Mr. Lee arrived at my house the other night, as he has so many nights before, reeking of my least favourite alcohol in the entire world: soju. He had not been partying it up with his friends, nor had he been celebrating anything. He had been ‘working hard.’
When you say someone is a ‘good worker’ in Canada, it usually means they are hardworking, efficient, and dedicated to their work. In Korea, a good worker is not only loyal to the company, but also to the boss (which is demonstrated by frequently spending long hours drinking and socializing with the team and boss).
Koreans regularly place high in terms of working hours around the globe, but these kinds of studies do not usually ask what constitutes work in each country. ‘Work’ in Korea obviously means long hours at the computer, or in meetings, or working on projects just as in my home country, but it also means long communal lunches, hanging around the office playing video games long after your kids have gone to bed because the boss is still in the office trying avoid going home, and finishing off a few bottles of hard liquor with the boys before going back to the office to finish up the projects due the next day. Oh – and spending weekends away on mandatory team bonding sessions with one week’s notice because the weekly late night sessions are not nearly enough to solidify interpersonal relationships.
It’s difficult for me to discuss this issue with most people who do not live here. The concept of having to binge drink with your boss at the expense of spending time with your family in order to keep your job is so far removed from what is legally and culturally acceptable in Canada that most people (understandably) think I am engaged to an addict who is denying a problem by blaming his work situation. It’s a difficult line to walk between expressing my frustration with the system and the way it damages men, women, families, and health, without making people fear for my wellbeing. It’s also hard to express the inequality of the system and the injustice of the system with other feminists without them thinking I have lost my mind for staying. But we all, no matter which country or system we live under, have to make compromises for something else we want (love, marriage, a truly great partner, a career in a field I love). I have yet to figure out how to express my frustrations with Canadians about this situation in a way where I will receive positive advice and comforting words instead of getting looks of (understandable) horror.
Alternatively, bringing up the situation with Koreans usually leads to a conversation starting out as, ‘You see…the problem is YOU don’t understand Korean culture.’
It’s not true that I don’t understand the culture. I work in a Korean workplace, and I’ve worked with enough businesspeople in a variety of fields that I ‘get’ the dynamics and expectations, and I’ve lived the life of a partner of a conglomerate worker for over 4 years. I understand that the interpretation of Confucianism in contemporary Korean business culture means that it is nearly impossible for younger people or subordinates to express their emotions or give their opinions. Drinking unloosens tongues, and a great deal of anger, frustration, and lamentations can be later blamed on drinking one too many bottles of soju. I also realize that in this pressure-cooker of a cut throat competitive society, there is little time or few venues for people to unleash their stress in more positive and effective ways.
However, ‘understanding’ (comprehending) does not equal acceptance, and I do not accept that it is okay for men to be forced to stay out late or spend their weekends with their team in order to socialize when they have a baby at home (it’s okay – the mother or the grandmother or the aunt will raise the baby). I do not accept that with the knowledge we have about the effects of long term and frequent binge drinking, that it’s still okay for workplaces to force their workers to regularly engage in unhealthy activities which also decrease productivity in the long term. And I most certainly do not accept that a person’s capacity to pack away hard liquor and grilled meat is in any way related to positive personality characteristics or a raise.
In my early days in Korea, my housewife students used to tell me that they pushed their midlevel office working husbands to work longer in order to make more money. At first I thought that they were confusing hourly wage with salary. But no, they were trying to tell me that a person is often given bonuses (and even yearly wages or deductions) based on ‘how hard they work.’ And I’ve already told you what that means here.
Sometimes I shock people by telling them that I actively encourage my fiancé to ‘work’ just as many times a week as he has to in order to maintain his position. I don’t need a top ranked husband raking in the cash if that means he is never home or ensuring he will have alcohol-induced diseases in the future. I’ve had women look at me wide-eyed and say ‘wow – that’s unusual.’
The strength and the demands of Korean companies on Korean husbands and fathers is the hardest thing for me to adapt to because I am completely powerless. Am I miserable? No – I have become accustomed to living with the intrusions of the workplace on free time, relationship time, and family time. I also recognize that it is not Mr. Lee’s fault. Perhaps, in the absence of children, he is more inconvenienced than me because it is his free time and liver which suffers the most. One of the most important processes I have gone through in our relationship is to learn how not to transfer my feelings of anxiety and anguish about the situation onto Mr. Lee. He can’t be blamed for what he must do. However, it is difficult to know where to place these feelings – on the company? On the Korean mindset? On the interpretation of Confucianism? On the patriarchy? On women, including myself, for not demanding better for our relationships and our families? I don’t know. Those feelings exist in an in-between land which is neither healthy nor helpful. I fear that when we have kids, these feelings will turn into resentment and grudge-holding. How can they not when I am struggling with the double burden while my husband drinks with his team? I don’t want to pass negative feelings about Korea, Mr. Lee’s situation, or the realities of marriage in Korea onto my children, but I don’t want to deny what I believe to be legitimate concerns and feelings, especially when they impact my life so directly.
I try to end my posts on a positive note – to take the worries and concerns in my life and see the good in them, but it would be a lie to say that I have fully dealt with my feelings about drinking culture in Korean companies. I think this is my long term cross to bear and the thing I will have to work on the most in Korea. It doesn’t have to be a lonely struggle – Mr. Lee is obviously just as affected as I am, and we need to work together to create a healthy relationship despite the odds. But it is a struggle that most Western women, with our assumptions about marriage as partnership, are not going through, and thus it will be something I must work through without the help of a community of similarly-struggling women.