Saturday, June 27, 2009

Business Culture

As part of my interviews, I was told about how work was my family, my highest priority. I shared with them that Sara was in fact my highest priority, which got a good laugh (it wasn't a joke). They said, OK, well after Sara, work is your highest priority, to which I gave a "yes sir".

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...
A fun little example of the control and inefficiencies: On overtime reports (which they had to make to accommodate us foreigners who won't work overtime without getting paid for it) there is an area that must be checked off by various people before it can be approved. Who has to approve it? Your direct supervisor, accounting, the CFO and the CEO.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts Outside of the Fugue

So my last post was me deep in a "Stage Two" fugue (also known as the 'I hate everything about my host country' stage). Speaking from a more analytic point of view, here are the real reasons behind why living in Seoul is difficult for me.

Seoul is a gigantic city. Absolutely huge. Most destinations are a 30 minutes to an hour and a half away by the subway. This travel time, plus the sheer mass of people (see population density) makes doing anything outside of our neighborhood exhausting. I am not a city boy. In case you are wondering, I consider Portland to be a very large town, Port Townsend to be a medium-sized town and Chimicum is a small town.

Language is a barrier and I do not have typical interests. Sara and I are constantly processing all that we are going through and we constantly have to stop and remind ourselves that we are not "normal Americans". I've been thinking, "What would happen if I were plopped down in the middle of some central or southern American city?" Kansas City or Dallas, for example. Would I hate it as much as we hate living in Seoul?

I don't watch TV, I am not fond of going out to bars or clubs, I love bicycles, I love nature, I like to eat healthy food, and I like a supportive community. Just at that small list, I would not fit in with a lot of people. That said, I know that I would be able to find people in Kansas City of Dallas who I would fit in with. This is where the language barrier comes into play. Finding a group of like-minded Koreans is all but impossible, so what I'm left with is the impression that the entire city is filled with impatient TV zombies.

The conclusion? Seoul is not a good fit, but it is teaching me a lot about my values. I originally left Portland feeling like I was being smothered by a delightful bubble of librality. I now understand how much I enjoy the lifestyle, the values and the culture, although Portland definitely lacks in diversity. I could have told you that before I left, but you never know you miss something for sure until you don't have it.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Seoul Poison (a deceptively brief rant)

For the past six months, living in Seoul has made me angry, aggravated and negative. I understand that I'm in a foreign country and things happen differently here, but I can't seem to get over a lot of it. I know that when spending time in a new culture there are a number of stages that you go through - the honeymoon, the dislike, the ambivalence, the understanding - but I really have a hard time finding much I like here. Try as I might to be open, I find myself being constantly pissed off.

When I got here there was no honeymoon stage - I went straight to ambivalence. Slowly, as we've explored and experienced more, I've just headed into the dislike stage further and further. That said, whenever I leave the city a load is lifted from my shoulders - I feel like myself again. I am no longer negative. I loved the time at the beach I spent with Sara and also my trip to Fukuoka, Japan was a blast, even though everything went wrong constantly. This leads me to one broad conclusion that doesn't make me feel like I'm just a shitty traveler: I am incompatible with the big city.

Foreigners (Americans and Canadians mainly) who I've met are split about 50/50 on their opinions. There are many more people than I'd ever expect who like it here. Often (but not always) these are people who have Korean girlfriends, or are fresh out of college. Some love the fact that bars are open until 5:00AM or that things are cheap or that women will date them. The other half of the people have very similar things to say about Korea as I. They simply don't like it and can't wait to get out.

I often resist the temptation of venting online (I vent with Sara instead), but not today! Here are a few things piss me off.

We put out a notice to our employers that our air conditioner was broken. Since our landlord doesn't speak English, we have to go through work to get anything done. We came home to find that our apartment had been entered. Our pictures were askew, half a bottle of warm orange juice was on our counter, our circuit breaker was open and modified and our air conditioner was unplugged, still broken. I understand that it must be a cultural difference that your landlord can enter your apartment without your approval, but still, this pisses me off to no end.

Cars have the right-of-way everywhere. This counts for crosswalks and sidewalks also. Yes, cars drive on the sidewalks. This started because there is so little parking, that cars park on the sidewalks. Conversely, many side-streets do not have sidewalks. So, when a car comes by, you have to squeeze to the side of the road and let them pass. Honking is an acceptable form of communication. I've been clipped by people's sideview mirrors many times in the crosswalks due to the driver's impatience (they pull out infront of me as I'm trying to cross).

People ride their motorbikes on the sidewalk. Traffic is so congested on the road that people ride their motorbikes on the sidewalks. Usually they go slowly, but they'll go full speed as well. I've seen so many near misses (no slowing down for children or old people). People often don't wear helmets. They'll carry their children on their laps or baskets too. To be fair, some people do wear helmets, but they are construction helmets without a chin strap. Won't do you much good in a crash, now will it?

At the local supermarket, Sara and I were shopping and I saw someone standing behind the counter at the butcher's department, spraying a can of aerosol at chest height at nothing in particular. I got curious and walked over for a closer look and it turned out he had a can of Raid and was just spraying it into the air. From the nation that is so convinced America is full of mad cow beef that they staged huge protests, here is your food safety.

I was assigned a number of proofreading assignments for elementary students. One of the lessons focuses on antonyms by talking about "opposite day". The teacher instructs the students to write out a list of compliments for each other. Suzy is pretty. Jimmy is smart, etc. Then the teacher says, oh, remember, today is opposite day! So, we have to tell each other the opposite of everything. Suzy, you are ugly! Jimmy, you are dumb! This leads me to my next point...

South Korea has an incredibly high suicide rate. Suicide has a very different social context than it does in the US and I won't claim to understand it. When ex-president Roh (his real last name is No, but it was Romaized as Roh to prevent the negative) killed himself, the nation united in sympathy and support. No talk about how suicide is the wrong way to deal with your problems though. Teachers and professors throughout the land are currently uniting in denouncing the current government for being anti-democratic. A leading pro-democracy leader killed himself in protest. Also, see this post for a rant on women's rights and what celebrities do when they get into controversies.

At a fixed gear bike event about 150 people showed up on their fixies. Then they got off their fixies. Then they played ring-around-the-rosie and leapfrog and had a thigh-width measuring competition. There was one event where people were on their bikes - a skid competition - and to be fair a lot of people were riding their bikes around - but after three hours of leapfrog I got bored and went home. Not that I played leapfrog, mind you. Events were for "crews" - groups of friends. I know it seems like a bitchy point to make, but thinking of how inclusive we are in Portland, people just didn't even try reaching out to us foreigners. We were allowed to join (I rode in the skid competition) but the rules were not explained.

Well, I didn't manage to cross much off my list - all these things are either ongoing or just off the top of my head from the past two days. I'll continue to look for the positives, but damn Seoul, you just make it hard.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Workday Profile

It occurs to me that I've never blogged about what I do all day in Korea.

On weekdays, I get to work a little before 8. I don't have to be there until 9:30, but I avoid the larger subway crush by going in early. It is still crowded at 7:30, but you don't get pushed around much. You can judge how crowded it is by how many people are touching you at any given point. Normally, you are wedged in between two to four people. Crowded is four to eight. If I can leave my backpack on for the whole ride, I consider the subway empty.

I usually teach one class each day - sometimes it is two a day. The classes I teach are for preparing students for Sara's class - the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language (TESOL) certificate course. All my students are adults (why I chose this job) and class lasts for three hours. I enjoy teaching way more than I would've expected - the students make it great. I've learned so much about Korean culture through them.

I am contracted to teach a maximum of six hours a day, five days a week, so if I only have one class a day, I have three hours to work on writing projects. My company mainly does online stuff - they are one of the biggest in Korea - and they have no end of things to edit or write. Most of the stuff I'm asked to edit is in pretty poor shape - 26 pages of text with no articles or prepositions - that sort of thing.

Sometimes I work on example sentences for test preparation (What is your favorite holiday and why?). I also have to come up with five multiple choice questions a week for an online quiz program, called "Quiz Quiz" (I believe they got the name from the free paper's "Quiz? Quiz!" section). Content doesn't matter, so I've taken that cue and gotten creative:
What were the flowing hair styles painted by Alphonse Mucha, the Czech Art Nouveau artist, famously satirized as?
a. Mucha's Mackerel
b. Alphonse's Alfredo
c. Mucha's Macaroni
d. Alphonse's Melted Mozzarella

The Rural Cemetery Act of New York was passed in 1847 to make way for development in Manhattan by moving graveyards and many graves to other parts of New York. What long term effect has this created?
a. There have been ongoing problems with water quality.
b. There are more dead people than live people in some districts.
c. Families of the deceased who were forced to move receive taxpayer money.
d. There are ongoing disputes about property ownership.

Recently I was tasked to rewrite a Korean folktale into something easier for young readers. This was a lot of fun.
Heungbu and Nolbu

A long time ago,
It was windy, windy, windy.
A little bird got hurt.

Nice Heungbu helped the bird.
The bird got better.
Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!

Next year, the bird came back.
The bird said, “Thank you Heungbu,
Now I give a gift to you.”

It was a big gourd seed.
Heungbu planted the seed,
Hoping it wasn’t a weed.

The plant grew a big gourd.
What a great reward!

Heungbu’s family sang,
“Let’s have a gourd, let’s have a gourd.”

Heungbu’s family opened a gourd.
What was in the gourd?
Treasure! Rice! Oh so nice!

The family was so happy.
They had a magic gourd!
They danced and danced a silly, happy dance.

Was everyone happy?
Not Heungbu’s brother, Nolbu.
Nolbu was mad.
He wanted treasure too.

Nolbu found a bird and hurt it.
Nolbu was so mean!
He wanted a magic seed.

Next year, the bird came back.
The bird said, “You were mean Nolbu,
Now I give a gift to you.”

It was a big gourd seed.
Nolbu planted the seed,
Hoping it wasn’t a weed.

The plant grew a big gourd.
What a great reward!

Nolbu was happy.
He opened a gourd.
What was in the gourd?
No treasure, no rice. It wasn’t very nice.

It was a huge ogre!

The ogre was angry at Nolbu.
The ogre said,
“You are so mean!”
“You hurt a bird too!”

Nolbu was scared.
The ogre hit Nolbu.
Nolbu cried, “Boo hoo!”
Nolbu said “I’m sorry for hurting the bird.”

The actual story goes on a while after this, but the children's version ends here.

My workday wraps up at around 2:00 or 2:30 and then I go home on an empty subway, have some lunch and hang out or ride my bike. Sara gets home around 5:30 or 6:00 and we will go out for bi bim bap (rice and vegetables) or occasionally kalbe (thin strips of beef you grill at your table), or we'll eat at home.

The answers are: c and b.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bike Polo - This Saturday!

Rejoice! Bring your bikes!

Saturday the 13th. 2:00 PM.
Line no. 3, Gyeongbokgun Station. Entrance #4.

We'll meet up at Entrance #4 and go to the court from there. Mallets are provided (thanks to Imaze and friends). First-timers are welcome - most people will be brand new!



Women's Rights in South Korea

Living in South Korea has brought many challenges to me. I haven't spent much time focusing on the negatives on this blog, but I've been thinking about them the whole time I've been here. So, here we go.

One of the most widespread problems I see in South Korean society is the treatment of women. Traditionally, this poor treatment came from Confucianism. While I've been told things are getting much better - women aren't beaten for smoking cigarettes, pay equity coming closer to parity, many jobs are open to women now - there are still a lot of problems.
  • Only recently have married women gained the status of "human". This came during a spousal rape court case - a man was actually found guilty of raping his wife. The judge noted that this must be taken on a case-by-case basis and should not be used as precedent.
  • Ajumas, generally middle aged or older women from poor backgrounds, are considered a neuter or third sex who are neither a women or a man.
  • When marrying, a woman's name is crossed off her parent's records and added to her husband's.
  • A euphemism for a widow is "A woman who has not died yet".
  • Most women are expected to do all of the child-raising.
  • Women feel they have to choose between having a career or raising a family.
The other day, the Supreme Court ruled that the "heirs of the late actress Choi Jin-sil must compensate an advertiser since she failed to maintain her dignity as a model when pictures of her after a beating by her then-husband Cho Sung-min were publicized in media."

Basically, she was a celebrity, married to pro baseball player. She had a modeling job that required her to maintain personal dignity. Her husband beat her, photos got out on the internet, they got a divorce. She moved on, an actor friend of her's committed suicide, she committed suicide.

Now, since she "broke her contract" by getting beaten by her husband and not hiding it, her two young children who are in the care of her mother have to pony up the cash to pay the settlement.

Chosun Ilbo - Choi Jin-Sil
Chosun Ilbo - Spousal Rape
"How Koreans Talk", Choe, Torchia