Posts Tagged ‘expat’

For many (myself included) the happiest times were the carefree days of youth. A time when play spanned from getting up in the morning until the closing of one’s eyes at night. That blissful period of life is sadly missing from many children in Korea. From an early age, the youth of Korea are impelled into a highly competitive world.

As with most good parents, wanting the best for their children by making sure that they have rewarding opportunities in life is paramount. With this in mind, competitiveness for success in Korea usually starts from the age of three. Children are first sent to kindergarten – preferably an English pre-school – and the extra-curricular activities could well be bolstered by additional classes in the sciences, languages, mathematics, Korean, martial arts, music. So that by the time the children start their primary school (elementary) they already have the accepted foundations for success. However, whilst the child may acquire these advantageous skills, so can all of his or her peers. To be unique, more academia must follow. For instance, schooling after school with evening studies and weekend lessons that swallow a child’s precious free time. While not making for the most delightful childhood, this exacting regime ensures that for the parent behind the child every possible base is covered.

The heavy emphasis on education continues throughout childhood. Attendance at private schools working as late as 10pm can call for the use of tablets and caffeine to lever the still maturing mind and body to the limits. The pressure to succeed only grows stronger as they reach their teenage years and as they are on the brink of becoming an adult the intensity reaches its peak.

Before university, in their final year of high school, Korean students nationwide take the Suneung, The Suneung is a monstrous examination that takes place in November and lasts over six hours to provide the results that can affect the rest of their lives by determining the level of the universities that will accept them.

Last year, over 700,000 students took the test at the same time. The pressure was so intense that on the streets around the schools the police expected drivers to keep their foot off the accelerator and avoid using the horn. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it’s reported that planes were diverted so as not to distract the pupils. Meanwhile, mothers, fathers, family, friends and even celebrities all seemingly were as one to encourage the future makers of Korea.

Failing the exam or not getting satisfactory results means retaking the test and also falling behind the pack.

But failing or succeeding makes no difference to one particular aspect of what growing up in South Korea entails. From the age of eighteen, Korean men are required to undertake twenty-one months of military service. This may not be as daunting as it sounds as it can be carried out in a variety of ways based on fitness levels and basic aptitude tests. Also, as some kind of vague recognition for each month’s service they are paid the magnificent sum of 100,000\ ($90).

It is more or less up to the individual as to when they shoulder their military commitment. Some prefer to do it immediately after the Suneung, whilst others leave it looming over themselves as they continue their studies at university. Either way, it is compulsory and failure to report for service can lead to imprisonment.

Leaving university a success is, of course, not the end of the story. The next step is moving into a career. The problem then is that over-qualified graduates already saturate the job market with all competing for limited positions.

Should the university graduate be lucky enough to find a job and also a potential career, he or she can now look forward to long bouts of unpaid overtime with the frequent weekend commitment at the office.

Added pressures outside of work include impatient parents burdening their son or daughter with the need to start a family. Koreans are expected to mate and marry before the age of 30. After that time the dating pool normally begins to dry up. And as time goes by, it becomes more difficult to find the more desirable of the opposite sex and even people willing to date the lone individual who has already endured so much.

But looking on the bright side, with the assumption that a marriage eventually comes about and is consummated the former student enters a new phase of life for which no exam was set. After the successful sperm cell has won its way through its myriad competitors and fertilizes the ovum, nine months later the young parents will be gifted with a baby or babies. From there, it is important to the now seasoned competitor to provide for his family. In this endeavour he may or may not be helped by his partner but no matter what, it means longer hours at the office making sure that the child has the same opportunities as the parents had. And so the cycle continues. Most probably, ad infinitum.

© John Brownlie 2011

When I was younger I spent several summers with my parents travelling around Europe. As we drove from country to country in our bright orange Volkswagen camper van I was introduced to what we called the ‘continental’ toilet. This referred to an uninviting hole in the ground that was found at a few of the campsites at which we stayed. A couple of times I tried to make use of one of these utilities. I remember my despair at struggling to balance, hanging over the opening as I aligned my bottom with the target area. As I hovered over the hole, flashes of me falling and being covered with the mess down below made me pull up my shorts and hold in what I had come to release

Fast forward fifteen years or so and my squatting prowess has not improved, as I have had little need for it. If anything time has made me less capable. Getting up and down and generally adopting the appropriate position emits a strange sound somewhat like a whimpering groan.

But for many Koreans, the squat or the ‘Kimchi squat’ (as coined by expats) is part of their daily lives. You become used to seeing people of all ages squatting in the streets whilst waiting for a bus, smoking a cigarette or just reading the paper.

Imagine my surprise when here in Korea I find those toilets I dreaded years before! Granted there are also the western-style lavatories that one has become accustomed to rest one’s rump upon. However, certainly in the more public places such as bus or train stations you may have to fight or wait for one of these more comfortable sanitary installations – due to their popularity and rarity.

As a man I have the ease of using a trough but there have been occasions where it would certainly not be socially acceptable to do so. It’s then that I wait poised for that one western toilet to open its doors to me. Still I wait, but the door remains closed. Seemingly with the occupant half-way down page three of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A door near by me creaks open and I spy a porcelain bowl on the floor of the vacant cubicle. I ponder. Then enter. My old adversary looks even less inviting as I close the door into claustrophobia. I look around at the amenities. A hole and a bin. The four walls surrounding me are bare. Urine-soaked tiles circle the toilet.

How should I do this?

Well, trousers down for a start. Awkwardly I stand over the gaping cavity with legs spread as I begin to lower myself down. Really there should be a rope or handrails for this action. Finally, I am suspended – my bottom almost horizontal with my ankles. This all feels like it could go horribly wrong. But it doesn’t, I don’t fall over, I don’t fall in. I came here to use the toilet and that’s exactly what I accomplished. Just a case of cleaning up. But of course – no toilet paper!

This humble item, considered as absolutely vital in most toilets you are likely to encounter, is actually found at the entrance to the lavatories in a vending machine. Which doesn’t do me much good, considering that I’m squatting and swaying from side to side with my trousers wrapped around my ankles. There has to be something I can use? Rummaging in my pockets I find only my keys, lint and my empty wallet. But wait – the bin. Stretching forward and pulling it close to me I peer inside. Toilet paper! Used toilet paper. With faecal matter attached. Someone has kindly left this dreadful detritus in a bin rather than flush it down the toilet. Can I bring myself to tear around the messed pieces from this unsavoury heap….?

I learn later that putting paper soiled with human waste in a bin is common throughout Korea. This is done regardless of the place or the status of the establishment. It is believed that rather than add a strain to the sewage system used tissues should be put in a bin and collected by some hapless cleaners.

Feeling my legs beginning to go numb I reluctantly stand myself up, pull up my trousers, flush the contents of the hole and walk out of the door. As I wash my hands I realise that there are some culture shocks that will stay with you forever.

© John Brownlie 2010