Tag Archives: heli-tiger moms

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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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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