Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Pragmatics of Suicide

Japan has recently undergone a suicide wave of sorts. In the past few weeks I have seen a scattering of news stories about Japanese suicide. The new way is a concoction with liquid detergent or something. Mixed properly the method emits a poisonous gas that kills those close to it and can be dangerous for those near.

This way of suicide has caught my attention because it’s more than just suicide, it’s a trend. It’s the new hip way to end your life. All the cool kids are doing it.

I’m reminded of an eerily relevant passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point,” where he discusses the boom in suicides in Micronesia. He says,

“Virtually all suicides on the islands, in fact, are identical variations on [basic format]…In all but a few cases, the victim observes the same procedure, as if there were a strict, unwritten protocol about the correct way to take one’s own life.”

The suicides in Japan remind me of this because they are more than just one taking ones own life. By bowing to this trend the person committing suicide is making a statement, they are no longer themselves, but rather a social idea.

Gladwell goes on to write that

“Immediately after stories about suicides appeared, suicides in the area served by the newspaper jumped. In the case of national stories, the rate jumped nationally. (Marilyn Monroes death was followed by a temporary 12 percent increase in the national suicide rate.)”

It seems coincidental then, that after the initial story about Japanese Detergent suicide (which was prominent because investigators had to clear out an entire apartment complex for safety reasons) a week or so later 3 others committed suicide in the same way in a suicide pact.

What does this have to do with Korea?

Along with Japan, Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Additionally, the suicide rate in Korea is climbing at a much faster rate than Japan. It’s almost like they want to catch up.

If you look at Korean society it’s not hard to guess why the rate is becoming so high. From the time a Korean student is old enough to go to school they began a lifetime of rigorous study. It’s not just public education, but private tutors. Korea seems to be caught up in one big case of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” If one family sends their child to three private lessons a day their neighbor must match it, or go higher. If they don’t their child might get left behind.

One might say, then, that it is the burden of constant work that gets to people, but I would argue it’s not the case. Korea also has one of the highest rates of unemployment among college graduates in the world. It’s the consequence of a society where education is seen as the key to salvation. Everybody is educated and smart, but there are still only a certain amount of high quality jobs to go around.

Suicide then isn’t the result of too much work. It’s the result of working your entire life for the singular goal of succeeding in the economic world and then realizing you still might not get a good job because there are millions of others out there just as qualified, if not more qualified, than you. Hard work doesn’t cause suicide as much as not living up to familial, societal and personal expectations.

In his book “A Whole New Mind” Daniel Pink discusses how societies that are advancing are facing a dilemma of adapting its goals and purpose. Once a certain economic freedom is reached by a society it will inevitably change its goals to achieve more spiritual ends.

The principal is simple; those struggling to eat don’t spend their days contemplating existence. Those who are provided for, do.

Korea is an interesting example because it has developed so rapidly. The parents of the current generation lived with a singular goal: to raise Korea from one of the poorest countries in the world to its 11th strongest economy. Mission accomplished my friends.

What are the goals of this next generation then? Are they supposed to beat the fastest GDP growth rate over a 30 year period that the world has ever seen?

Korea is what America would be if it jumped from the Revolutionary War to 2008 in the span of 50 years. That’s a lot of history they’ve missed out on. Granted, they’ve had thousands of years of culture to fall back on, but the change is so rapid that it is fast losing it’s stranglehold on Korean culture. They are replacing their cultural safety net with an economic one. Is it that surprising then that the nation is still very much trying to find itself?

Is it that surprising that in a culture that stresses education as the key to success that when failure does happen people act out with extreme measures?

History is a force that is happening at this very instant. The social trends that occur today are products of the past and indications of the future. Korea will change, and if recent history is any indication it will change very rapidly. I see it already, in the younger generations; they look at me differently than the older ones. They will talk to me on the street, approach me and say hello. Korea will get through this and history will go on to a new stage of growth. It’s just sad to see so many people get caught between the generational stages with no place to go and only a bottle of laundry detergent to fall back on.



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I hate people who pun the words Seoul and Soul

I haven’t been posting as much lately, sorry I guess. It’s a combination of nicer weather making me want to be outside, a preference to studying Korean rather than writing and an aversion to just posting for the sake of posting. Also, any idea I’ve had lately seems to fit into a series of posts I’ll probably start posting in the next two weeks Except for one that I’ll hopefully be able to get up tomorrow before I leave for China for a few days.

That said, a few random thoughts

– The other day I saw a man pissing on the street. Not a side alley way, not a darkened corner, but a street with traffic and people walking up and down it. I guess it says something about me that I didn’t even find this behavior abnormal. I actually thought the man had balls. I would have shook his hand had it not been otherwise busy.

– People who pun on the word Seoul and Soul bother me.

– Why do foreigners always stare at each other like we’re marking our territory?

– Myths about Koreans we can officially discard: they are efficient and they can’t hold their liquor. They do however study lots.

– Again, Seoul – Soul? Do you really think you are being clever?

– The other day was teachers day here in Seoul. This meant I received 30 cards with messages like this

From the philosophy 101 class:

Dear Teacher. Today is teachers day. You are teacher. Today is you.

From Paul, future hairdresser:

Hi Matthew Teacher. My English name Paul. Very very very thank you. I love you.

Some try to say more than they are able to:

Hi Methu. My name is UnJohng, Methu, very, thank you, teacher, health, please, bye bye

Some just need to be posted so everybody can enjoy:

Today is teachers day. Do you know? So…teacher!

And some seem to overestimate their place in my student – teacher letter hierarchy:

Dear teacher, I love you. How are you? I’m good because UMMMM….Not think! haha. And please my letter is NOT TRASH!

To Shellina

From teacher

That last one was my personal favorite. At first I thought it was to me, but then I realized it was From me and I was supposed to give it back to Shellina, so I sent it to myself…and then I got bored…

I really did appreciate the letters though, I’m glad they can write anything in English. Furthermore, considering Rachel can’t stop laughing anytime I write in Korean I guess that makes my students and I just about square.

– 45 rpm is making me rethink lots of my previously held notions about Korean music…are they an anomaly of creativity or is this the future? I have my own theories, but like every other topic I have in my head it’s being added to my upcoming series of posts.

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It’s like looking for a needle in a needle stack

That’s what it’s like to look for racist undertones in this music video.

Breaking down the unintended messages of this video:

Lee Hyori dances to impress white people.  Runs away from black people.

I’m not saying Lee Hyori hates black people, just that she probably locks her car doors when they walk by on the street.

Actually, Lee Hyori probably had no choice in this video whatsoever.  I assume Hannah Montana has more creative control in her work than Lee Hyori does.


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A free shot for your thoughts

I’m really trying to decide if my year is on an upward climb or a downward spiral?

A bustling street corner with children running around, riding bikes and roller skating. Free shots of raspberry soju outside a convenience store. Why shouldn’t there be?

What does this scene say about Korea, I wonder.

For a moment I don’t care, I grab a shot. I walk around the block, take off my jacket and come back to the stand hoping they won’t recognize the only foreigner they’ve seen all day.

Back to the question at hand. It has constantly occurred to me that my observations of Korea are only half observations. Without language as an explanation of events I am left to conjecture to my hearts content. My heart decides to muss up my hair and try the free shot stand again.

What do my actions say about me?

As someone who has spent their life defining existence through words I am left high and dry when it comes to explaining a culture I have no verbal communication with.

Some might call this the ultimate experience of existentialism. A person may finally, truly be defined by only their actions, but I constantly feel like I am only getting half the story.

I suppose Rachel could be a complete idiot when she speaks in Korean. I doubt it. She seems to do many smart things.

What have I learned about the Korean people through all of this?

They really seem to enjoy their free samples.

Cue the happy dancing sojus

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Filed under Culture, Narratives, The foreigner experience

I wish my grass was Korean, because then it would cut itself

Note: I really have no idea the statistics or popularity of self mutilation among Koreans. I imagine it’s relatively low.

But either way, Korea seems to have finally discovered Emo Music.

True, South Korea has been churning out incredibly sad love ballads and their videos since the Wondergirls were using children’s chopsticks, but this is the first time I’ve seen anything that I would classify as Emo. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m probably wrong. eh…

Also, you could argue that any music that is “emotional” could be considered Emo, but that’s like using a chainsaw when you’re only trying to slit your wrists enough to get attention from your parents. Like fake high noses and foreigners who only came to Korea to pick up Korean girls, I know Emo when I see it.

The music thus far has been tolerable. I only watch what Korean MTV spoon feeds me though, so my expertise is limited.

Anyways, here’s Nell – Walk along memories time (or some variation, it doesn’t translate perfectly)

And this song reminds me of Dido, kind of.

In case you were wondering, the original joke that I took the title from was “I wish my grass was EMO, because then it would cut itself.”


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Of Raisinets, Grudge Matches and a Moment Frozen in Time

The day was hot and the battlefield dusty. A white orb, a split second, a willingness to dive that extra inch is all that separated the winners from those who simply weren’t ready. Mother vs. Female Teacher Dodge Ball: 2008.

Why no Fathers vs. Male Teacher Dodge Ball: 2008? Because the fathers all have jobs. I like when things fall into place like that and I don’t have to participate.

This was entertainment that only a perfect window view and a bag of Raisinets could comprehend. Mothers and female teachers are to human relationships what peanut butter is to jelly.

It is a well known fact among food items and people paying enough attention that, despite appearances, peanut butter and jelly secretly hate one another. They are always wary, afraid that the other will steal the affections of the consumer. Bread is a pedestal built for one. Similarly, a child only has enough capacity for one female archetype in their life.

Jealousy is a ball best dodged…just not today.

A hoard of women weave together like a school of fish avoiding a predator, they duck and they dodge as the ball flies, carelessly in contrast, picking them out, one by one, from the crowd. The women push others in the way. They jump and dive. One falls on her ass and is left with a broken ego and a backside full of dust.

The ball does not differentiate between the classroom tested guile of elderly teachers and the youthful exhaustedness of a new mother any more than it differentiates between the sweetness of jelly and the saltiness of peanut butter. It is the ultimate arbitrator.

Apocalypse now! It screams as it weeds out the weak from the weaker. Teachers on the left, mothers on the right.

Then it is two. They are young and agile. Full of spirit when they began they are now battle tested and weary. I am running out of Raisinets.

A scream. A bounce. A wave of excitement. The ball floats through the air. The previous day one of the teachers at my school told me she used to love dodge ball as a kid. However, when she became older she didn’t like balls flying at her face.

Then it is over. A fallen victim dusts off her clothes and stares at the ground in futility. The war is not over, but for today the battle is decided.

Peanut Butter is queen.

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Maybe Korea Doesn’t Need Acid

The video reminds me of Hunter S. taking a novels worth of mescaline to Vegas. While it made for an interesting read I always thought that it was a terrible decision. Vegas is screwed up enough.

Lord knows there’s enough fluorescent lights here in Seoul.

This video is also pretty fun.

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