5. 2023, The Wild Wild West

In the name of suffering

Every hike I’ve ever done in Korea has ended with me wondering in despair if I have irreparably damaged my knee cartilage.

As I struggled through another hike in an attempt to touch grass and see some green in the concrete jungle, I thought about how these trails parallel Korean society.

There are no walking mountain trails in Korea. All go in a straight grueling line directly to the highest point. Hikers are expected to endure the grinding of their patellas as they crawl to the top. Suffering is not optional, it’s required.

The first time I went on a hike here I was distraught, not only because I was sweating three times as much as my Korean counterparts, but also because I couldn’t see a switch-back in site. American trails are built in zigzags with moderate inclines. You’re meant to slowly but surely make your way to the top while also enjoying your time.

This is not true of Korean hikes.

The mentality of suffering in order to reach greatness is incredibly prevalent in all corners of Korean society. You only need to look at how high schoolers are expected to study until 10 or 11 or even 2 AM so they can secure a spot in one of the only three prestigious universities in Korea. Teenagers are expected to sacrifice their entire youth to get into college. Then after graduating they are expected to sacrifice their adulthood to working long hours at a company.

Every worker, every idol, every actor at one point or another has said “I promise to work harder” as if they’re not already breaking their backs.

Diets and workouts are finished in extreme crashes, because such a pace cannot reasonably be maintained by any human. Koreans do nothing by halves, except perhaps learning conversational English.

These are the moments when I feel not only my Westernism but my Americanism baked into my DNA. I want to understand but at the same time I can’t. Life is already hard, why should we force ourselves to suffer more?

While a good chunk of this mentality came from the contentious but economically prosperous principles of Korea’s military dictatorship in the latter half of the 20th century, one can go back as far as 900 A.D. to see that exams were required of average people to become government workers.

Even to become an elementary school teacher now, applicants are required to study and memorize thousands of principles word for word. Average government workers are also expected to memorize rules and pass an arduous exam. Even applicants for fashion companies are required to take an exam to be considered for a spot.

The efforts needed to attain Confucian moral proficiency and excellence are difficult and can be painful, both emotionally and mentally. But, according to canonical texts, these efforts must be accepted as an integral part of the progressive and repeated work of self-improvement. Pain is worth undergoing, since suffering to achieve a highest goal is not harmful in the end ; it is not a “bad suffering,” since it is suffering for the best.

Isabelle Sancho, Neo-Confucianism and the individual’s suffering seen through Yulgok Yi I’s life and thought

While tenets of Confucianism touched the earl Korean dynasties, Buddhism kept its stronghold as the dominant ideology until the Joseon Dynasty replaced the Goryeo dynasty in the 14th century. Neo-confuciansim still permeates Korean society to this day through respect for education, hierarchy, familial expectations, ancestral rites, and gender inequality. At one point during the Joseon Dynasty, there was a push to remove all women from recorded family trees as they were perceived to have no value.

“Yes, if you look at our family tree we have me, my dad, my dad’s dad, and my dad’s dad’s dad. Did you ask where my mom is? What’s a woman? I only see men.”

I personally experienced the full weight of these Confucian tenets in my level 5 advanced Korean class. There was an implicit understanding that all students would sacrifice their time, health, and in my case, good vision, to pass this class. I had to memorize 70 words a day, write 3 essays a week, do all the readings in advance– in the end, despite my attempts, I still failed reading and listening on both exams. My Western skills of showmanship and extroversion saved me as my near perfect scores in reading and writing pulled my abysmal grade to just above passing.

In the end, the teachers congratulated us on passing. I just wondered what the point of it all was, as I immediately forgot everything I learned except for 오작교 which I only remember out of spite.

I once talked to a Korean guy who had been educated in an international school overseas:

“My family moved back to Korea when I was in high school. I went from leaving school at 2pm to play with my friends to studying until 11pm. I cried every night.”

I only experienced 3 months of this type of education and I’ve never felt such despair.

From a Western perspective, I have a really difficult time understanding the Korean need to suffer. How selfish of me– to live here so long but refuse to bend to the prevailing ideology.

But I’m not Korean and never will be, a fact that becomes clearer every day.

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