Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fault and Guilt and Ferry Boats

A week ago, a ferry boat carrying almost 500 people capsized off the east coast of South Korea. Most of them high school students and teachers on a school trip. As of this moment, 174 have been rescued, 128 are dead, and 174 are missing.

It's an awful tragedy and the news has been covering the incident non-stop for the past week. Everyone is handling the accident in their own way. My co-workers talk about it every coffee break. Public school teachers are encouraged not to take sides or speak in too much detail to the students. The parents of the victims are sad and angry and distraught. The Korean prime minister delivered an apology to the parents who then threw garbage at him. Another government official giving an update was slapped by an angry parent. The ferry boat captain is being investigated for negligence. The vice-principal of the school commit suicide. Two other crew members have tried to commit suicide. President Park called the actions of ferry boat crew "murderous." The Education Ministry banned all school field trips until June.

That's what brought on this very interesting discussion today with my co-workers over coffee:

"Heather," my co-teacher says, "did you hear next week's Sports Day was cancelled?"

"Yes, I did. Because of the ferry boat accident, right? Are people concerned about safety?"

"That and it feels disrespectful to have fun at a time like this." She continues, "Did you hear that the vice-principal commit suicide?"

"Yes, I did. It makes me so sad."

"I can understand him. I think I would do the same thing."

"Really? But it wasn't his fault. He didn't cause the boat to crash."

She thinks, "Well, yes, but he was responsible to those kids. To those families. In America, you are an individual. In Korea, you are part of a group. It was probably good that he commit suicide. The boat captain will probably kill himself too."

Pausing cautiously, I ask a question I already know the answer to: "Is suicide common in Korea?"

"Yes," another teacher chimes in. "We have some of the highest rates in the world."

"Why do you think that is?" I ask.

They all chime in with different responses: fierce competition, wealth and education as status symbols, intense pressure to get good grades and a good job, shame from your family, lack of acceptance surrounding psychotherapy, etc.

But my co-teacher offered an idea I hadn't thought of before. She said, "In the last sixty years, Korea's economy has grown very quickly from one of the lowest in the world to one of the highest in the world. Our economy has grown very fast, but our minds are still behind."

I inquire, "Do you mean, like, mental health? Emotional health?"

"Yes! We are so busy working hard, we don't have time to worry about our mental health. Our happiness. Our relationships. We just work and try to be successful. It is very important to be successful in Korean society. So people commit suicide if they feel like they have failed and everyone will judge them for it."

Another co-worker explains that this competitive atmosphere is why Koreans work such long hours, dress so nicely, get plastic surgery, and drive fancy cars they can't afford. It is very important to at least appear successful because life here can feel like such a competition.

"Wow, that sounds exhausting!"

All the women around me have different stories about their struggles to keep up with this kind of competitive culture. Everything from unkind mother-in-laws to distant husbands, extra tutoring hours for kids to judgment from friends and family members.

I ask them, "What would happen if you just quit? If you didn't care about the competition."

They all laugh. One teacher says, "I would be ostracized! People would be disappointed in me. I would lose so much of what I've worked so hard to gain."

America has some of it's owns problems surrounding this kind of competitive culture. People wanting to measure up, to look good, to make money, to get the job, to have "the life." But, I realize, America is very big and Korea is very small. The rules are different. As an American, I can say, "I give up, society. I'm not playing your game anymore." That requires far less bravery from me. I can find other people to be friends with. I can move somewhere else. I don't belong to a homogeneous racial group of fifty million people squished into a country the size of Indiana.

Context makes all the difference.

"That's why the vice-principal commit suicide," my co-teacher says. "It doesn't matter that the accident was not actually his fault. He knows that Koreans will judge him. His family will be ashamed of him. That he made a mistake that will haunt him forever."

I am not an expert on Korean culture. Eight months here has left me with far more questions than answers. I can only tell you what my very patient, Korean friends have shared with me about their experiences. But, as Maya Angelou says, "When you know better, you do better." And hopefully, what we learn from each other is constantly making us better.

Please keep Korea in your thoughts and prayers.


Christoffer said...

What a tragedy, on many levels. Courage as you keep having those conversations with your friends. I feel like it's good to have read and now know some of these things you've shared.