In my previous post on Korean working culture, I discussed life in the ESL game. For this one, I will focus more on my internship opportunities. Before I get down to it, I would like to provide slightly more insight as to what exactly constitutes work culture in this country.
Certain features of the Korean workplace are unavoidable for any worker here, and personally, I have found the environment to be a little oppressive and sometimes toxic to be a part of. Once again, I am not saying that this is uniform, but it is certainly what I have discovered first-hand.
Koreans work hard and that is a fact. Workers put in a lot of graft and this hard-working ethic oftentimes goes under-appreciated and remains poorly compensated. In the workplace, your boss or superior is the king, and it is your role to take on a subservient dimension and pander to certain whims. Whilst Koreans seem to handle this with more grace, I personally find it difficult to conform to such a role. The places I have worked at have been suffocating, and as a lowly intern, my voice has been muted even more severely. I have often been disheartened and left feeling redundant due to a slow and gradual hammering down process. The only exception was my time as an Intern at the ………… Fire Station…(Note: names have been changed below)
Playing the fire fighter was unique, and like the true little boy I am, I relished dressing up as a fire fighter and going up in the fire-truck crane once in a while! I worked in the public affairs team and I assisted the department in expanding their health and safety training scheme to the surrounding expat community. Whilst I have made it sound grander than it actually was, for the first time in South Korea, I was treated with a touch of class and respect within the confines of the workplace. They did not try to take away my dignity, and whilst it sounds like a given, this was extremely important for my self-esteem. I met a few once-in-a-life-time characters along the way too.
Mrs. Kim was my supervisor and she was always lovely to me. She treated me like royalty and seemed to relish talking to me in English. I soon realized that once again, this was a little more about appearance rather than reality. The men in the office hated her, and the reason for this was that she always made a conscious effort to do as little work as humanly possible. True to form, she would strike up a sturdy relationship with the boss and utilize it as a platform for career progression. She used me as a reason to slack off of work as much as possible, and eventually it became a little tiring to behold. It was a weird one to handle. I discovered her true colours, but she was so kind to me at the same time, and for that, I will have to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Rob was there too, one of the most stand-out characters that I have ever met in my entire life. He moved to the UK when he was a kid and went through the school system not too far from my home town. As a Korean guy, he had returned to his homeland to do military service at the Fire Station. Rob suffered some problems in the UK and found himself mixed up with the drugs scene. One night he had a bad trip and from that day on, he was never the same. Nowadays in Korea he is on anti-psychotic drugs and suffers from depression and borderline schizophrenia. He was kind hearted though, and my presence at the Fire Station seemed to fill his life with a sense of hope. For the first time in god knows how long, he had found somebody that would talk to him and look past his imperfections. If you know Korea, you will understand the way in which psychological illness is perceived, and this made his life even more unpleasant than it already was. Military culture is huge here in Korea, and Rob told me that he could never really relate to Korean guys because they would always discuss their military service exploits first and foremost. Rob was at the fire station due to his troubles and doing military service at a place like the fire station, in an office, was considered a very lowly act indeed here in Korea. He told me that Koreans perceive these people as cultural rejects, and the crappy, poorly made black uniform they made him wear was a testament to these words.
Rob was treated like muck and it was tragic to see. He broke my heart everyday because I could see his potential, a potential stifled by his culture and his mental illness. Whilst insightful at times, he would often descend into idle and mad talk about how the world was going to end and how we should realize it sooner or later. I always said I would keep in touch with him, but I did not. For that I will always be ashamed of myself. Whatever Rob may have been, despite his issues, he was my friend, and I wish the best for him always…
I was happy during that summer, but the workplace is not always so tolerable here in Korea. Before I go, I would just like to point out a couple of reasons why:
The working world seems to about networking here in Korea, and inter-company relationships are of paramount importance. Jiwon tells me that despite a fundamental lack of communication, they try to put on the facade of being reminiscent to a family-unit. Whilst foreigners may get away with it, as a Korean, she is expected to do as the Koreans do, and this has bothered her since the beginning of time.
Jiwon dreads company outings. She does not describe them as outings, but rather boozy bonding sessions that only the men seem to like. Whilst on the surface these events are not mandatory, if you do not attend you will be considered an outcast, the black sheep of the family if you will. Jiwon hardly ever attended…she was pushed out of the door just a couple of weeks ago.
In some of my workplaces, the contract is just a piece of paper, no better than a slice of cracker bread. If it states that you have to work 9-6 with a 1 hour lunch-break, this means that you have to work from 8:30 until 6:30 with a 30 minute break in between. It is relentless if nothing else…
I am sure that I have barely scratched the surface, and I could tell you so much more if I was not compromised right about now. Whatever the story, I have grown immeasurably as a person here in South Korea, and I will always thank the country for that fact alone.