Category Archives: Under Pressure

A series of interviews examining the high-pressure society of modern South Korea.

Under Pressure: Byun Ho San | Part 2

Part 2 of  Byun Ho San’s interview will be the last in my series on pressure and stress in South Korean society. Mr. Byun is in a special position to comment on these issues as he has both seen the birth of the high pressure culture and worked his way diligently to the top of it. His company, KOSTAT, is the biggest and most profitable of its kind in Korea, with factories across Asia. This interview is a fitting end to the series as Mr. Byun, having worked incredibly hard for the best part of 30 years, is in the process of slowing down. While the first interview focused on the origins of the bali bali culture, this (much shorter) portion is centered around his personal perceptions and solutions. He has gone full circle within the bali bali business world of Korea, and a quote from my talk with him best sums up the whole Under Pressure series: Bali bali – good for the economy and bad for the soul.

These interviews have been both educational and entertaining for me and I feel like I have come out of it understanding the mystery that is South Korea a little bit more. As I have access to a large group of mostly bilingual adults, I am open to suggestions if there are people out there who would like to have their questions about this country answered by Koreans instead of a Wikipedia page or a bitter English teacher! Contact me.

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.
 
Byun Ho San, 55, in one of his Seoul factories.

What Personal Stress Do You Have?

My 30’s were the most stressful time in my life. I started a business and I had no leverage or money. I had to survive by myself, there was no one to help me. When I established my company I rented a very small office and employed a young girl. I borrowed 2 million won (about $2000) from a friend. I had to find more clients so I was working day and night. There were many bad situations that I had to face. I could have taken a job at a big company but I had made up my mind to become a businessman. Sometimes when I met my friends who worked for companies like Samsung and LG I envied them and wondered why I chose to start a small business instead. But I had made a decision and I couldn’t give up. When I started my business I didn’t think about how stressful Korea was. But once I got into business I realized how difficult it was.

Out of my friends, less than 5% tried to start a business – the rest went to work for companies where they tried to advance. To advance they had to compete against many people and the competition is very intense. The working culture is still like this.

In the future I expect this culture will change a little bit. People want to enjoy their life and be with their family.

What is Your Solution?

I am very accustomed to the bali bali system. I know that it isn’t good for the soul and if we want to have a stable life we need to control this high speed. Right now I am trying to slow down gradually. At first it was very hard to calm down so I needed some practice on how to stabilize my mind. After I stabilized my soul I have felt much happier than before.

I have a very unique solution to the problem and it has made me very happy. I go to bookstores once a month and I read. Recently I have read many books on how to relax my soul. There were many methods. We need to learn more from Buddhism – especially the Buddhism from India. By reading these books I have made a final conclusion and created a solution for myself. It took five years.

 When I get up in the morning I think by myself for 20-30 minutes – about everything. I think about things that are good, better, and positive. Nothing negative. I have visions of hope, not sadness. Then my mind naturally calms down and I have dreams. I write them down five times and read them five times. After that I go to work I am ready. This is the secret to my success.

Byun Ho San sits in an empty board room in one of his corporate offices.

 

 

 

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Under Pressure: Byun Ho San – Part 1

In the first half of my seventh interview about the fast paced and high pressure nature of Korean society, I talk with Byun Ho San. Mr. Byun is a 55 year old industrialist who grew up in a rural community to the Northwest of Seoul in the aftermath of the Korean War. In childhood he farmed his family’s land with oxen and wooden carts. Since then Ho San has risen to astounding heights – he is now the owner of the worlds second largest supplier of conductive plastics and his client list includes giants like Samsung and Texas instruments. An utterly modest man, it is all but impossible to get him to admit the true extent of his achievements.

The interview I did with Mr Byun was much longer than usual, mostly due to the wealth of information he was willing to share, and because of the depth of his insights into the forces driving his society. For the sake of readability, I have split the transcription into two parts. In this first half, The Birth of Bali Bali, Mr. Byun describes the events and the political situation which gave birth to Korea’s notorious social hustle.

I will post a condensed version of the full interview later; I’m try to get all of these interviews edited down to an appropriate length for their upcoming print publication, and its eating up most of my time.

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.
 

Byun Ho San, 55 – Industrialist

Byun Ho San, 55

The Birth of Bali Bali

Most Koreans tend to be very hurried; I guess its our new culture. When my parents were young, they didn’t hurry in the same way. After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world – we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died. Our parents educated us that we should work very hard, and study very hard, otherwise we could not survive. There was no food and nothing to drink.

For survival [during the war years] my parents had to really hurry. They worked very hard, but at that time they were already adults. When the Japanese occupied Korea, there was no need to hurry up because there was no reason – they couldn’t make money anyways. There was a dictatorship, so even if they hurried up they could not gain any extra money.

It was the children of the wartime who were the first to really experience the bali bali (quickly quickly) culture. There was no food and we could only eat once or twice per day. The Americans gave us a lot of low-grade corn and during my elementary school days, and we used to have cornmeal every day. There was no food, so this was very delicious. There was no rice, no bread.

Whenever we came home from school, we had to work with our parents on the farms using oxen and raising chickens and pigs. During the daytime we had to work very hard and at night we had to study. Back then I had a good memory so I had to study a lot. But we had no electricity so we had to study using lanterns – it was very unfashionable! When I would wake up the next morning and look in the mirror, I would have a black nose from the fumes. This was not a very long time ago.

When I was 10, electricity came to the countryside. The people were very surprised; it was very bright. It looked like we were liberated from the black world. We had serious hardships during our childhood days, so I could taste the value of electricity. The young generation had to work to overcome a lot of obstacles.

The famous dictator [Park Chung Hee] did many things for Korea. He ruled by dictatorship, but he could not help it. It was a very dangerous situation; if Korea had tried democracy, we would have been bankrupt – like the Philippines. Previously the Philippines had been very rich, much richer than Korea. Park Chung Hee made his best effort to improve our life quality and came up with a lot of ideas to develop and improve our country. He made a policy of rural revolution and he spread a “can do attitude”. So people were continuously told “we can do it”. They broadcast it over the radio: If we co-operate together, we can do it. If we was to be successful, we had to hurry up. There was not enough time for anyone, including me. Because of this new attitude, Korean people could reach our current status as a developed country.

So my generation all worked together under this attitude. Now I have two daughters, and I had to educate them in the same way – even 10 years ago Korea was still developing. Also, Korean mothers are special. They are very diligent and they focus all their energy on the education of their children. I think this is the same as mothers from other places, but Korean mothers are much more aggressive!

So bali bali culture made our country what it is. When I started my business, I though that there would be no chance to overcome Japanese technology. When I was 35 I had a chance to go to Tokyo – I wanted to import antistatic products. It was my first visit and I was very curious about Japan. When I arrived at the airport I was very surprised. At that time there were not many cars in Korea, but in Tokyo I could see so many luxurious cars. I couldn’t imagine how Korea could overcome. I was humbled.

Now 30 years has passed. Samsung started by importing technology for black and white TVs from Japan. They started to make superconductors, which the analysts said was crazy. For seven years they had a deficit. We never could have imagined that Samsung would conquer them all. It is because of the bali bali attitude. Samsung works twice as much as their competitors like Sony and General Electric. By working hard and by continuous imitation, the level of technology is the same as international companies, and more.

Thinking of when I was a young man in Japan, I could not believe that I would see a Korean company overcome a Japanese company. But right now it is reality. It is the same with many industries. Pohang Steel is a top business and our shipbuilding is the best. One by one we are becoming number one in the world. It is the same “can do” attitude that was repressed by the Japanese for 35 years – no rights, no culture. Now we know the real value of Koreans. Korean people now know how to win – it is bali bali.

This is very useful for industry, but it is bad for the soul.

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Under Pressure: Cho Jun Ho

In the sixth interview of my series on the high stress nature of modern Korean society I talk with Cho Jun Ho, a 33 year old IT specialist who lives in Seoul. As a young family man in his working prime, Jun Ho represents the Korean “everyman”, part of the mass of smart and educated middle class who are forced to compete with each other for the few best jobs. Jun Ho is by no means a beaten and weary salary man; in fact he is an energetic and positive person who finds happiness everywhere he can. But through his voice we can learn about the crushing social and financial pressures that have become a normality in South Korean life.

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.
 

Cho Jun Ho, 33 – IT Specialist

Cho Jun Ho, 33

 Where Does Pressure Come From in Korea?

At my age most people are interested in marriage and their jobs aren’t very stable. They all have the same kinds of stress. One of my friend’s hair is falling out because he has so much stress at his office. He has to work day and night. At the same time he wants to have a relationship, but it is very difficult because he has no time. When he finishes work he goes home and his parents ask him why he doesn’t have a girlfriend or a wife. That also gives him stress. So he has stress at work and at home – there is no place where he has no stress in his adult life. I think it is the same for most people in Korea who are my age.

What Personal Pressure Do You Feel?

I have stress, but I just talk with my wife and my God, and it makes me comfortable. But without them I cannot control myself. I get very angry and I want to fight someone.

After getting married, my life has become more comfortable. But it also creates stress because I have to earn more money than I do now. I have my wife and in the near future I want to have a baby also – and that means I need even more money to maintain our life. Money is stress.

The Korean traditional personality is very bali bali (quickly quickly) which means they need to get results as soon as possible. Not all, but most Korean people are like this. They never relax. They have no empty space in their minds. They do not think about anything other than their stress and what they have to do.

Some Koreans have hobbies, but most do not. The most important thing to them is just work, earning money and meeting a partner. Compared to a life in the US where there is a lot of nature and people can hang out outside or have a BBQ with friends, in Seoul it is impossible. People just drink soju (rice liquor). It is the only thing that young people can do with each other, and it’s the only thing the can really do to get rid of stress. This cannot be the solution to stress.

It is important to have hobbies. I want to make a documentary film, but these days I have no time. I have to work, and after work I have to go home to my wife.**Laughs**. Most Koreans are like that; they think they have no time, but they can make time. But when they have time off, they don’t want to do anything, just relax.

After the Korean War, people were very poor. The President made a plan for Korea, telling people they had to work hard to succeed in raising their social status. That mindset has still not changed much these days, even though we are not starving anymore. It makes people think the most important thing in their lives is earning money.

This is changing now because of the Internet. People can see more than they could before – the Internet is very popular here. They know that there are many beautiful places in the world where they can go. They also know what people do around the world and it makes them want to do the same things. The national personality is changing. This has two sides; the good side is that it makes them happier, but the bad side that some companies use this for marketing to sell their products.

What is the Solution?

Money is very important, but people have to stop thinking it is the most important thing in their life. There are better things, like hobbies, which most people don’t have any experience with, including me.

Most people just want people to think that they are doing very well. They change their status on a social network and when someone else hits the “like” button they are very satisfied. But I think these social networks will bring new stress. People use Facebook everyday, but if it goes away these people will get very confused, like they lost their baby. It’s the same with cell phones. Koreans use their cell phone so much, for everything. But if it is gone for just one day, they are very sad.

When I have kids I want to show them nature. I want to show them more beautiful things. But I don’t really expect this, because I will live in Seoul.

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Under Pressure: Suh Kwang Ho

The fifth instalment of my interview series provides a rare insight into the challenges facing Korea’s disabled population. Suh Kwang Ho, 37, was born with Cerebral Palsy and is confined to an electric wheelchair. Despite physical limitations, Kwang Ho is an extremely active individual. He holds a Master’s degree, regularly attends group language lessons, freelances for technology magazines, and maintains a comprehensive blog about changes in the web design industry. Like his role model, Stephen Hawking, Kwang Ho is eager to dispel illusions that the physically disabled are anything less than able when it comes to brain power.

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.
 

Suh Kwang Ho, 37

Web Programmer and Freelance Writer

Suh Kwang Ho, 37. A web programmer and freelance technology writer, born with cerebral palsy.

 

What Causes Pressure in Korean Society?

Korea’s President, Lee Myun Bak [is the cause of pressure] in Korea. People hate him – not all of them, but most people hate him. He tries to control both the press and society. People are not free, and they cannot talk freely. He will also try to control social networks in the future. By controlling Yoido [the broadcasting center of Seoul], he can control society.

 What Kind of Personal Pressure Do You Feel?

I am a disabled man. Public transport is extremely difficult in Korea – there are not many busses for disabled men. Three years ago I went to St. Louis, Missouri to visit my sister. There I could take a bus very easily, and the bus driver was very kind. But in Korea, taking a bus is not easy, and the drivers are not kind. When the busses are very crowded it is the worst. When they are not crowded, people can be kind, but Korean people live bali bali (quickly quickly). When I ride a bus, it is very slow – it takes a long time for me to get on and off. People get annoyed very quickly. It is stressful for me to move around.

 People’s attitudes must change about the disabled. Many people in Korea suppose that a disabled man does not have any abilities, but the disabled are the same [as other people]. I am maybe not so smart, but I have been writing magazine articles in Korean for the last 2 years. I also want to be a good writer in English, but it is difficult.

 It is also difficult for a disabled man to get a job. After I graduated from university, I didn’t get a job for a long time, maybe 1 or 2 years. People see a disabled person and they think he isn’t able. They only see my body, not my brain. They also think that I cannot communicate with other people.

 I finally got a job in 2000 by sending my resume to online sites. Even now that I have a lot of experience, getting a job is not so easy. This is the situation.

 What is your solution?

It’s a difficult question. Maybe I can go abroad. It might be possible to have a normal life in Korea, but not yet. Maybe when this government is gone. Before he was elected president, Lee Myun Bak said if a woman gets pregnant with a disabled baby, the baby should be killed. I hate him. Really. It’s terrible.

Things are a little better than before, when I first came to Seoul (in 1999). At that time, when I crossed the street people looked at me very strangely. They looked at me like it was a museum. Now it is better though.

 If possible, I would like to live abroad – maybe the USA or Canada. Is Canada good for a disabled man? The cold is no problem, I just hate hot weather. I heard that the Internet is not so fast though. If that’s true I will hate it!

 I want to have a normal life and I want to be a better writer.

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Under Pressure: Park Eun Ah

The fourth in my interview series about what makes South Korea such a stressful society to be a part of. The final year of high school in Korea is often referred to as “the year of hell” as the grueling study hours and the pressure of university applications reach their climax.  Park Eun Ah, 18, graduated from the public high school system less than two months ago and shares her views on the pressure and stress that young Koreans face as they enter the adult 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.
 

Park Eun Ah, 18

High School Graduate

Park Eun Ah, 18

Where does pressure come from in Korea?

When I was little I didn’t have to study that much, but now they are studying in elementary school so that they can go to a good middle school or a foreign school. You know, they are little students, little boys and girls who want to play a lot, but they are studying at home and at academies.

Korean people always ask what university you have graduated from. It is like a status symbol. That’s why parents always want their kids to go to a good university, so that they can get good pay at their jobs.

I want to find a job that I really enjoy. I don’t really care about the money, but society doesn’t really want me to be like that. So my job is for society, not for me – and I think that’s not fair. For example, if I major in English literature, I won’t really get a job related to English. There aren’t enough jobs so I can’t do what I really want.

 What Pressure Do You Feel Personally?

A long time ago [teachers] cared about students, but now going to university is the student’s responsibility and they do not help us at all. Teachers just tell us to study, study, study, and if we don’t study they don’t really care because its our future, not theirs.

If you care about your future there is a lot of pressure. In my head I think I have to go to a good university and I have to get a good job, so that creates pressure. Parents and teachers just say study, study, study. You have to do this, this, and this to get good [exam] scores and go to a good school. That’s pressure. We have to study so that we can get good scores. It’s just about scores, not abilities.

In high school we have grades; first grade is the best, second grade, third grade and so on. Ninth grade is the worst. But even if you get a first grade score, you might not go to a good university because, if the exam is easy, many students might get a first grade score. You have to beat the other students and it’s very competitive. The average could be 97%, and so the students would have to get 100% [to be competitive].

An average student goes to school at 7:30 or 8:00am and finishes at 4 or 5pm. We eat dinner at school. Then we have to study at school by ourselves until 10pm. Then we go home or to the library and continue to study until 1 or 2 am. Then we go to sleep and go to school again. That’s our pattern. That’s why people commit suicide. They study really hard, and then if they [botch] the exam, they get depressed.

I was depressed as well because I couldn’t get into a better university – I didn’t study enough. If I go to a low university, opportunities will be low. But even if you go to a really good university, you [might] not get a really good job. For example, some people graduated from a really good university, but now they are just teachers. And teachers get low pay.

I don’t really want people to feel pressure, but they have to. That’s Korea’s way, so I cannot do anything about it. It will never change. But Korean women are not having children [these days], so maybe in 40 or 50 years, there will be fewer children in university and it will be easier.

 What is the Solution? When Will the Pressure Stop?

Never! Because after university I have to find a job and I have to get married. If [there is a] person who I really want to marry I have to think about his status. Love doesn’t matter. I really want to marry somebody who I love, I don’t really care about his status, but my parents will care. [They think] I can live a better life with a husband who can earn much money. I don’t want people to stress about their status, but I don’t think it’s possible.

I lived in NZ for 2 years, so I know it’s completely different than Korea. They play outside and do sports, but in Korea they don’t really have much time for sports. But even if I was born in New Zealand I would still feel pressure. There is nothing to do there. At night everything is closed after 10, so I have to go to sleep. In New Zealand people just stay outside all the time and relax, but in Korea there are many big buildings. I want to stay in Korea, because I am Korean. In Korea life is very fast, and I always do things very fast. That’s a good thing.

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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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Under Pressure: Kwon Ji Hoon

In the second installment of my interview series examining the high-pressure nature of modern Korean society, I talk with Kwon Ji-Hoon, a 25 year old university student who shares his views on the causes of stress in his culture. As a student, Ji-Hoon is in a unique position to comment on the pressures Korea’s youth face as they prepare to enter a highly competitive job market.

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.

Kwon Ji-Hoon, 25 – Student

Kwon Ji-Hoon, 25

Where Does Pressure in Korea come from?

When I was a high school student I had a lot of pressure because if my friends or kids in my neighbourhood went to study math or science, my mother also felt like she also had to send me to an academy. So it is a bad circle. A lot of children go to academies to study, and it makes them competitive with each other. Students especially have a lot of pressure.

Many parents want their children to go to a good university, but as you know the universities choose a limited number of people. So that’s why we compete with each other, my friends and I.

I think students feel pressure from their parents because their parents expect them to always do better. I also had a lot of pressure from my parents. When I took an exam and got a bad score, but I had tried to study hard, my parents didn’t care about that. Just the score. So I got depressed. Some parents pay a lot of attention to their children. If the parents expect more than their children’s skill allows, maybe they will have a lot of pressure.

I think in our country there is a lot of pressure because it is small, but the population is so much compared to other countries. But the jobs or university places are limited. So our country has a lot of angry ill (aggression disorders) because of the stress. 30 or 40 percent of people have this anger.

 Is there a solution?

I think that it is impossible for the pressure to stop. If the education system totally changes, maybe the stress can be reduced; but I think it’s impossible. To totally change the education system is too difficult. So in my country it is like a bad cycle. It is impossible.

I’m a university student. I have pressure to get a good job. I think maybe all university students are worried about getting a job. 10 years ago when we went to university, people would get together for drinking or activities, but nowadays many people just study. As I get older, I have to be responsible for myself.

When will the pressure stop?

The only time I felt no pressure is when I was young, like in Kindergarten. Also…no, just kindergarten. The pressure started in elementary school. But nowadays the kindergartens also have pressure.

Sometimes I don’t feel the pressure. I try to do my hobbies, like travel or exercise with my friends or relax. But just during this time [I don’t feel pressure]. After that I am getting the pressure back.

 

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Under Pressure: High Stress in Korean Society

There is a tendency among many expats to align themselves along an us-vs-them axis in South Korea. That is to say that many members of the foreign community (typically teachers or soldiers) feel that they are the “normal” people living in a strange and illogical society. Expats often don’t understand why Koreans are the way they are here, and a lot of the time they don’t really want to find out.

I’m no expert on the intricacies of Korean society, but I feel that when living in someone else’s country there is a responsibility to take the time to answer these sorts of questions, rather than simply dismissing an entire culture as being nonsensical or weird.

So I started asking questions and conducting interviews – sometimes with friends, sometimes with co-workers, and sometimes with people I barely know – to try and get a more personal kind of insight into what makes this society tick. The first such issue I have begun to explore is that of pressure.

Korea is notorious for being one of the most faced paced, stressful, and high pressure environments on the planet – and I want to know what that means for average citizens. Over the course of 20+ interviews, I am trying to find out the answers to some basic questions: Where does the pressure come from? How does it affect people’s lives? Is there a solution?

Those interviewed are of varied backgrounds. They have different jobs, they are different ages, and they (for the most part) don’t know each other. Hopefully some common themes will emerge so people can begin to understand rather than simply shaking their heads and muttering “crazy Koreans”.

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.
 

Hwang In-Gi, 27 – Ph.D Candidate

Hwang In-Gi, 27

What Causes Pressure in Korean Society?

Making money is the biggest problem. Compared to the money we usually spend, the money we make is not that much.

In Australia, even old people can get a job easily. Wal-Mart is a good example. They hire old people; even some of them are working in wheelchairs or something. In Korea it never happens. Once you get old, once your physical abilities are going down, it means that you are not able to make any more money. It means that you will be abandoned in society. And they are afraid of that. Korea is one of the most difficult countries to get a job once you reach your 50’s. Even if you are really eager to work, you can’t. How you look doesn’t really matter, it’s only about your age.

Compared to the States, we don’t have well-established pension plan, and many people are worried about that. The government is currently guaranteeing a very small pension, and the age for retirement is getting younger – they usually get fired when they reach 50, compared to Japan, where people usually retire in their late 60s or something. My uncle, he used to work for Samsung, and of course he made lots of money while he was working there. But he kind of got fired when he turned 52. Because he was old.

We need some kind of social system. I mean, in Australia, as long as you have the will to keep working, the company is not able to fire you unless you are a very naughty worker. But here, the CEO or whoever owns the company, they have a right to fire you anytime they want. They do this because they don’t want to pay more. Lets say this: with the amount of money they pay for one manager, they can hire four new young people.

Usually a manager at a company like LG would get paid 4.2 million won (about $3800), and a worker with two years experience would usually get paid 2.2 million. The efficiency of one manager is not as good as two young people. The company wants new people. It’s kind of a stereotype, but Korean people believe that younger people’s minds are new and fresh and flexible. On the other hand, old people do not want to change. We are living in a world where the need to change and adapt to new environments is very important, and they think old people can’t really do that.

 What Causes Pressure for You Personally?

For now, I’m 27, I just need to cover myself – no wife or kids – so I’m not really worrying about many things. But as soon as I get married and have a kid then I will feel like my Dad. We spend almost $800 000 – that is the amount of money we need to raise a kid. It is considered normal to pay for our children’s tuitions fees, even in university, and that is what my mom did. So she covered me until I got my bachelor’s degree.

Now the pressure comes from the money I need to get married. I need $100 000 to get married, usually. Men are supposed to buy a house and women are supposed to fill it with up with some electronics or something. Usually men will pay more. But there is no way I can make that amount of money considering what I’m doing now. I’m a student and I’m making a very small amount of money at my work. I want to get married before I turn 31, which is not really possible financially. Mentally and physically I’m ready, but financially is the big problem. I can get married, but it will be super tricky unless my wife’s parents are super rich.

Is there a solution? When does the pressure stop?

When we are in the tiny place called the grave. Unless we have a very stable financial plan, such as a pension – which only [approximately] 12% of Korean people get.

The consumption of liquor is very high in Korea. That is why most of the office workers drink a lot. That is the way, by drinking, that they relieve their stress. That is the typical way Korean people escape. Temporarily.

A real solution will only come with time. We need a change in our system. We need to collect more tax from rich people, but the government is doing the opposite. Actually the government has been reducing tax for rich people so that they can spend more money, and they believe that is the only way to revive the dying economy. But once they start gathering more tax, people will not like it. People will not understand. We only collect 12%, but in other countries the tax is almost 30 or 32 percent of their income. That is how they are able to raise the quality of life. I would be willing to pay more tax if the government could come up with a good plan.

 

 

 
 
 
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