Friday, May 11, 2007

random Korea-related insights
from personal emails

NB: All emails have been edited for privacy and clarity. To that end, I have included only what I have written.

Letter to a friend in America, dated May 3:

My students are college students, and they don't take their work seriously, at least not those taking courses in our department. Our courses generally aren't for credit, so students often feel free to slack off and skip English class in favor of sleeping in (to counter the effects of last night's drinking binge) or studying for tests in their major classes.

College here isn't taken as seriously as college in the West. There are some cultural reasons for this, though to my mind those reasons don't justify the overall slacker culture on campus. Koreans spend their entire lives bound up in a matrix of rules and tests. Before college, their childhoods are devoted to taking test after test in a hugely competitive race to get into one of the Big Three universities here (Seoul National U., Yonsei U., and Korea U.). The biggest test for any high schooler-- the one they've been training their whole lives for-- is the dreaded college entrance exam. It's around the time this test is given that "suicide season" occurs in Korea (a country that apparently has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, by the way). Students who failed to get a sufficiently high score will sometimes climb up to the top of their apartment building and throw themselves off the roof. Sad stuff, and completely uncalled for in my opinion, but there's no denying these kids are under enormous pressure.

After college, Koreans are slotted into jobs, often with large corporations, that demand extremely long hours, nightly drinks with the boss, and adherence to a raft of maniacal company policies. A person who joins a big conglomerate like Samsung or LG will go through a "membership training" period (they call it "MT" here) that is vaguely reminiscent of military training-- athletic events, slogan-shouting activities, and so on. Conformity is the rule. Scary.

So college represents the lone, four-year idyll in a Korean's life. This is when all those urges repressed during high school are allowed to express themselves: dye the hair, get the piercings, skip your classes, indulge in some adolescent sassiness, etc. While Western college students are usually prepping themselves for The Real World, Korean kids are getting their first and only taste of what a normal life might be like.

It's not all bleakness, obviously; most Koreans survive this grind and are more or less happy with their lot, partly because there's a deeply ingrained fatalism in the culture. But college... yeah, college isn't where you see Koreans at their most serious.

So, in my case, I might have a class that starts off with ten people, and I'll be lucky to have five people by Week 12 in the semester. A class with five people at the beginning might dwindle to one or two.

But you asked whether I like what I do. Oh, yes. I'm at a women's university, so what's not to like? True, as I approach 40, I'm becoming something of a dirty old man, but I have a strict Look But Don't Touch policy. On a more serious note-- I do enjoy teaching, and I like the academic setting, lame though it be. I might be here another couple of years.

Letter to the same friend, dated May 4, in response to his reply that American college students have been known to slack as well:

re: American indolence in college

Yeah, true, we skip & so on. But in the end, most American students take their college experience seriously-- many take it seriously enough to feel that they're actually in school to learn something, and not merely there as a stepping stone to getting a job. We also have strict attendance policies to motivate students not to skip too often, and we don't tolerate bullshit like coming to class two or five minutes late. In Korea, students often traipse into class twenty minutes late with nary an apology.

The difference goes deeper, though. Consider plagiarism, which is a huge problem in Korea. Most Koreans are so ingrained in the "succeed at all costs" mentality that they'll cheat without a second thought. As you say, the stats bear out that this is a competitive environment and most of these kids are doomed to failure, where "failure" is defined the Korean way (i.e., not making it into the Big 3). The fear of that failure makes existence fairly cutthroat.

Academe isn't academe in Korea, much to the frustration of (1) Korean profs who have studied in the West and have actually absorbed some of the culture, and (2) Western profs in Korea. Here on the peninsula, Korean profs put up with all sorts of nonsense-- not merely lateness, but blatant use of cell phones in class, chattering, cheating during tests, and so on. How much more, then, do students disrespect those of us who labor in the non-credit English department?

re: the culture is setting itself up for failure through ruthless competition

What sucks is that many of the parents are perfectly aware of this, but few of them see any way out. Some send their kids to foreign countries to study, but this gets complicated, because a kid who Westernizes too much is no longer a good fit for Korean society (the long-range plan is often for the kid to come back to Korea).

I'm watching this happen right now with one of my coworkers. She's got a son who's around 12 years old, and the poor kid has to attend all sorts of afternoon and evening classes outside of his normal junior high courseload. Why? Essentially, because everyone else is doing this. So why not break out of the pattern and simply stop the madness? Because the kid, if he drops out of the rat race, will almost definitely end up in a dead end in Korea.

Some Koreans are working to change this, but Korea is, in some ways, a change-averse society. Koreans will adopt new tech innovations at the drop of a hat, but other aspects of their culture are literally centuries old and hard to suppress or eliminate.

Other Koreans do opt to leave Korea forever. Like-minded Koreans do the same... and the result, as you see, is Little Koreas sprinkled all over Western countries. It's like the mythology in Battlestar Galactica: "All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again."

re: the conflict of Eastern and Western cultures

There's plenty of conflict when such contrasting cultures meet, plenty of scars, but there's also a special advantage that comes with seeing things through two cultural filters (or perhaps it's just one hybrid filter). I watch how some of my Western acquaintances handle themselves in Korea, and it's obvious they can't quite manage. In many cases, the Western ego prevents a fair-minded understanding of Korean quirks. There are things about my Korean colleagues that have annoyed my Western colleagues, but which don't faze me because I see such behavior as perfectly normal.

So there's yang along with the yin. There always is.

re: Westerners see Korean culture as bizarre and abusive, while Koreans see Westerners as fat and lazy

Fat, lazy, selfish, too insistent upon our own way, too inconsiderate of other family members, racist (don't get me started on the hypocrisy of this one), arrogant about the rightness of our own culture, and prey to our own conformism in how we absorb, say, capitalistic values and such. Ask Americans some probing questions about their core values (marriage, faith, politics, etc.), and they'll generally answer in a way that's consistently opposite that of Koreans and other East Asians. "So who's the conformist?" Koreans ask, not without justification.

I'm not into moral equivalence and feel comfortable judging Korean culture through the lens of Western culture, but the Korean's question isn't a bad one. Koreans can often predict American behavior, just as experienced Americans can predict Korean behavior. We're all culturally conditioned. Example: how easy is it to provoke an American into anger by making a few barbed personal comments? Pretty easy. Koreans are often immune to the same comments ("You're worthless and weak!") because, as you pointed out, their society is hierarchical and they expect to take shit from someone.

(But, to be fair, we could turn that around and say that Koreans also have plenty of hot buttons, and they're easy to find and push.)

The funny thing is that Korean society, while still fundamentally Korean, is taking on, and possibly amplifying, some of the illnesses of Western society. Take video game addiction, for example. Remember how, in the 1980s, we had freaks in the US who would get immensely high scores on games like Defender because they'd train themselves to play for three days straight? Now imagine that same phenomenon multiplied by several thousand, and you've got a social nightmare in the making here in Korea.

The PC-room (i.e., smoke-filled Net cafe) culture is now deeply rooted in the (primarily male) Korean psyche. Guys go in groups to play Counterstrike or Starcraft or Warcraft or the Korean-made MMORPG Lineage (and Lineage 2, etc.). Online, they seek out the heroism and sense of personal accomplishment that evades them in real life. It doesn't help matters that clever businessmen have tapped into this phenomenon and have seen it as a way to make money. Many MMORPG players play for actual cash, which creates online behaviors that are disturbingly similar to real-life behaviors, e.g., gangs of cyber-characters who tackle other cyber-gangs and take their money, hoping eventually to get a big payoff.

You can always tell a Westerner in a PC-room, because he's the guy who's using the computer simply to check his email and scan the online news. And maybe surf a little porn, though that's technically illegal (in a country with one of the biggest sex industries in the world).

re: Cho Seung-hui and a CNN claim that mental health isn't considered a legitimate concern in Korea

To be called "crazy" in East Asian society is extremely insulting. We say it all the time as a joke in the West-- "What're you, crazy?" or "That's nuts, man!" But try that in Korea and see how people react. They react the same way as genuinely crazy people in the West do-- call them crazy, and their eyes and nostrils flare wide, they grit their teeth, and they hiss, "I'm not crazy!" Very Mel Gibson.

That's actually something I teach about in my English classes (craziness, not Mel Gibson). I try to insert the word "crazy" into many of my lessons to blunt the impact of the word and get my students to understand that, in the West, it's no big sin to use the term. Many Koreans have caught on to this fact, and aren't nearly as insulted by the word as previous generations would have been.

But the deeper reason behind the stigma about mental/psychological problems is that people with those afflictions are so obviously different from "normal folks" that they essentially rupture the social fabric. Conformism again-- the group-first mentality. A family with a mentally ill family member will likely try to hide that member from view, not seek special care for him or her.

That's why I'm charmed by the Western proverb, "Everyone is normal... until you get to know them." No cradle Asian would ever invent such a proverb.

Kids everywhere can be cruel, of course, and being different in an American school is also likely to get a kid's ass kicked. But that nonsense either stops or is sharply attentuated after a while, especially as American kids move into college and often actively seek out new experiences in the form of new and different people. Not so in Korea. Watch Korean fashion. American women often slavishly follow fashion trends, to be sure, but they're keen to put their personal spin on whatever they wear. Here in Korea, I'll see the same fashion template walk by several times a day. I should take random photos of my campus just to show you.

An email to the same friend, also dated May 4, continuing the discussion of East/West conflict:

re: the idea that, in Asian families, respect flows upward while "scorn" flows downward

I wouldn't call it scorn, per se. Because the society's hierarchical, it follows that respect is a more important virtue for those lower in the pecking order. An East Asian parent's dismissiveness of their child's wants can be the result of several factors, I think (and some such parents would argue they're not being dismissive).* One factor is Confucianism; the Five Relationships provide the template for how people need to relate to each other. Another factor is the competitiveness brought on, in part, by social pressures like population density. Another factor, as in the West when certain Western parents attempt to foist their own vision of success or fulfillment upon their children, is the individual parent's personality. (In that sense, I was lucky never to have been pushed into becoming a doctor, lawyer, etc. My parents just wanted me to do my best.)

Actual scorn might occur in an Asian household, but in my experience in Korea, it's fairly rare, if by "scorn" we mean consistently and overtly demeaning, belittling, derisive behavior. If that were the rule, then all of East Asia would be basket cases instead of productive members of the global economy.

From the Asian point of view, it's not disrespectful for parents to expect children to do what they ask. Any parent, no matter the culture, will expect to be obeyed after saying something like, "Don't hit your brother again-- I mean it!" The basic parental assumption, which we share in the West, is "I know more than you do," an assumption that holds true for a goodly number of years as the child is growing up. But despite this attitude, it's not as though Asians are unable to perceive the wisdom children already contain-- Asian parents are just as proud of their children's insights as Western parents are of their children's.

The distinction between East and West becomes more obvious, however, when the child leaves elementary school and a great deal more focus is put on the child's future. Korean kids become less rambunctious (they're little monsters in elementary school) and are more likely to receive strict physical discipline from both their parents and their teachers. Conformism really starts to take hold. Around the same time, Western kids are being encouraged to explore all sorts of different personal avenues, and the style of teaching and testing they experience is often radically different from the rote memorization and multiple-choice testing that unfortunately characterizes so much of Asian education.

So while Asian kids are being hammered into a mold, Western kids are being trained to branch out and explore. Many Western kids won't branch out and explore, of course; they'll fall into a rut and see that rut as their lot in life, but this isn't the fault of their environment so much as it's their own personal fault for not heeding the instruction they've been receiving all this time. Western kids have very little right to "blame the system," in my opinion.

Most Asian kids will come to accept what their parents desire for them. These days, Korean parents aren't quite as gung-ho about telling their children which specific job to pursue, but many parents will make clear that their kids need to find work in a certain income bracket. This acceptance is part of the larger culture of acceptance of one's fate.

Anyway, I've gone off topic. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend Richard Nisbett's book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, and Why. The book's fundamental approach is psychological; Nisbett is a cognitive psychologist, and his book is littered with terms like "field dependence," "dispositional factors," and "hindsight fallacy." But his writing style is readable and you don't need to be a fellow psychologist to get his basic point, which is, in the end, nothing you don't already know. His studies seem largely to confirm the stereotype about "Asian holism" versus "Western atomism." There's more to his book than that, however; I encourage you to get hold of it.

*Footnote to the blog reader: my friend was referring to a mutual friend of Asian extraction whose parents seemed unable or unwilling to process the fact that this friend had a mind of her own and wasn't about the follow the standard Asian template of "be a doctor, be lawyer, or be a successful businessperson. Oh, and plearn a couple musical instruments on the side."

One might argue that it's unfair to stereotype Asian parents as dismissive of their kids' wants, but I would submit that there's a reason such a stereotype exists. While exceptions to the stereotype do abound, it takes only a brief survey of actual Asian families to confirm how pervasive this parental mentality is.

If your point of departure is that a person is, first and foremost, a member of a group, then a lot of behavior follows from such a fundamental orientation, including the idea that a parent can foist his or her wishes on a son or daughter. In the West, we recognize that this can lead to a bundle of neuroses, especially for us firstborns, who often end up being critical and self-critical approval-seekers bent on overachievement.

And to be fair, this familial dynamic exists in the West as well; certain ethnic groups that shall remain unnamed have produced comedians who dwell on this theme.



Anonymous said...

Two comments, if I may be so bold:
1. You say "A person who joins a big conglomerate like Samsung or LG will go through a "membership training" period (they call it "MT" here) that is vaguely reminiscent of military training." This is not incorrect, of course, except that it implies the MT is a PERIOD that may last some months or years. In my experience it's more like a one week getaway where they engage in those activities.

2. It would have been interesting to see analysis of the "Asian parents can recognize wisdom in their kids" that you mention versus the way that a parent will still treat his/her son/daughter of 50 as a baby. Hell, they can even be heard to call said child '아가.'

- Mike Miller

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the comment.

re: "period" and "military training"

Yeah, I see how my remark might be read that way, but I did cover my ass by saying "vaguely reminiscent." All the same, I hope people will read your comment and gain whatever clarity I failed to provide.

re: Asian parents recognizing their kids' wisdom

I can't offer specific examples, but I can mention specific people who have talked to me with pride about their kids' insights. One is my female coworker, mentioned in the main blog post; another is my buddy Jang-woong, whom I talk about on the blog. He's mighty proud of his son, though in his case, his son is still too young to talk, so JW and his wife tell me about Ji-an's ever-growing cognitive ability.


Anonymous said...

eew, richard nisbett's book.
have to say i haven't read the book; but i think i know exactly what to expect from the book. it was cited in one of the books i read and because its experiments sounded very dubious, i looked up reviews. this review here succinctly points out the problems of nisbett's arugments.
do you know that the idea for this book came out of one of nisbett's chinese graduate student's response to nisbett's american ways of thinking? can't help thinking that nisbett might have designed the experiments (along with his graduate student) with some assumptions already in place. thank god i'm not in a department like that and thank god none of the professors i work with is like that. he's probably doing good with the book, though, doing talks/lectures for MBA students and other professionals making "East a career."