|Some of my Korean friends through the years|
Making friends in Korea is not very difficult, as most Koreans are very friendly and fun people. This is actually one of the main reasons that made me move to Korea after I spent 3 years struggling to integrate myself with many locals in Singapore. However, I find that my friend list in Korea is a constant revolving door and it is all perpetuated by one common factor; Korea's work culture.
Korea is a very competitive society, and finding a good job is difficult for a lot of Korean graduates. Because of this, student's education expectations also become exaggerated. Most High School students do not end their studies until around 10pm and many even study most of their weekends and holidays. They go to their regular school until about 4pm, and then immediately go to separate academies (called hagwons 학원) to either learn other subjects or to get extra help in subjects they take at school. They do this all to try and stand out and have a more appealing resume for Korean universities. However, when just about all students do this, it eventually becomes the norm and the bar keeps getting raised higher and higher. In universities their studies only intensify to the point where it consumes most of their time.
Upon graduation, most students are again competing for the same few top-end jobs. Because the supply is so high, companies place unreasonable expectations on their employees that results in many Koreans not finishing work until 9pm and working on weekends. Not to mention routine work functions called 회식 (hweshik), which is a combination of the Korean words 회사 (company) and 식사 (meal). At the 회식, which are basically mandatory, employees are often pressured into drinking copious amounts of alcohol, staying out really late, and in some cases going to establishments that they may have a moral objection to. Then they are expected to wake up and go to work the next day.
|Real photo of my students during a 10 minute break during exam week.|
As a foreigner and as a teacher, I am not really subjected to this intense work culture, but that doesn't mean it doesn't affect me. As aforementioned, I am constantly having to make new local friends in Korea all the time as most Koreans eventually get too busy and difficult to meet up with. My phone becomes an ever growing roll-a-dex when searching for friends to do different activities with. I never know which friend will be free at what time because neither do they. It is common for Korean's to tell me they are meeting one of their good friends whom they haven't seen in 6 months or sometimes even over a year, despite living in the same city.
I feel bad for them as it has always been my mentality that I work to live, not live to work. However, many Koreans are powerless in this regard if they want a decent job in Korea. This culture has many negative side-effects for Korea. The first and most serious is the suicide rate among young people. South Korea has the tenth highest suicide rate in the world, and first among developed nations (WorldAtlas 2015), with the vast majority of these being students. The reason is obvious: educational pressures. A society that views not going to university as a disgrace and such high competition for the limited universities, many students who get lower scores feel that their life is over and not worth living. Even in discussions with my own Korean students I have heard them vocalize that they don't feel that their life could be a success if they don't go to university. This perception needs to change.
Another consequence of this culture is Brain Drain and a decreasing population. I am going to bundle these two problems because the source of the problem is the same. That is, that many young Koreans who get frustrated at the pressures and the rat-race that is the Korean work culture simply decide to move abroad where they find life more peaceful and exciting. This means Korea, which spent government money educating these students as a future investment to help develop their country, are loosing out on that investment as the students take the fruits of that education to another country and help develop that country. This phenomenon is known as Brain Drain. Also, as these professionals develop lives and families in other countries, South Korea's population is decreasing so fast that it is projected to have the oldest average age by 2045!
I know I am a foreigner in this country and have no right to complain and say that their culture is wrong and that many Koreans might be quite angry to hear a foreigner talk like this. However, this country has treated me really well, I have made many close friends here and I truely do care about this country and the people in it. Due to this I cannot keep quiet about what is such a self-evident crisis without at least offering my advice.
My advice to Korea would be, "wake up". Recognize these wounds to your country are self-inflicted. Educate your citizens about all the opportunities that exist to people with just a high school diploma. Regulate stricter labor laws that prevent companies from abusing their employees simply because they are expendable. My advice for Koreans would be "relax". Learn to prioritize fun. Your success and your happiness are not determined by the size of bank account. Your real friends don't care about your GPA or how good your job is.