Category Archives: Culture Shock

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.)

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“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!

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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

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WTF: Emergency Acupuncture

crazy accupuncture feet

This was the scene on the train ride from Chuncheon to Seoul. Note that the resolution hides the true hideousness of this woman's feet.

Jen and I were on the train, next to a young lady who dramatically grasped her head and/or covered her mouth for most of the trip. We thought she had motion sickness or maybe a migraine. Whatever it was, she finally decided the pain was too much to bear.

Staff from our tour group showed up en mass with an emergency four-pack of acupuncture needles.  They removed her high-heeled shoes — natch — revealing two of the ugliest feet I’ve ever seen.  Her left ankle had a swollen lump the size of a tennis ball.  (I’m not even joking about her feet.  They looked like they’d been run over by an 18-wheeler towing a U-Haul trailer.)

Tearing my eyes away from her wretched pedal extremities, I watched as a young woman hammered each needle in with the precision and confidence of someone who’s had plenty of practice, one in each hand and foot.  I should also note that the lady receiving the treatment was relaxed and, dare I say it, eager for acupuncture.  Afterward they propped her feet up and let her rest, before coming back and re-sticking the needles in her arms.

Now, I don’t want to minimize or downplay the lady’s pain and I sincerely hope she continues to get treatment — any kind of treatment that works — for whatever was causing. However, as with most things in Korea, I’m now left with an exasperating number of questions:

  1. Is acupuncture considered legitimate medical science in Korea?
  2. Is it an officially sanctioned and overseen medical practice?
  3. If so, are certified first-aid responders required to learn how to use an emergency four-pack of needles?
  4. What is the training regimen like?  Is there a pamphlet or video, as with CPR certification?
  5. Are migraine headaches and/or swollen ankles generally considered worthy of receiving first-aid treatment in any country?

I hope my tablet’s camera captured the scene effectively.  Unfortunately, the crappy resolution doesn’t show the needles, but trust me, they’re there!

–Daniel Daugherty

Update: Judging by this picture Jen took on the train this morning, the lady may have been in pain all day long.

the lady earlier in the day

She looks to have been in pain all day. Though it may just be that stressful sitting next to Daniel on a train.

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Some Weekend Links

Thought I’d share a few links I found while checking my “Korea” news feed this morning.

The Waygook Effect posted a “Top” 10 list of the worst English dialogue videos used in Korean public schools.  Believe it or not, they get weirder than this one:

Barack Obama continues to wax hopeful about Korean education standards.  He recently praised Korean students‘ math and science achievements.

Quoth the prez:

In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of America.

No one who’s ever set foot in a hagwon would say that.

As for their apparent superiority at science?  Whatever.  Americans might be too stupid to understand evolution, but Koreans still believe in fan death.

-Daniel Daugherty

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Video: Getting Sick in Korea

Too true …

-Daniel Daugherty

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South Korea: Where a kid can’t be a kid

Note: I guess the novelty of living in a foreign country has worn off a bit. I don’t see something I can consider weird or noteworthy every time I leave the house, so my posts depend on how long it takes for bigger ideas to bubble to the surface. This post has been percolating for a while.

In case we haven’t made it clear in previous posts, private English education is big business here in Korea. The schools are called “academies,” or “hagwon,” and can have many different subjects. There are math academies, science academies, language academies, sport academies, etc. It seems like there’s an academy on almost every block in Bundang. I work for a well known national chain of English academies and its latest marketing strategy is to promote an image of caring for each and every student.

This marketing effort means extra work for my coworkers and I. We must call every student on the phone, to say hello and gauge their conversation skills, as well as pull every student out of class to praise and encourage them. We also have to enter some of this information into a computer so their parents can see that we talked to them. See? Proof that we care!

Whatever. I do what my contract tells me I gotta do. I wasn’t excited about calling up students to make awkward conversation — what kid wants to talk to a teacher on the phone? I decided to make the best of it.  Unless you are a Czech telemarketer, how often do you get to call a wide range of people at their homes in another country?  If nothing else, this was a chance to learn about kids’ lives.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that I am not in any way claiming the superiority of the US or non-Confucian educational standards and institutions, nor the state of intellectualism within such cultures. If you’ve followed the Texas school board flap, it’s obvious that we have our own systemic problems, such as a significant portion of the population who lacks a basic understanding of science (– I’ll leave it at science). Also, beware that macro-scale assumptions might be made based on a micro-level observation of hagwon students in one neighborhood of an especially affluent city.

The first thing I noticed that was odd was the time of day in which I was to make these calls. Children come to our academy after school, so our work day starts at 2:30 pm and ends after 9. To make sure we get all our calls made, we usually stay until 10-ish. Eight, nine and 10-year-olds are not only awake at 10 pm, they also take phone calls! The parents don’t even think it’s strange. That’s just our youngest kids – older students, who leave at 9 pm, might not get in the door until almost 10.

As I talked to the children, I would ask them how they like our school, how they like my class, etc. Nearly all said they didn’t like it. The top reason? Detention. Even my best-behaved students listed detention as their number one complaint. Why? It turns out they must memorize 20 new vocabulary words before each day of classes at our school. If they fail this daily test, given by their Korean teachers, they get detention(!).

The amount of homework these kids have to do is staggering, but I’m told their parents actually demand more of it. I’m unofficially required to assign homework for every class period, every day. If we get through all our material for the day, I’m still supposed to post an assignment online so the parents can log on and see that homework was assigned.

My students haven’t even entered the middle school meat grinder and they are already pushed to extreme amounts of work and study. The 1980s apparently came with great reforms in the education system, but it doesn’t seem to have affected this generation of kids.  They don’t have time to be kids.

The call that really got to me was to a student called Alice, after 10 pm. When she answered the phone, she sounded tired and annoyed. Once she realized it was her teacher from school, she tried her best to be polite but she still sounded like I’d woken her up. I asked if she had been sleeping, but she said she was studying for history. She wouldn’t go to sleep until after midnight.

Her daily schedule is roughly like this: Wake up and go to school, then two afternoon academies, then home study until she can’t keep her eyes open. She only comes to our academy a few days a week. On other days she’s at a different one.  This is the norm among my students.

After that call, I began asking all my students how late they will be awake studying. The latest was 2 am, but midnight or 1 am were more common bedtimes. I thought I was just bad at teaching, but now I understand why so many kids just put their heads down on their desks or sneak food in class – they don’t get enough of either. (Alas, the question remains open as to my teaching skills.)

After all this, you’d think Korean parents are sadistic and don’t care about their childrens’ wellbeing. Ironically, the opposite is true. Remember Lenny from “Of Mice and Men”? He loved his pet mice so much that he hugged them to death.

From my Lonely Planet- and Wikipedia-derived understanding of Korean culture and society, this happens for two reasons. First is the deeply ingrained Confucian mindset which places a high value on education as a form of personal and social betterment. This is taken to an absurd end: If your child stays awake all night studying and losing sleep in the process, you are a great parent for instilling him or her with a moral value.

Second is the intense level of competition for economic success. A degree is essential to being considered “middle class.” Parents want their children to earn a place at one of Korea’s three prestigious universities, or even better, an Ivy League school in the US. My students routinely tell me how they plan on going to Harvard, Yale or Dartmouth and when out in public, I commonly see knockoff hats and shirts with the names of various Ivy League institutions.

My coworkers have differing opinions on how to deal with the situation. Some say, “Fuck it. The kids are in this system and they’re expected to do the homework and deal with the stress, so I’m going to assign it and not feel bad.” This was my initial attitude but it’s becoming much more difficult to maintain. Especially after I learned that South Korean teenagers are the least happy in the developed world.  Jen doesn’t believe it because her kindergarteners seem so full of the joy of life.  I tell her they’re too young – they haven’t had their spirits crushed by the system yet.

Of course, this system has its positives too.  In most areas of study, my students have much more knowledge of the world than their American counterparts.  This mindset also pervades their hobbies — kids practice and hone their skills with a shocking degree of discipline, whether it’s playing violin or second base.  They take things seriously — though one can argue for inclusion of the word “too” in that statement.

Now I’m trying to find a more balanced approach to assigning homework and making class bearable, at least for my older kids. With my phone calls and hallway counseling, I make a point to extend my hand and offer support and help. My older students have my email address and phone number and I tell them to get in touch, whether they need help with an assignment or just want to rant. This may backfire or cause its own set of problems, but I’ve actually received a frustrated email rant over a difficult textbook.

I try to make them understand that I see them as more than book-reading automatons. At least one class gets it and their in-class behavior has improved dramatically. On the other hand, another class exploits this and has devolved to the point where if I want them to learn at all, I have no choice but to participate in the crushing of their souls.

I’m sure that where I live and work contributes to the situation. Everyone tells me that Bundang is known as one of the richest cities in the country, so it’s populated by people who believe in the system because they’ve come out near the top. If children achieve anything less than their parents here, it would be looked down upon.

The end result of this system is an alarming teenage suicide rate, as well as the highest overall suicide rate among OECD countries. I suspect it’s helped by the widespread, but laughably pitiful, delusion of money as guarantor of happiness. More than one of my students has asserted this belief, which I assume comes from parents and other cultural institutions. For example, the Business section of one Korean-language newspaper has an English title: “Money and Riches.”  Despite the differences in education systems and underlying social philosophies, the lust for money makes this place feel eerily similar to the US.

At the end of the day, I can’t change the system, nor do I want to.  That’s for Korean people to do, and many are seeking that change.  I do care about my students, though, and I want them to enjoy learning English.  Assigning them more homework, then calling them to interrupt their studies, seems like the wrong way to go about it.

I’d love to hear from Koreans or other teachers in the comments — am I way off base here?

-Daniel Daugherty

The amount of homework these kids have to do is staggering, but I’m told their parents demand more of it. I’m unofficially required to assign homework for every class period, every day. If we get through all our material for the day, I’m still supposed to post an assignment online so the parents can log on and see that homework was assigned.

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