South Korea

South Korea – perfectionism not by choice

In Korea, there is the cult of work. Life of Koreans is completely subordinated to it. Almost everyone I’ve asked “How are you?”, reported news about one of the stages of job seeking. They were already in the recruitment process or lacked time to talk, because, as they said – they had to work. To understand this system better, you need to reach a little deeper. It is said that for Koreans getting job in a big corporation is everything they could wish. It’s a goal, which is set to children in school-age. Motivating factors are: high wages, increase of social status and prosperous life. On the other hand, the price is a 15-hour working day, a complete lack of time for anything except the job itself. So why do people accept it? Well, because from the childhood they are told that getting such a job is the purpose of their life. If you ask a 10-years-old kid, what they want to do in life, they will answer: “work in a corporation”. So what’s the matter? In Korea there are more people willing to work than job offers. It causes an inconceivable “rat race”, which begins already in primary school. A high target is set to the children and to achieve success they need to start very early. As students say – high school is the worst period in their lives because they have classes from the dawn until late in the night. To go to the college, they must acquire a lot of knowledge in a very short time.

In Korea, I met many Americans who teach English in local schools. They confessed, that they let pupils to sleep in the classroom, because it is their only chance to sleep off a little.

The period of college study brings them “deliverance” from hours of lessons. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether you are a humanist or prefer sciences. Even the particular field of study is not as important as the location of the university. The best are in Seoul so the great majority of aspiring students are heading there. They just want to study in Seoul – it doesn’t matter whether it will be an English literature or quantum engineering. But the most difficult is the end of their studies, when they have to find a job. The recruitment process lasts very long, even for months. The interview in Korean as well as in English is a standard procedure. Then, the exam in both languages followed by task solving, essay writing, motivation letter and so on without the end. No wonder that colleges offer special “How to get a job?” obligatory classes for students in final year of studies.

And here we return to the beginning of the vicious circle of perfect appearance. This applies particularly to women. As there are few jobs and all of the candidates have a higher education, a feature, that can distinguish them is still the appearance. Therefore, if you are physically attractive, you have a better chance to beat the competitors. Because Korean women are generally small and delicate, you have to be even thinner and prettier than an average girl. Thus, many young women keep restrictive diets on the permanent basis. Moreover, they are forced to apply it by families, because “without the proper diet they will not get a job”. But slim appearance may not be enough. South Korea is one of the world leaders with a high percentage of plastic surgery. In Seoul there is a special quarter with a lot of plastic surgery clinics, which still pop up like mushrooms. “Standard” breast enlargement is the usual treatment. However, an eye surgery is the most popular and easiest to observe (for example in the subway, where you can gaze at the people for long time). This type of surgery aims to create a bend on the eyelid so eyes are more similar to Western standard.


After similar observations and Koreans’ stories, it is not surprising, that Korea is in the first place with its percentage of suicides among young people. The tall glass windows were set to separate people from coming carriages in the subway. Previously people regularly threw themselves under trains, and government didn’t manage with it before. Social pressure to be “somebody” and achieve professional success is enormous. It creates an unimaginable problem in contemporary Korea.

What are Koreans like?

Social conditions are one thing, but what Koreans are like? How do they live in that system? I would divide Koreans into two groups: those, who went abroad to study or work and those, who have never moved out of the country. I do it this way, because the members of these groups seem to be totally different. Travelers have open minds, they are not different from Europeans in this point. They willingly talk to foreigners, interact with them and get into discussions. This kind of people can also be skeptical about their homeland. From them you can hear the most interesting and fascinating (and true) stories about life in South Korea. Also their English is definitely better than in the second group. They speak foreign languages and have no problem using them. For sure you wonder, why is it so impressing? Well, because when you ask a random Korean about the way, he will blush, laughing hysterically. He will also say in Korean that he can’t (or don’t know/ don’t want to) help and will quickly go away to join his friends with whom he starts to nervously laugh again. At this moment the questioner is shocked and doesn’t get the point: why Koreans are laughing. Was it a stupid question, or maybe they feel offended? Not really. This laugh means shame or embarrassment, because most of Koreans are afraid to speak English, even when they understand, what foreigners ask about. You can notice an extreme perfectionism of this nation – if you are not the best in something, it’s better not to do anything.


You should also remember that it is a collectivist culture – focused on the group, not individual. Everyone should be the same, like others. If you want to be accepted by Koreans, you should follow this rule. A loud and liberated person won’t bring admiration but rather puzzlement and shock. Being original and creative, you won’t get promotion at work. The key to the success is diligence and willingness to follow the imposed standards. That is why Koreans have a similar way of dressing: because the fashion individualism is not popular at all. People’s demeanor is also very important. If you walk down the street singing, your Korean friends will remind you, that everyone is looking at you. It is the worst scenario because you stand out from the crowd! It means “stop doing this or I will walk five steps behind you”. If you say that you don’t mind, you will cause boundless amazement (I experienced it firsthand). The same thing happens when you are loud. If you talk or laugh too noisy in the subway, you will be immediately “brought to the ground” by a polite Korean old lady or gentleman.


Young Koreans seem to be very immature. It’s partly because of their way of spending spare time (games, TV series), partly of the topics on which you can talk to them. There are certain conditions for this. Firstly, they live with their parents quite long and are dependent from them psychologically and financially. Korean students can’t have permanent job (only, for example, half-time job in café or in a store). Young people employment is prohibited in companies – it’s a country policy. They don’t have experience in work placement or internships. Few people travel. Therefore, stories about work are for them very surprising and confusing, it is difficult to understand each other on this field.


The organization of working time

Learning or working in Korea is based on the same principles. Koreans work together. Each project is carried out with other members of the group. It requires a lot of patience because time management is not a strong point of Koreans. Bringing all team members together at one time is practically impossible. Mobilizing them to work quickly is pointless because their learning and working style is very languid. They often do a break for coffee, cigarette, sending an SMS or checking Facebook. It makes Europeans totally mad! My advice is: adapt to their style or make the project individually. Any attempts to proceed or mobilize them end with indifference or belly laugh. On the other hand, everyone knows myth of the Asian workaholism. It’s a myth, because it has nothing in common with the reality. Koreans want to be seen as officious workers: they insist that they are very busy and need to work. They actually spend long hours in the library or office buildings, doing their job in 12 hours (instead of 4), with a lot of breaks for coffee, cigarette, SMS… Also, introducing something new is very difficult: rules in Korea are sacred and nobody can change them. Even logical arguments meet with short statement “no, just no”.


Korea? Yes please!

It’s difficult to prepare for Asian culture. It’s so different from the European! The things you read in cultural or psychological books are not able to reflect what will you experience there. So don’t define Korean culture by European schemes and standards – it’s just aimless. If you want to feel good in Asia, you need to create a new standard of understanding the reality. It helps and eases the cultural shock.

For sure, Korea is worth visiting because in the global era, we will soon have less and less such nuances and cultural flavors.

***All the pictures in this post were made by my super-talented friend Tobias Kalleder***

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