Sung Hyun Yoon, Geek Magazine
Back in the days, roughly four to five years ago, when I used to host a late night radio program as an a**hole who would tag short and apathetic commentaries to the stories submitted by listeners, one student sent me a message saying that he/she would die from too much studying.
The show was on air at 2 AM, which is understandably quite late even by the Korean standard, where high school students normally stay at school till 10 PM and even go to cram schools afterwards.
Yet, I cold-heartedly replied, “You don’t actually die when you ‘study till death’, you know.” (‘To do something till death’ 죽도록~하다 is a common expression in colloquial Korean for ‘working on something very hard’) I never meant to sound like a jerk. In fact, that was my sincere attempt to avoid those cliché answers such as “cheer up” or “keep up the good work”; but stir some lighter emotions within my young distressed student.
Regardless of my harmless intention, its expression was unnecessarily mean, and I feel truly sorry for saying it that way. I feel more so, now that I think about it, because Korean students canㅡand actuallyㅡdie from too much studying.
This ridiculously perilous, almost pre-modern society where so much death mysteriously surrounds our youths, must be unseen anywhere in the world. So if I could take my words back, I would like to tell that student: “Fuck study. Go have fun with your friends!”
Once you look at things more closely, however, the Korean society is harsh on not just our students. Our peer advice, our commonly accepted norms, our guidelines and bestsellers on the self-help sections of bookstoresㅡtheir tenets are all absurdly stoic to the extent it burns. Here are a few examples:
[geuk ki, 克己] definition: to willfully suppress and conquer one’s emotions and instinctive desires under rational mind. We have constantly been taught that one has to win the fight against oneself, to practice geuk ki, in order to accomplish something. I even remember the so-called ‘geuk ki training camp’, an absolutely pointless quasi-retreat my class was forced to attend back in primary school. The very phrase ‘win the fight over oneself’ is so widely fed up that it is nearly hypnotizing, but let us carefully think over the language.
What does it even mean to ‘win’ against oneself? What if I ‘lose’ instead, am I not entitled to be myself anymore? What exactly is so wrong about my emotions and instincts? Are they not still essential parts of my identity?
“Workplaceㅡmy 2nd family”
There are certain companies out there, especially in East Asia, which love emphasizing the precarious ‘family-like’ atmosphere among their employees. A family-like workplaceㅡan instant goose bumps buzzer. Is that why they never go back home, to their real home? Oh, so none of us should ever leave the office past 6PM either. This is a capitalist society after all, a hard core one.
But work is work, and my life is life. From the moment workplace crosses the line and claims to be something larger, the cyclical mental fatigue begins. Why does my company mimic spouses and controlling parents, when they have no plan to take any responsibilities once I quit serving my labor power?
Above all, blindly sacrificing myself for the sake of workplace simply does not make sense in the days of stagflation, when my pay and property prices are minimal while everything else becomes increasingly unaffordable.
I say, put an end to this meaningless, self-imposed pitting and stoicism among the expendables that is all of us. In this time of deepening stagflation, we need a little twist to the self-help tenets, as followings:
“You can actually die from studying till death.”
Since ordinary Korean parents enslave their children under the iron chains of seon hang hak sub(선행학습, ‘in-advance learning’, the practice of having children learn materials earlier than regular school session by means of private tutor, online lectures, etc.), the young ones can either 1)actually die from too much stress, or 2)literally die studying because there are neither jobs nor anywhere better to go due to stagflation, or 3)simply meet a sudden unexpected death while they are still students, like the late victims of Sewol sinking did. So stop studying too much.
“Work can kill you ㅡliterally”
Another record high among the OECD members: the longest average work hours with the ‘2nd family’. No wonder Korean males in their 30s and 40s so often suffer from cancer, cardiac malfunctions, and strokes. ‘Working till death’ literally ends up with death, so if you wish to live, work less; take a break; and never mind your obnoxious boss.
Lastly, “Enjoy the leisure of unemployment.”
I can personally attest how leisurely and composed life can be when you detach yourself from this mud puddle of obsession for success all too prevalent in contemporary Korea. Success in career and leisure in life are more or less mutually exclusive in this damned nation, so why not resort to the latter? It may be a lot healthier for your body and soul.
For all those who sincerely believe in excelling at work and studies in order to achieve success in life, my makeshift tenets may seem like a saucy, good-for-nothing wordplay. By no means do I intend to mock their hard work and endeavors, for I am nothing but an expendable in this society just like them anyway, so why would I?
All I suggest is that Korea has become a giant lethal red ocean for all age groups, and to survive, in a literal sense, we need the wisdom of exitingㅡ exiting this bloody cycle of competition for our own good. So help yourself this Christmas with my little food for thoughts, and hopefully I will see you alive and well in the year 2015. Happy New Year!