South Korea has the highest* and fastest growing suicide rate in the developed world.
Not the most lighthearted start I’ve ever made to a blog post, but this issue has been on my mind for some time as I observe the people around me and live in this all-work-and-no-play culture, so I thought it was time to write about it.
The suicide thing might come as a surprise to anyone who’d been reading random posts of mine about life in the ROK. A modern, bustling, tech-savvy, successful, exciting, vibrant country with a strong sense of national identity, pride, and history, and a low cost of living… surely it’s perfect? No. It’s not perfect. The determination of the South Koreans to push forward and prove themselves to the rest of the world after their country’s sad and troubled history has brought them success… and stress.
I have never in my life worked as hard as I have since I moved here. I keep doing it because I see value and meaning in what I do, and because I feel happy and fulfilled more often than I feel drained and miserable. But if this were another menial office job? I would’ve quit months ago. There are three foreigners working at my school, and all of us are exhausted. We teach back-to-back classes with no breaks, no time to prepare, and no help. On top of that, we’re constantly given more and more extra tasks to do. Clean your classroom, take out the trash, sweep the floors, write weekly plans, provide detailed monthly plans, make worksheets, set test papers, write progress reports. Last week, they sprung a new “rules booklet” on us, including such gems as “Please do not sit down when you are teaching, but remain standing as much as possible” (Loosely translated “until you actually pass out from exhaustion”).
And yet I’m very aware that, as foreigners, we have it easy. We work from 9 till 5, Monday to Friday, and we get paid decent money for it. We get to refuse some things flat out, on the grounds that “it’s not in my contract and I’m on the verge of walking out and leaving you to deal with finding another teacher”. We’re essential to an English hagwon, and not easily disposable.
Korean staff, on the other hand? It seems as if, in this over-populated country, they’re not all that valuable at all to their employers. They are overworked, underpaid, and pretty much without rights. The teachers at my school are there when I arrive in the morning and there when I leave in the evening – even if I’ve stayed behind to catch up on paperwork, they’re still there at 6, or 7. I don’t know when they actually go home to their families. And that’s just the women: men work even later, often into the wee small hours.
So where are the kids while all this work is going on? Oh, they’re working too. Kids go to school 6 days of the week, with minimal holidays and ridiculously long hours. It’s not uncommon to see groups of children in school uniform walking home from their last class of the day at 10 or even 11pm. There’s very little evidence of childhood as we know it – childhood is instead a time of hard work to ensure that the child is well enough qualified to secure a decent job in later years. The competition for places in universities is fierce, so devoted and anxious parents make sure that their kids are competing right from the moment they can talk. My little ones are only 4 years old in Western age when they start with us, and already they can read and write in their native language. Many of them can also manage basic conversations in English. Some, also Chinese. They are FOUR YEARS OLD, they can’t blow their own noses, and they are already educated beyond the level of some 10 year olds in the West.
There’s no doubt that Korean parents love their children very much. But where Western parents tend to show their love by providing treats and excursions and games and fun things, Korean parents show their love by pushing their children as hard as they can in order to secure a successful future for them. For most Korean children, school is only the beginning of the day’s work. My Korean “little brother” once confided in me that while he loves his country dearly, he also knows that it’s “very crazy”. I was trying to ask him what he and his friends did together for fun, and after some confusion it became clear that he didn’t have any such concept. Sometimes we kick a ball in the parking lot before we go to school, he offered with a shrug.
Some time later, I sat trying to hide my shock at the life he described. There was no doubt whatsoever that his parents loved him deeply, and that he was their pride and joy. But his life was nothing but work. He went to bed as late as 2am and got up at 6am to go to classes before school. Then school, then home (“I try to sleep for an hour before dinner – if I don’t have too much homework”), followed by up to three or four private academies (hagwons) for subjects like English, science, Korean, math, and music, or sometimes private tuition at home. He just slept where and when he could. Seeing my horror, he went to the study and brought me a huge stack of papers to examine. They were progress reports, dating from when he first entered kindergarten, aged 4. Every single one has to be kept to build a portfolio to be presented when the child is applying for a university place. It was then that I started to realise why the parents give us such a hard time when their children don’t receive “excellent” for every aspect of their work.
Now, there’s little doubt that the education system and the fierce competition make for a strong work ethic and a country full of successful, well-educated, hard-working and determined people. But – to return to my opening remark about suicide – at what cost? Children are killing themselves because they’re exhausted and overworked and driven to despair by the need to be constantly at the top of the class. Adults are killing themselves because they’re exhausted and overworked and driven to despair by the need to appear successful. Appearance is everything, and the nature of the ‘shame society’ that rules in Korea means that the suicide of someone who’s somehow ‘failed’ in life (whether through shady dealings, a turbulent marriage, an unsuccessful business venture) is not only common, but almost expected. It’s the right thing to do, rather than live on and bring shame on yourself and those around you by admitting your failure.
It’s making me stop and think before moaning and complaining about my tiredness, when I’m lazing away the evening in a restaurant with friends while all around me the Korean population apparently works itself into the ground.
If I’m tired, how do they feel?
*[According to some sources. I'm seeing a lot of contradictory statistics, but as far as I can see the big concern at the moment is that Korea's suicide rate has now soared so high that it has overtaken Japan.]
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