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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: 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: 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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