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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Countryside (시골)

Ah, the sweet countryside beckons.  Its villages and meandering lanes humbly escort us to the past.  If we listen to its whispers, we may also hear stories about our future.  Not surprisingly, Daegu’s countryside has melted in all directions. Once, the walls of Dalsung Park marked the city’s edge. Yeungnam University, built in the countryside in 1947, once a long, tedious bus ride east from the city center, is now just another Daegu subway stop.

Yesterday's countryside: thatched roofs, mud walls, and clear streams

In the 1960’s and 70’s, developing the countryside was a key strategy of then president, Park Chung-hee. His New Village Movement (새마을운동) spread the values of diligence, self-help and cooperation. It was intended to establish an entrepreneurial spirit in Korea’s rural communities.

The countryside still calls those few who listen

Thatched roofs, mud walls, clear streams, and the hard calloused hands of the Korean farmers, have given way to paved roads and the faster pace of a wireless world. Between cities and the ribbons of highways that wrap this peninsula ever so tightly, one may still find the Korean countryside of days gone by.  The old white crane, standing with dignity in the distant rice field, knows the secrets of Korea’s past.  The romantic lure of the countryside still calls those few who will listen.

*Note: this post was originally written for Platform Daegu, the city's new on-line magazine

Friday, December 6, 2013

Haven’t Got Time For The Pain

We were off and running. The prompting question in my English conversation class went something like this: “Which national and local issues are you concerned about?”

Soon the class was discussing the acute stress levels in Korean society. "Why," I asked, "was stress so high in Korea?" One of my students shared his perspective. I am paraphrasing here…

"Professor, as children, our parents expect us to study all the time, day and night for years, so we can take the national admissions test and get into the best universities. Then we go to university and we study hard to get the best possible jobs in society. Then we work long hours in our jobs because it is necessary to make money to help our children and support our parents and because we know we will have to retire at an early age. Then we retire and it is a sad time."

It sounds almost too stereotypical and too cliché-ish to be true. Except it is.

Can South Koreans feel secure when they are not competing? 
Korea, a country that has many world class accomplishments to its credit, including its wireless infrastructure and its transportation systems (its national airport in Inchon has been voted best-in-the-world seven consecutive years) is, sadly enough, also a world leader in suicides. The number of suicide deaths in South Korea has more than doubled in the last decade. Researchers note that the suicide rate in South Korea rose from 6.8 per 100,000 people in 1982 to 28.4 in 2011. That’s an increase of 400% in less than 30 years!
And while South Korean students are some of the best performing students in the world, they self-identify as the least happy students on an international study.
In an earlier blog post I discussed the remarkably consistent dissonance between the career dreams of Yeungnam University students that I interviewed and the expectations of their parents—most of whom wanted their children to work in large companies that would more likely ensure higher salaries and job security. I believe that this “expectation gap,” between parents and their college-aged students, can be found in many industrialized countries. What seems different in South Korea is both the intensity of the parental pressure and how universal the expectations are. Almost every student reported that their parents wanted them to work at Samsung, LG, or another giant Korean corporation, where the competition is fierce and the jobs are scarce.
A young woman, currently a student, who escaped from North Korea and had been studying in the U.S., was commenting on her observations while in Seoul. “Working hard,” said Park Ji Woo,” is definitely a good thing, but sometimes I feel like I am walking on thin ice because I am continuously told to work more, otherwise I would be the loser.”
She continued, “One thing, I have discovered is life in Seoul is much more difficult and stressful than in New York City. South Korea is a small country but it is incredibly strong. The secret is competition. Everyone competes with each other in order to attain their goals. They work so hard that they almost never go home before 10 PM during the workday.”
When will the grueling pressure in Korean society reach a tipping point? 
By any measure of size, South Korea is indeed small--roughly the size of the state of Indiana in the U.S. But in terms of accomplishments, South Korea is anything but diminutive. On most global measures of productivity and industrial success, South Korea currently ranks somewhere in the top 20. The question is, will the grueling pressure and competition within Korean society reach a tipping point? Perhaps it already has.
Ms. Park noted “New York City is viewed as one of the most bustling and busy cities in the world,” yet "New Yorkers," she continued, "had more room to be relaxed and do whatever they wanted.” Can South Koreans feel secure when they are not competing? Will my students, and others like them throughout South Korea, when their hopes and dreams differ from those of their parents, be able to find their way to those dreams? Or, will Koreans, by their societal in-action, essentially be saying that they haven't got time for the pain?