Ignoring the part that most Koreans actually see their coworkers more than their real families, this is truth in this that I didn't understand at first. When picturing what was meant by "your work is your family" I had a picture of a family helping each other out. What they really meant was, "your work is your family and by family we mean a domineering patriarchal family where complete submission is expected".
I heard a story the other day from a university professor in Seoul. He was telling me about his students who were deciding between different jobs to apply for. They invariably chose the jobs that paid the most, regardless of hours.
For example, faced between a job that paid KRW45,000,000 and required 10 hours a day, six days a week and KRW40,000,000 and 8 hours a day, five days a week, they would choose the higher paying one, even though their hourly wage is so much less. This is due to a number of factors:
- The weekend is new in Korea - taking two days off is still not normal; most people work six days a week. This is a hold-over of Confucianism: work hard for your family, think of them all the time, rarely see them.
- Unpaid overtime is normal in Korea - you get paid for 8 hours, but are expected to be at work for much longer.
- You are not expected to get much done at work - I would never have believed the inefficiency here had I not seen it first hand. I now understand that people don't stay at work late six days a week because they are busy, it is because it is what is culturally expected. I read an article about how foreign-owned businesses in Korea are twice as efficient as Korean-owned businesses in Korea.
- During marriage negotiations (the two families get together and discuss family background, income, etc) it is very helpful to have a higher salary. On a related note, a leading cause of divorce in South Korea is when a man looses his job. I ain't saying she's a gold digger...