I’ve been going back and forth with this article, mostly in how it will be understood and accepted. This piece falls somewhere between racial epithet and social commentary, but I’ve scantly left things unsaid when I’ve really wanted to (often to my detriment) and I’m afraid I can’t start now. Though there are no shortage of fluff pieces that tout all the wonderful things about Korea, but there is a distinct shortage of reality-based criticisms of Korea, as accepting criticism maturely is not one of Koreans’ strong suits. These criticisms can mostly be justified, but their validity cannot be argued. That was one of the key ideas behind the inception of this article.
Korea is ham-fisted. Korean culture is ham-fisted. Koreans are ham-fisted. I came up with exactly this word and no other when thinking “How could I describe Korea to the un-initiated?” The literal definition of ham-fisted is “lacking in dexterity or grace”, and despite watching Korean baseball, I can’t definitively prove that point. After all, there are plenty of professional gamers, Olympic sharpshooters and archers (as I’m reminded every 4 years here) to prove me wrong. What I’m talking about is a metaphorical ham-fistedness. Or more aptly, the second definition of ham-fisted, “lacking social grace or tact.” Korea certainly lacks social grace and tact, but more than that, Korea lacks taste.
“But they’re a recent NIC, an EAGLE, and a MIKT” There are all sorts of stupid economic acronyms you can label the country with to attempt to point to it’s recent socioeconomic development and justify why there is no taste, but the fact remains. The irony of it all is though there is a specific word for the concept of emotional intelligence, there is very little of it in practice in Korea today.
There are so many examples of Korea displaying its ham-fistedness, but for the sake of clarity and simplicity, I will stick to concrete examples.
Korean businesses are ham-fisted. From the chaebol culture of creating and maintaining government-supported businesses using anti-competitive tactics that continues to this day, to the recent franchise boom (and ensuing bubble), to blatant intellectual property theft at almost every corner of the country. It isn’t hard to understand why one would develop the idea that Koreans lack taste, originality, or creativity. One of the keys to this rampant theft is the widespread belief that it’s truly ok to slavishly copy ideas. There’s no chastising, no shame, not even an understanding of how someone would think it’s a bad thing to copy in Korea.
Korean education is ham-fisted. The prime examples of this characteristic display of “work hard, not smart” is apparent in the hours spent on studying. There is very little focus on effectiveness of study, whereas all emphasis is placed on how long you study. This, in turn, has lead to depressing statistics among Korean students. The ham-fisted nature of Korean education is exemplified by the Hagwon (학원), or after-school academy. Almost every Korean child attends some sort of hagwon or after-school class, be it in mundane school subjects like math, Korean language or English, or others such as taekwondo, art, or piano. Often parents spend ridiculous amounts to send their children to such hagwons. So how are the results? Well, for English education they’re not particularly encouraging. For the country that spends more than any other in the world on English education, being ranked 24th in the world (behind Spain) is not exactly mind-blowing.
Some Asian countries, in particular Indonesia and Vietnam, have
transformed their English proficiency over the six-year period. China has
also improved, although less dramatically. Japan and South Korea, despite
enormous private investment, have declined slightly.
Finally, Korean drinking culture is ham-fisted. Many are already aware that Korea has an intense drinking culture that extends far beyond the borders of excess. Although it is a fairly common joke among Koreans how much Koreans love to drink (They are ranked #1 in the world in spirits consumption), it’s also important to understand the truth behind the jokes. Much (if not the majority) of drinking in Korea occurs during huisik, or work parties, often under coercion, social or otherwise. This leads to all sorts of issues that are swept under the rug. If such an issue occurs, it’s never reported or spoken of, as women have next to no value in society. Serious social issues aside, I hesitated to include this aspect in the article as it is so easily proved, admitted, and understood by anyone who lives or has lived in Korea. Simply look at this site and understand that this is less a convenient case of “right place, right time” and more a likely scene on any given night in any urban area in Korea. This sort of excess is not only tolerated, it’s quite accepted and encouraged among co-workers.
There are many other issues I could harp on, but I felt these were the least well-known and most crucial to understanding the country as a whole. With all the smoke and mirrors that exist among Korea being a futuristic industrialized wonderland (akin to that of pre-bubble Japan), the truth is far different.