To be Korean


I saw this video a long time ago and, though everyone who punches a clock feels like this on occasion, at the time I couldn’t shake out of my head that this video really describes how it is to be a Korean today.  The grind.  Keeping up appearances.  The han.  The group mentality.  Just asking my students what they want to be and then seeing what education stream they are stuck in says a lot.  One time, as a culture point, I explained how it’s common for Americans to ask each other, “And what do you do?” when first meeting, and how many people in the world find that rude, as they only work to get money and that they feel they are more than their job.  I had to explain that the American dream is to do what you love to do and make a living from it, so that our asking is really code for, “What is your dream?” and that we’re often excited to answer that question, because whether complaining or being frustrated or on our way, it’s all about our hopes and not about survival.  Working towards self-actualization really is a privilege we take for granted…Now, compound that with a collectivist society and you have something like this video…

So I wanted to share this with you, as I ran across it while organizing my external hard drive for the impending crash.  I also thought my son would really enjoy it, as he’s an animation major.

Lately I’ve been really really happy.  And the only source of negativity in my life is the self-absorption of other adoptees.  I’m really feeling like I’m not weighed down by this thing anymore!  Maybe it’s just pushing paint around, maybe it’s settling into my job, maybe it’s having some time on my hands.  I feel real blessed right now.

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22 thoughts on “To be Korean

  1. “I had to explain that the American dream is to do what you love to do and make a living from it” Wouldn’t you agree that this is not only an American dream but rather a dream of all humanity.

  2. David, I have to agree with you on one level, but also you don’t live here in Korea today.

    In America our dreams are more important than money. In Korea, 9 times out of 10 Koreans say Money will buy them happiness, and will sell out their dreams, at a very young age. And if you do hold onto your dreams, somebody else who “loves” you tells you “no-you-can’t.”

    We both want to be proud of being Korean, but I’m telling you there is some deep pathology going on here being foisted on the children. It’s not all Korea’s fault, but the blame game never saved anyone. Only Korea stopping and asking themselves, “What are we doing to our children?” will.

    Hopefully the next generation will say, “enough is enough.” But that could take half a decade for that transition. In the meantime, it is my great sadness to see a quarter of the children write down CEO as their dream, because money is their value system, and the rest write down their real dreams and cross them out.

    And thus you see unhappy unfulfilled salary men, (thus the animation) drunken salary men, and their unhappy marriages and their absence of real lives. Or others who aren’t anywhere on track to achieving their personal dreams because of this stupid education system and the ridiculous competition it fosters. Wild geese fathers. I rest my case

    It’s seriously messed up.

    I hope I can impart to all my students to own their dreams. But most of Korean society is telling these kids otherwise.

  3. That spark that I can see that you have and that I know that I have isn’t evenly distributed here in the US. But I get that the expectation is usually there. Reminds me of this idea that middle class Americans often support the wealthy politically because they see themselves as the wealthy in waiting.

    Interesting observations.

  4. You know I think the reason for that is Korea develop much too fast for her own good. I was born in 1960 only 7 years after the end of the Korean War. My family was poor and I also observed poverty at a young age. Korea went from a shit hole, poor as subsaharan African nations, to a developed nation within my lifetime. No nation on earth have develop as fast in that short span of time. Korea at the moment can be describe as a nation with new money and as such display characteristic of people with new money. I believe all developed nations went through this but with lesser degree because the development time was longer. I too believe that money can buy happiness, if it cannot, it sure helps. I believe it will take a generation before this attitude slowly erodes and I see it already happening because the new generation are not as ambitious as mine

  5. Well, this is where we differ in opinion. I’ve worked for some of the wealthiest people on the planet, and money does not buy happiness. Even shopping therapy quickly becomes an empty exercise. There is never enough money or the things it can buy to fill the empty hole of a life without purpose.

  6. Btw did you know that in a recent survey, young Koreans said that they wanted to be a movie star or a singer. How things have changed. During my time the ambition was to be a president or a ceo.

  7. btw what name do you want me to call you by? There is a correction I was going to make but could not. I meant to say that I use to believe that money can buy happiness, if it cannot, it sure helps.

  8. Yeah, everyone in Korea wants to be a movie star or a singer, just like everyone in Seattle wants to be a singer/songwriter. There’s not a lot of diversity in dreams these days!

    Fortunately, it’s much better here in the country – less CEO’s and more realism – also more time for the kids to actually practice music…so much better than in Seoul…

  9. I can back the relationship or should I say lack thereof between money and happiness.

    I work in the American high tech biz for the most successful company on the planet and I have known a lot of people that became very wealthy very quickly.

    Imagine being worth 100 million dollars US and being miserable. Paranoid, distrusting and stressed out.

    It happens. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

  10. Yes, that’s been circulating a lot.

    Japan’s also got improvements to make in its stigmatization of unmarried women and orphans, as well as its rejection of non-blood and overall social services. And it has not ratified the Hague Convention either, and a whole lot of children’s half foreign identities have been wiped out during international custody battles as a result.

    But at least they don’t send their children away, and at least the moms get two months to reconsider and the court has always had to approve and adopting parents have to reside in the country for, two (?) months where they can be thoroughly observed for fitness as parents.

    So here you have an Asian culture with Confucian beliefs that shares in many of Korea’s ostracizing practices yet their society still manages to take care of its own children.

    I think the big difference is the adoption agencies didn’t get their tenterhooks into Japan like they did Korea…and maybe they have higher self esteem as well.

  11. “I think the big difference is the adoption agencies didn’t get their tenterhooks into Japan like they did Korea…and maybe they have higher self esteem as well”
    Would you agree the more important difference is that Japan did not have to deal with millions of seperated families and orphans that Korea had to deal with after the Korean war?

  12. An interesting side bar… There are MAJOR changes being made in education in the US right now (I’m a teacher). These changes are all coming from the White House and Obama has held S.Korea up as the standard in a couple of different speeches. If he has his way, the way to reach the American dream will become the Korean way… wonder how that will work?

  13. Millions were displaced. Millions of families separated, but those were mostly separated across the DMZ and most refugees kept sight of their offspring. Millions of orphans? I think not.

    So I think that’s a little inflated, but an interesting observation.

    The vast majority of post-war mixed race children (from my recent readings from contemporary newspapers) were KEPT by their Korean mothers.

    There were a lot of full blood Japanese WWII war orphans left in China (children of Japanese occupiers) and raised by Chinese parents, (who sued the government for abandonment and some of whom won monetary reparations) and there was also a short-lived American occupation of Japan after WWII, as well as a continued American military presence on Japan, with mixed-raced children also the result. I also think that, even though Japan was the aggressor they lost a huge segment of their population and a lot of children were orphaned as a result. I have to research more about this. Japan probably has an equal amount of “paper” orphans due to their similar focus on blood-lines, but the vast majority of their children stay in Japan. Being (and staying) Japanese seems to matter more with them…

    In Eleana Kim’s book, Adopted Territory, it says “the Japanese-American Joint Committee for Help to Mixed-Blood Children was established to offer aid to the estimated six thousand such children and their mothers. (Asbury1954)” and that the Korean government estimated that “there were an estimated one thousand mixed-blood children in the immediate aftermath of the Korean war.”

    I think Kim suggests that the Korean administration of Syngman Rhee chose to use both the American public’s outpouring of compassion and aid, combined with a greater willingness of America to acknowledge their plight as South Koreans not having a history of being the enemy, to both cement and ingratiate sentiments towards his administration and while at the same time relieving his responsibility of providing services to that segment of citizens.

    Now, combine that with a time of American prosperity and the genius of budding neo-con type self-serving “charitable” interventions of religious zealots like Harry Holt and Pearl S. Buck to capitalize on that political situation and the world’s first international adoption SYSTEM is created.

    So I would argue with your premise, because there has always been wars and there have always been refugees and families have always been displaced and separated as a result. But people didn’t exploit that tragedy like they did in Korea.

    Unfortunately, that set up a model which keeps getting replicated. AND, history shows us that it is easy to introduce systems that benefit the privileged but nearly impossible to wrest those spoils from them once they have them.

    I don’t know EXACTLY why or how this happened in Korea because it’s so complicated to figure out. However, we need to figure it out in detail because we don’t want this history to keep repeating itself.

    We adoptees were sold out by the Korean government. And we have not been given anything but an empty apology that was essentially wiped out by the succeeding administration.

    And they KEEP ON DOING IT.

    And Japan doesn’t.

  14. I love Obama’s oration and his resolve and most of the times his leadership, but he’s still a politician and he doesn’t know Jack about the Korean education system. He’s just flat out wrong. Korea is churning out stellar test scores for university entrance exams – typically by the children of the elite. But the bulk of what Korea is turning out is bitter young adults resentful over their lost youth and focused on shedding their responsibilities whenever possible. The competitive climate is also producing some of the highest suicide rates in the world…

    I hope teaching to test dies. It discriminates against the economically disadvantaged. It replaces the time needed to foster critical thought that challenges prevailing ideas and stimulates creativity. I weep for America.

  15. “So here you have an Asian culture with Confucian beliefs that shares in many of Korea’s ostracizing practices yet their society still manages to take care of its own children” You seem to blame poor confucious for everything so are you saying he is not to blame for this?

  16. David – I don’t blame “poor Confucius” for everything, I don’t see how you come up with these things…

    Every philosophy, religion, etc. has doctrine people distort to their own convenience. To what degree do people allow this to happen is what should be looked at. Abandoning children should never be okay. Period. For whatever lame excuse people come up with…others call it Confucianism in Asia’s case. That’s the conventional name associated with this ugly habit of ditching children who don’t reflect well on a family.

    And I spread my blame generously. It’s a little offensive and simplistic to accuse me of putting it all on one guy in ancient history, WHICH I don’t do. It’s early self-serving Korean regime policy, western (mostly American) imperialist self-serving politics, privileged self-serving individuals who can rationalize the exploitation of others’ in less powerful positions, and Koreans TODAY who will take all of the above and condone through apathy what absolves them of their responsibilities, as well as the lame-ass excuse and rationalization that Confucius is stigmatizing women such that their lives would be impossible to live. For one, it’s not impossible, and for two, Confucius is dead – it’s the living concerned about themselves and their own public image who are doing the stigmatizing. It’s the living using Confucius as an EXCUSE, not me.

    And yeah, I don’t personally agree with any iteration of Confucianism past or present that perpetuates the oppression of women. Family values are a wonderful thing to promote, but the punitive ways in which those are regulated in Korea harm Korea. I don’t have to buy into the whole Confucian package. And Korean women need to stop contributing to their own subjugation and subjugation of their fellow sisters/daughters and not take it anymore.

    Maybe you should ask yourself why you seem to want to hide Korea’s blemishes so much? They exist. Makeup is not going to hide them. They’re only going to disappear with a change in lifestyle and hygiene.

  17. “I hope teaching to test dies. It discriminates against the economically disadvantaged. It replaces the time needed to foster critical thought that challenges prevailing ideas and stimulates creativity. I weep for America.”

    I continue to think along these lines. We don’t help our children make the best of who they are. My wife and I have divided up these issue for our kids into her focusing on school – who, where, how and I focus on what they learn from us.

  18. As teacher 40% of teacher evaluations will based on how the children do on standardized tests, teaching to the test will only increase, unfortunately.

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