

Speaking of clueless people, here’s a hilarious quote from the Times story. Just keep in mind that clueless people can also staff giant corporations.

“We’ve decided to open a coffee shop because we thought it would be a relatively easy business to run,” said Kim, one of the two young owners of a small coffee shop along the street. “But it turns out it isn’t.”

Physical labor is the hardest part of the job, she said.

Maybe Coffine Gurunaru, Cafe Bene, et. al will take a page from the Poonglim playbook and start forcing their employees to buy unsold coffee inventory with their own wages when off the clock.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Daily Life, News

A Korean Menage a Trois: Overproduction, Overconsumption and Overeducation

Bluth Model Home

Sudden Valley, a Poonglim venture.

In Korea, if you can’t speak the language, you are forced to be a passive observer of everything you see. Sometimes I have no way of knowing if what I notice is just a one-off occurrence or whether it’s part of a larger trend. I keep the things I notice in the back of my mind and sometimes I make a similar observation later, or catch a blog post or news story where someone explains what I saw. Then everything comes together and a more complete picture forms.

Here’s something I’ve noticed since I first arrived in Korea three years ago. Take a bus out to Incheon, Yongin or Pangyo in the suburbs of Seoul, or spend a day in Busan, and you can’t escape the construction; it’s everywhere. New apartment buildings to the sky, with names ever more evocative of prospective residents’ aspirations  — “Noblesse” is my favorite.

I know that Korea is a country with an aging population and children live with mom and dad until they get married. The overall trends is toward later marriages and fewer children. New births recorded this past March reached a 32-year low.

“Who,” I wonder, “is going to move into these buildings?” Apparently, nobody.

According to Reuters, desperate construction companies are convincing their own employees to buy up the unsold inventory. Construction workers are literally propping up the housing market with their own backs. Many are already neck-deep in debt, though.

South Korea’s household debt has doubled over a decade to levels where debt-to-income ratios are in excess of those in the United States before the sub-prime crash in 2008.

Hit by debt and the prolonged property market slump, January-March private consumption fell for the first time in five quarters as Koreans kept a tight hold on their wallets.

That’s right, Koreans’ spending priorities are as wacky as Americans’.
An afternoon walking around Seoul will quickly reveal to any visitor the local mania for conspicuous consumption.

When I first moved here, I just assumed that Korean youth were really enthusiastic about photography and attended photo hagwons. Every other 19-year-old I saw had a Canon DSLR setup worth thousands of dollars hanging around their necks. Curious, I observed anyone with a camera to see what they took pictures of. This pro-level gear was basically used to take snapshots of their friends in Auto mode.

Of course, high debt doesn’t lessen demand for luxury goods. It just means that demand is satisfied through new channels . Gotta keep up with the Kims, amirite?

It doesn’t stop at handbags and cameras. After living in one of Korea’s richest areas for the past two years, I currently live in what can best be described as a lower-middle-class neighbourhood of so-called villa homes, laundromats and chicken hofs. Walking down the street, I am confused when I see as many Mercedes, BMW and Audi cars as I did living in affluent Jeongja-dong. My housing is provided by my employer, as cheaply as they can get away with. If you live around here, you sure as shit aren’t fooling anyone as you dodge vegetable ajjummas with that Benz.

Massive consumer debt, combined with overproduced and overpriced housing inventory, should lead to a price correction. Indeed, that’s what’s happening according to the Reuters story.

Due to oversupply and lack of affordability, apartment prices in the Seoul metropolitan area have fallen 14.7 percent to end-2012 from July 2008, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Unfortunately, despite the high per-capita number of college degrees, few can afford these low prices. According to the Korea Times, “Nearly four out of every 10 young workers in their 20s and 30s said they were overeducated.”

More and more people with college diplomas have to work as bank tellers, clerks and other simple labor jobs that have long been filled by high school graduates. If they don’t take such positions, many of them have no other choice but to remain unemployed.

A certain smug blogger needs to understand that the heli-tiger moms and their unrealistic expectations are killing the country’s labor force with every violin, EFL and Chinese calligraphy lesson they push their dead-eyed kids to sit through. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic. This is from the Korea Times article quoted above (emphasis added):

The finding indicates that the problem has reached a critical point where the nation’s socioeconomic structure is threatened. The ratio of college graduates to the total population surged to 43.2 percent in 2010 from a mere 6.6 percent in 1970. It is a matter of time before the figure surpasses 50 percent.

The chaebol are just helping the heli-tiger moms finish the job. Like in the US and Cyprus, regular people are being coerced into bailing out incompetent companies and their investors.

Forcing employees to personally take on your company’s risk is shadier than than any black-listed hagwon owner I’ve ever read about. Pity those poor Poonglim employees and their kids who will be under that much more pressure to level up in my classroom.

(Hat-tip to Expat Hell for bringing the linked sources to my attention.)

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Culture Shock, Daily Life, News

“I Wasn’t Secure Enough with My Self Image to Live in South Korea”

I guess I should give Buzzfeed some credit for trying to post something with depth, but this article by Ashley Perez is still doggy-paddling in the shallow end of the pool. As a personal narrative, this piece lacks self-scrutiny; there is no dynamic change in the author’s attitude or approach to life. Her solution to  her “problem” was to leave the country altogether, rather than seeking understanding and enlightening readers as to the socio-economic conditions of Korean ideals of beauty.

Ms. Perez complains that she had to leave South Korea after a year  because clothing stores made her feel fat:

And so at some point I gave up, tired of living in a culture I literally couldn’t fit into, despite my best efforts.

I would not be accepted as a true fellow Korean.

The author’s conflict comes with her claim to a Korean genetic background — she wants to be considered a true Korean (She does not clarify her Korean lineage, nor  her level of familiarity with Korean cultural traits like language.) A fair enough desire, but her “best efforts” at “fitting in” only seem to include trying on a pair of jeans in a Korean clothing store. By her logic, you can only fit into a culture if its community accepts you as unequivocally beautiful.

If that’s the only facet of a culture you care about, maybe you have no business traveling in the first place you really need to get out more.

Ms. Perez is eager to blame others for what appears to be her own lack of self confidence:

… I found it almost impossible to find anything that fit me. Whereas in the United States I’m smaller than the average woman — size 8 bottoms, medium tops, and a size 8.5 shoe — in Korea, I truly felt like a whale … Nothing will destroy your confidence faster than a store clerk shouting at you from across a crowded store, “no, no — very, very big” as you hold a dress up to your body in the mirror.

“Waaaah, this store doesn’t carry clothes to fit a small minority of its target sales demographic! That stranger I will never see again made me feel like a whale with her matter-of-fact explanation given to me in my own foreign language.”

Ms. Perez may also want to consider whether the opinions of children deserve so much priority in her self-estimations.

I was sick of my students calling me “plain face” or “tired teacher” on the days when I wore no makeup …

“Oh noes! The kids are judging my looks! Now I’ll never be a true Korean!”

Lamenting the kids’ lack of understanding when it comes to the concept of “inner beauty,” I wonder whether she bothered to make herself an example of it. I’m guessing not, since she decided to just bitch about them to Buzzfeed.

Ms. Perez closes with a Helen Lovejoy-esque appeal to “please think of the children,” and the admittedly sad truth that many will feel the need to get cosmetic surgery at some point in their lives. Still, it rings hollow after reading an entire piece devoted to her personal “hardships” buying clothes and feeling crappy about herself.

In my experience here, with many friends of various Asian ethnicities and citizenships, they are usually treated as Koreans on sight. Shopkeepers address them in Korean first, and usually speak to them assuming they are translators for their social group. This would have been a perfect way for Ms. Perez to fit in. She is just too image-obsessed to notice it. Maybe she fits in here after all!

13 Comments

Filed under Culture Shock

There’s Only One Way to Settle This: A Brew-Off!

Ah, Christmas season! The one time of the year when your sloppy weekend binge-drinking can take on a classy appearance just by having a felled tree in the corner. Or is that just how I do it?  It must have been my mentality this past weekend when I showed up at the upscale Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro for an old-fashioned brew-off.

the three pale ales

The three entries in the pale ale competition, in order from number one to number three.

The crew at Homebrew Korea got with Seoul’s overnight craft-beer landmark to compare the size of their pale ales. The winning entrant would be produced commercially and sold on tap at Craftworks as Bukhansan Pale Ale.

I also can’t tell if this is clever marketing or outsourcing to avoid hiring a full-time brewmaster.  Either way, the real winners of this contest were the people who sipped away the afternoon with nary a Cass in sight.

Now, it being a pale ale contest, I didn’t expect too much in the way of innovation. Pale ale is generally like the American pilsner of microbrewing — a safe, reliably similar choice no matter what label is one the bottle. Additionally, the contest rules limited brewers in the variety of ingredients. The three beers in the contest pleasantly surprised me with their diversity.

I’ve attended a few events with the Homebrw crew before, so I wasn’t surprised by the high quality coming out of their club, but it was reassuring to drink something heavy, hoppy, and flavorful a week before Christmas, just like mom used to make.

Number one, brewed by Bill Miller, punched you in the face with hops as soon as it touched your tongue, then left your mouth feeling a bit dry, making me sip continuously. No wonder I left the place dazed and needing to lie down. Miller later told me it was meant to be a clone of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, a valiant and noble mission if ever there was one.

Number two, brewed by Gord Sellar, was the most complex of the group. It smelled and tasted like a Christmas fruit basket decorated with flowers. Every sip brought a slightly different aroma and the beer’s character changed greatly as it warmed to room temperature. It was also unfiltered, which I think worked against it in the competition. Early pints were thick with yeast and hops.

Number three, brewed by Matt O’Dwyer, nobly attempted to match the Platonic ideal of a pale ale. It was an extremely drinkable balance of malty sweetness and a floral hop characteristic. This was a beer you could drink all day and never tire of the taste, although it would certainly make your belly feel full.

The winner was chosen by vote, with drinkers split between Miller and O’Dwyer.  Homebrew Korea’s club representatives then awarded victory to Miller. I’ve had his stuff before and can say he’s one hell of a brewer.

Daniel’s smiling under that moustache.

The only losers are beer lovers, deprived of future encounters with the other two entries. After the way I staggered out of there, maybe that’s a good thing.

If you’re interested in attending future events with Homebrew Korea or Craftworks Taphouse, join them on Facebook, where you can RSVP for events.

You can read a rather frank review of Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro over here. I heartily recommend the chorizo sandwich.

–Daniel Daugherty

1 Comment

Filed under Culture in a Dish, Reviews

In Seoul Public English Education, Everybody Loses — Again

Thanks to The Marmot’s Hole for the translation of this article.  Apparently, “students and parents preferred Korean instructors fluent in English over native speakers.”

Let’s just sidestep the issue of public education policy being left to parent and student surveys, rather than language and education experts. I kind of understand the policy decision to de-emphasize native speaking teachers as a key toward English proficiency for Korean students. Native teachers are very expensive to bring over. However, they are not the real problem. The real problem is an English education policy that mismanages personnel and fails to respect students’ needs, forcing parents to spend ever more money on the diminishing returns of a farcical hagwon industry. (Do I sound jaded and cynical, or what?)

Let’s address the elephant in the room, first. It’s apparent before you arrive in Korea that the vast majority of people TEFLing here are grossly un-qualified. Most haven’t even got a fly-by-night TEFL certification or any experience remotely related to teaching, let alone experience managing groups of children. Forget all the AIDS fear, drug testing and worries about “corrupting the youth” — most Korean kids are taught by under-qualified individuals. Yes, that included me when I worked at Avalon. (For those scoring at home, I no longer teach EFL.)

However, the wholesale sacking of mostly unqualified native teachers isn’t going to fix the problems with public English education in Seoul.  From what I can tell of friends’ and colleagues’ “work” schedules, the public EFL curriculum is a non-priority at many schools. They often go weeks without seeing a single class while student assemblies, test days and other events crowd English classes off the regular schedule. A common complaint on Facebook is, “the internet ran out of things to entertain me at work today.”

When these teachers do see the kids, it’s in groups of 30 or 40 who come once a week. Not a chance for anyone to form a rapport or give kids enough reps to justify having a native teacher on hand.

My own students describe public-school English as a one-size-fits-all failure. They lump kids together by age, not ability. This means kids who lived in Canada and can read classic novels in English sit next to kids who can’t pronounce a “z” sound or remember the days of the week. How is this helpful to either student? And remember, this is Korea, where saving face is a paramount concern woven into the fabric of the culture. Some kids will just be left behind by their own ingrained desire to avoid embarrassment. This is a public education policy that fails to respect the socio-cultural reality of 99.9 percent of students.

Dropping native English speaking teachers wholesale is also poor management of personnel assets. Yes, most are unqualified. However, for the few who are qualified and passionate about teaching, the public school setting is the only place that gives them flexibility and planning time to apply themselves properly, as well as a pay scale that respects experience and credentials.

Hagwon hiring standards, on the other hand, are bizarrely low throughout most of the industry. Teachers are replaceable cogs in a preset curriculum cleverly designed to take parents’ money. In most, any actual learning is a happy coincidence. Seoul students will now be deprived of the only qualified, enthusiastic EFL teachers and lessons they can hope to encounter. Unless …

This policy might help the hagwon industry since parents who want native speakers will still be able to demand it with their pocketbooks. Those public teachers who are qualified and enthusiastic will likely gravitate to the industry if they want to continue living in Korea.

However, unlike hagwon teachers, public teachers are used to having the flexibility in their curriculum to design effective lessons based on professional best practices: Lesson plans that integrate reading, speaking, listening and writing skills; and games to reinforce those lessons, keep kids engaged and make them think dynamically in their new language.

Hagwon parents don’t get anything like that for their money, nor do they demand it. As I’ve previously written, they demand more homework and bigger vocabulary lists, not creative lessons and teachers who make the language fun. Those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teachers with any level of enthusiasm will become soulless TEFL zombies in most hagwons.

In the end, everybody loses. The education system will become even more dependent on hagwons and their flawed educational environments, good teachers will leave Korea or have their souls sucked out, bad teachers will proliferate the system even further, and the needs of children will continue to be ignored.  They’ll lose sleep and stress out over a bunch of classes that aren’t designed to teach them anything, for teachers who don’t care about them.

–Daniel Daugherty

3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Employment Details, News

Hagwons, Heli-Tiger Moms and Korean Suicide

When it comes to children and their quality of life, the heli-tiger hagwon moms never fail to amaze me in their seeming indifference toward the suffering of their children.

Working in the industry, I’ve seen firsthand the spirit-crushing results of their insatiable demand for more education: Long hours in hagwons; even longer hours of homework; kids passing out from lack of sleep; kids who have just stopped trying; kids who only put effort into cheating. I even had one student tell me she wished she had never been born because her life was a constant cycle of homework and test prep.

For the hapless hagwon owner, interactions with the heli-tiger moms are a regular, if slightly irritating, occurrence.  “My kid doesn’t have enough homework,” or “My child should be in a higher level,” are stereotypes to anyone who’s taught in a hagwon for a couple of months.  At my previous job, a mother had her kid secretly time teachers with a stopwatch, then asked for (and received!) a discount based on time not spent teaching.  All of these are perhaps justifiable.

After what I heard today, perhaps “seeming indifference” is giving too much credit to some of these moms.  We received a complaint over the phone that two fourth-grade children in a class together are coming home in “too good of a mood.”  Apparently we aren’t doing a good job as a hagwon because children are still happy after three hours in our classrooms.  (I’m as surprised as they are.)

Think of it:  The mothers of these two boys sat down at Tom n’ Tom’s for cappucinos and made a joint decision that their boys’ light-hearted moods warranted intervention.  How does this even come up in conversation?

Mom A: “Have you noticed anything odd about your boy, lately?”

Mom B: “I’ve noticed that he smiles when he comes home from academy. I think something might be wrong with his education. What kind of teacher leaves children in a good mood?  And what kind of academy allows such teaching methods to continue unchecked?”

Mom A: “It’s like you’re reading my mind!  Tuesdays and Thursdays, my boy’s got a hop in his step and a twinkle in his eye — unbecoming traits for the future CEO of Samsung.  I thought maybe I was doing something wrong at home, but clearly it’s the fault of his academy.  I will call them when I get home.  Happiness is all well and good for an executive at Doosan, but we’re not paying first-tier money for second-tier employment.  If nothing else, maybe we can get a discount.

In stroke of serendipity, Ask a Korean! is discussing the country’s notoriously high suicide rate this week, and that extends to youths as well.  I know correlation does not equal causation, but there’s enough evidence to put the theory forward.

–Daniel Daugherty

3 Comments

Filed under Culture Shock, Students

Quail Eggs Boiled in Soy Sauce

This post is pretty tame, considering my last food-related post involved eating a live, dismembered octopus, but I felt like adding to my brief history with quail eggs.

Package of quail eggsIn general, I’m not the biggest fan of eggs. Unless they’re runny and smothered in Tabasco, I avoid them, especially bwhen they’re boiled.  Today was different.

I saw a bag of quail eggs boiled in soy sauce (메추리 알), all brown and salty looking, and made an impulse buy. I’m glad I did.

When I opened the bag I got a big whiff of soy sauce. The eggs were drowning in the stuff. With their brown color, they looked pickled, not boiled, and I  expected a salty flavor.

I got a surprise instead. The egg tasted sweet. I quickly grabbed another — handful.

Aside from the sweetness, the best part is the way they stay moist all the way through, even the yolks.

The one other time I had pickled quail eggs, I thought I’d eaten a mouthful of sawdust.  Not only were the yolks dry but they were quick-acting — I wondered if a cyanide capsule would respond as quickly as the desertification of my oral cavity once I bit into the yolk.

I doubt I’ll crave them when I sit down to watch TV, the way I do with, say, tortilla chips.  They were, however, a change of pace from my usual snacking options, limited as they are by my Western, first-world concept of snack food.

If you’re entertaining in your apartment, hiking, or going to a baseball game, quail eggs are a solid alternative to squid jerky, with an added bonus: Your breath won’t smell too bad (but your farts might!).

–Daniel Daugherty

1 Comment

Filed under Culture in a Dish