To be born to Korean parents is to be intimate with the misfortunes of depression.
(Excluding Korean-American lifestyles, the Korean way of living is, at its essence, an unhealthy way of living.)
I was discussing this with one of my students – Koreans, from the beginning of their lives, are on a schedule. Korean culture is deeply rooted in looking towards the future; lingering on the present or past is an ineffective use of time. It’s wasteful. We Koreans look towards the future and we plan ahead of time. But our heads are always in the dreams and predictions of ‘what is to come’ rather that ‘what is happening now’. We look too far ahead. A child could be naught but five years old, and his parents will not be thinking about outings to the park or the grades their child might receive in primary school; his parents will be thinking about what grades the child must obtain to enter into a middle school that will allow them to get into a prestigious high school (so that they may attend a desired college). In fact, as soon as any child starts school, he or she is thrust into the competitive environment that dominates Asian classrooms. Points matter and kids know it.
The other day, some of my younger students – two females and a male – who were no more than seven or eight years of age, they were competing with each other. Keep in mind that I am an after-school tutor. Despite the fact that they were not attending class, they quarreled with one another, calling each other stupid if one did not get the right answer. I proceeded to test them, and despite the fact that two out of the three tests received a 16.6% of 100 (the third being a 0% of 100, as this was a six-question test), the females began to brag. And why not? Someone had gotten a 0% – someone was stupid. That therefore meant that someone was smarter, and they all scrabbled to sit in that ‘lofty’ position.
Kids who aren’t old enough to be in school are being sent to after-school schools. The worst thing is, this becomes routine. Essentially, formal education and tutoring takes up over half of the average Korean student’s waking hours – from age eight to eighteen. And it isn’t uncommon to see students studying more in their free time.
These children are scarcely interacting with their parents while they stay in tense, high-stress environments for several hours every day, in which they are encouraged to do whatever it takes to get a leg-up on the competition. Praise is fleeting and ultimately hollow, because with each A that a student brings, parents expect two more. Parents have a funny way of showing love – they expect more because they want their sons and daughters to live fulfilling lives. But by pushing their children to the limit every day with naught but words of appreciation and presents, they get in the way of their children appreciating the transient period of childhood.
Parents expect their children to understand their love, which cannot occur until the teenage years have long passed. As such, they become angry whenever their children are dissatisfied; “Everything I do is for you”! In Korean parents’ eyes, happiness is directly proportional to success, success directly proportional to wealth. So begins the obsession with expensive vehicles, smartphones, and fashion; this is all an attempt to show off how ‘successful’ someone is at life, because success comes from wealth. Even middle-school children can get into bragging wars about their smartphones – some occasions can get to the point where one student can be completely ostracized or bullied simply because they do not have an expensive phone, or clothing.
As these young men and women grow up, the males become more and more dedicated to their work and obsessions, while the women become more dedicated to control and appearances. And it’s funny. One of the dominant religions in South Korea is Christianity, the very religion that teaches you to give what you can to those who do not have, do not envy what your neighbors have; yet, Koreans have an entire culture based upon appearance and competition. (I don’t understand how one can expect anyone to come from an environment where the equivalent of leaderboards are listed on school walls and office hallways for all to see, then to ‘give their all’ to a religion that preaches the complete opposite.)
Koreans never have time for themselves – with what little time they have, they dedicate to hobbies. Korea, however, isn’t quite like the United States; space comes at an extreme premium in cities. If you look at Korean streets you’ll scarcely see an establishment being larger than a medium or large-sized room; as for dwellings, houses are extremely rare, with apartments being the bulk of Korean homes. There are few parks, public facilities, or local recreation buildings; you will most likely never see a baseball diamond lying around, and most soccer ‘fields’ are plains of dirt on school yards. (Basically, all the free space is outside of the city; this makes it difficult for the youth to be in open areas if they do not have vehicles.)
Thus, most of the hobbies that are readily available to enjoy require additional funds, e.g. if one wishes to learn piano, he must go to a piano school or get a private tutor session. There is never quite the feeling of relaxation in these hobbies – fundamental Korean culture dictates that all Koreans strive to become better. People are never quite satisfied with their achievements – improvement only means that one is less bad, never better. It is because of an utter lack of space and areas with which to undertake physical activity and sports that the Korean youth has recently divided into two groups – one that spends free time on the computer, and the other that spends time on music and dancing. The former is easily accessible as many PC cafe’s – PCbangs (the a in bang pronounced ‘ah’ as in ‘awkward’), where many mid-tier gaming computers are accessible for a small hourly fee. The latter is somewhat less, but still very accessible, especially because since K-Pop has become somewhat of a worldwide phenomenon, many ‘dance institutes’ and ‘music schools’ have started appearing all over the place.
The former lifestyle discourages face-to-face contact with other human beings. It is on the internet that the vitriol that Koreans have held onto is let loose, for many opinions and interactions between individuals can become negative very quickly. It is for this reason that parents typically restrict their children from using social networking services until they become ‘old enough’.
Well, that’s all I have to say for now.