This week’s OCH update comes from Seungho Lee, a Ph.D. student of English at the University of Tulsa. His research focuses range from 20th Century British Literature to Contemporary Anglophone Literature. He analyzes the literature of his field through the lens of Postcolonialism with an emphasis on such issues as home, belonging, nation, and identity.
Seoul is a dazzling city when seen from afar. Even more so, after the darkness falls and countless lights begin shining forth, taking the place of stars in the night sky. South Koreans sometimes call it the city that never sleeps. This doesn’t refer to its vibrant nightlife and dynamic energy, but to the overtime work, widely considered as a part of life, which makes the city and the city-dwellers unable to sleep.
While exploring the topic of home(land), I have become more aware of the ambiguity packed in the baggage of home; the ambiguity that home is both dream and nightmare, that home is both heaven and hell. In the case of Korea, the hell-like aspect of home seems to outweigh the heaven-like one. For many young Koreans, their home country has increasingly become synonymous with hell or what they call “‘ Hell-Chosun,’” a compound of ‘Hell’ and ‘Chosun’ (a name of the Korean dynasty that lasted from 1392 to 1910, used here to represent Korea’s pre-modern backwardness). Coupled with it, ‘Tal-Chosun’ becomes another widely-used rhetoric with the prefix ‘Tal’(脫) meaning ‘divest oneself of or escape from’. Both Hell-Chosun and Tal-Chosun have become powerful expressions for young people seeking to vent their frustrations about home.
South Korea, a home for over fifty million people, is a place where the Janus-faced aspects of home are more strikingly present than any other places in the world. It is one of the fastest developing countries, and probably one of the wealthiest nations among those that emerged from colonization after 1945. Founded on this economic development, Korea has increasingly been becoming an influential nation in a number of fields such as politics and popular culture. K-Pop, for example, becomes more and more widely enjoyed by the audiences around the world.
At the same time, however, some of the statistics about the nation tells a different story. Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, second only to Lithuania. This index, more than anything else, tells us how hard it is to live there, how estranged and unhomely people feel toward their home country, and how much pressure they endure as they put the idea of Tal-Chosun into horrifying practice.
Arguably, the working environment is one of the top reasons why living in Korea is so stressful and depressing. In 2014, Korea was one of the three top countries in terms of the average annual working hours following Mexico and Costa Rica (Novak). The working culture is such that going home at six or having official holidays is extremely difficult. Consider the example of my parents. They have been running a small business over thirty years: they have two days off a month without weekends, another two days off a year thanks to the two biggest national holidays, and a four-day-long summer holiday, all of which sum up to around thirty days off a year. They have taken for granted what it takes to survive and remain stable economically in such a competitive society as Korea. For the young, it gets even harder or riskier to get a job or open their own small businesses because of the slowing economic growth and the growing inequality.
Koreans often joke that “‘Korea is the best place to live if you have money’.” It is a kind of joke that has a poignant truth in it. Though every society is that way to some extent, Korea is particularly intolerant to groups of people with disadvantages like the elderly, students, the disabled, and women. Gender inequality in the workplace is rampant and the wage gap in Korea is one of the widest among OECD, in addition to which there is less possibility of promotion and more probability of retirement once women have children. Even if they manage to continue their careers, women often suffer from the double workloads from both workplace and home. Childcare is still considered as women’s job no matter whether they work or not. Feminism has become a rising issue in the last few years in Korea, attempting to raise women’s social status; and yet, misogyny, as a reaction to it, is also growing, especially among young men, to the point where it looks very dangerous, at times resulting in serious social problems ranging from sexual harassment to physical violence and even murder.
I’ve come to the United States to study and many of my friends have told me that they wish they were me so they could be out of the country. I usually respond that I also have my own difficulties, feeling out of place and missing a lot of things at home like family and food. But they too feel alienated and homeless in their home country. They say it is not about food, family, and a sense of place. Instead, it is about something social, something political, and something economic. The fact that South Koreans kill themselves more than almost any other nations in the world already says that there is a very strong sense of homelessness for them. This feeling of homelessness is so gigantic that we don’t know what to do. Is there a way out? Is there utopia outside Hell-Chosun for Koreans attempting Tal-Chosun? If home is Janus-faced in itself, should we just accept the hell-like dimension of it and endure it to some extent? If we shouldn’t, then how can we change things and make it a better place to live? How can we make ourselves feel at home when our home is called hell?
Novak, Kathy. “Never say no! South Korea’s pressure-cooker work culture,” CNN, 23 July 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/23/asia/south-korea-work-culture/index.html
Singh, Ann. “The ‘Scourage of South Korea’: Stress and Suicide in Korean Society,” Berkeley Political Review, 31 Oct 2017, https://bpr.berkeley.edu/2017/10/31/the-scourge-of-south-korea-stress-and-suicide-in-korean-society/
McCurry, Justin. “South Korea’s Inequality Paradox: long life, good health and poverty,” Guardian, 2 Aug 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/aug/02/south-koreas-inequality-paradox-long-life-good-health-and-poverty