Archive for the ‘The Social Fabric’ Category

Here Comes the Bride? Marriage, Dating and Korean 30 Somethings

In The Social Fabric on May 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm

As a lady approaching the dawn of her thirties, and not really feeling a day over the dawn of her twenties, all I hear these days is marriage, marriage, babies, marriage.   White dresses and sunsets are all over my SNS feeds, and I’ve been asked countless times about when I will be doing the same.  I’m not sure what it’s like for ladies at home and what the social pressures are like, but I can’t help but notice the Korean marriage pressure.  The following are attitudes from  conversations I’ve had with my lady friends about getting hitched.

Usually for a Korean woman in her twenties, the goal of marriage is always hovering somewhere in the day to day.  Dating is great, but loving for the sake of loving is harder to find.   A lady usually has some kind of checklist for that potential husband, and that can range from limited to ultra picky.  Things like job, appearance,  family and even blood type can affect whether or not a woman will continue to date a man.  A single lady friend who is 31 and still on the husband hunt, stopped meeting a man when she found out his blood type was B.

“Every man I’ve dated with blood type ‘B’ has been quick-tempered and yelled at me in public”.

Dating in Korea is often through blind dating or introductions from friends called ‘Sogetting’, so it’s easier to be so officious when checking off the items on the list.   The element of passion and fate are absent, and replaced by an awkward coffee date where you can share score cards.  And in an ultra-consumerist society, money is one of the highest on the must-have list.

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Family pressures also abound, and yes there is still disapproval from families.  One of my recently married ladies, described how she had to secretly date her husband for a year before she could convince her family to marry him.  Rumors abounded, and it was a stressful time for the pair.

Marriage is still the end game for a lot of Korean women, as there still seems to be the idea that a woman must marry, otherwise she hasn’t succeeded in life.  So if a young lady finds herself without a long-term boyfriend, or even a potential for marriage making by the age of 30, panic tends to set in.  It’s like the best days of her life are over once you hit that 30 mark.  Sogetting ramps up and a community of the bitter singles forms, where friends get together and lament their singleness and how they hate seeing couples looking so happy.  During the cherry blossom festival, two single lady friends went to Yeoido and commented on all the couples taking pictures of each other,

“You won’t last! You’ll break up before the year is over!”

It’s all doom and gloom, like being 30 and single is some kind of death sentence, and chances of finding a husband are slim to none.  The expectation is that men will not want to date a woman in her thirties, and he will always choose someone younger.

A disclaimer of course, that this is not all women.  In fact, as Korean society does its sonic-speed evolving thing, so too are Korean women’s attitudes toward marriage.  Even though it’s seen as a success to be married, it’s not exactly a glorious life.  Korean women bear the burdens of being a man’s wife, and the responsibilities are endless.  Not just to her husband, but to her husband’s family and her own family, she is tasked with preparing traditional ceremonies, taking care of the elderly in the family, and taking care of all things domestic.  And then some.   One of the ladies in my circle refuses to date Korean men altogether for this specific reason.  She describes how Korean women think it’s liberating to marry into a Western family, where she is not obligated to fulfill such tasks.  Some modern Korean women don’t want to get married at all, and have given up on the idea completely.  One such lady who is 33 has said,

“I’ve come to enjoy my life and my time, and I don’t want that to change.  I don’t want to become a slave to someone else’s family.”

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Whilst the idea of not having to get married is a step towards the empowerment of women, it still lacks a balance.  The attitude that they don’t want to get married at all is the extreme.  Marriage can be great and it’s important to have a partner in life, and when Korean people don’t leave home until they are married….it’s not exactly a step towards independence.   What I would love to see Korean women start talking about, is what they can expect from a marriage and how they can negotiate their role in the partnership.  Not all men, women, or families are the same.  Traditional roles are important, but not for the sacrifice of love and happiness.

And what about the men?  Well they are having just as difficult a time as the women, mostly because of their financial demands.  Unemployment is still rife in Korea among the late 20’s early 30’s, and that sets off a chain reaction.   A man with no job, cannot date.  A man who cannot date, cannot marry.  A man who cannot marry, cannot have children.  No wonder the birth rate is still so low.  It’s so common it even has a term “삼푸세대”.

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Even if men have the means for marriage, they are finding it harder to find a woman who will be willing to do so.  The women who have found this ‘enlightenment’ that they don’t want to get married are too independent to tie down, or their standards are just set too high.  Korea is still a society that approaches marriage not between two people, but between two very extended families.  The decision to marry is therefore not on your own whim, but on the approval of everyone involved.

Young couples are not allowed the freedom to build their lives together unless they are legally bound .  It’s not socially acceptable for an unmarried couple to even live together,  so tying the knot is the only way they can start to really share their lives.  The idea of being in a long-term monogamous relationship without the necessity of marriage is still an out-of-the-box ideal, and one that forces impatient couples into quick marriages.

It’s difficult to go against the grain, especially when the grain has been growing in the family for thousands of years.  But the role and power of Korean women outside of traditional marriage has the potential to evolve, because they themselves talk about wanting it to.


Let’s Talk About Sex…With Seniors

In The Social Fabric, Uncategorized on February 5, 2012 at 1:27 am

It’s not a topic easily broached in Korean social circles, and most people would just rather not.  But recently two articles about the sexual activities of certain age groups have made the rounds in Korean papers.

The first was a hit to the ego of young  Koreans, who were polled to be the least sexually active in their age group worldwide (Full article here).  Even though this article comprehensively did the rounds  on social networking sites, the findings weren’t really that surprising.  Despite what Korean Dramas will have us believe, young Korean people are a lot more sexually active, it’s just not that easy to do it often.  The poll and article gave no insight into the societal restraints of unmarried couples to have sex more than once a week, as they invariably live with their parents.  Paying for love motels or some other suitable location for private time can really rack up a bill.  Factor that in with demanding work schedules, familial commitments and maintaining the odd friend or two…unless you live together who has the time?  Incidentally, Koreans were the only Asian representative of the people polled.

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But that wasn’t the article which got me tilting my head to one side.  About a month later new statistics were making the news rounds, that in fact it is the elderly population of  Korea who are increasingly sexually active.  A poll of the over 60’s age group showed that over 66% are sexually active (Full article).  But it wasn’t just the fact that the oldies are getting more action, it was that they know even less about sex than their kids and grandkids.  Of those polled, 26% never use condoms, 28% occasionally use them, and an alarming 78% had never had an STD test.  With more than half of the sexually active respondents resorting to prostitutes for their sexual outlet, the figures speak for themselves.  (For a good read on the social stigma of older people and sex check out The Grand Narrative’s take on its representation in film.)

But what puzzled me is the selective importance placed on sex education.  The government is being prompted to concentrate on sex education for seniors, as opposed to improving programs for the younger generation.  Elderly community centers are providing advice and support for the sexually active in attempts to raise awareness of STD’s and the practices of safe sex.  We’ve established that the older generation are in need of this support, and that the young adult population don’t really have sex that often anyways, but what about the forgotten youth? For me, coming from a culture of reality programs like ’16 and Pregnant’ and personally having regular sex education classes in school from 8th grade, it’s usually the older generation that don’t talk about sex and the younger generation who can’t shut up about it.

So what is available for kids these days?  My sister once asked me why a show like ’16 and Pregnant’ would never take off in Korea, and it’s probably because it’s more likely to be ’16 and Studying’.  The pressures of school, studying and tests definitely take a lot of time out from getting frisky with the opposite sex, but that certainly doesn’t account for everyone.  Korean teenagers are becoming sexually active at a younger age every year with 17% of high school students being sexually experienced.  Problem is, the youth are barely that much more informed about sex than their grandparents.  A survey in 2008 found that 60% of sexually active teens engage in unprotected sex, which was a total of 75,238 kids.  Following a rabbit hole of statistics, 9% of those females got pregnant, 88% of which whom obtained abortions.  Approximately one third of all abortions are performed on teenagers.

Above: The Korean version of teen pregnancy film ‘Juno’ wasn’t a patch on the original, and despite a lack of any sex or nudity was rated 19. Image Source

There is sex education in schools, it’s just dismally inadequate.  Legally schools are required to provide 10 hours a year of sex education classes, but most have only 5 hours  offered in health classes, which are often elective.  Ignoring the fact that this is just simply nowhere near enough, the content is also not practical.  Classes focus on maintaining virginity, sexual violence, prostitution and harassment prevention, rather than how to practice safe sex and the health risks of reckless sexual behavior.  It’s partly due to the stigma surrounding talking about sex.  Teachers are embarrassed to conduct the classes and opt for showing a poorly produced sex education video akin to what was available in the early 80’s.  One girl described her sex education as a video of ‘A man and a woman who were very in love, got into bed with their clothes on and the screen went black.  The next scene she had a big stomach.’

Just as Western parents use ‘The Stork’ as an escape from that inevitable question, Korean mums and dads will tell their children they were found under a bridge.  The difference is that Western kids have more chance of being subjected to comprehensive and frank discussions of sex at school, whilst Korean kids rely on each other, the underground, and the trusty old internet.  Yet while the over 60’s get the information they need to protect themselves, the next generation are still in dire need of direction and awareness.  The naivety that the youth of today will follow the traditional trends of abstinence will eventually cost the social fabric dearly.  As K-Pop stars get sexier and and stars set examples of sexual freedom, we can expect the masses to copy and repeat.

“I Do” But Korean Style I Don’t

In The Social Fabric, Uncategorized on November 27, 2011 at 12:18 am

First off, I’ve been receiving some positive feedback lately for Inconseoulable, and I’d like to say a big thanks very muchly for the support.  It’s been a busy few months filled with job interviews and changing directions, but I have renewed commitment for what I started out to do.  Which is make sense of all things Korean.

One of the things taking up my time and mental space these days is the subject of weddings.  As I missed yet another friend’s wedding back home, I found myself attending a Korean wedding in its place.  This certainly wasn’t my first experience, having attended a few ceremonies over the years.  Yet as I took the time to select an appropriate outfit and got a little excited to be a part of a wedding, I was inevitably disappointed.  I should have known better.


Korean weddings, despite mimicking the hallmarks of western weddings, couldn’t be more different.    For starters, a great majority of modern weddings take place in custom designed Wedding Halls.  These are one-stop-shop buildings which house not only the wedding rooms, but also the buffet hall for the obligatory meal.  If you are expecting to feel special on your big day, these weddings halls are not well equipped to oblige.  There are often numerous weddings occurring simultaneously, with guests milling about in foyers, stairwells, and even peaking in on other weddings. This facilitates the need for a large army of ushers to get you to the right room, sign the right book (name only no message) and put money in the right envelope. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a seat if you’re not early or close to the family.  And if you’re a guest running late, you won’t be de-friended on facebook as it’s just as common as arriving on time.

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After the ceremony, which lasts usually in the ballpark of 20 to 30 minutes, family and guests take part in the coordinated photos or head straight upstairs with their meal ticket.  These halls are round-the-clock function rooms, and people from all manner of weddings are often jumbled together in the one cafeteria. No dancing, no speeches, no cake, but this is the closest thing to a reception.  The bridal party is usually too busy with traditional photo shoots or other obligations to join their guests, and people may eat and leave as they please.  At this recent wedding I watched as a young woman loaded up her plate and sat at a round table all by herself, and I couldn’t help but feel a little hollow.

As far as ceremonies go, a church wedding will give at least some of the sentimentality one would expect from a wedding.  There is a familiar sense of tradition and reverence that might be lacking in a wedding hall ceremony.  There is a quieter element of romance.  But churches also have electronic queue boards which direct you to the right room, and to their own inbuilt buffets.

At first I thought it was the speed and informality of Korean weddings which unnerved me so.  However I came to realize that it’s much more than that.  As I flicked over and over through the reception photos of my friend’s wedding, I had tears of jealousy at just how much fun they were all having.  Friends and family had come from all over to celebrate not just a couple, but also to be together. It’s a social event and guests get just as excited as the bridal party. We dress up, we buy gifts, we clear schedules. We put so much emphasis on having a unique and unforgettable time to remember with the people close to us.  Friends play an integral role in a western wedding.

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Korean marriages are not just between two people, they are between two families. Family is the central unit of Korean culture, so the focus is as much on the parents as it is on the kids taking the plunge.  It’s a big important day mostly only for the families, and it’s the culmination of months of preparation. The enjoyment and interaction of friends at the reception doesn’t seem to have the same importance, partly because there is no reception.  Friends and guests attend the wedding, but it doesn’t really involve them.  Following the white wedding upstairs, there may be a second traditional ceremony that only family may attend in another room. We all have our wedding styles and traditions, but Korean weddings are more about family and ceremony than friends and parties. There are also unending pre-wedding obligations and traditions which will no doubt be another article, when I have the strength to cover it adequately.  Suffice to say, it’s no easy thing to get hitched Korean style.

And so came my disappointment that I couldn’t feed off other peoples’ friends having the excuse to catch up and enjoy each other’s company.  Instead we arrived at 11:30am and were having coffee down the road by 12:20pm.  Perhaps if I were part of the family I would feel differently.  But the rituals and bonding we might experience at a western wedding had taken place well before the Korean wedding day, and I felt a little empty.

There may be white dresses, tuxedos and elaborate floral arrangements, but an absence of the essence of what I enjoy in a wedding. Intimacy, sociability and unique memories to last a lifetime.

Chuseok vs. Christmas: Are we that different?

In The Social Fabric on September 12, 2011 at 6:00 pm

If you’re currently employed in a Korean company, you may have been surprised to receive a gift in the  past week.  It most likely would have come in the shape of an over-sized, yet beautifully decorated, rectangular cardboard box.  Inside that box could have been anywhere from toothpaste, shampoo, or even 12 cans of assorted flavoured Spam.  Only if you’re lucky.

It’s Chuseok.  It is the biggest holiday on the Korean calendar, and a time for feasting, traditional ceremonies and visiting relatives.  Sound familiar?  It took me a few years to really understand the similarities due to my own cultural bias, but I have recently discovered that Chuseok is really not that different from Christmas.  If you think that Asian culture and traditions are so far removed from our own, and thus hard to relate to, I ask you to consider the following.

The first thing to notice about Chuseok, is the travel.  Part of the Chuseok tradition is to visit ancestral hometowns in order to honor passed loved ones.  This includes the cleaning and upkeep of tombs and grave sites, and preparing offering tables.  Families make the mass exodus to all parts of Korea, clogging streets with traffic and making ticket purchase on trains and buses all but impossible.

Maybe it’s because our Christmas season has more vacation time, or maybe it’s geography, or population, or all three.  Traffic may not be unbearable, but if you’ve ever been in an airport on Christmas Eve, or watched a movie about being in an airport on Christmas Eve, you know that we have the same issues.  We all make that obligatory journey back to wherever the family is, whether we are excited about it or not.  Perhaps we don’t honor past family members in the same way, but we reminisce about Christmases when they were.  Most families have a moment or two which starts a conversation with ‘Remember that Christmas when….”

The central focus on Chuseok is of course the food.  Koreans know feasting.  Preparations begin days in advance, with traditional foods such as Songpyeon (crescent moon shaped rice cake), Chabchae (a glass noodle dish with meat and vegetables) and various kinds of Jeon (traditional pancake) which are only a minute representative of what is prepared.  And who is doing the cooking?  That would of course be the women.  The modern ladies of Korean society dread the coming of Chuseok for the stress it brings.  They are chained to the kitchen under the judgmental eyes of mothers, grandmothers, and of course mothers-in-law.  It’s a girls club, but not one that seems to have a happy membership.   The men of course partake in the feasting, and the drinking of traditional rice wines such as Dong Dong Ju, or of course Soju.  They still have it pretty good.

In our less patriarchal societies women are much less compelled to slave away in the kitchen over a hot stove, but that doesn’t mean we don’t.  Christmas traditions vary in every family, but food most definitely would be the common denominator.  As long as I can remember, the women in my family have been responsible for the Turkey, the ham, the stuffing, the roast veggies, the salads, the pudding.  Whether you enjoyed doing it or not dictated your involvement, and maybe that’s where the difference lies.   If you’re not so good at cooking, it’s okay to be responsible for pouring the wine for those that are.  But invariably, the aunts, the mothers, the grandmothers and daughters would join together near the kitchen, while the men loiter near the barbecue or gather in some other part of the house.   One commonality I’ve noticed to both cultures, is the post feasting nap.  A good food coma knows no cultural boundary.

Chuseok gets a bad wrap with the younger generation these days, with all the pressures they face from older members of the family.  Chuseok is a time of interrogation that nobody under the age of 40 can escape.  The questions are choose-your-own-adventure style, which change direction depending on your yes or no answers.   For example, if you are single the question is “When are you going to get a boyfriend/girlfriend?”.  If you have a significant other, it’s “When are you getting married?”.  If you’re married you might get “When are you having children?”.  It doesn’t just revolve around your love-life, children get the third degree about jobs, money, houses….there are any number categories available at an elder’s discretion.  The added scrutiny for some simply takes all the fun out of things.

I challenge anyone returning home for the Christmas season who has not encountered one, if not all of such questions.  Families have their ways of getting under your skin like nobody else in our lives, and the stress of the holiday season often amplifies their skills.  Christmas time tests patience levels, and we often have to play different roles in order to keep the peace.  Perhaps we don’t face the same set of questions, and perhaps it doesn’t happen to everyone every year.  But I can’t help but feel a kind of understanding for young Koreans today, who might have their answers already prepared.  I’ve done the same.

The one major difference I’ve noticed about the two seasons is the joy.  Chuseok seems increasingly like an obligation, and not as much an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company and eat really, really delicious food.  But of course, it depends on who you talk to.  When it comes to Christmas and Chuseok, each holiday is different, each family is different.  But perhaps not radically so.   There are aspects of the two holidays in which we can find common ground, and maybe come to understand each other better.  In the meantime, for those in Seoul, enjoy the eerie quiet.  All will be a bustle again by Wednesday.

추석 잘 보내세요!

Happy Chuseok!

Dear Mum: Leave Me Alone!

In The Social Fabric on June 23, 2011 at 9:47 pm

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything.  I could blame the internet, my job, the weather, but truthfully it comes down to that which we fight every day; laziness.  Any number of great ideas pop into my head to write about during the course of my days, but they struggle for supremacy in a mind that thinks far too much.

However one thing has been repeatedly nagging at me day after day that I wanted to share, if not flat out gripe about.  Mothers.

Before you continue reading in the hopes of finding some insight into the interpersonal relationships and hardships of the Mother-Daughter conundrum, you may be disappointed.  I’m talking about a different creature.  She is unlike any mother you may be familiar with, so much so that she deserves a whole different name for herself.  She is…..the Korean Elementary School Mother.

I firmly believe that social behaviorists would have enough research to fill the congressional library if  they were to study the KESM.  I myself still find them to be a complex mystery that perhaps I will never understand, being neither Korean nor having immediate intentions of being a mother.  Their behavior and motivations seem to be innate, like they are members of a highly selective organization.  I can speculate for days, but for the now I want to highlight a societal difference that is helping me understand Korean culture from a systemic point of view.

Currently I work in an after school English program at a public school, so I am excluded from the inner workings of the school system whilst at the same time being present on the campus as a kind of observer.  What is not talked about much, is just how omnipresent KESM’s are physically in the school.  When I was a kid, once you were dropped off at the school gates, you were parent free for all of those 8 glorious hours.  Friends and teachers and the social fabric of the playground were off limits to mothers, who could never understand it anyway.  It was the Kid World where you learned who to trust, who to avoid, and the consequences of both school and friendship rules.  Most of all, you knew that whatever happened, you had to deal with it on your own and so did everyone else.  It was a level playing field.  

In a Korean public school, certainly in my school, I see more mothers than teachers.  They sit outside the childrens’ classrooms, often peering through windows to check on both teacher and student.  They deliver book bags, form groups in hallways and accost teachers to discuss their child’s progress, or lack thereof.  They are a constant loom.  At first I thought it was out of concern for new students, but I quickly came to understand that this is an all year round phenomenon.  And I find it unsettling.

Korean Mothers are given an enormous amount of sway in the education of children.  Teachers are constantly defending themselves or tiptoeing around the truth that perhaps their kid is, in fact, unbelievably, not perfect.  KESM’s wander the halls uninvited and unchecked, acting as though it is their ordained right to access anywhere they please.  This was not the case in any of my 5 elementary schools, where for security reasons the School Office served a purpose.  To keep track of who was roaming the halls and interfering with Kid-dom.

Even if we ignore the security concerns, and the lack of personal freedom for much needed growth on the part of the child, I often find myself wondering about the mothers themselves.  Despite my smiles and nods, my internal monologue repeats the same question: Do you really have nothing else better to do?  Lacking a job, what about personal hobbies? Other family obligations? Failing that (at the risk of sounding overly traditionalist) household tasks?  It seems that the child’s activities during the day are all-consuming and the Korean Mother dedicates all her time to monitoring and interfering in their education.  The child is a job.

Admirable?  To some maybe, but it is my opinion that this is where the lack of initiative and independence of some Korean adults begins.  Never being able to make choices alone, always being checked on and monitored, it is a preclusion to later life.  It is my belief, formed from my own experiences and the contrast of others, that children need to be left well alone for parts of their lives.  They need to learn problem solving skills and self sufficiency through their own mistakes.  If their mother is always waiting outside that door, or if she is calling on their cell phone in the middle of class, or if she is convincing the teacher to treat them differently, they cannot learn vital life skills.

Despite my opinion, I will continue to smile and nod.  But I am resolute on this position: School is a place for teachers and children.

Good Beer…Wherefore Art Thou?

In The Social Fabric on April 10, 2011 at 11:25 pm

With the warmer weather approaching, agonizingly slowly though it may be doing so, I find myself more in the mood for an afternoon beer.   Blue skies and warming sun are best accompanied by an outdoor bench and a cold draft brew.  Unfortunately, Korean beer is not a well championed achievement.  If you’re expecting to be overwhelmed by choice and range of domestic brews when frequenting the local Seoul barkeep, disappointment surely awaits.  Not to put too harsh a point on it, but each of the leading brands have their own unbecoming nickname to reflect their reputation.

Hite = Shite, Cass = Ass, and OB = BO.

After my recent sojourn in Australia, I was confronted with a mind-spinning array of range and choice in every kind of beer imaginable, a lot of them being domestically produced.   Australia of course has been a long time conn0isseur of all things beer and wine, and demand most definitely keeps supply in the green.  However, the capacity for Korean society to drink beer would give us Aussies a fair run.   Beer in Korea is currently a 3.5 trillion won industry ($3.1 billion US) with much of that revenue spent on more quality imports.  Koreans have an increasingly sophisticated palate, and their standards for good taste can be hard to satisfy.  So why do we put up with this flat, weak excuse for a beer as the domestic industry standard?

Essentially, the market is a duopoly.  The two breweries are Hite, and OB (Oriental Breweries), which bought out the flailing Cass Brewery in 1999.  Since then, these two giants have been supplying the nation more or less 50/50.  Whilst there are some microbreweries battling it out and forging the way, government regulation stands firmly in the way.  As of December 2010, the Ministry of Finance overseeing the liquor tax law lowered the manufacturing license from 1,850 kiloliters to 100 kiloliters.  Whilst this is a step forward, there’s still one massive obstacle for small beer crafters.   They can’t sell outside their own stores, and mostly only have a 25 kiloliter capacity anyway.  This means they still can’t expand.  And that means we’re still stuck with Shite, Ass and BO.

A peek at the North’s beer industry was far more interesting than the bipartisan beer government of the South.  In 2002, Kim Jong Il decided he wanted a brewery.  Well known for his curiosity for scientific achievements and his desire to replicate them, he did one better.  Instead of building his own brewery, he went out and bought one.  Ushers of Trowbridge, Wiltshire England to be exact.  For a price of 1.5 million pounds, Kim Jong Il had the whole brewery dismantled and reassembled in North Korea, complete with German brewing technology.

The brewery produces a beer named Taedonggang, named after the river running through Pyongyang.  Taedonggang beer could be bought in Gangnam since 2005, but due to an unexpected 70% price increase in 2007, supplies are now scarce.  The North captured headlines in 2009 when for the first time, a commercial for the beer was aired on North Korean TV.  Such capitalist trends set tongues wagging, though it surely couldn’t have been from it’s production style.  Certainly not ready for the Superbowl.

“Even She Has a Fault….Her Healthy Looking Legs!”

In Entertain Me, In The News, The Social Fabric on April 1, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Those of us who have lived in western countries, especially during those crucial formative teenage years, have of course been well versed in the evils of media manipulation and its negative impact on self image.  To us it’s old hat.  Radicals on both sides of the body image fence wage war, while the moderates claim one way and act another.  I too am no saint; whilst telling one friend they should not be so silly as to punish themselves with a senseless diet, I might in the same day skip lunch. The point being, that body image and how one deals with it is nobody’s crisis but their own, and it’s a battle won by the individual.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on out there.  Today I came across a video clip posted by Arirang, Korea’s English news media and entertainment network.  Their company statement is “Korea for the world, the world for Korea.”  As a rule I don’t get upset or outraged by many things, and I can usually see both sides of an argument no matter how polarized they may be.  But this one had me flummoxed.  The clip may be viewed here. Those that are easily offended are cautioned. 

For those who’d prefer not to be unnecessarily fumed, I’ll mention a few choice quotes.  The segment critically evaluates the lower bodies of famous, and by all accounts attractive, Korean stars.  It uses the word “healthy” as some kind of code word for “fat and undesirable”, and suggests in no uncertain terms for such ‘afflicted’ stars to do something about it.  One such disturbing caption described the actress’s legs as “Her fatal fault!  Her thick ankles and calf muscles.” Until now I have never heard the sentence “….even she has a fault….her healthy looking legs.” Nevermind the fact that I literally cannot discern how such a conclusion can be drawn.  The standard is so unrealistically set, that I for one cannot quite get my mind to imagine what it must be.  The images that are being described as ‘sturdy’ and ‘well developed’, are slim and shapely.

It is a concern that the face of Korea’s international media is reporting in such  a socially irresponsible manner.  Korea’s social image is not what it was 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.  The new generation is forging a new identity, post democratization and mid globalization.  Until the 1970’s, full figured women were considered sexually desirable, exhibiting that they were more likely to produce healthy sons.  This was a notion held by western societies almost a century ago, and has since been well and truly discarded.  In Korea’s accelerated social development, Koreans now face these  same dilemmas but in a culturally conflicted context. The media, as has been well documented, plays a key role in shaping society’s image of itself, and as such should be carefully monitored.  Arirang’s reporting was careless, and not to mention insulting to the women it profiled.

Unfortunately, the consequence of unrealistic media body image portrayal is the effect on the average citizen.  Dr. Kim Joon Ki traveled to Japan in 1991 to study eating disorders, where today anorexia afflicts 1 in every 100 young Japanese women, a figure comparable to the US.  Before she went to Japan, Dr. Kim had encountered only 1 anorexia patient in Korea.  Within 2 years of opening her own private eating disorder clinic, she saw over 200 patients, half of which presented with bulemia.  Korea’s national obsession over image and attractiveness is overt and unabashed, and this may be why Arirang reporters may get away with such shameful behaviour.  Because it’s what men and women are actually thinking.

In 1996, a survey of 469 college women revealed some frightening statistics.  of all the women, 55.9% were underweight, and of these women, 74% felt like they needed to lose wight in order to look attractive.  57.6% engaged in excessive dieting.  Whilst the survey scope was not extensive, it still speaks volumes.

Despite the rise in cases of eating disorders in recent years, Dr. Kim says they are still relatively rare.  Korea still has not reached the crisis point witnessed in Japan or the US, but that does not give cause for complacency.  Media outlets which are permitted to run their agendas unchecked and unchallenged will send those numbers soaring.  Korea should expect more from its agencies and use its pop culture supremacy to lead by example.  One thing I respect most about Korea is its ability to change. Here’s hoping that in this regard it changes for the better.



Kids Can’t Get No Satisfaction

In The Social Fabric on March 28, 2011 at 10:51 pm

In groundbreaking, earth shattering news…..Korean kids are officially unhappy.  Now as someone who has had generous exposure to children ranging from the ages of 5 to 15, I am not shocked into a coma from these new findings.  I have read enough essays and diary entries to know that Sunday is most kids’ favourite day of the week because they can finally sleep.  But now it’s in the numbers.  From a surveyed 5,437 students ranging from 4th grade to 12th grade, Korean kids ranked lowest out of 26 OECD countries.  The survey showed that 53.9% of children are “satisfied with their lives” compared to an OECD average of 84.8%.

Maybe it’s something in the wording, or maybe it’s because I’m too distanced from my elementary school days (well….let’s say not too distanced) but I don’t recall ever assessing how ‘satisfied’ I was with my life.  When I was a child, that was the end of it.  I was a child, and being satisfied or not was irrelevant. My control over my own circumstances was limited to the scope of my backyard, and how far I could stray from home without feeling the invisible strings of guilt.  But satisfied or not, I had a light at the end of the tunnel.  Once school was over, life would begin and the sweet freedom to make all the wrong choices I wanted could be all mine.  So in this respect, I can understand the doomsday attitudes of Korean kids, who have to tough out not just 12 years of the most competitive schooling imaginable, but also 4-6 years of equally competitive university, and then the confidence crushingly competitive job market.  And all this preparation begins at the tender age of kindergarten.  No light, no tunnel.

In addition to being ‘dissatisfied’ with life, a whopping 18.3% of kids surveyed ‘feel alienated’.  That figure also happens to be the highest of the OECD countries.  Clearly Korea is topping the charts in all the wrong ways.  This number got me to thinking, what is it that makes so many kids feel alienated?  Of course without the funding, time and resources to take up my own research, I can only hazard a guess.  My speculation?  The standards which are set that all kids must live up to, despite inclination or ability.  Creativity is not lauded as respectable or more importantly a marketable talent, and as such is systematically squeezed dry from children that show they have it.  Kids that are ‘different’ and have different learning needs, are often pigeonholed as difficult, or troubled, and there are few alternative outlets.  From birth, high hopes are pinned on the success of the child and their professional direction.  During the first birthday party ceremony, the child is presented with a number of objects on a plate to choose from, which will symbolize their future.  These objects always include pencil, book, toothbrush, globe, and of course what every parent wishes they choose…..money.  Indoctrinated before speech.  One can only imagine the pressure on a child who either shows no talent for the conventional, or worse, has talents that would lead to a path of uncertainty.

Of course, it’s not just school that makes a child happy or not.  When asked the source of their distress, the rankings showed school work number one, followed by physical appearance and then problems with parents.  Boys in particular stress about their height, and girls stress about their weight.  As if it’s not already difficult enough to study 10-12 hours a day, kids also have to worry if they will be Michael Jordon or Angelina Jolie.  At least in one area Korea did not bottom out completely.  Although 17% of kids “feel lonely”, when compared to Japan the figure was at 29.8%.  Everyone has their own brand of problems.

Out of pure interest sake, the highest ranking country with the most ‘satisfied with their lives’ children is the Netherlands, with a staggering 94.2%.  It was attributed to the parenting style of the Dutch, going out of their way to please children, and the lower expectations of teachers.  I’ll be keeping this information out of my classes for the time being….

Seoul Immigration Office….You’ve Changed…

In The Social Fabric on March 23, 2011 at 7:55 pm

There is one aspect in particular of expat living that has the immense power to disgruntle.  If you have lived in another country for an extended period of time, or in Korea’s case for a lot less, you become intimately acquainted with the process of visas.  Perhaps you live in one of the lucky, lucky few countries that have a relatively painless and reasonable system of immigration.  Of this I can barely contain raw jealousy.  Each year I promise myself  “I will renew this time….I will never get a new visa again”, and each year I find myself jumping through the same hoops of fire and utter inconvenience.

What makes Korean immigration so blood-boiling, is the fact that it changes the rules more often than students change their homework excuses.  I will spare the details of the past two months of bureaucracy, as it serves less  as informative entertainment and more as a  furious catharsis.  Actually, today prompted me to rethink this whole process, as for the first time I actually had a…..positive immigration experience.  2012 is inching closer.

For those of you have held an E2 Korean visa, you will almost certainly be familiar with the Seoul Immigration Office at Omokgyo.  I have perhaps become a little over-friendly with this dim, soulless building and all that his has put me through in the past.  My perspective was perhaps coloured by the fact that I used to have to travel from the eastern armpit of Seoul in Cheonho-dong to this unforgiving place, which was an uncomfortable hour subway ride.  This, and the fact that you never can guess what was going to happen to you once you crossed the threshold.

But today was different.  As I ascended the stairs at subway exit 7 and dodged the ajumma gauntlet of discount phone cards and subway maps, I considered how much money I could make out of a computer game based on the visa run.  10 points for every ajumma escaped from, 20 points for helping lost foreigners on the walk, 100 points for actually getting a visa unhindered.  I of course won’t staking my future on its success.

Filled with dread as I entered the building, I was fully prepared for the long, boring wait with my laptop, book, and ipod with episodes of Modern Family.  Having done this before, I got my waiting number before I filled out my application form, smiling to myself for my unusually forward thinking.  Much to my surprise, my ears were ringing with the sound of constant beeping as number after number ticked over.  I was actually racing the clock to finish my form, get cash out, go downstairs to the little lady in the snack store to exchange money for revenue stamps, and get back to the waiting room.  I never even sat down to wait.

Two things happened when I sat with my case officer.  First, she was extremely helpful.  She spoke to my employer to solve the mystery of missing documents, she allowed me to use the new internet station to retrieve the correct address without waiting, and she did everything possible to get it done.  Second, it was free.  No longer are we that are from countries without multiple re-entry agreements forced to cough up extra funds for the privilege.  She gave me my revenue stamps back and said see you in 10 days.

I left the building shaken, not sure what to think.  Could it be that the least efficient system is actually evolving for the better? Or was it a lucky chance that I am to be afforded from pure mathematical probability? I’m still unwilling to test the theory.

White, Black, Green….Where Do I Pay?

In The Social Fabric on March 15, 2011 at 12:35 am

Well, it’s that day again.   For most of the world, Valentines day is either dreaded or hurried depending on love in life at the time.  But only once.

What is so special about living in Korea, is that it happens no less than 12 times a year.  That’s correct, a monthly reminder that you may or may not be successful in society’s eyes, in the ways of love.  Today is of course, White Day, the reciprocal version of Valentines when the men give the ladies candy.  Now I’m no great conventional romantic, but to me this is starting to take the fun out of things.

Like all great fabricated holidays, this one is the candy companies’ doing, trumping us traditionalists with not one but two days created to make a killing.  On the subway home tonight, I saw one young man after another with all sorts of ridiculous looking candy concoctions, from bouquet shaped mixes to a giant lollipop blowup toy.  Because they have to.  It’s no secret that Korean women can be demanding when it comes to the dating rules, and my assumption is it’s better to be safe than really, really sorry.

Which brings me to my earlier revelation.  I mentioned there are actually 12 dating gift days filled with love and obligation.  The 14th of every month is delegated with a gift which should be presented to your partner as a token of your creative, unique and unrehearsed affection.  Some examples include Candle Day, Music Day, and Movie Day.  On Music Day, each exchange mixed CD’s of music that has meaning and memory of the relationship.  Glad we made a day for that.

My most recent favourite discovery is Green Day, where couples are encouraged to seek nature together in romantic splendor, whilst singles drown their lonely sorrows in soju.  And no, the singles are by no means forgotten, for they are afforded their own day in this schedule of the heart.  April 14th is Black Day, a colour chosen no doubt for it’s symbolic significance, where singles eat Chinese Black Noodles called Jajangmyeon. Still not sure if this is a wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve-in-the-hopes-of-finding-a-mate ploy, or just another way to put society into neat organized plots.

Whatever the motives, not all couples follow this demanding regimen of dating etiquette.  I, for one, do not need a diary on Diary Day, nor need to use Hug Day as an excuse.