So we English teachers in the land of the morning calm have this catch-all phrase that we use whenever describing something we see as illogical, ridiculous, disturbing, or just plain weird. We call it “Korea crazy.”
Person 1: My boss is crazy.
Person 2: You mean Korea crazy or crazy?
So let me break down for you what we mean by this. “Korea crazy,” like I said, is a bit of a catch-all phrase, a subgenre of the normal word “Crazy.” In my time in Korea, from experiencing Korean culture, Korean workplaces, and other English teachers, this is what I’ve come across. Interestingly, being called “crazy” in Korea is a much bigger insult than it is in the West. While it’s certainly rude in the West, in Korea it includes the connotations of “useless” and “worthless,” so while English teachers use “Korea crazy” as shorthand to explain otherwise strange behavior, we wouldn’t say any of that to a Korean’s face.
- Anything that offends our Western sensibilities, is flagrantly opposite Western values, or just doesn’t make sense
- Parts of Korean culture that really don’t make any sense or are flaws in an otherwise fascinating, rich, ancient, and amazing culture
- Illogical, irrational human behavior, often accompanied with mental illness, personality disorders, and actions that should require medication.
“Korea crazy” covers the top two bullet points.
The first bullet point, of things that don’t make sense to Westerners include
- A monument to how humiliating and degrading South Koreans treated Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean war, with loud, patriotic music in the background
- A play based on folklore at a festival that has magical farts as a major plot point
- A lantern festival with an entire row of lanterns portraying Japanese soldiers being tortured
- Koreans lining up for a bus before there’s ever a need to, but refusing to follow a line in any other situation
- Tiptoeing around a problem rather than addressing it
- A highly paternalistic work culture and expectation of the government to educate and care for the people
- Strong desire to “fit in” and not stand out in any shape or form
- Absolute insistence that Dokdo matters to the world and is Korean land.
Some of it is just weird by Western standards, and I don’t know the reasons behind it. Some of this is just like humor, I think–some people love puns, others hate them. Some people love quirky behavior found in East Asian countries, other prefer quirky behavior found in North American countries.
And the rest of this boils down to culture differences, right? And much of the things that rub Westerners the wrong way have their roots in Confucianism. It is an ancient, highly paternalistic, respect-driven culture. From that stems the rigid hierarchy of elders telling young people what to do (even strangers), expectations that the government will handle most problems, the saving face and pretending problems don’t exist (if Korea ever has a natural disaster, saving face will not serve them well), and the belief that bosses can rule your life and deserve lots of respect.
And while I respect Korean culture and realize that in many ways Confucianism has served them well, I think there are significant flaws. Which leads me on to the second bullet point.
Every culture has weaknesses and flaws. Although I love my own American Western culture, I am intimately aware of all the problems that come with an individualistic, polarized, and materialistic culture. There are significant problems with the way we do things in the States, just as there are significant problems in every country and in every culture. I’m not trying to bash Korea, Korean people, or suggest that their culture is in any way inferior to the rest of the world. It has great strengths, but this blog post is about its weaknesses as perceived by Westerners. Most of these points are also strengths of Korean culture, just played out a little too far so that they now hinder, rather than support, the culture.
- Lying to save face, especially in serious situations like crime, natural disasters, and office mistakes. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one, and Koreans usually aren’t willing to do that. This is also probably one of the main reasons alcoholism is rampant–no one will admit it’s a thing.
- Expecting employees to come to work when sick. Colds and viruses spread like wildfire out here because people aren’t allowed to quarantine themselves when sick.
- The hierarchy stifling otherwise a vibrant, creative, productive generation of young people into following their grandparents’ desires. While I love the fact that the elderly are respected in East Asia, rather than ignored like in the West sometimes, I think this goes too far. It also hurts my American individualistic beliefs, too.
- Materialism. I was quite shocked to come to Korea and find many people far more materialistic and focused on flashy, expensive cars and clothes than people I’d met in the States. This is a flaw that Korean culture shares with American culture, I think, though Korea’s materialism stems from the confucian belief that the outside reflects the inner (a beautiful woman is a kind woman, a flashy car doesn’t just mean a man’s rich, but that he’s a good person). The rates of plastic surgery in Korea are some of the highest in the world.
- Societal pressure to perform really hurts everyone. This is something that happens everywhere in every culture, I think, but because this is a blog post written by an American about Korean culture, I’ll keep my comments germane to the topic. This issue also affects the United States, but I think the pressure to live up to your family’s name, to be successful in all that you do, is even stronger here. Alcoholism is a real thing here, though they pretend it’s not. Korean kids are stressed, sleep-deprived, and always worried about their schoolwork, and Korea’s depression rates are some of the highest in the world (Japan’s rates are also high). The speed of industrialization in the 20th century also may have something to do with pressure and expectations.
- Strong nationalism and suspicion of “the other” will really hamper South Korea’s growth on the international scale unless something changes. Korea has a difficult history, and it’s sandwiched between China and Japan–two regional powerhouses. The fact that Korea has kept hold of its identity and homeland over the past two thousand years, defeating both Chinese and Japanese invasions multiple times, is astounding. It’s worth celebrating. They’ve kept their language, made their own alphabet, and have progressed rapidly in just 60 years. But this is not without cost. Many (not all) Koreans are very racist. Not just curious about other types of people (which I fully support and think is healthy) but actively racist. I’m just lucky we somehow convinced Koreans that white people are cool. Korea is the most ethnically homogeneous country in the world. 20% of Koreans have the last name Kim. Four last names make up about 50% of the population. Every human, every culture, has a suspicion of the other (which isn’t of itself is bad), but the Korean government has encouraged its people to make value judgements based on people’s skin color, last names, and other characteristics.
And finally, the last bullet point, actual craziness. Sh*t you don’t want to be around. (I have so much personal experience with this I’ll have to document it later, when I’m out of Korea). I think one reason English teachers come across so much “Korea crazy” is because many of us work in hagwons and even a few iffy public schools.
Hagwons, or private, for-profit schools, are in it for the money. That’s the name of the game. So while Korea is full of wonderful, amazing people we’d be lucky to know, hagwons are full of administrators that care about money, not people. And when they have a steady influx of foreigners who don’t know the language, culture, work expectations, or anything else, really, it’s very easy to abuse the system. I think English teachers come across power-hungry men at a much higher rate than regular Koreans living in their own country do. And these power-hungry men know they can get away with so much more because we’re, well, clueless. This can seem like “Korea crazy” because it’s most of what we see, but it actually takes up a much smaller segment of the culture/population than we think.
As for the actual mental disorder stuff? Well, mental illness “doesn’t exist” in Korea, so that’s just your imagination. Get with the program, folks.
A video on Why Not to Teach English in Korea Hilarious with a lot of truth in it. A critique of the ESL industry.
Final words: Korea is an amazing culture, but everything has its flaws. This is just an American’s explanation of a common ESL teacher view of the country, with a little explanation of how the culture got that way. If you’re interested/concerned with something I’ve said, comment and share your thoughts. And do some research on your own to learn about Korean culture and the subculture of ESL in Korea.