Tag Archives: korean society

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: 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: 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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