Recently, I’ve been meeting more Korean people, mostly parents, who tell me that they want to take their kids and move to America for a year or so, in order to teach their kids English. They’ll ask me about enrolling their kids in private elementary schools, and I’ll balk, never having heard of such a thing.
Then I’ll meet wives of Korean men who want to move back to their home country before or soon after having kids, usually because they think the Korean school system is too stressful. Many Korean high school students study for 14+ hours a day and sleep less than 5 hours a night. Elementary school (and even kindergarten) students go to about three or four private schools after school hours to learn math, art, music, English, and more.
My husband and I are not planning to send our future children to these kinds of schools, but many people call us crazy and say that it’s basically a requirement now if the students want to keep up in school. We’d rather have well-adjusted, kind, thoughtful children who enjoy their lives than children who are on the cusp of a mental breakdown from homework and the pressure to perform.
I have many friends who agree with me. I have a friend who is about to get married and wants to start a family soon, and she is very globally minded and does not want her children to go to private schools if it stresses them out. I also have a friend, who has two daughters who are sweet and polite, who asks her daughter’s private schools for less homework so they won’t have so much to do after school. The private school director was thoroughly confused, as most parents ask for MORE work in order to push their children.
There are also Koreans who move abroad to escape the pressures of Korean society, who seek more freedom and often turn to America, even if that means they leave high position jobs to do manual labor. I was incredulous when I watched a documentary about such people, as it really baffled me. I can tell they have no idea what they are getting themselves into. They simply want a different way of life that they perceive is impossible in Korea.
I’ll agree that Korean society is full of pressure. Children must work hard to get into a good school, and even then they aren’t guaranteed to get a job. Many young people are now discouraged, as they feel their strenuous education is not helping them in the long run. The minimum wage in Korea is also quite low, though that might change once a new president is elected.
However, Korea as a modern society has only been established for about 50 years, and the country already has an established national healthcare system that covers 97% of the population. I went to the dentist the other day and paid less than $15 for a cleaning, there was no one else waiting in line, and I was out in 15 minutes, fully satisfied.
There are also many alternative schools cropping up for parents who agree that Korean schools are too rigorous. Some parents are also keeping their children at home rather than sending them to daycare or preschools, in order to delay their education and extend their playtime.
Personally, I find South Korea to be modern and open-minded most of the time. I take free classes (KIIP) to learn Korean, a program set up by the government to encourage successful integration of permanent residents and marriage immigrants into Korean society. There are many organizations dedicated to helping foreigners in Korea, and many Koreans are serious about learning foreign languages, such as English, Japanese, Chinese, etc.
My husband and I actively reject people’s judgmental attitudes, and we help each other navigate our roles in society. As a foreign wife, I’m often held to the Korean standard and my Korean family sometimes fails to understand that I’m different and can’t be treated as a native Korean. But they do their best to understand me, and my husband is often the bridge that connects us.
Junkyu co-owns a company, which is seen as risky and scary to his family members. They’d rather he work for a giant company, as that’s their idea of stability. He’d rather have a job that gives him flexibility and something new to do everyday, which he has. He often brushes off his family’s criticisms and encourages me to do the same.
We both agree that life is what you make it, and we try to live our lives according to what makes us happy but also provides us with our own sense of security. My sister-in-law wants us to move to an apartment, as that’s the greatest sign of wealth and prosperity in Korea. Neither of us want to move, as our villa suits us perfectly. We live in a small building that’s quiet and we have more freedom to live how we like.
In the documentary I described above, one Korean women cited the reason she wanted to move to America was because she wanted to be able to leave the house in slippers with no make-up on, as Koreans judge you for walking outside without looking nice. I completely disagree with her, though she lived in Seoul, where it might be different. I can walk around in pajama pants in my neighborhood when I need to buy milk, and I hardly ever have make-up on. I am also looked at more than Korean people, and since I’m a foreigner, many people ask me where I’m from and why I live here, but they leave other Koreans alone.
In Japan, I felt that I’d be severely judged for walking around in sweatpants, even, but in Korea, I feel that society is much more lenient in that regard. I think it’s just a case of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” which, in Korean, is 남의 떡이 더 커 보이는 법이다. That means, “Other people’s rice cake looks bigger (than yours)”.
In my opinion, it’s your attitude and mental strength that gets you through tough times. When I first moved to Japan as a college student, I thought life would be much easier. When I moved to Japan again for work, I thought the same, but soon found out that it’s not where you are but who you surround yourself with. My husband and I are on the same page about most things, and that helps us through the ups and downs of life. Life is what you make it, and if you can’t make it, fighting for change is often better than running away. The grass is greener where you water it.