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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Aged-Out in Korea

There are certain realities attached to aging. The good parts are about being wiser, more experienced, and basically, having had a chance to visit more places and meet a wider, more colorful rainbow of people. The flip side of aging, of course, is the stereotyping, the discounting, the outright discrimination, including being treated differently simply because of the number that follows your name.

Several years ago when I was looking for a university English teaching gig in South Korea, I blanketed the country with cover letters and resumes. One memorable encounter came as a result of responding to a posting of an opening at Woosong University. Woosong, a large Korean university, is conveniently located in Daejon, smack in the middle of South Korea. I was rewarded with an invite to interview on Skype. As it turned out, the video function did not work on my end. But no problem, we continued with the audio portion, which was working just fine. By "we," I am referring to the 4 interviewers stationed in Korea, and me.

A Skype interview. Mine was with Woosong University

I thought the interview went really well. We said good-bye, I clicked a button, and somehow, to my utter surprise, the audio remained on. I began listening in to the discussion about me taking place amongst the interviewers. "He's was pretty good," said one, starting off the conversation. Another offered, "Yeah, but did you notice his age?" "Right," says another, "He's about 60!" The conversation continued back and forth, and I realized I was grabbing on even deeper to their conversation. Feeling like a voyeur, I clicked a few icons to try to get Skype to shut down, so I could disconnect from my frustration.

A few days later, the expected email arrived: I hadn't made the cut for the next round of interviews. I decided to let the interviewers know that I overheard their conversation and that I felt I was being judged for my age and not for my skills and experiences. I even quoted some of what I had heard. Back came a rather nasty letter accusing me of being unethical. I appreciated their concern, being caught red-handed, as they were, discriminating based on my age. The story has a happy ending though. I soon interviewed with another university, was offered a position, and taught there for 5 rewarding years.

Discrimination because of someone's age, isn't just about giving wings to your biases, it's ultimately about limiting the capacity of your organization. According to an article in the Korea Herald, older people, on average, tend to be more focused at work, less distracted, and more able to zero-in to the task on hand than younger workers. The same article noted that age discrimination is widespread in Korea, despite legislation to prevent it. Axel Borsch, of the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, points out that "on balance older employees' productivity and reliability is higher than of their younger colleagues."

In my case, during my 4th year at Yeungnam University, the school that ultimately hired me, I received the Director's Award, including a cash prize, for having the highest student evaluation scores amongst our teaching staff of nearly 50. It would appear that in the eyes of students, at least, I was able to perform the job, and do it well. 

Receiving the Director's Award for teaching excellence in 2016
from the Foreign Language Institute at Yeungnam University

In spite of laws to prevent age discrimination, Korea has a well known history of retiring workers in their 50s and 60s. My former Korean university has a standing practice of not rehiring any faculty member who has turned 65. But it wouldn't be honest to say it's only Koreans treating older people this way. Of those 4 people who interviewed me at Wooseong University, only one was Korean. The three others hailed from the UK, Canada and Australia. It seems that age discrimination isn't just one country's problem. The reality attached to aging? Skip the stereotypes. Older workers, like everyone else, should be judged for what they have to offer a business, school, or other organization. Anything less, is certainly a loss of valuable resources to an organization and may be discrimination.

Fast forward several months. "Set free" from Korea due to my age, my wife and I returned to the U.S. My job-search included one-on-one networking with about two-dozen people. I eventually found a position with Maine's Judicial Court system. Refreshingly, I felt I was judged based on my qualifications, not my age.

My partner, Marsha, having had her own trials and tribulations with ageism, had this to say: "So now we need the culture, ours and others, to catch up and stop treating us as though we suddenly have become incompetent, fragile, or incapable of doing the things we love. The world is operating on an old model of aging that hasn’t caught up to the reality for many of us. We are often discounted and not taken seriously.  We are treated at times as less capable than we are."

National retirement policies are, understandably, culturally based. But whether in Korea, or here in the U.S., we need to reexamine both our centuries-old traditions about age and the consequences those beliefs have on our citizens and our economies. In the 2015 movie, "The Intern," actor Robert De Niro, plays a 70-year old who joins a youth endowed fashion company as an intern. Tired of being bored in retirement, De Niro's character "quietly, yet commandingly, changes everyone around him in the company for the better," describes the movie website, IMDb. Those of us sporting gray hair and more mileage on our tires, are quite capable of making enterprises better and even more productive places. Smarter decision-makers are increasingly coming to this realization.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Koreans On the Camino

A Korean hiker on the Camino. Koreans
are now the ninth largest group walking the Camino.

After returning from a long day touring the scenic northwestern coast of Spain, we were walking along the winding streets of Santiago.  Dusk was settling in. Two young men with backpacks standing before a shop window caught my attention. I thought they might be Korean. They looked somewhat confused, but mostly disappointed. It was a tattoo parlor with a sign indicating that it had closed.

Speaking Korean, I introduced myself as a college English professor from Korea. A bit taken aback, the young hikers said they were from Inchon and Ulsan respectively, cities in South Korea. I mentioned I had gotten a tattoo myself just the day before. I gave directions to the parlor I had used--in fact I handed them business cards from the parlor I used that I had in my pocket and they were on their way, shaking their heads. Just another magical story along the Camino. There are many, but this one, with a bit of a Korean flavor.

Interest in the Camino de Santiago seems to be exploding. The path of St. James, for centuries a modest religious and spiritual pilgrimage, has gotten new legs, no doubt helped by social media and a number of movies that have popularized the walk. And it seems to be a favorite destination for Koreans, in particular. Koreans are now the ninth largest group walking the Camino. More Koreans walk the Camino then do Dutch, Australians or Canadians.

A Korean student taking a break from
his university commitments.

Our recent experience walking the 800-kilometers of the Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied du Port, France, to Santiago, Spain, bore this out. We met Koreans of all ages every step of the way: retired teachers, business people, students, housewives and even a young man who had just completed his army service. The “Camino culture” seems to be a good fit for activity-oriented Koreans who regularly take to the trails wherever they live in Korea.

These two friendly Koreans opened an inn and restaurant
along the Camino de Santiago. Their paella was delicious.

Koreans have many connections to the Camino de Santiago. Christianity, especially Catholicism, brings many people to this pilgrimage; churches dot every kilometer of the Way, as the Camino is called. And of course, Christianity has a broad presence in Korea, with up to 30% of Koreans identifying as either Catholic or protestant. Previous Korean pilgrims have popularized the Camino de Santiago by publishing books such as Kim Hyosun’s The Way to Santiago, and making films about their experience. A Camino of sorts has even been developed around Korea’s Cheju Island, traditionally a popular vacation destination lying just off Korea’s southern coast.

Two young Korean ladies walking the Camino. As Christians,
the Camino represents a religious pilgrimage.

It seems to me Koreans also bring their own unique culture to the Camino. Back home, Koreans famously apply their puli-puli (hurry-hurry) approach to everything they do from driving, to working, to studying. On the Camino, as they do in Korea, Koreans whizzed-by us with amazing regularity.

A young American I met along the Camino told me he believes two factors bring most pilgrims to the Camino, faith and money. And while people from around the world walk the Camino for many reasons, Koreans certainly bring faith and their credentials as members of a vibrant middle-class economy all the way from their homeland.

As my young Korean friends set off with excitement to locate my tattoo parlor, I couldn't help but think that Koreans are leaving their unique imprint along the Camino, just as they have nearly everywhere around the world.