Being open minded is good, but after embracing new concepts for a while you have the right to your opinion. On occasion it will settle back on your initial gut reaction of ‘this is weird’ or ‘this is wrong’.
It’s through my adult English debate class that I have learned the most about the social conditioning that has taken place on this peninsula.
My students have ranged from 18 year olds preparing for exams to, most interestingly, well traveled and educated 50, 60, 70-plus year olds, who simply attend classes for the social aspect.
It’s been a pleasure, honor and education for myself, to teach these people.
This experience helped me contextualize feelings about Korea, creating an insight I believe to be more credible than the many impulsive and reactive opinions, forged on isolated negative experiences.
The contrast between the modern city and antiquated morality is startling. It feels as though it’s archaic values are being preserved by a stubborn society, which simultaneously supports and resents itself.
Korea has been a one-race nation for so long, only recently attracting a substantial number of foreign settlers, and naturally there have been teething problems.
These issues will continue, gradually ironing themselves out, but one thing that needs to be introduced immediately and without hesitation, is an Anti-Discrimination Law. Korea currently doesn’t have one.
The implications of this are enormous and are directly linked to issues with foreigners settling here, as well as Korean natives unhealthy focus on appearance, both physically and in terms of conformity to the ideal.
There is a huge stigma attached to the disabled and those with mental health issues as well as divorce being taboo – anything other than the nuclear family is unacceptable.
The handicapped are often put out of sight and those trapped in a loveless or abusive marriage are to remain pleasantly married, for appearances sake.
Confucianism is a key reason why Seoul is one of the safest cities in the world, with low crime rates testament to this.
However, components of this ideology have not translated well into the 21st century, and have resulted in some disturbing side effects.
What if you are fatter than ‘the norm’, or your eyes are too small, or your face is too round?
The answer is, change it, and the Korean media unscrupulously rams this message down their throats.
In this patriarchal society, women are valued by their appearance, and the shelf life of Korean women is alarmingly short – making them desperate to extend it by whatever means necessary.
Everything looks fine, as people pass by, industriously buzzing past, weaving between towering buildings, walking along immaculate streets.
After while, however, you sense that something is not right, something is uniting yet dividing the society.
Koreans work notoriously long hours. The general consensus from my class was that in their 10-12 hour work days they are only productive for about 3 hours. The rest of the time is procrastination and energy preservation – but it’s important that they look like they’re doing work over long periods of time, which often extend into a 6th day.
Koreans who aren’t completely established at their company are reluctant to take their full-entitled holiday leave, as it would damage their reputation.
This makes for a very tired, stressed out and tightly wound community.
It should be unsurprising then that, coupled with the fact it’s the plastic surgery capital of the planet, Korea also has the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world.
A large number of the annual suicides are students, who crack under the pressure of their extensive studies and parental demand to get into the select few elite Universities.
Would we deem America in the 1950/60’s a civilized society by today’s standards, with its abhorrent racism and discrimination? Of course not.
In a similar fashion, South Korea cannot be deemed a civilized society, judged by 21st century standards, considering a lack of an Anti-Discrimination Law, inadequate welfare and fervent social discontent which leads to a reported 28 people per 100,000 taking their own lives per year.
The pretty obvious alarm bells I’ve cited here seem to be falling on deaf ears.
There needs to be a monumental shift in social consciousness – I believe, starting with the appreciation of time.
Korea should tip their hats to their recent ancestors, who dedicated their lives to rebuilding the proud city, but life and time need to be enjoyed.
Time is our nourishment, how we use it dictates how we grow.
Studies by Organizational Psychologists demonstrate that happier workers are more productive and less stressed. In a Korea context, this means less stressed parents who can then have time to support and guide the disillusioned youth.
‘Palli palli’ (faster faster) has been the motto that has worked in rejuvenating Korea, but it’s time to slow down, consolidate and appreciate.
The computer game obsessed youth have limited social skills at present and if this continues it would only hamper Seoul’s transition into a powerful and truly multicultural city.
The rich Korean culture needs to be preserved and celebrated, but the mentality needs to get up to speed – more consideration for the individual and accommodate the rest of the world.
The money and infrastructure are there; it’s time to put the soul into Seoul.