Things I Don’t Miss about Living in South Korea

The Pressures of Work and Education

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

Honestly, as a foreigner living and working in South Korea, I don’t think I experienced nearly as much pressure as native Koreans do. This I am grateful for.

From what I gathered during my time in Korea, South Koreans are under terrible pressures to perform to excellent standards every single day they are in work. It’s an unachievable goal. To try your best and put all your effort into something is more of a reasonable ask AND you must understand that you will have ‘off’ days where you don’t perform your best, and that’s ok.

However, I feel there is a lot of burden tied to work culture within South Korea.

My friend, a native Korean, used to work in the Korean entertainment industry. I remember him telling me that he only got 3-4 hours of sleep a night and that he never had time off to see his family or his, at the time girlfriend (they’re married now). He has since switched jobs, thankfully, but what he told me gave me a taste of how hard people expect you to work in South Korea.

Additionally, the pressure on students to perform to their highest standards is astronomical. I would regularly ask what my students were doing after school and they would frequently tell me they were going to ‘hagwon/학원’.

Hagwons are private academies Korean students attend in the evening after their main schooling during the day. This seems to be an attempt to train students to be their best, brightest and most intelligent so they can compete with other students at the highest level. They usually run till 5pm or 6pm but sometimes they even run till 8pm at night.

I worked in a middle school and here is what a middle school student’s day was like.

On weekdays their day schooling began at 8:30am and ran till 4:30pm. Then most students would regularly attend hagwon/학원 in the evening until 6pm (or even 8pm). Then they would have to do homework.

Tell me, where is the time during that schedule where you get to be a regular teenager and have fun.

I don’t think students had hagwon/학원 every day, they had days off but you can imagine the amount of pressure that is placed on to these students from such a young age.

It is a common occurrence to have your students fall asleep in your English class and yes, that did happen to me. It wasn’t because my classes were boring, it was because the students were so tired from working such long hours at an age where they really should be getting lots of sleep to aid in their brain development and overall growth.

I understand that South Korea used to be an aid receiving country due to the catastrophes caused by the Korean War and I commend South Korea for fighting tooth and nail to rise up from the ashes to become the advanced country it is today. It is because all the citizens worked so damn hard to push the country out of the dumps that it holds a title of Aid Giver today.

But South Korea is doing alright for itself now. They don’t really need to have such a strict and monotonous attitude to working or education. They can afford to ease back a little. Honestly I think it would do the overall mental wellbeing of Koreans a world of good to have a LITTLE bit of wiggle room for a breather.

Before I left I started to see some changes slowly coming into effect. Work hours were reduced a smidge and students were not allowed to start learning English until 3rd grade. Who knows if it will stick?

I hope everything works itself out for the better and Koreans manage to find a way to have a work/life balance that benefits their overall happiness and well-being.

Unrealistic Beauty Standards

There seems to be an idealistic notion of beauty pumped into every aspect of Korean society. Especially for women. I saw how this affected my students and my co-workers more than I saw how it affected me.

I was an outsider looking in.

Basically, what I gathered was that the face has to be small, preferably lighter skinned. Eyes must be big and round with a little bump under the lower lash line to make the person look youthful. 애교 살/Aegyo sal as they call it in Korea, literally translated to ‘cute flesh/cute skin’. The nose must have a tall bridge and not sit flat and wide on the face, the chin must be slim and V shaped, the complexion must be flawless and the ideal body type is thin and petite.

I found it exhausting and homogenising.

I remember during my first few months in Korea how tired I was getting of the constant plastic surgery adverts marketing their services. In the end I just got used to it and it faded into the background of my day.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against make up, fashion, looking your best, beauty or whatever. It can be so much fun to dress up and look nice to go out or just for yourself. Hell, I don’t even mind plastic surgery or botox to an extent. If you want to get that, who am I to judge.

The issue I had was that all the men and women who advertised for these skin care companies, beauty brands and plastic surgery clinics, all looked the same. And they were EVERYWHERE. They were pretty, yes, but it wasn’t realistic and being inundated constantly with these images everywhere you turn, could start to play with your mind a little bit.

Like most societies however, it is understood that this is just marketing and many Koreans tend not to be too taken in by it all. But that’s easy for the adults to recognise. What about the children and the teenagers?

I could clearly see how it affected some of my students. Some girls wore foundation that was a little too light for their skin tone, whenever they took pictures they would hold their hands to the side of their face and make ‘peace signs’ in an attempt to make a V line and hide the actual size of their face, I remember one student told me that “white was the best colour on the face” to which I wore him down with constant disagreeing.

Perhaps these rigid conceptions of ‘What is beautiful?’ could change if there was more diversity amongst those models who advertise in the Korean beauty industry. It’s a small thing but representation does actually matter. Maybe there should be a huge over hall of self-image and positivity all throughout Korea. Just a few ideas I have.

However, it’s all well and good for me to have these ideas and thoughts, but it’s unfair for me to go and impose them onto another society without warning, unless all parties are willing to listen to and talk with each other.

I actually do hope that something about Korea’s self-image changes into something more loving and less hateful of how they are naturally. Honestly this goes for the whole world to some extent. It’s unfair to ask an entire population to have an unattainable ideal for a goal. Self-improvement, sure but if you’re constantly searching for that perfection that’s just out of reach, can you ever be happy with what you have right now?

So there’s the more ‘bigger’ issues that I don’t miss about living in Korea. Like I said, this is a subjective list of what I personally don’t miss about living in South Korea. Some people may think the same, some may completely disagree with me. We all have our own opinions which we like to express.

I also have a post about Things I Miss about Living in South Korea for you to have a read of. So skootch on over there if you want to hear me talk about something a little more positive.

I hope this was insightful for you to read, and perhaps something useful for you to hear if you ever plan on moving to South Korea in the future. Let me know if you want to hear more about life and working in South Korea by dropping a comment below.

Good luck out there.

Jess x

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