Posts Tagged ‘RoK’

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

It’s early morning. As the sun creeps over the horizon I am dressed and walking as people around me sleep. The eerie stillness of dawn is broken by a 50-year-old woman clad in bright pink jogging around the nearby playground. As she makes her approach to the swings, feeling eyes upon her, she turns to stare at me. Ignoring the glare I walk onwards to the bus stop.

Koreans care for their image. Walking down a high street you will see brands plastered over the citizens who have opted to buy luxury brands with their hard-earned cash. 

As a westerner it is an unwritten requirement that you fulfil a certain English-speaker stereotype. This manifestation must preferably have white skin, be born in a country with English as the native tongue and ideally have blonde hair and blue eyes. In a similar fashion, Koreans also have certain physical features that are appreciated and sought after by their compatriots.

Samsung (Group) is accountable for about one fifth of Korea’s exports. The company itself was founded in 1938 by Lee Byung-Chull and he built his empire firmly on three main factors: market, management and people. He was a pioneer in hiring staff, choosing a psychologist as his consultant rather than a business specialist. It was also his belief that the human face was an open book to that person’s life and personality. He believed this so strongly that only those prospective employees with certain defining facial features would be hired. This unusual method of selection has become ingrained into Samsung’s recruitment process. Although perhaps not as strictly applied, it would appear that this reliance on looks is part of Korean culture.

When applying for a job in Korea, native applicants must provide everything from their social status to a recent photograph. Date of birth, experience, qualifications and references are also necessary. In addition to all this, the strangest piece of information required is details of the applicant’s parents. Curriculum vitae must include your parents’ social and employment status and failure to do so will void your application. And if your parents were unsuccessful in life, regardless of how many qualifications you have, you may well be discriminated against.

But there’s much more to be taken into consideration if you are fortunate enough to get to the interview stage at Samsung. At this mighty company you will be met by the interviewers and a ‘face reader’. The ‘reader’ is there to provide ‘expert’ opinion on the applicant’s face. Such features as the eyebrows and how far apart they are, the shape of the nose and the size of the nostrils, the regularity of the teeth and even the plumpness of the lips. Lacking the prescribed aesthetics, you are likely to be shunned.

Plastic surgeons have capitalized on this and the market has expanded, with many Koreans making the decision to go under the knife in an attempt to change their appearance as a means of upgrading themselves in the recruitment process.

It is common practice for women to have their cheekbones raised to finish up with a look closely resembling a triangle. Also, a more widespread operation is to insert a crease on the eyelids to give the impression of larger and shapelier eyes. This kind of surgery is well-established across Asia – as it estimated that about 50% of Asians are born with a ‘single eyelid’ (whereas most Caucasians are born with a ‘double eyelid’).

As with any surgery, there can be complications. For instance, a faulty operation could disfigure the face by leaving unsightly scars or actually deform the facial structure. However, the risk appears to be the same as in any developed nation. It is just that the deemed necessity to go to such extreme measure is so much more generally accepted, and expected, than in the West.

So does this drastic approach work? Yes, sadly it does. Plastic surgery is changing the rules of the game and if you can afford a procedure then it can give your career a well-needed boost.

Soon we shall see a people with a crisis of identity – a people with only one.

© John Brownlie 2011