I've been kicking around the ideas for this blog post for a while, and finally have some time to write it down and flesh it out. I am by no means a cultural expert, so these are just the musings of someone who has been here for almost a year, and who has seen the bali bali culture daily. Now, I know I talk about how much I love life here, and I really do, but this just commenting on one of the more frustrating parts of living in Korea. Please, forgive these ramblings and pass it by if you don't want to read an essay about Korean culture. I've just had it on my mind for quite some time.
You see, a few weeks ago, the subject teachers went out to dinner, and, though I don't know how we got on the subject, my handler was telling me about Korea's bali bali culture. Bali means hurry in Korean, and I usually hear it in the context of games we play in English class.
But in a cultural sense, it takes on a new meaning. My handler said she used to be skeptical of bali bali culture, but now she really appreciates it because it makes Koreans so efficient.
I have to disagree. Especially on the efficiency. More on that later. First, you need to know what bali bali culture is.
Bali bali culture is the result of the rapid rebuilding and industrialization of Korea after the Korean War. The recovery was supposed to take over 100 years, but has been miraculously fast, and the conditions in Korea from even just 40 years ago are vastly different and, in almost all cases, immensely improved. Koreans were told, "if we work together, we can improve the country. But we have to hurry to be successful."
The results are impressive, to be sure. On the surface. Much like the gilded age in America, if one chips away at bali bali culture, one can see the shortcomings of the system which urges fast paces. Perhaps it is because I am an outsider, or perhaps it is because I've lived in other countries where time is relative or treated differently, but I don't know if bali bali is the best for Korea.
What struck me is that my handler told me that bali bali means efficiency- that Koreans get things done quickly and well. Korea is actually the least productive country in the OECD nations, even though its citizens clock the most hours of time spent at work. I'm not sure if I can take that as efficiency or a job well done.
For a culture that is so hurried, my classes do not often start on time, nor are things often done in a timely fashion. The hurry hurry culture has also perpetuated a last minute culture, where schedules change mere minutes before and a long chain of command makes communications difficult. I will be informed 5 minutes into class that we will not be having class, or 5 minutes before the end of the day that the schedule changed for tomorrow, and I'm teaching writing, not speaking. There goes my entire lesson plan. Yay.
So, let me explain to you what bali bali means to an outsider.
The bali bali I see every day can be life threatening and scary.
It is motorcycles riding on the sidewalks to avoid red lights, and it is food delivery scooters weaving through cars, buses and pedestrians, running red lights and speeding through intersections to get more deliveries in.
It is cars and taxi's driving through crosswalks that say pedestrians can walk, hoping that they can speed through before the people step off the sidewalk.
It is bus drivers who cut across lanes of traffic, who race through red lights, and who whip around turns, barely slowing the bus down so people can get off, because they have to get through the route a certain amount of times in a shift.
These traffic conditions are especially alarming, because red lights, law though they are, are often ignored. It's a good day when I can count on 1 hand the number of vehicles that have sped through. 2 hands is decent, but more often than not, I'd have to use my fingers and toes to count the number of cars, buses and motorcycles/scooters that zoom through intersections. Even near my school, where there are understandably lots of children, one must check both ways about 4 times to ensure safe crossing. I rarely, if ever, go a day without seeing someone run a red light at some point during my commute.
Bali bali culture is cargo being improperly loaded onto ships at 3x the capacity, in order to get more stuff there faster, at the cost of well over 200 lives (Sewol incident).
Not always life threatening, but related to public transport- bali bali has resulted in an amount of pushing and shoving that I never though possible. If I could move faster off the bus, I would, but in a crowded place where people are all moving towards one door, pushing does not help. Crowding onto the subway before people get off is also an issue. No one pays heed to the fact that there are other people in front of them. They need to hurry, so pushing is totally fair game. It makes an already crushing bus or subway ride even more irritating. Don't you think that I would move towards the door if I COULD? No lady, I'm not walking slowly just to inconvenience you. There are 50 other people trying to get off this bus through a single door.
Less life threatening but also dangerous for society things sprouted out of the bali bali culture.
It is the idea that time is to be for studying and nothing else- my children's play time hours are waning. In middle and high school, their time will be for studying for tests, sports and extra curriculars are unimportant (unless one excels in them- then it is treated as something to study and becomes their main focus). Even now, my 5th and 6th graders complain that they will be going to hagwons after school in order to get ahead on every subject, from English, Math, Science and beyond.
It is a "keep up with the group" mentality, which means that everyone has the same phones, cars, shoes and clothes. Seriously. It's the same familiar clothing all over, in most of the shops and on most of the people. They all rush to buy the newest edition of the samsung whatever. It's not that Americans don't have this problem, but it permeates every aspect of Korean life here. You won't see many vibrant car colors here. Keeping up with the group also means not showing off with a flashy red, blue or green car. Gray, black, white and silver are the most common colors here.
Bali Bali is not conducive to language learning, where my co teachers cannot wait for children to think their answer through, but instead immediately coach them if there is hesitation. Using a second language is about the struggle, but if they cannot memorize it, it isn't worth knowing. Language isn't like facts and figures. It must be used, struggled with, and built upon to grow. Part of that means waiting a few moments for my students to struggle through an answer, or to work it out themselves. But not with bali bali.
Bali bali culture strove for rapid improvement, but it was attained at an unsustainable pace. Things cannot improve as quickly as they did, but people still expect it to be so. Smartphone capabilities have worsened this effect, and so now everyone expects everything to be almost instantaneous. This is not just a Korean problem, but this country is more addicted to their phones than many others I've seen.
Bali bali culture and the struggle for continuous improvement means hard work is almost unappreciated and clearly expected. The hierarchy of Korean work culture also plays a part in this. Many office workers are miserable- your boss dictates your life, and if he wants to stay till 11 pm, you sure are too. There is no time for relaxation in the bali bali culture- whatever you are doing must be improving yourself and the group around you.
Bali bali may have been great for economic growth, but for the soul, I'm not so sure.
I do love living here, but I enjoy it as a foreigner who can just shake their head at this lifestyle. But I think for the people living it, it is an entirely different story.
Regular weekly update will of course be posted, with more lightheartedness and less cultural commenting.