Korea Fatigue

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Although I have lived in Korea for over three years now, I have done it in three different visits, which means that I have had regular breaks from Korean culture.  My current stretch in Korea is the longest, I am almost a year and a half into a two year stay.  At one stage I even contemplated this stint being much longer, but alas, I think this is impossible.

Although I have lived in Korea for over three years now, I have done it in three different visits, which means that I have had regular breaks from Korean culture.  My current stretch in Korea is the longest, I am almost a year and a half into a two year stay.  At one stage I even contemplated this stint being much longer, but alas, I think this is impossible.

My current teaching position in Korea is the best job I have ever had, both in Korea and England.  I usually arrive 45 minutes early for work everyday.  It is an easy job but that is not the reason I like it.  It is great for two reasons:

1) It is intellectually stimulating as I write all my own lessons and it is a nice challenge to be able to motivate up to 40 over-worked high school students.

2) In practice I have no boss telling me what to do, my school just leaves me to it, I think because of a combination that they trust me to do a good job and that they just don’t care about my class that much.  Either way it works out well for me.

The combination of having a wonderful job and also not living alone, but living happily with my wife, made the first year of the two very comfortable and I didn’t miss home much. 

However, now that I am well into the second-half of my stay, now a number of factors are starting to bother me about living in Korea, despite the fact that my job and my wife are still as fantastic as ever.

I can sense my mood shifting.  I went from taking all the cultural differences in my stride to now being regularly irritated by them.  A change from an almost wholly positive state of mind to a slightly negative one makes all the difference in dealing with the challenges presented by living in another culture.  This is something I know all too well about because of my difficult first year in Korea back in 2008/9, which I wrote about in a previous post.

Any regular reader of my blogs will realise that I have my issues with Korea but understand that I have many gripes with the culture of my own country too.  The fact that I write less about them on this blog is simply a reflection that this blog about Korea and not about England.  The fact is, though, that England is my home and I am used to her ways and the irritating things about England don’t ruffle my feathers quite as much.

There are obviously personal reasons for my increasing negativity, major ones being the missing of friends and family, the comforts of my own country, and enjoying the odd game of cricket.  But there is something else that wears me down like a soldier weary of too many battles.

I am a very self-relaint sort of fellow, I value my independence and the freedom to make my own choices and I am quite principled about this (maybe my blogs show this).  This makes me easily antagonised when I feel my, or indeed any other person’s freedoms are compromised.  Unfortunately, personal freedoms are something that are continually compromised from small to large scales everyday in Korea.

For most Westerners living in Korea it is only small clashes that they have to experience, but even these, in a significant enough number, can begin to erode positivity.  I, on the other hand, have to put up with the odd larger confrontation as well, seeing that I have to cope with a Korean family also.

I often get lampooned for writing simple and blunt statements in my blogs, but here goes another one anyway.  It is simply much easier for someone to settle into a Western culture than into a Far Eastern culture, especially Korean culture.  Perhaps I should explain.

Western culture is far more welcoming.  Sure we have our issues with hate crimes sometimes, but in principle we are completely open.  When people of other cultures come to our countries we do our best to try and understand, accomodate, and accept their ways of doing things. 

There are many historical reasons for the higher diversities of people in Western countries but the fact is that there is still high demand for people of other countries to come to Western countries.  The reason why is that they know they will generally receive fair treatment and we as a culture are loathed to force people into a certain way of doing things.   Despite the weath of Eastern cultures (think Far and Middle East), there is not so much of a rush into these countries with perhaps the exception being English teachers.

This tolerant attitude is often to our detriment as we also appear to be hessitant to enforce even our own laws on immigrants to our countries.  In England the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury (someone who is listened to, I don’t know why) and Prince Charles famously suggested that we as a country should incorporate Sharia law into our own legal system, having different laws for Muslims and non-muslims.  This is cultural suicide.

Outside of our own countries there is a strange attitude present within Western people that takes the expression, ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’, to its extreme and we only really utilise it for ourselves and not for people who come to our own countries.  I will use the analogy of my family situation to illustrate this;

I do think that I have a more difficult time with my wife’s family than she does with mine.  I don’t resent this, it is a fact of cross cultural relationships between West and East, I am merely stating a fact.  I gladly tolerate the tough times for the sake of my relationship.

Conversely, when my wife comes to England she can spend as much time with my family as she likes; when she is tired she can choose to go home, there is no special cultural etiquettes she needs to be aware of or follow, she can be open and honest with my parents, and generally my parents expect nothing of her except to treat me well in a loving relationship.  This, in a nutshell, is the Western position on cross-cultural affairs, ‘do what you want, just don’t hurt people.’  At least this is the Western position in principle.

There is a stark contrast in what happens in dealings with me and my wife’s family, of which I have described before inposts on ‘My Korean Family’, ‘Death Anniversaries in Korea’, ‘Is a Clash of Culture Inevitable and Irreconcilable?’, and ‘Korean Family ‘Pension’ Outing.’ 

To be frank, I like my Korean family they are good people, but they are not – even in the least bit – really trying to understand where I come from or respect my opinions or culture.  They want me to conform, plain and simple, and on the rare occasions when I don’t they appear to be in a state of denial about it.  Even those who don’t have Korean family connections can experience this when living and working in Korea through their schools, and in everyday situations.

We all seem to accept that the correct way to behave in these situations is to ‘do as the Romans do’ to conform and do what they wish us to do.  I think this can be a form of dishonesty when we feel forced into doing things we are uncomfortable with.  Those moments when inside you are screaming, ‘I don’t want to do this, drink this or eat this’, but outside you are smiling and saying ‘sure, that’s fine, no problem.’

Whether this dishonesty is inherently wrong is debatable, but be sure we are conforming for a smooth ride and not to upset people and I find this can make most of the Korean people I know very difficult to be friends with, or really enjoy their company that much.  You enjoy people’s company when you trust them, understand them, and can be yourself with them and vice versa.  When we conform to their wishes all the time we cannot achieve this relationship.

This was never more apparent than when I took a bus home from a marathon race I did a few weeks ago.  I met a New Zealander at the race who was also doing the marathon and he said there were spaces on his marathon club’s bus and that I could join them for the journey home.  I accepted his kind offer as I actually did not know where to take the public bus home.  On the way back we were treated to the usual delights of a group bus journey in Korea, kareoke, soju drinking, and strange food eating.  One woman in particular kept on forcing food and soju on my new friend and he accepted, despite really not wanting any of it.  She and many others then continually asked him to perform a song for them in front of a bus load of people, but he refused.  I refused the strange seafood, the soju, and the singing, again despite being pestered continuously about it for most of the hour and a half journey back home.

Now ask yourself, would this ever happen in the West?  A Korean is on a bus full of Westerners and he doesn’t speak much English, would we be forcing them to drink beer, eat greasy and oily food like fish and chips, that they don’t like (Koreans usually dislike oily food), and sing songs in front of us?  We might ask them once, sure, but they would not be made to feel obligated like we were on that Korean bus.  Yes, they were doing me a favour by taking me but that does not obligate me to do everything they want of me.

The fact is that the only Korean I am honest with is my wife, every other Korean I meet I have to be dishonest with.  I have to suppress my principles and feelings, and this is energy sapping, this is the source of my Korea fatigue.

Once the fatigue sets in, then a range of things can begin to get up your nose, like Korean driving, men spitting, lack of personal space manners, smoking on the street, communication problems, etc.  This can then can spiral into even greater fatigue.  There are different irritating problems I have in England but the fatigue does not present itself with the same intensity because I can be honest with almost everyone I have dealings with on a day to day basis and if I have a problem with them or a situation, I can speak out about it.

In my head and in my writings, I am trying to be objective and not pit one culture against another, but I cannot help make one observation about an important difference between our cultures.  Maybe I am wrong and I will readily accept a rebuke, but here it is; there is only one side that is trying to understand the other, only one side that wants an open and honest discussion, and only one side that is prepared to, or indeed has to conform to the other.  Again there are exceptions in individuals – I have a sample of one that I am pretty sure about, in my wife – but there is a great deal more compromise and understanding inherent in Western culture at this moment and I think it is time to be honest about it.



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