A few observations...

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I’ve been in the Hermit Kingdom for four months now (over 1% of my life) so I think I’m entitled to make a few spurious and unsubstantiated observations about its People and Culture.

First off, Korea is the most ethnically homogenous place I’ve ever been in my life. Apart from a handful of Indians, some Filipinos and of course the English teaching contingent, there are literally no non-Koreans here. This ethnic homogeneity (along with centuries getting bounced between China and Japan) as such has also engendered a fierce nationalism (and occasional racism) that seems to become apparent from about age seven upwards. My first experience of this was during the Summer Olympics, many of my students found it impossible that I could be supporting Ireland and Korea, preferring things to be more racially defined.

Japan is not in favour.
One sure way of pissing off a bunch of Koreans is by telling them that Dodko is Japanese. This is a small group of rocks between Korea and Japan that the Japanese recently claimed was disputed territory in one of their school text books. While the rest of the world didn’t register, almost every man, woman and child in Korea became instantly incensed. This of course goes back to Japan’s raping of the peninsula over many years but the depth of feeling is pretty scary. Teenagers who should be lurking around ally ways smoking are instead pounding the street convincing the 0.0001% of Koreans who aren’t bothered. I was assailed in Seomyeon by one such youth and it’s not an exaggeration to say she was literally foaming at the mouth!

There is virtually no crime here (unless you count corruption) and Busan in particular is incredibly safe. This is why it is not uncommon to see power tools lying outside building sites that have been closed for the night and why Sarah and I recently saw a policeman sitting in another’s lap. As such, I fear some of my kindergarteners are going to take this place apart when they come of age but by that stage I’ll be long gone (from Korea.)

Appearance trumps everything.
This is perhaps the strongest impression I have gathered in the last four months here and is the reason why the Hagwon system we are currently labouring under is so broken. Education is important, but the appearance of an education is more so. Korean kids spend the vast majority of their time in some educational establishment or other, often until late at night and during the weekend, but seem no more intelligent than the average British, Irish or North American. It is also the reason why in a few weeks time Sarah and I are set to grace the stage (again) to perform a “Christmas Dance” for the new mothers and children. This is not only demeaning, but is also apparently the benchmark by which all parents will judge our suitability to teach their little darlings. Throw in the fact that later in the year we are due to spend an entire month rehearsing a single class for the benefit of the parents and its not hard to feel like we are part of some gigantic propaganda machine. Goebbals would have been impressed.

Work is often a case of Quantity over Quality. Aside from 10 public holidays a year, the Koreans (in our school at least) can’t take any holidays. Hagwons are petrified that if they shut their doors for a full week the parents will send their kids elsewhere and for this reason school holidays are strictly restricted. Neither can they take personal holidays as no-one seems to have realised that with a little downtime productivity might just increase and even getting sick comes close to a fireable offence. Some of the Kindergarten teachers in our school stay long after we leave at 6:30, despite the fact that most of the under sevens leave at 2:30pm (what they actually do in these intervening hours is not immediately apparent.)

For all the reasons mentioned above, workers rights are non-existent and Confuscus has a lot to answer for. He may have scored a goal by advocating the use of chopsticks but the deference to authority here is frightening. I’m all in favour of giving up my seat to and old person on the subway but more often than not this “respect” seems to lead to downright exploitation. Old over young and rich over poor but I’m not trying to rewrite the Communist Manifesto or anything so I’ll leave it at that.

Koreans’ are by and large a warm and generous bunch. Often if standing on the bus with a few bags of shopping someone will wordlessly unburden your load, and the other day when I went to pick up my trousers from the tailors he refused payment, claiming it was only a small repair and I could pay next time. Things like this tend to brighten my day and the same behaviour in the UK would probably warrant a smack on the head.

That does it for my observations for now – I may very well return to this topic in another four months time and recant everything I’ve said but such is the nature of experience.

 

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