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Posts Tagged ‘work culture’

I read this editorial last week discussing (again!) the low birthrate and what to do about it. I like the fact that this article isn’t blaming the birthrate soely on education costs (which is often blamed on English education). Instead, the article talks about personal costs of having a child in relation to one’s career.

Women cannot be blamed for this trend be-cause Korean society asks too much of them, de-manding a superwoman-like competency both at work and at home. Korean women work the long-est hours in the world, are often brushed aside when promotions come up and tend to be the first to get sacked in times of restructuring [sic].

Very true Joongang Daily. The editorial goes on to give the solution to these woes:

The solution to tackling the declining birth rate should be creating an environment where women can devote themselves to their work and lives at home with less pressure. The nation’s average 12 daily working hours — the world’s highest — should be shortened. Korean women must be given the choice to take more time off when their children are small. More flexibility in working hours is also necessary.

That’s great except…why are we just talking about women? Why aren’t we talking about changes to the work environment that are family friendly for both mothers and fathers? Of course we need the government to be actually able to enforce legislation that protects women’s rights to maternity leave, pumping at work, and promotions after mat leave. These laws are foundational to making women feel safe in their careers as mothers. But I’m a SAHM until September (I have mat leave…I think…^^), and you know what is equally as important for family sanity? A father who comes home at a reasonable hour…and who is sober…and who has a bit of time to see his kid and give a full time mum a break. It’s about 8 o’clock when Dragon is starting his screaming portion of the night that I look at the clock and WILL my husband to get home. And he usually does come home sometime between 8 and 9. But he accomplishes this by putting his own career in  jeopardy by limiting the amount of drinking he does with his colleagues. He took paternity leave (a WHOLE THREE DAYS!) which would have been unheard of just a few years before. But really, a new family kind of needs a bit more than three days off together to bond (and we got ‘lucky’ as our son decided to start his slow entrance into the world on the Friday before the Lunar New Year holiday, thus giving Mr. Lee more time off while I was labouring). And of course, I would love it if my place of employment had a daycare on site but equally nice would be for us to have the same option at my husband’s place of employment…and for my husband to get off of work at a reasonable hour to pick up his son from daycare.

There’s this nice picture in the same paper today of a father reading his kid a book while camping. Yeah, it’s a promotional picture for the tent company (and don’t you love that mum brought a computer camping!), but I do think that many among this generation of Korean fathers want to be a part of their kids’ lives. They don’t always want to be the strict disciplinarians and ATMs of their father’s generation. They want to relax with their families and play an integral role in raising their children. But they can’t be that dad unless they are actually home. And for many Korean dads, they can’t be at home at a reasonable hour without risking their own careers let alone take paternity leave.

So yes, make a more family friendly environment for women but make it for men too. Because life doesn’t become more family friendly at home if the father is never able to be at home. And life doesn’t get any easier for the working mum unless she has a partner who can co-parent, take off time when the kid is sick, and/or work around daycare drop off and pick up schedules. The double burden doesn’t get any easier for the woman if the burden of childcare, however it is alleviated by the changing work environment, is still the woman’s burden to bear alone.

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On Learning Luxury

Mr. Lee came home last night and informed me that he is going on a ‘business trip’ next week. But it’s not the usual ones to visit local centres or run/attend workshops at the training centre. No, this one is about ‘luxury training.’ It appears the higher ups are concerned about the influx of foreign luxury brands encroaching on their market share. Therefore, because Mr. Lee and the other men (all men) are part of various teams developing the company’s future vision, they have to go to a special training session to learn how to be luxurious in order to take certain aspects of the company in a luxurious direction. It’s going to be at an upscale hotel. They are going to eat a ‘luxurious’ dinner, and they are going to listen to lectures on a number of as of yet unannounced fancy pants topics.

My question in all of this is…will they also be given ‘luxury’ gifts to bring home to the wives?

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We’re in the midst of some major home decisions right now. Our 2 year chonse contract is up in April, and we need to decide whether to stay in our current place for 2 more years or to move to a more family-friendly area of the city right now. Like any good Korean parents, our first priority is education, and specifically the daycare options for Dragon beginning in 2013. We’re discussing this issue with Part 1 still fresh in our minds, and with the added knowledge that there is, by both anecdotal accounts (um 60% of my female friends have had babies or are expecting babies this year) and statistical projections, 2012 is going to see a baby boom. In addition, since the government has decided to expand daycare subsidizes to more parents this year, we know there is going to be a shortage of spots in 2013.

In the middle of this discussion, we started considering options near work, and I said to Mr. Lee, ‘I know there’s no work daycare at my university, but what about at your company?’ He turned to me and said, ‘but we have so few women at my workplace – why would we have a daycare?’

Now you have to understand that Mr. Lee is a pretty hands on father. He comes home from his at least 12 hrs+/day workday or from driving all day on a business trip and gets down on the floor and starts squeaking Sophie la girafe in Dragon’s face and claps along to the tummy time playset music. He starts off the night time watch to give me a few hours of sleep, and he makes a verbal stink about changing dirty diapers, but he changes a hella lot of them. He’s involved. And he likes to be involved. And he doesn’t question that he should be involved. But that comment still came out of his mouth because that’s really the pervading feeling when it comes to having children and company life.

Every semester when we discuss parenting styles around the world in one of my classes, we examine Swedish SAHD and talk about how public policy might help to encourage Korean fathers to be more active parents in this land of extraordinarily long hours and mandatory drinking nights. I’ve often told my students that I believe that mandatory drinking would decrease sharply if there were more daycare facilities in companies. If the boss has to pick up his kid at 7 every night from the first floor daycare, he’s not going to take the kid home and then come back for a late night binge session. And if many men have their kids spending their days at the company centre, there’s a greater chance that the general workplace atmosphere will be more respectful of the relationship between fathers and children and the time that parents and children need to forge that bond.

But then I forgot the attitude regarding company daycares for many people: daycare centres in companies exist, but they exist for the female coworkers not the males. Now, I’m sure that this attitude is stronger at Mr. Lee’s work because his company is very conservative, and the nature of the work means that it is unfortunately more male-dominated (especially in his building). So I’m sure that there are men who have their children enrolled in company daycare centres, but this particular conversation made me realize that simply having a centre in an office is not enough if the attitudes toward who should be the primary clientele do not change as well. And I suppose, since men are expected to drink and work late to more extremes than women, perhaps the day when most Korean fathers are able to be the primary parental clientele at company daycares is still some ways off.

Of course, none of this helps us with our housing decisions.

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I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about Korean ‘Father School.’

“Traditionally, in the Korean family, the father is very authoritarian,” Joon Cho, a program volunteer, told me a few weeks before this session of Father School began. “They’re not emotionally linked with their children or their wife. They’re either workaholics, or they’re busy enjoying their own hobbies or social activities. Family always comes last.”

In 2000, Father School spread from Korea to the United States, and the program — part 12-step recovery, part Christian ministry — was tailored to meet the needs of Korean immigrant fathers dealing with Americanized kids who wondered why their fathers weren’t more like the touchy-feely dads they watched on TV. Since then, Father School has exploded. It now operates out of 57 American cities and has graduated nearly 200,000 men worldwide.

The article goes on to describe how the program uses group testimonies (of a parenting not religious nature), foot washing, and hugging as ways to break down barriers between men and their wives and children. I’ve never heard of this program here, but as I’m not involved in Protestant churches which seem to be the main groups signing up for such schools, it’s very possible that I’m just not moving in the right circles. I did an English language search and found this more in-depth article from 2009 written by a Korean American.

The men are encouraged to discuss these contrasting representations, but getting stoic Korean men to share their feelings is no easy task. A combination of guest speakers and testimonials by Father School volunteers, who are themselves former students, facilitate this effort. A volunteer at one conference I attended, for example, shared with the audience how, in an overzealous attempt to impart the lesson of poverty and the importance of studying, he once left his son on a street corner in a poor neighborhood and shouted in outrage whether he wanted to end up like the people there. With tears, the guest speaker expressed deep regret recalling the tears that had appeared on his son’s face that day. He realized there is a “better way” to impart lessons to a child.

While sitting at the table of 40-year-old fathers, I heard several men raise a number of issues related to generational conflict with their Americanized children. Many expressed frustration over their children’s disrespect for their authority, with one even revealing that his child called the police to report the dad’s use of physical discipline. As I listened to these men, I, the son of a Korean immigrant, started to recall my own dad’s use of “tools” like a pool stick or the pulling of a cheek to reprimand the two boys in the family. The linkage between Korean fatherhood and physical violence is an unfortunate stereotype, but at the same time, corporal punishment was long considered an acceptable practice in Korean society, whether within the family, school or military.

And yet, as I sat with these older men, I observed an uncommon scene: fathers choked up with tears and regrets about their past behavior. ”For several years, I was against the person my daughter loved and caused her considerable pain,” said Woojin, 57. Other dads confessed it was difficult to imagine their fathering role beyond breadwinning and scolding their children.

In my culture class, we’re in the middle of a module on different parenting practices, and a few weeks ago we looked at the Swedish government’s attempt to not only encourage fathers to take paternity leave, but also penalize families who do not make use of subsidizes for fathers. After discussing the NYT article on the topic, I asked students to discuss various questions pertaining to Korea in small groups such as ‘How often does your family eat together during weekdays?’ or ‘How often do you spend quality time with your father?’ I find that when students talk in small groups, they tend to be more honest than answering my questions directly because they don’t feel like they have to hide Korean social problems in front of the foreign professor. One student told her group that her family hadn’t eaten dinner with her father and mother together in ten years. Even on his days off, her father preferred to sleep, hike, or spend time with his friends rather than eat with his family. Another student said she hung out with her father about once a month despite living in the same house. A third said she rarely saw both parents growing up (she was raised by a family member because her parents both worked), and one of the male class members said that he always felt sad as a child because his father never came to any special events such as graduation. Not a single student agreed with the statement ‘I feel closer to my father than my mother.’ I haven’t talked about this issue directly with students since about 2007 when I taught at an adult hogwan, so initially I was hopeful that this younger generation had had more time with their fathers, but it does not seem to be so.

Back in 2007, I had one of those usual end of the month (end of the session), situations where I was sitting in an empty classroom hoping hoping hoping that I was going to get a 2 hour block no show. Alas, a female university student arrived 5 minutes late out of breath and apologizing for being late…until she looked around the room and realized she was the only one in class. I admit, I was a bit pissed off because I really really really wanted that no show! Not to mention the fact that the student was normally quite quiet and low level, so I really did not relish trying to pry 2 hours of conversation out of her by myself. But then we went to get coffee, started talking about her life…and she let slip that her father was a taxi driver. I say ‘let slip’ because what she was really telling me was that she was lower class, and as the conversation progressed, she admitted that sometimes other people made fun of her because her family didn’t have a lot of money. I told her that my father had been a blue collar worker, and asked her what the benefits were of a taxi driver father. She thought about it for a few minutes and replied that he was home far more than other fathers she knew because he did a lot of driving at night. He and her mother did all their errands together, he was always available to come to school events, they had father-daughter conversations as he drove her to school in the mornings, and he understood her very well because he spent time with his family. I have forgotten a lot of conversations with the thousands of students I have had over the years, but this one line will forever stick out in my mind because it was said with such joy on her face: ‘There is a lot of laughter in my house.’

Having a school for fathers seems a bit silly from a Canadian perspective, but as Koreans have come to rely on ‘academies’ or hogwans for almost everything these days, including how to get a date or how to smile like a flight attendant, and especially since it is hogwans that are actually one of the reasons why families do not have time to spend together, it seems actually pretty reasonable that a hogwan like program could be used as a culturally appropriate way to educate fathers and bring generations together. Confucianism, military culture, and the patriarchy have all contributed to this culture of absent fathers, but the biggest problem is that fathers do not have time, or do not think they need to make time to build a relationship with their children. On one level jung is supposed to be something that holds Koreans together based on their very Koreanness, and in the case of the family based on their blood relationship. However, when it comes to companies, employers recognize that jung does not happen naturally, but rather has to be cultivated through shared meal time, activities, and bonding time. Father School legitimizes time spent between parents, spouses, and children, as well as provides a safe place to share feelings which family members have not been able to share simply because they have not made the time and space to share in their own homes. It would be interesting to know if many non-Christian groups have Father Schools because I think this format also makes more sense from a Protestant sense by using public testimonies, utilizing cell group style structure, and emphasizing confession and forgiveness.  It would be interesting to see how a Buddhist, strictly Confucian, or avowedly secular group approached such issues.

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Hello dear blog…I’m back.  There’s been so much going on in Korea and the k-bloggosphere in general, but I’ve been overwhelmed with teaching, marking, prepping, friends visiting, and just general busyness that I haven’t had time to blog in AGES.  It makes me bitchy quite honestly not to get my bitch out online, so it’s really time to get back to this thing.

So what do I have to talk about tonight?  An interesting choice:  housewarming party?  or Mr. Lee’s team’s MT?

I think I should back up a bit since I tend to get more readers from outside Korea than inside.  When a couple gets married in Korea, many people – family, friends, and even sometimes coworkers – expect them to host a housewarming party. This is interesting in and of itself as most socialization in Korea tends to happen in public spaces (restaurants/bars) instead of in the home.  The official reason I always get is that Korean homes are too small, but I think the biggest reason is that people feel ‘uncomfortable.’  (The connotation being that because there is a bigger differentiation between public and private space in Korea than in Canada, ie. that having someone from the ‘outside’ inside your home seems like an invasion of privacy…that and cooking/cleaning etc is a lot harder for most than paying for a meal in a restaurant). 

Now, I’m not against house parties per se.  I quite like having friends over, and one of the interesting things about marrying a Korean man is how uncomfortable he feels about having friends over.  In fact, during the World Cup, he tentatively broached the subject of having his best friend come over just for the first game – no problem for me! His friend brings beer and snacks for all!  And, all I have to do is sit on the couch and watch the game with them!  But when I suggested he come back for the second game (he brings us beer and snacks! how hard is it to have him over??), Mr. Lee was incredibly surprised, and the friend’s mother admonished her son for going over ‘yet again’ because ‘Mr. Lee’s wife will feel uncomfortable.’

But anyway, back to the issue at hand, as I said before, his coworkers expect him to have a house warming party, and this is a totally different issue.  The guests will be men…ALL men…middle aged highly conservative men.  And I will be expected to serve them and wait on them…and be a proper cute little wife.  That’s not too bad…but then they will gamble…drink…and (if the boss decides everyone is going to do so), sleep overnight.  Now, I rarely impress my morality on others, but we don’t, with the exception of buying a raffle ticket or scratching a lottery card someone else bought us for a Christmas stocking stuffer, gamble.  And while it’s fine with me if you want to go off to a casino or play go-stop for 24 hours in your own home, it’s a whole different ball game when you want to gamble in my house. 

And then, not to mention….oh not to mention! the male-female dynamic that will be at play. 

Despite this rapidly changing society, men and women – at least middle aged men and women – still often inhabit very different social realms.  When I go out with Mr. Lee’s friends, I’m often the only woman there.  This is changing with one group of friends – I think because I started coming out – but it’s still an issue.  And when it is with his friends, it’s not bad, but it’s different with his coworkers.  Suddenly, because I’m at a ‘male bonding’ sort of session, where copious amounts of alcohol is being drunk and there’s a highly stratified group of people based on superiors and subordinates….…AND where I stand out as the ‘exotic’ foreign woman, it tends to get a bit room salonish regardless of the men’s intentions.  And no, I won’t be wearing a bikini pouring drinks for the men in my home, but it’s going to damn well feel like that’s what it is. 

And did I mention that we have cats?  And we know how many middle aged men feel about cats….the sleeping arrangements with cats crawling over the coworkers is going to be interesting….

The whole complicated gender role/uncomfortable/cat situation is what has probably prevented us from having the house party despite being married (officially) for 6 months.  That, and the fact that Mr. Lee knows that me serving older men in this fashion is going to put me in a not so good mood for quite some time.

So then last night, at dinner, he suddenly burst out (out of nowhere) with…’why don’t you come to my team’s MT?’

MT (membership training) is kind of Konglish for a retreat.  It’s usually at a cabin, cottage, or pension (house available for rent in a holiday-ish area for such events) and means that you spend the entire time away eating with, drinking with, hiking with, and sleeping on the floor with other MTers.  I know some expats who love MTs.  And yes, I’m a social person – but I’m not a hyper-social, spend every minute with fellow MTers so we can bond sort of person.  MT for me is a special kind of hell…and MT with team members I barely know but have to show deference to because they are my husband’s superiors is a whole other level of hell. 

Mr. Lee fully knows this…and goodness knows some Koreans dread MT (depending on who the group is comprised of, and their personal feelings about copious amounts of alcohol/hiking etc). But the reason he feels I should come on his MT is that a) if I do this, we won’t have to have a house warming party because I’ve been ‘properly introduced’ and spent a ‘proper’ amount of bonding time with the team b) another co-worker is (strangely for this team), bringing his wife and a non-Korean Asian friend who is staying with them – supposedly she has lived in Australia which I gather is supposed to mean that she speaks some English?  C) If I go, Mr. Lee might get to share a separate room with me (although I think the more likely arrangement is that the women will have one room and the men another).

I’m torn by this proposal.  Really really torn.  I try to avoid MT type situations at all cost.  They’re not me.  They make me bitchy beyond measure, and they are not my favourite way to experience Korean culture.  Plus…at least with a house warming party I could sleep in my own bed…Then again, there would be a better gender balance than me and a bunch of men at home…and with another expat woman there – I wouldn’t be so ‘exotic’ and thus the object of stares.   

So back to the original questions…housewarming party vs. MT. Any thoughts?

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Until he died two years ago, the only important event my father had ever missed was my graduation from graduate school. He was at every horseback riding lesson, every ballet recital, stood at the bottom of the ski hill to cheer me on, and read about half of the original Nancy Drew series to me until I could read them for myself. He made breakfast every morning, packed my lunch until I was 18, and he cooked on the weekends. He worked two jobs, volunteered at church, and toward the end of his life, did roughly the same amount of yard work at my grandparents’ house as his own.

November and April, the month he was born and the month he died are always times of deep reflection for me. When I was younger I took for granted not only that he wanted to be such an enormous presence in my life, but that he could.

In a few short months, I will become a chaebol widow – a woman married to a ‘salaryman’ for one of the largest family-run conglomerates which dominate the Korean business landscape. Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Lotte, SK. These companies are not only credited with partially contributing to the Korean economy’s rapid development post-War, but they continue to be some of the most effective contemporary promotional tools for the nation abroad. Chaebol positions are one of the jobs most coveted by recent graduates because of their relative stability and competitive salaries. However, working for a chaebol means devouting more time to your business family than to your blood family.

Mr. Lee is one such salaryman. He works, on average 14 hour days. That means 14 hours in the office not including commuting time and work group commitments. He starts at 7:15 and finishes, on a good night, around 8:00. However, he also has many nights where he is required to join mandatory drinking parties and he has to attend overnight ‘team bonding sessions’ (read: drinking) on a usual basis. And did I mention that every January when promotions and new work assignments are handed out, he could be suddenly relocated to a rural office near Gwangju or on the outskirts of Pusan with only a few days to move? Not to mention the ‘generous’ 5 day/year vacation days doled out.

Indeed, for a country which prides itself on ‘loving the family,’ Korean companies have created a culture wherein loyalty to one’s company is expected to override spending time with one’s children.

I once had a lovely student who was very open about her family dynamics in ways many Koreans are not with ‘foreigners.’ She had a wonderful relationship with her father, but admitted that although she lived with him, she had not seen him in four months. In fact, many children do not see either parent on a daily basis because if they are both salarypeople, their children are usually raised by relatives. Children may stay with their parents during the weekend, but stay with other relatives during the week. In cases where children are raised by their aunts, they may actually lack a male presence in their lives if their uncles are working the same hours as their fathers. In situations where the mother does not work, it is she (and the hagwons – private after school schools) which are responsible for 95% of parenting.

I know of many bosses who force their underlings to go drinking with them because there are estranged from their own wives and children after so many years of being forced to drink with their superiors. I once had student who was a business owner. He lamented about the gulf between his children and himself. He filled his own aching sense of loneliness with prostitutes, alcohol, and failed attempts at AA while still acting as his children’s ‘ATM.’ The ATM metaphor is surely one of the most ubiquitous terms salarymen use to describe their relationships with their children.

Growing up with such an active and engaged father, it pains me to think that our future children will not be able to have such a presence in their own lives. And of course, although I desperately want to be a mother, I dread the enormous burden I will face in being a career woman and the only parent our future children will see during most of the week.

My Canadian friends share the housework equally with their partners. They have husbands who cook, clean, and look forward to sharing parental leave when their children are born. Their husbands save up weeks of holidays and spend the first two or three weeks after the birth of their children at home bonding with their babies. They coach little league and pack lunches and pick the kids up from school when mothers need to stay late at the office.

In the latest figures released, only 1.6% of Korean fathers take the THREE day unpaid parental leave allowed by law. 1.6%. Only 0.46% of Korean mothers take the 1 year pitifully subsidized maternity leave guaranteed to them under the law. It is inconceivable that men are so fearful for their jobs and promotion opportunities that they do not take off THREE days at the birth of their child. In fact, I have yet to meet a foreign English teacher who has been ‘allowed’ to take three days off either.

So in addition to the educational and employment opportunities I have passed up in order to stay and build a life with Mr. Lee, I know that once I have children my career will be limited in even more ways because Mr. Lee’s work life is so inflexible. I never expected that I would be placed in such a situation, or that I would have a partner who WANTS to be a constant presence in his future children’s lives, but realistically can’t. I always expected that I would be part of a more equal partnership of constant give and take.

But despite this expected burden, I do have choices. I have the choice to have a child or not. I have the choice to keep my career or not. I have the choice to exert pressure on Mr. Lee to change his career despite the years he has invested in his job. I have the choice to place the blame for this work culture on my Mr. Lee, or I have the choice to accept the blessings and burdens that life gives me and find peace in that.

Recently I read this article in the NYT about the Obama’s marriage. Personally I wanted Obama to win because after 8 years of Laura Bush, I yearned for a feisty First Lady. I was touched by the openness with which the Obamas talked about the ups and downs of their marriage. Certainly, Michelle Obama, just like Hillary Rodham Clinton, has had to drastically change her life path and career opportunities to support her husband’s goals. Being a salaryman’s wife is nothing compared to being the First Lady of the United States of America.

Perhaps the most touching line of the article is found at the end. “The equality of any partnership “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,” the first lady said. “We’re going to be married for a very long time.”

If I begin to measure the strength of our relationship or lifestyle or marriage by moment to moment equality, our marriage will fail. Any marriage would fail. Marriage is and should be for a very long time. Family is and should be for a very long time. I may carry the load of childcare responsibilities during the early years of our marriage. I may have to defer promotions, or pass on great work opportunities. Our children may have to live with writing bedtime notes to their father or waiting to see him until Saturday when they are young. But perhaps in the long term these responsibilities and opportunities will even out. Time spent with mum and dad will even out.

I am not ‘there’ yet. I am not married with children. I have not fully accepted that equal partnership is “measured over the scope of the marriage.” But I hope that when I am ‘there’ (married with children), that I will be ‘there’ (acceptance). I hope that despite the fact that my partner will not have the same amount of time to spend with his future children as my father did, that he will nonetheless spend quality time. And I hope that I will be able to embrace the double burden gratefully in the way that my father did. My father left a legacy in which he found himself in providing for his family, and I hope we can learn to do the same.

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