Under Pressure: Oh Jae Kyong

In third installment of my interview series examining the high-pressure nature of modern Korean society, I talk with Jae Kyong Oh, a 30 year old International Education Consultant. Jae Kyong gives a distinctly female perspective on stress in her country, and specifically how it relates to being a prospective mother. Having lived in California for more than 7 years, Jae Kyong is also in a special position to comment on her native country as it compares to the Western world.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Oh Jae Kyong, 30

International Education Consultant

Oh Jae Kyong, 30

Where does pressure come from in Korea?

I think Korean society has become very stratified in a way. Moving between classes is getting harder and harder, and conflict between the classes, between the high incomes and low incomes is getting very [intense].

After the war in the 70’s and 80’s, the majority of people in Korea were not rich. Everyone worked hard so they could get a better job, but after 20 or 30 years, that upwards movement has pretty much stopped. Before, when everyone was poor, it was easier to get a better job and to get better pay by having a good education. But nowadays, poor people cannot get a good education. That is a problem in Korea.

In the normal education system I don’t think teachers are working very hard. Being a teacher used to be a very good job, and while still it is a good job, students don’t really respect teachers anymore. They think that they get better education from private tutors because they pay more. So the teachers are not working hard to keep up with what the students want.

Parents are pushing their children to do more private tutoring all the time because they believe the public education is not good enough. So I guess they are giving this idea to their children and it devalues the system.

What Kind of Personal Pressure Do You Feel?

Because I got a degree from the US, it was a little bit easy for me to get a job. I can speak English and Korean pretty much fluently so that was easy for me at first. But my personal stress level comes from the Korean lifestyle. By law [in other countries] there is an 8-hour work day, and if you work more you get paid more. But in Korea, most companies don’t really pay for overtime. For me I go to work at 9.30 a.m. and supposedly the day should end at 6 p.m., but I work until 7. It’s not really a lot compared to other people, but still these hours are not flexible. The pay is OK, but you have to work really, really hard. I don’t have time to go to the restroom because I have to focus all the time. If you boss stays late, then you have to stay late, too.

But I think the most stress comes from being a woman. In Korea there are not many laws for women, they are not really protected in society. Being a newly married couple, both the husband and wife have to work to manage [financially]. If a woman needs to take a break for maternity leave, its not really allowed. If you leave to take care of your child, it’s really hard to get a job afterwards. Being a future mom, just thinking about it is really hard. In Korea they are not really supportive at all – maternity leave is only 3 months.

What is the solution?

I hope that the government makes more detailed laws supporting women in the workplace, especially about maternity leave. But when I look at the current government, I don’t really have hope. I try to like our president, and I don’t really want to be angry with him, it’s just that I don’t really see how they are going to help us. I need to find a solution for myself, either from religion, or by trying to make more income so I can hire a babysitter to allow me to keep working.

In Korea the university tuition is increasing. It costs about the same to send your child to a private university in Seoul as it does to send them to a state university in the US, so I thought about sending my kids overseas – or moving away from Korea. But because my parents live here and I want to be close to them I’m still deciding. If I have enough money I will probably send my kids overseas. I can’t imagine them growing up in Seoul in a very high-pressure society, trying to be at the top and having to compete with everyone. They won’t get to enjoy their life.

Koreans don’t even really enjoy their hobbies. They don’t really know what to do because they’ve never been encouraged to do something they like. They’ve just been encouraged to do something which is the majority of society thinks is good. If people think taking photos is cool, then everyone buys a camera. Or if they think golf is a luxury sport, they try to play golf all the time just to show they’re rich. Hobbies are not really hobbies in Korea, they are just to show your class.

The main reason I chose to leave the US and come back to Korea was that I experienced a glass ceiling being a minority there. There was a limit to my opportunity. Americans are not really racist or anything, there is not really discrimination but if you try to move up at a job it hard for minorities. At least in Korea I can work hard and move up. The door to move between classes is getting narrower than before, but still it’s possible. I guess that’s why Korean people work hard and diligently to get better and better.

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