Korea's stressed masses

August 20th, 2012 |
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There is a tendency among some expats in Korea to align themselves along an us-versus-them axis. That is to say that some members of the foreign community feel that they are “normal” people living in a strange and illogical society. Expats often don’t understand why Koreans are the way they are here, and a lot of the time they don’t really want to find out.

I’m no expert on the intricacies of Korean society, but I feel that when living in someone else’s country there is a responsibility to take the time to answer these sorts of questions, rather than to simply dismiss an entire culture as being nonsensical or weird. So I started asking questions and conducting interviews — sometimes with friends, sometimes with co-workers, and sometimes with people I barely know — to try and get a more personal insight into what makes this society tick. 

The first such issue is pressure. Korea is notorious for being one of the most fast-paced, stressful and high-pressure environments on the planet and I want to know what that means for average citizens. 

Over the course of more than 20 interviews, answers are sought for basic questions: Where does the pressure come from? How does it affect people’s lives? Is there a solution?

Those interviewed are of varied backgrounds. They have different jobs, they are different ages, and they — for the most part — don’t know each other. Hopefully some common themes emerge to fill the gaps for those who would have otherwise shaken their heads and muttered “crazy Koreans.” Following are six interviews. 

San Byun-ho, 55, industrialist

What causes pressure in Korean society?

First of all, most Koreans tend to be very hurried. I guess it’s our new culture. When my parents were young, they didn’t hurry in the same way. After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world; we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died. Our parents educated us that we should work very hard and study very hard, otherwise we would not survive. There was no food and nothing to drink. For survival (during the war years) they had to really hurry. They worked very hard, but at that time they were already adults. 

When the Japanese occupied Korea, there was no need to hurry up because there was no reason – they couldn’t make money anyway. There was a dictatorship, so even if they hurried, they could not gain any extra money. 

It was the children of wartime who were the first to really experience the bali bali culture. There was no food and we could only eat once or twice per day. The Americans gave us a lot of low-grade corn and during my elementary school days we used to eat a lot of cornmeal. There was little food, so this was very delicious. There was no rice, no bread. 

I have an impressive memory of that time. Whenever we came home from school, we had to work with our parents on the farms using oxen and raising chickens and pigs. During the daytime we had to work very hard and at night we had to study. At that time I had to study a lot. But we had no electricity so we had to study using lanterns. When I would wake up the next morning and look in the mirror, I would have a black nose from the fumes. This was not a very long time ago.

When I was 10, electricity was provided to the countryside. The people were very surprised; it was very bright. It looked like we were liberated from the black world. We had serious hardships during our childhood days, so I could understand the value of electricity. The young generation had to work and overcome a lot of obstacles. 

The famous dictator (Park Chung Hee) did many things for Korea. He ruled by dictatorship, but he could not help it. It was a very dangerous situation; if Korea had tried democracy, they would have been bankrupt — like the Philippines. Previously the Philippines had been very rich, much richer than Korea. Park Chung Hee made his best effort to improve our quality of life and came up with a lot of ideas to develop and improve our country. He made a policy of rural revolution and spread a “can do” attitude. So people were continuously told “We can do it.” They broadcast it over the radio: “If we cooperate together, we can do it. If we are to be successful, we have to hurry up.” There was not enough time for anyone, including me. Because of this new attitude, Korean people could reach our current status as a developed country. 

So my generation all worked together under this attitude. Now I have two daughters, and I had to educate them in the same way; even 10 years ago Korea was still developing. Also, Korean mothers are special. They are very diligent and they focus all their energy on the education of their children. I think this is the same as mothers from other places, but Korean mothers are much more aggressive.

So this bali bali culture made our country what it is. 

When I started my business, I didn’t think there was any chance to overcome Japanese technology. When I was 35 I had a chance to go to Tokyo; I wanted to import antistatic products. While there, I visited a Japanese company. It was my first visit and I was very curious about Japan. When I arrived at the airport I was very surprised. At that time there were not many cars in Korea, but in Tokyo I could see so many luxury cars. I couldn’t imagine how Korea could catch up. I was humbled.

Now 20 years have passed. Samsung started by importing technology for black-and-white TVs from Japan. They started to make superconductors, which analysts at the time said was crazy. For seven years they had a deficit. We never could have imagined that Samsung would become what it is today. It is because of the bali bali attitude. Samsung works twice as much as their competitors like Sony and General Electric. By working hard and by continuous imitation, the level of technology is now equal to international companies, and in some cases it’s better. Thinking of when I was a young man in Japan, I could not believe that I would see a Korean company overcome a Japanese company. But right now it is reality. 

And this is happening across many industries. Pohang Steel is a top company and our shipbuilding is the best. One by one we are becoming No. 1 in the world. It is the same “can do” attitude that was repressed by the Japanese for 36 years – no rights, no culture. Now we know the real value of Koreans. Korean people now know how to win – it is bali bali. This is very useful for industry, but it is bad for the soul. 

What personal stress do you experience?

My 30s were the most stressful time of my life. I started a business and I had no leverage or money. I had to survive by myself; there was no one to help me. When I established my company, I rented a very small office and employed a young girl. I borrowed 2 million won ($1,970 in today’s conversion) from a friend. I had to find more clients so I was working day and night. 

There were many bad situations that I had to face. I could have taken a job at a big company, but I had made up my mind to become a businessman. Sometimes when I met my friends who worked for companies like Samsung and LG I envied them and wondered why I chose to start a small business instead. But I had made a decision and I couldn’t give up. When I started my business I didn’t think about how stressful Korea was. But once I got into it, I realized how difficult it was. 

Out of my friends, fewer than 5 percent tried to start a business; the rest went to work for companies where they tried to advance. To advance they had to compete against many people and the competition was very intense. The work culture is still like this. 

In the future I expect this culture to change a little bit. People want to enjoy their lives and be with their families.

What is the solution?

I am very accustomed to the bali bali system. I know that it isn’t good for the soul, and if we want to have a stable life we need to control this high speed. Right now I am trying to slow down gradually. At first it was very hard to calm down, so I needed to practice how to stabilize my mind. But after I came to peace in my soul, I felt much happier than before. 

I have a very unique solution to the problem and it has made me very happy. I go to bookstores once a month and I read. Recently I have read many books on how to relax my soul. There are many methods. We need to learn more from Buddhism — especially the Buddhism from India. By reading these books I have come to a final conclusion and created a solution for myself. It took five years.

When I get up in the morning I think by myself for 20 to 30 minutes. I think about things that are good, better and positive. Nothing negative. I have visions of hope, not sadness. Then my mind naturally calms down and I have dreams. I write them down five times and read them five times. After that I go to work. I am ready. This is the secret to my success.

Hwang In-gi, 31, Ph. D candidate 

What causes pressure in Korean society?

Making money is the biggest problem. Compared to the money we spend, the money we make is not that much. 

In Australia, even old people can get a job easily. Wal-Mart is a good example. They hire old people; some of them are even in wheelchairs. In Korea that never happens. Once you get old, once your physical abilities fade, you will not be able to make any more money. It means that you will be abandoned by society. 

We need some kind of social system. I mean, in Australia, as long as you have the will to keep working, the company is not able to fire you, unless you are a very naughty worker. But here, the CEO, or whoever owns the company, has the right to fire you anytime they want. They do this because they don’t want to pay you anymore. Let’s say this: With the amount of money they pay one manager, they can hire four new young people. 

We are living in a world where the need to change and adapt to new environments is very important, and they don’t think old people can really do that.

What causes pressure for you personally?

As soon as I get married and have a child I will feel like my dad. We will have to spend almost $800,000 — that is the amount of money we need to raise a kid in Korea. It is considered normal to pay for our children’s tuition, even in university, and that is what my mom did. So she covered me until I got my bachelor’s degree. 

Now, the pressure comes from the money I need to get married — about $100, 000. Men are supposed to buy a house and women are supposed to furnish it. There is no way I can make that amount of money considering what I’m doing now. I’m a student and I’m making a very small amount of money at my job. I want to get married (soon), which is not really possible financially. Mentally and physically I’m ready, but finance is the big problem. 

Is there a solution? When does the pressure stop?

When we are in the tiny place called the grave. The consumption of liquor is very high in Korea. That is why most office workers drink a lot. That is the typical way Korean people escape. Temporarily. 

A real solution will only come with time. We need a change in our system. We need to collect more taxes from rich people, but the government is doing the opposite. Actually the government has been reducing taxes for rich people so that they can spend more money, and they believe that is the only way to revive the dying economy. But once they start gathering more taxes, people will not like it. I would be willing to pay more taxes if the government could come up with a good plan.

Suh Kwang-ho, 37, Web programmer 

What causes pressure in Korean society?

Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak (is the cause of pressure) in Korea. People hate him — not all people, but most people hate him. He tries to control both the press and society. People are not free, and they cannot talk freely. He will also try to control social networks in the future. By controlling Yeoiudo (the broadcasting center of Seoul), he can control society.

What kind of personal pressure do you feel?

I am a disabled man (Cerebral Palsy). Public transport is extremely difficult for me in Korea; there are not many buses for the disabled. Three years ago I went to St. Louis, Missouri, to visit my sister. There I could take a bus very easily, and the bus driver was very kind. But in Korea, taking a bus is not easy, and the drivers are not kind. When the buses are very crowded it is the worst. When they are not crowded, people can be kind, but Korean people live a bali bali lifestyle. When I ride a bus, it takes a long time for me to get on and off. People get annoyed very quickly. It is stressful for me to move around.

People’s attitudes must change about the disabled. Many people in Korea suppose that a disabled man does not have any abilities, but the disabled are the same (as other people). I may not be very smart, but I have been writing magazine articles in Korean for the last two years. I also want to be a good writer in English, but it is difficult. 

It is also difficult for a disabled man to get a job. After I graduated from university, I didn’t get a job for a long time, maybe one or two years. People see a disabled person and they think he isn’t able. They only see my body, not my brain. They also think that I cannot communicate with other people.

I finally got a job in 2000 by sending my resume to online sites. Even now that I have a lot of experience, getting a job is not so easy. This is the situation.

What is your solution?

It’s a difficult question. Maybe I can go abroad. It might be possible to have a normal life in Korea someday, but not yet. Maybe when this government is gone. 

Things are a little better than before, when I first came to Seoul (in 1999). At that time, when I crossed the street people looked at me very strangely. They looked at me like I was a museum piece. Now it is better, though.

If possible, I would like to live abroad – maybe the United States or Canada. The cold is no problem, I just hate hot weather. I But I heard that the Internet isn’t very fast there. If that’s true I will hate it. I want to have a normal life. In the future I want to be a better writer.

Park Eun-ah, 18, recent high school graduate 

Where does pressure come from in Korea?

When I was little, I didn’t have to study that much; now they are studying in elementary school so that they can go to a good middle school or a foreign school. You know, they are little students, little boys and girls who want to play, but they are studying at home and at academies instead.

Korean people always ask what university you graduated from. It is like a status symbol. That’s why parents always want their kids to go to a good university, so that they can get good paying jobs. 

I want to find a job that I really enjoy. I don’t really care about the money, but society doesn’t really want me to be like that. So my job is for society, not for me – and I think that’s not fair. 

What pressure do you feel personally?

If you care about your future there is a lot of pressure. Parents and teachers just say study, study, study. You have to do this, this, and this to get good (exam) scores and go to a good school. It’s just about scores, not abilities. 

But even if you have one of the top grades, you might not get into a good university, because the average could be 97 percent, meaning that students would have to get 100 percent (to be competitive). That’s why people commit suicide. They study really hard, and then if they (botch) the exam, they get depressed.

I don’t really want people to feel pressure, but they have to. That’s Korea’s way, so I cannot do anything about it. It will never change. But Korean women are not having children, so maybe in 40 or 50 years there will be fewer children in university and it will be easier. 

What is the solution? When will the pressure stop?

It will never stop. Never! Because after university I have to find a job and I have to get married. If there is a person who I really want to marry, I have to think about his status. Love doesn’t matter. I really want to marry somebody who I love; I don’t really care about his status, but my parents will care. They think I can live a better life with a husband who can earn a lot of money. I don’t want people to stress about their status, but I don’t think it’s possible. 

I lived in New Zealand for two years so I know it’s completely different to Korea. They play outside and do sports, but in Korea we don’t really have much time for sports. In New Zealand, people just stay outside all the time and relax. But even if I was born in New Zealand I would still feel pressure. There is nothing to do there. At night everything is closed after 10, so I have to go to sleep. 

I want to stay in Korea, because I am Korean. In Korea life is very fast, and I always do things very fast. That’s a good thing. 

Cho Jun-ho, 33, IT specialist

Where does pressure come from in Korea?

At my age, most people are interested in marriage and their jobs aren’t very stable. My friend’s hair is falling out because he has so much stress at his office. He has to work day and night. At the same time he wants to have a relationship, but it is very difficult because he has no time. When he finishes work he goes home and his parents ask him why he doesn’t have a girlfriend or a wife. So he has stress at work and at home — there is no place where he has no stress in his adult life. I think it is the same for most people in Korea who are my age. 

What personal pressure do you feel?

I have stress, but I just talk with my wife and God, and it makes me comfortable. But without religion I cannot control myself. I get very angry and I want to fight someone. 

The Korean traditional personality is very bali bali which means they need to get results as soon as possible. Not all, but most Korean people are like this. They never relax. They have no empty space in their minds. They do not think about anything other than their stress and what they have to do. 

Some Koreans have hobbies, but most do not. The most important things to them are just working, earning money and meeting a partner. Compare this to life in the United States, where there is a lot of nature and people can hang out outside or have a barbecue with friends. In Seoul it is impossible. People just drink soju. It is the only thing that young people can do with each other, and it’s the only thing they can really do to get rid of stress. (But) this cannot be the solution to stress. 

After the Korean War, people were very poor. The president made a plan for Korea, telling people they had to work hard to succeed in raising their social status. That mindset has not changed much these days, even though we are not starving anymore. It makes people think the most important thing in their lives is earning money. 

This is changing now because of the Internet. People know that there are many beautiful places in the world where they can go. They also know what people do around the world and it makes them want to do the same things. (Korea’s) national personality is changing. 

Is there a solution?

Most people just want others to think that they are doing very well. They change their status on a social network and when someone else hits the “like” button they are very satisfied. But I think these social networks will bring new stress. People use Facebook every day, but if it goes away these people will get very confused, like they lost their baby. It’s the same with cell phones. Koreans use their cell phones for everything. But if it is gone for just one day, they are very sad.

When I have kids I want to show them nature. I want to show them more beautiful things. 

Oh Jae-kyung, 30, International Education Consultant

Where does pressure come from in Korea?

I think Korean society has become very stratified in a way. Economic mobility is getting harder and harder, and conflict between the classes — high-income and low-income earners  — is getting very intense.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the majority of people in Korea were not rich. Everyone worked hard so they could get a better job, but 20 or 30 years down the road, that upward mobility has pretty much groundto a halt. Before, when everyone was poor, it was easier to get a better job and to get better pay by having a good education. But nowadays poor people cannot get as good an education as rich people. That is a problem in Korea.

What about personal pressure?

I think most of my stress comes from being a woman. In Korea there is not much governmental support; we are not really protected in society. When people marry these days, both the husband and wife have to work to manage (financially). If a woman needs to take maternity leave, it’s not really allowed. If you leave to take care of your child, it’s really hard to get a job afterwards. As a future mom, just thinking about it is really hard. In Korea they are not really supportive at all — maternity leave is only three months.

What is your solution?

I hope the government makes more detailed laws supporting women in the workplace, especially relating to maternity leave. But when I look at the current government, I don’t really have hope. I try to like our president, and I don’t really want to be angry with him — it’s just that I don’t really see how he is going to help us.

If I have enough money I would probably send my kids overseas (for schooling). I can’t imagine them growing up in Seoul in a very high-pressure society, trying to be at the top and having to compete with everyone. They won’t get to enjoy their lives. 

Koreans don’t even really enjoy their hobbies. They don’t really know what to do because they’ve never been encouraged to do something they like. They’ve just been encouraged to do what the majority of society thinks is good. If people think taking photos is cool, then everyone buys a camera. Or if they think golf is a luxury sport, they try to play golf all the time just to show they’re rich. Hobbies are not really hobbies in Korea; they are just to show your class.  

The main reason I chose to leave the United States and come back to Korea was because I hit a glass ceiling being a minority there. There was a limit to my opportunity. Americans are not really racist or anything, there is not really discrimination, but if you try to move up at a job it is hard for minorities. At least in Korea I can work hard and move up. The door to move between classes is getting narrower than before, but still it’s possible (to pass through it). I guess that’s why Korean people work hard and diligently — to get better and better. 

None of the people interviewed speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some grammatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here do not represent those of Groove Korea. To comment, e-mail opinion@groovekorea.com

Luc Forsyth is an Asia-based photojournalist. To see more of his work go to www.lucforsyth.com or follow him on twitter @LucForsyth.