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Published: April 18th 2015
Detail at Seokguram
"Our suicide rate is the highest in the world and our birth rate is the lowest", he said. "He" was a middle-aged Korean office clerk, going by the name of Mr. Ryan. I met Mr. Ryan in the lobby of the hostel in Busan, the ROK's second biggest and slightly gritty harbor city in the south of the country. "I have an interest in democracy", he said to a young Hong Kong girl working on her laptop. Recalling the recent umbrella revolution in Hong Kong, he explained his view of similar issues in the ROK. "There is no freedom here" said Mr. Ryan. "Every day we have protests and you never hear about them. Jeju Island, for example, is being sold out to the Chinese and people complain. Nothing happens. There is no democracy in South Korea".
This certainly spurred my interest in what the 40 year old, slightly chubby and quite stereotypical Korean had to say, especially because last year I went to North Korea and the ROK seemed a fortress of hope in comparison. So i jumped in and introduced myself, mentioning that I was living in Hong Kong and was aware of the issues with China. Mr.
Anapji pond reflections
Ryan happily told me that he was considering a PhD in finance in Hong Kong after his long years in a Korean company. He gave me two reasons for this which he mentioned as the main issues why he wanted to leave the ROK.
First, his job was becoming unbearable. He was not only overworked, but felt disrespected and disappointed. Accordingly, he felt that the accountacy system of his company was full of mistakes and believed to be able to fix them. His boss anyhow, being a traditionally power distant Korean, did not allow him to suggest anything in regard. He was an employee and was paid to shut his mouth, he said.
Second, Mr. Ryan had a daughter in elementary school and his wife is Japanese. "Compete, compete" he said. "My daughter already has to compete. When my wife came over from Japan she asked me why the lights in secondary school were still on at 11pm. I told her because kids still study. It was also normal for me as a kid." As a consequence he was contemplating the idea of moving to Japan with his family as education there is more relaxed (!!!).
Cherry blossom beauty
I told him that my boss in Hong Kong was Korean. With a smile he said "I am sure that he is very concerned with the school's global ranking, even if it doesn't really matter. Competition". Mr. Ryan knew everything about my job already by just knowing the nationality of my boss. I was shocked. Eventually, I took the Hong Kong girl for a walk out to the nightmarket for some Doekbokki on the run. Shocked and surprised, we both realized that our life in Hong Kong was not that bad when hearing about Mr. Ryan's life and his perception of his country.
Now I am in the southern town of Gyeongju, about an hour drive from Busan. Similar to other "old" imperial and subsequently demolished capitals in Asia, Gyeongju is pretty much a living museum. World heritage listed Buddhist monasteries line up with the ruins of former royal pleasure gardens and dozens of pyramid-like grass tumuli, where former kings of the Shilla dynasty lay buried. I was lucky with the timing as in these days the city is permanently covered in the delicate pink of falling flower petals from the thousands of cherry-blossom trees lining the narrow streets.
Being renowned as one of the most conservative places in Korea, I anyhow stumbled across lines and lines of "girl-bars" on the main strip. I remember hearing for my friends that for married men in Korea prostitution is very common.. And often accepted by the wife!
Recalling Mr. Ryan's stories, the conservative mindset of Korea and the religious dedication of my Korean colleagues, I know one thing for sure: South Korea is as confusing, if not more, as North Korea was during my trip last year. More I see, more I wonder. A confused Philipp gives you over-and-out from Gyeongju: Great minds of the 21th century, enlighten me if you can!
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