19 September 2008

Reflections on South Korea

View from my hotel room in residential area of SeoulI'm having trouble figuring out what to write about South Korea. I have lots of stories swirling around in my head, but I can't seem to pull them out in a way that represents how I feel about this perplexing country...

Usually, by the end of an intense work project where I've been dropped into an unfamiliar country alone and have managed to figure out how to get the work done, I have learned enough about the local culture and people to make sense of my experiences and to put everything into perspective. However, in the case of South Korea, there are still so many things I don't understand that I can't seem to establish my perspective.

Some sort of festival in downtown SeoulFor me, the best part about working internationally is the opportunity to see the world through a different cultural lens, and to gain enough understanding to begin to empathize with people who are different from me.

I'm always fascinated to learn what drives people to do what they do and to think what they think. But what drives the South Koreans?

They certainly seem to be more "driven" than any group of people I've encountered before. From the tens of thousands of South Koreans protesting American beef week after week, to the businessmen who rarely see their families and almost never take a vacation, or the young people on my team who stayed up literally all night to get their work done and then argued why they should go back to work after dinner the next night instead of going home to finally get some sleep.

The people I spent time with in South Korea were tough to figure out. I had a great time drinking and singing karaoke and getting to know my colleagues, and could definitely see the appeal of this aspect of South Korean culture--at least for the businessmen (and the rare woman who is invited to join). However, I couldn't help thinking about the impact on their families, and I couldn't even imagine the physical toll of doing this twice a week until I retired.

The average South Korean (consultant, at least) works 14 hours in the office most days, some with an additional 1-2 hour commute to and from work. Those with families rarely see them during the week, and those without families have virtually no time for dating.

At least 1-2 nights per week the men manage to carve out an extra 3-4 hours away from home for after-hours partying, effectively reducing their sleeping time on those nights to almost nothing.

For the married men, I couldn't help wondering whether the after-hours obligations were a sacrifice, which kept them away from their families begrudgingly, or whether it was a welcome excuse to avoid the emotional commitment that would otherwise be expected from spouses they may not know (or even like) that much. Keep in mind, there is typically very little time spent with prospective spouses before marriage due to the significant work commitments.

Drawings, notes, and photographs posted on the gate of the bridge separating South from North Korea, from families who had been separated during the warThere are many things about South Korean culture that I still don't understand. However, it's hard to imagine anything I could discover that would make me okay with the South Koreans' extreme commitment to work over family, and the unquestioning, almost militaristic, following of orders from anyone in a position of authority, regardless of the personal impact.

I'm glad I had an opportunity to experience South Korean culture, but it saddens me not to have found something there that would make me want to go back. It's hard for me to explain the involuntary emotional and physiological reaction that comes with any thought of returning to South Korea.

I suppose it may have more to do with me than with the South Koreans. I will never forget the pain and disbelief I experienced at the hotel in Seoul in June 2008, when I got the 3am call from my mom, 6600 miles away, letting me know that my dad had died. Everything I experienced in South Korea was colored by that moment.

For pictures from the lighter side of South Korea, visit my facebook photo albums:

South Korea Sept 2008

Real-Life Ratatouille

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