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Strange parts of Korean society
Publication Date : 23-07-2014
Foreigners often find it very convenient to live in Korea. For example, they can easily find numerous coffee shops, convenience stores and ethnic restaurants in major cities. They can also take advantage of Korea’s excellent quick delivery system that comes in handy when they want to send something to someone. They may also find Korea to be the most wired country on earth because Wi-Fi and Internet access are available virtually everywhere throughout the country. And they can use their cellphones everywhere, even on subways, in basements and atop mountains.
Indeed, living in Korea can be exceptionally convenient. When you call the phone company to order a landline phone service in the morning, your phone can be installed by that afternoon. Few other countries would provide such courteous and prompt service. When you call a service centre for your broken Samsung or LG electronic device, a friendly technician will come to your house on the same day and take care of the problem right away. If you have dirty clothes to dry clean, a laundryman will come to your place to pick them up and return them to you later. Even groceries can be delivered to your doorstep.
At the same time, foreigners may find quite a few inconvenient, absurd things in Korean society. For example, a foreigner has to go through a notoriously complicated procedure to purchase a cellphone in Korea. When he wants to register for a membership on the Internet or purchase something online, he is almost always required to punch in his Korean citizen ID number, which, of course, he does not have. Thus, foreigners may often be frustrated to realise how foreigner-unfriendly Korea actually is.
Some time ago, a foreigner who was teaching at a private English academy (hagwon) in Seoul wrote me, complaining, “Foreign instructors at hagwon are treated as if they are criminals. I frequently have to prove that I am not an ex-convict hiding in Korea.” Of course, it is true that sometimes hagwon have been a place inadvertently harboring foreign criminals who fled from their home countries. Nonetheless, many innocent foreign instructors would find it quite offensive to be treated like fugitives.
My foreign friends also find it quite perplexing that once you get a job in Korea, you can stay there until you reach the legal retirement age, regardless of your ability to perform the job. Hence, to foreign eyes, South Korea may look like a workers’ paradise. In the States, if you are not competent enough to pass the annual evaluation, or if the company needs to lay off its employees over financial difficulties, you are likely to find the so-called “pink slip” on your desk one day, meaning you have just lost your job. In South Korea, however, it is virtually impossible to fire an employee no matter how incompetent he is. It is especially the case with government and public institutions.
Another thing that foreigners may find somewhat absurd about Korean society has to do with the way Koreans operate the central cooling/heating system. When Seoul National University announced its decision to install central cooling/heating some time ago, faculty members were so pleased that they happily let the university take down the wall-mount air-conditioners they had installed at their own expense. But professors’ happiness did not last long; the so-called “central system” turned out to be Big Brother soon enough.
Initially, faculty members and students expected a nice and comfortable temperature all year round. On the contrary, the central control room played the role of a ruthless dictator/manipulator by turning on the air conditioner or heater only a few hours per day. Even worse, they turned on the system for only 45 minutes and then turned it off for the remaining 15 minutes every operating hour! If you forget to turn it back on after the 15 minutes of non-operation, you will soon find yourself perspiring profusely as if you were in a sauna or, alternately, shivering in a freezing icebox. And you cannot adjust the set temperature!
Foreigners also find it quite baffling that there are so many left-leaning people in South Korea, a nation that has constantly been threatened by North Korea. They are also puzzled by another inscrutable thing in Korea: Whenever conservatives criticise a radical person’s belief in Marxism or his pro-North Korea attitude, progressives immediately condemn it as the “Red Scare (saekgal nonjaeng).” But when radical progressives criticized Moon Chang-keuk’s belief in conservatism, no one condemned it as the opposite of the “Red Scare.” Is it perhaps because there is no such thing as the “Blue Scare”?
Sometimes, foreigners do not comprehend the Korean situation or the Korean mindset fully. Other times, they may lack background knowledge about the things they comment on. Nevertheless, their outside perspectives are often quite refreshing and penetrating because they can see what we insiders cannot.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.