Friday, June 21, 2013

(a)Musings: On The Pressures of Korean Society

I haven't done one of these posts for quite some time, and when I've looked back on the others, I've been kind of embarrassed by them. It's basically going back and reading diary rantings from when you were younger and somehow knew less about the workings of the world, even though it's only been a few months since you were thinking those things. 

I've also been wanting to start a video blog to sort of document all the passing thoughts and impressions I have, but haven't gotten around to it. I've always had trouble focusing and completing projects or pursuing things to a satisfactory conclusion; it's one of my biggest defects. Hopefully I'll get started on it soon, because I also have quite a few videos of cool crap to edit and upload.

Ok, so (stating the obvious here), at first, living in an extremely different place is a novel if anxiety-inducing experience. But that's fine, I like being in high-alertness survival mode. Everything's new, you enjoy having people explain what stuff is and how to do it, and even simple daily things are a source of amusement and wonder. Squid cheese?! No. A room where you pay like $1 an hour to jump on trampolines? G t f o.

Coming here I tried to have zero preconceptions or expectations, which is of course not truly possible. I've found out that I had more experience with Korean this-and-that than most of other foreigners I've met, even though I thought I had none. I took a Korean film course in college and another about book history and print culture in East Asia, both with Korean professors, both of which were great. I'd had boba, patbingsu, bibimbap, flavourless Asian pears and been to a couple of Korean-owned cafe/doughnut shops on the left coast. There's actually an enormous Asian grocery store that's primarily Korean about a 5-minute walk from where I used to live. I also took the guy I was dating just before I left to a more traditional Korean restaurant because the reviews I read online made it seem like they had way more options for me (wheat-free, vegetarian) than they did. It was overpriced, uncomfortably (indeed, unreasonably) hot and stuffy, and the nice little old mother of the owner offered us some Korean grapes. We whispered to each other upon biting into them, "These aren't really grapes.." Of all the former, that last one is the one that gave me the most accurate impression, as it turns out.

So, okay, I had quite a bit of exposure comparatively speaking. There aren't exactly a lot of Koreans in Scotland or South Africa. The other think I did was sort of a linguistic experiment, as I've told everyone I know here. What I decided to do was not learn a single word of Korean before coming to see how immersion felt coupled with my first immigrant working experience. And when I say "not a single word", I mean it. I literally did not know how to say "hello" when I stepped off the plane and the pink and orange glow of a monolithic Dunkin' Donuts sign hovering in the empty black night sky was the first thing to greet me.

What the hell, let's hyper-sexualise the doughnuts, too.
Now, I knew at the time that that wasn't the smartest idea ever, and if you're thinking of coming to Korea, I advise you to do your best to learn some basic phrases and how to read hangul. You're going to have enough shit to deal with moving to a new place, starting a new job in a field with which you (possibly) have no experience, being surrounded by completely new people and social expectations, et cetera. 

Onto the "trying to have zero preconceptions" thing. I felt very positive about moving here. I knew it was going to be a completely new world, that much of it would be difficult and that this is a very homogeneous, conservative society far-removed from the West, but I didn't expect people to receive me with open arms and be totally accepting of the fact that I didn't bother learning their language, nor did I expect to be disproportionately ogled and hated. Not accommodating, not necessarily racist. It's exotic, fun, an adventure; keep an open mind. I think that's about the best you can do.

Here are the things that have stood out most prominently and recently started to distress me and wear me down:

(1) The Korean managerial style and workplace hierarchy coupled with incompetence, inadequate communication and zero transparency.

(2) The fact that you have to insert yourself into usually-forced social situations and accelerate the process of meeting people if you want to make friends because the turnover rate is so high.

(3) Hyper-objectified, super-skinny-with-legs-for-days Korean girls who put all their time, effort and money into becoming living, breathing Real Dolls and being bombarded by things constantly reminding you to be more self-conscious about your image.

(4) The bizarre way this society and its educational system simultaneously coddle kids and do everything for them but also make their lives completely miserable and give them no time to develop emotionally or as individuals.

(5) The realization that what I read on the Internet about Western men coming here, seeing what the women are like and staying forever and Western women coming here, seeing what the men are like and leaving as soon as possible is completely accurate.

(6) The horrible music scene, or rather, nearly complete lack of one.

(7) Wading through constant unnecessary layers of bullshit bureaucracy even in the simplest of things, like using online banking or signing up for an ID card in the building I already work in so I could start using the gym.

Now, all of these are pretty standard complaints and sources of general displeasure, but because this is how I'm venting to feel better, I'm going to go into detail now.

(1) My Korean manager is a nice guy. He's clumsy and kind of an airhead, a somewhat romantic oaf who loves books, theatre and opera. He almost never says anything to me and usually isn't in the office, but even if he did and even if he was, he's mostly just friendly and curious about the way things are done in our home countries and our point of view on minor details or topics of conversation. 

I'm very lucky. Many Korean managers are horrible, awful, disgusting people. I mean, most people are disgusting, really; if you've ever worked at a call center, in a corporate office or in retail, you know this. Horror stories abound on the InterWebs, but the ones I've heard since being here that definitely happened and that I found most disturbing were about one hagwon where the Korean manager made a Korean guy who was vegetarian (which is exceptionally rare) eat meat with everyone else while working and at company functions just to remind him of who was boss, and another where the male members of the staff had the middle school girls come and massage them in the teachers' room.

It gets worse than that, and on so many other levels. The fact that many contracts aren't worth the paper they're printed on and that people get fucked out of money is the daily reality. Government agencies set up to deal with it expect large bribes and, even then, probably won't help you. Hell, if you're foreign, don't expect the police to help you, either, especially if you're a woman who's been sexually harassed or assaulted or a man who's been involved in a fight in any way.

But anyway, back to what it's like in the office. The Korean teachers don't really talk to us. It's not that they're not nice or friendly, either, because they are, but the office is segregated and so is everything we do. Sometimes they'll come over to announce something to us, but we're usually given little to no notice of things that are often quite important. 

Even though I really enjoy chatting with one of them and am friendly with the other three, there's always this.. I don't know, this air of separation. They do all of their daily rituals together and we girls are never included in those. Why would we be? We tried to include them in a genuine way toward the beginning, inviting them out to drink or see or see a movie or whatever, but they only ever come if the entire office is doing something and it seems obligatory. We weren't even doing that fake being nice bit where you know the person's going to turn you down and you were just after the invisible points you get for having asked. So, at first, I found that pretty disappointing. It's not even like I expect everybody to be best friends or whatever, to me it just felt normal to try to be sociable and get to know them, you know?

In the U.S., people like myself would see an English-speaking foreigner as an interesting new addition to the group and go out of their way to welcome and accommodate them, so long as they weren't too annoying or pretentious or strange. Are you doing alright? Have you been here or tried this kind of food yet? You should come with us! Do you need help with figuring out a document or how to sign up for something? Do you have this in your country? What's it like there? What was it like when you were little? The differences between a country that includes nearly everyone in the world and one that is incredibly insular to the point of being referred to as "the Hermit Kingdom" are obviously pretty stark.

Now, if you think about how many people are going through the revolving door of the native English teachers' section of our office, it makes sense that no one, Korean or foreign, even looked up from what they were doing for more than a minute when I sat down on my first day. I'm not so naive, deluded and egocentric that I expected a welcoming committee with balloons, but it's so strange to have friendly people with whom you can carry on a perfectly lovely conversation be so cold. It's not overt or rude (well, actually, it was at one point), just this sort of constant unspoken undertone of,"you're not one of us" that abruptly puts up subtle barriers and cuts things off.

We often don't know what's going on, and things that would be beneficial for everyone to know are often kept from us for no reason, downplayed or lied about. It gets incredibly frustrating. For example, just recently, no one told us that we were being watched even more closely than usual on CCTV and that two teachers coming to watch parts of a camp we had going on with a middle school were on the board deciding whether or not our company's contract was being renewed. Uh. No one really liked the camp because it was poorly planned and morale was low, so we weren't exactly at the top of our game. But, like, why would you not tell people to be on their best behaviour, especially when you know they're frazzled? That's just common sense, it's in everyone's best interest. I mean, we all still want to have jobs in a month, right?

Even if you ask outright, "Is the company going under, is that why we haven't been paid?" you will never, ever get a straight answer. The way we made fun of situations like that by saying, "I think, maybe, don't come in on Monday" stopped being funny the first time we had to worry about it.

When I say "lied about" I'm not sure it's fair, because when no one is ever given all the information, it's hard to tell whether or not they're intentionally passing along something inaccurate. Often times I think they just kind of forget that we also need to know what's going on even though we're the ones doing nearly 100% of the actual implementation and teaching.

(2) This might be the one I've had the most trouble with since coming here. I'm the type of person who gets along just fine with one to three close friends and a few acquaintances. I don't often meet people with whom I have much in common or with whom I'd enjoy spending a lot of time. Lots of people are alright, not many of them are great matches. That's pretty much true for everybody. Here, if you're selective like that and don't have friends already, you're going to be lonely.

I thought I was fine with being lonely; I'm an only child and I've spent most of my time alone since I was little. There's nothing wrong with enjoying solitude, staying in and making jewelry while watching Buffy and having a cider or whatever instead of feeling obligated to go out, party hard and get trashed every few nights. But even I've been feeling isolated. I haven't talked much with people from back home. My best friends have been too busy to get back to me. Things like working long hours, getting M.A.'s and having kids don't make it easy to Skype with a 14-hour time difference to figure out on top of it all. 

Going out often and chatting up strangers, interjecting into conversations in what you'd normally think was kind of a rude and awkward way, being less selective and going to contrived things like parties you're not interested in, meetups and languages exchanges are facts of life if you want to have friends here.

I alternate between trying to do this more often and avoiding it like the plague. I've never been big on trying to make friends for the sake of it; socializing with foreigners here doesn't suit me and I don't speak Korean, so I'm kind of stuck. When I do meet someone nice I can have a chat with they usually end up saying something like, "I'm leaving tomorrow", or "My contract's up at the end of the month".

(3) and (5) Ok, the way and extent to which so many Korean women choose to objectify themselves is nothing short of sick and insane. You think all the plastic surgery, dieting, working out, eating disorders, tanning, hair dyeing and emulating celebrities is bad in your country? Well, unless you come from certain zip codes in California or established old money areas on the East Coast, for example, you will not be able to relate to the level they take it to here.

I didn't know about the plastic surgery before coming, actually; I knew that Korean and Japanese women got minor double eyelid surgery sometimes or used tape to give their eyes that appearance, but that was about it. There are all kinds of statistics floating around out there, and one I read claims that almost 3/4 of the women in Seoul will have some kind of cosmetic surgery by the time they're in their mid-20's. The eyelid one is probably the most common, but nose jobs, surgery to widen the eyes and make them look bigger (which is incredibly common and creepy), boob jobs, jaw reshaping and more are pretty rampant. The ads plastered all over every train and subway station are infamous, as they should be. One depicts a woman's body covered in price tags for each area that can be fixed. It's no wonder that, even though this society is so incredibly conservative and judgemental, prostitution is so incredibly common and women have no problem treating themselves like a product in order to acquire more name-brand products. The capitalist hypocrisy, it burns.

Looking at it from their perspective, though, it can't really be helped. Seoul is a tough city to compete in and you're going to have a hard time getting a job if you're not attractive. It's very common for the passport-type photos Koreans use to apply for jobs to be so Shopped to shit that you can't even tell who it is.

At first I couldn't really tell, but it doesn't take long before you acquire an eye for the post-scalpel look and start thinking things like, "I wonder how much she spent on those boobs? Guess it must have been cheaper than doing the whole face" (speaking of burns).

Several weeks ago every waygook in the country was crowded around an office computer looking at the eerily similar Miss Korea contestants. Which one won? Beats me. Even Koreans find it startling and unsettling how difficult they are to tell apart. One animated .gif of several of them literally looks like the same woman with just the hair style and dress changing. It's like the fast-paced Stepford of the 21st century. 

I've seen plenty of girls and young women who literally spend more time looking in mirrors than they do looking at the world. How many times a day do you need to reapply? If you need a razor to scrape off the layers at the end of the day, it's definitely not more than 4 or 5. Pancaked cheap whore look is not in this season or any other season.

It's also very easy for Western men to get an attractive girlfriend in Korea, and I think that's a big reason many of them come. Many are here to travel and make money, but a lot of those who come here are either socially awkward and don't fit in back home, are running away from something, or both. When you're not part of a culture and don't speak its language fluently, it's difficult to detect nuances like that. It's also easy to ignore those kinds of details when you're set on dating a foreign man because he will probably treat you better and spend more money on you than a Korean man. 

The look on Martina's face says it all. Read
these conversations with drunk Korean men,
they're so accurate.
I don't claim to know a whole lot about this, but the impression I've gotten is that the main tactic Korean men employ is to harass women until they eventually give up. If that's the culture, fair enough, but it's not hard to see why a lot of people aren't too keen on it. In my case, the only Korean men I've met outside the office who were willing to say anything to me were drunk university students, so I don't exactly have any good examples on which I can base my impressions.

I thought one guy was going to cry if I didn't give him my number, even though my friend told him to his face that it was "pathetic" for him to keep asking me like 15 times after I'd already said "no". I couldn't give him a fake one when I finally relented to shut him up because he tried calling it then and there to test it. He called me ten times that night after I'd finally awkwardly left the bar, and I resorted to pretending to be my own big black boyfriend to get him to stop. And that's just one example. These guys can be incredibly immature, rude, disrespectful, forceful and pushy. I don't imagine many nice Korean guys would have the balls to approach a foreign girl while she was with a group of friends and try to chat her up in a language that wasn't their own. You don't meet the highest quality people in bars and clubs no matter where you are.

Also, just as an aside: Korean men easily spend as much time on their hair as the women do on their makeup. Multiple times I've seen a man spend a few minutes adjusting every strand of hair just before putting on a hat, or adjusting the little bits of hair that could be seen from under a hat until they were perfect. I've also seen teenage boys flip or fix their hair after every other move of a K-pop dance they were practicing. It's a bit excessive.

Additionally, both guys and girls of all ages are even ruder than you would expect in Seoul, especially when it comes to shoving, pushing, walking in front of you and walking directly into you.

Now, I certainly don't claim that every Korean guy or girl is like this, even though I've been accused of condemning an entire race of men or (especially) women while making sweeping generalizations out of annoyance. I'm not small-minded, ignorant or racist; these things exist to some degree or another everywhere, and it's just that some of it's really prominent here. 

Women who always look fresh and flawless, don't sweat, wear 6-inch fuck me heels and micro-mini skirts every day and get plastic surgery to look like dolls are hard to compete with physically to say the least. It should go without saying that the type of person who makes all of that their main focus in life has little or no substance or intellect, but it still wears you down a bit when you're surrounded by them every day and shopkeepers jeer at you and say things like, "Hey, we have big size here!" or "No, no.. no fit (makes 'too small' gesture)" to something you've just tried on and found flattering. It's like, fuck you. If you don't want my money, just say so, but you probably need it a lot more than I do. Around 40 kilos is fairly average here, but that isn't a real weight for us; that's a child's weight. It's just a completely different set of standards, which would be fine if the culture wasn't so elitist and judgemental.

It takes a very strong and confident person to ignore said prominent aspects of daily life for an extended period of time, and it's hard to be that person 24/7. Even when you fully accept that you're different, that you'll never be a part of this society and aren't held to the same standards or are even expected to attempt to fit in, you're going to compare yourself to another woman at some point. And it's probably going to make you a little bit sad inside. For weeks I kept thinking the ones who stand outside the makeup shops announcing specials and whatnot were animatronic at first glance; they're just like the clone women in Cloud Atlas. They look like the mannequins at Forever 21.

(4) Maybe you've heard that it's common for Koreans to live at home until they're around 30 or even older. Well, that's because they're not generally expected to move out and get a job until they're married and/or completely done with their schooling and all set up to start a career. It's not uncommon for Korean mothers to breastfeed until an age that people in most of the West would find quite unacceptable or even shocking, and believe me, they have a hard time cutting the cord. If mom is still cooking dinner for you every night and you've never had any expenses or experience outside of going to school at 33, you're gonna have a bad time.

Many parents are like overbearing helicopters, constantly standing over their kid and dictating every second of their life. Nothing annoys us more than mothers who glue themselves to our windows while we're teaching classes. It always happens during the 2-minute window when the little bastards have descended into complete chaos, too. Look, lady, this is the 40 minutes you get to yourself today. I've got it under control. I hold in my hand the ineffable power of The Stickers, and none of them want to find out what happens when I reach zero after I start counting down from five. Read a goddamn magazine or something.

The worst thing is that we're basically selling English as a product, so that makes the customer right even when they're so wrong. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting an English academy, so you might think that they could afford to be selective and bad kids would be rotated out. And you'd be wrong. Korea seems incredibly efficient from the outside, but when you get into the workings of it, it's like, what the fuck are these people doing? None of this makes sense. Our school has a waiting list, but the kids who get in if someone drops out or moves on are literally chosen at random. That's how we get horrible little brats who never do any work, punch us, throw stuff at us and shriek like pterodactyls all lesson. 

When you're ready to dangle a kid by his ankles off the edge of the roof or jump yourself, Helicopter Mom calls. Yes, hello, my little angel says he's been having a hard time in class and that the teacher is mean to him. Is this teacher experienced? Wait, he punched the teacher in the balls and told him "fuck you" before throwing his book down and storming out? You're lying! My little shnookums would never pull a stunt like that! Rabblerabblerabble!

Last week we had a mother standing in our office for two or three days in a row yelling for an unreasonable number of minutes at two of our Korean teachers (one of whom had just started and had the most pitiable blank look on her face) and blaming one of our American teachers for the fact that her kid had lost his bag after accidentally picking up someone else's when they were playing outside. Uh, okay, what are we supposed to do about that? It wasn't even during class time. Your kid's not even a good kid, and do you ever wonder why? Maybe because he never has to accept responsibility or admit that he done fucked up.

The Lateness of the Hagwon Hour
At the same time as so many of these kids (where we work is quite a well-off area, btw) are being spoiled and turned into obnoxious little jerks, you start to feel sorry for them because you realise they have no lives. Some of them do, but if you ask them, it's all too common for them to say something like, "I go to two more hagwons after this". That's school plus three more schools. When do you do your homework, child? When do you sleep?

During a speaking test once I asked a little 7 year-old boy what he does before school. In an exasperated tone, he spat out, "Tae kwon do". Then what? "Piano". ..Before school, I explain more clearly? "Yes".

During that same test we asked the kids who could understand enough where and when they would go if they could travel in time. A significant portion if not most of them said something along the lines of, "I would go to when I was 5 years old/a baby, because I didn't have to study so much, it was easy and I could play". It's like, you're talking about what you did when you were a kid and how you wish you could go back, but you're nine. That's not right. Where do you draw the line between pushing your kid to reach their full potential and offering them every chance of success and actually letting them be happy?

(6) This one was kind of unexpected for me. I'd read a few articles about Korea's emerging hardcore scene that included interviews with at least two different singers who spoke English and felt pretty hopeful, but you mostly just hear the same 12 or 14 K-pop songs everywhere you go. All day. All night. I'm just glad Gangnam Style is mostly over. 

I've been shown a couple of middle-of-the-road rock bands' videos and been meaning to check out a Korean metal show but haven't yet. My theory about why music here sucks so much is, first, that these people don't have anything to be pissed off about. Everything is highly structured and safe. The second part is (imho, and as a continuation of the former) that kids don't have any time to cultivate interests or develop emotionally. As you probably know, in the West, we hold individuality in high esteem while in the East, a harmonious society trumps the needs and importance of the individual. Most kids' lives are very similar. You can choose between the following hobbies. Actually, not really. You will go to no fewer than three after-school academies, dance, play soccer and learn to play the cello. You will do homework until you die. You will like this. Everyone likes this. You don't have time to like anything else. You will dance to it. Beeeeep.

(7) Ah, good old Asian bureaucracy. Actually, we needed this in triplicate. It's one millimeter off. You need to go downstairs and come back up for that. It used to be up here, but we moved it and hired an extra person. I'm not sure why. You need to download an application to use this and it only works with Internet Explorer. You need to go to a different office for that stamp even though we could just put one on this desk.

About signing up for an ID card at the building I already work in so I could use the gym: it took 6 people. We had a half dozen people working on it and trying to figure it out, and four of them were Korean. You would type something in and it'd be like, "Error, fool, use letters and words", and you're like, wat. Just for no reason. Important entities like immigration can change their very detailed requirements for things like renewing your visa depending on who you talk to. 

Well, this 2-day long vent has served its purpose and made me feel quite a lot better. I hope a few people read it and are more prepared to deal with working here as a result. Personally, if I can't get a better, higher-paying job as a real professional working with adults, I won't stay another year.

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