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Government employees as defenders of tradition because… 우물안 개구리 (frog inside a well)

I volunteered last week at a senior citizens center. They need warm bodies to help feed the senior citizens who cannot feed themselves (many have dementia or Parkinsons disease, some are bed-ridden). Someone there to help her mother eat asked if I would return, and I immediately said no.

Part of is that the center was funded by the government and in a very ritzy area of town. The bigger part of it was the people who worked there, their small-mindedness, their snideness stemming from ignorance. (And of course I realize that this is Dunning-Kruger effect in effect… but I don’t want to go back. Not when the center does not need my help as desperately as other smaller organizations, especially those who do boots on the ground grassroots outreach and support. More on this later.*)

Korean has many wonderful and quirky idioms, of which a very frequently used one is “우물안 개구리” or “frog inside a well.” The origins, from a Chinese story, developed into an idiom or fable in China, Korea, and Japan. I think because Koreans recognize that their country is small and comparatively weaker (Korea has no natural resources to form the basis of trade), the saying comes up a lot when talking about Koreans as people. And I think it has double impact for those who are employees of the Korean government.

A bit of background: the odds of landing a government job are 300:1. For every 300 people who take the civil entrance examination (yes, just like in old Confucian times, although to be fair the U.S. also has a Foreign Service Exam for certain governmental employees), only one person actually makes it. As a hangover from that old Confucian tradition, working for the government is considered extremely prestigious.

The practical benefits: a work schedule that allows people to live (9-6, with an hour for lunch, whereas most other company employees usually have to work until 7 on an early night and more often until 9 or 10; plus weekends off, when most other employees are expected to participate in company outings on the weekends too); all holidays off.

But mostly what people want from these jobs is all that plus the prestige and safety. In fact, the prestige comes in large part from the safety. The safety in turn flows from how civil service could raise up an entire family during olden times in Korea.

And so I understand that.

But also I am the child of immigrants who were double-plus-good (1984 speak) ambitious and bridge-burning over their immigrant-peers… I cannot understand placing safety on such a pedestal.

The prestige comes from the safety, and there’s a historical reason for that. The prestige also comes from the competitiveness… which is caused by the clamor for such safety.


Looping, it’s a mobius strip, a self-sustaining perpetual machine.

And so now, today, the people who work for the government are supremely sheltered. Government employees in any culture tend to attract those who crave security over all else. Hand-in-hand with that safety? Upholding whatever are the traditional or conformative mores, whatever are the social codes and social order. Government is not where you go if you are radical, unless you want to create a world in which you want to shoot yourself.** It’s like The Law in a way — inherently about preserving the existing power structure.

And if I had known I would be at a government facility before I got there, I would have been more emotionally prepared. As it was, I was surprised and had a bit more of that “THIS IS KOREA AND YOU WILL NEVER FIT IN HERE” blowback.

Which is fine. I was probably overdue for it, since I hadn’t had the lesson hammered home since February. I had done fine with the small bumps along the road that happened since February, but it hadn’t been shoved in my face until this volunteering effort.

So, I showed up, signed in, registered, listened to the volunteer coordinator explain the duties. (He’d asked me over the phone if I was going to come regularly and I said I would see; and I’m glad I did because then I wasn’t locked in to volunteering at a place that I didn’t like.) We had an entire conversation all in Korean.

Then he mentioned that sometimes it takes a bit longer because there is paperwork to fill out after the volunteering. I said I probably wouldn’t be able to help with that since my Korean reading ability isn’t great. (I mean, it’s fine; but government forms usually use the most formal of terms and I haven’t learned those yet.) He said the forms are no big deal, just basic stuff, so I smiled and said okay. He asks if I’m Korean and I say no, I’m gyopo. He tells me to wait and rest for a while and then he’ll take me upstairs.

Flash to upstairs where I’m waiting to help feed the seniors. I help with a few tasks. I have a quick conversation with one of the nurses. Then she stops and we have this exchange, ALL IN KOREAN:

“The volunteer coordinator said you can’t speak Korean.”
“I can speak Korean. Just if you use the easier words, then it will be fine.”
“The volunteer coordinator said you can’t speak Korean at all. Is the communication between us going to work?” she asks.
“I can speak Korean; I’m just not fluent. It will be fine if you use easier words is all,” I repeat.
She walks away and I just go back to waiting until it’s time to feed the seniors. Then I feed the seniors, with a couple of other verbal exchanges with the nurses. When I’m done and everything has been put away, I go downstairs to check out and then I leave.

And I’m annoyed. Thankfully, not seething like I would have been before meditation and comfort and healing, but annoyed. And I thought to how before I would have wanted that acceptance but now I accept that that acceptance will never be mine and so it rolled off of me, mostly. Not entirely, or else I wouldn’t be posting about it now 😛

My theory is that it is the worst of “frog inside a well.” Like “frog in a bubble, inside a well.” Korean society is pretty internalized and limiting as it is, but for those who have hit the pinnacle of working for the government, they have their own tiny world and no reason to go outside of that world. So they stay in their bubble floating on a well’s water-surface, and they think that they know all that they need to know.

1. Bitch, I told you, volunteer coordinator, that my Korean wasn’t fluent. I didn’t say that I couldn’t speak Korean. AND WE HAD AN ENTIRE CONVERSATION IN KOREAN BEFORE WE EVEN GOT TO THAT POINT. So for you to transmit the information that I “couldn’t speak Korean at all” is incredibly disingenuous at best and plain wrong at worst. (Actually worst is if you said it maliciously but I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt — from frog inside a well, because you don’t know what you don’t know, a la Dunning-Kruger effect — that you did not say it maliciously.)
2. Whattttt, nurse, we had exchanges ALL IN KOREAN before you decided to bring up that I couldn’t speak Korean. Why can’t you reconcile the idea in your head that a person can speak a language but not be fluent?

Actually that last is exactly why I think this is a “frog inside a well” problem. For a society that is incredibly insular and where the majority of the citizens do not have to interact with people different from themselves… it is “normal” to think that a person can be unable to speak a language despite learning it for 10+ years. This is sadly how many Koreans are with English (there’s a conflagration of reasons for this, which I won’t address here — I do understand much of the difficulty though; it’s largely the flawed educational system).

There are levels of fluency in any language. I can communicate and get my ideas across in Korean with no problem. It may take a bit longer since I don’t know all of the advanced words in the same way that I know them in English… but I can communicate.

Most other people I talk with — granted, people who want to learn English or people who seek out non-Koreans in some way; this relates to a later point — are impressed by my level of Korean, especially after they learn I was born in the States; they offer compliments (I never ask about my Korean because that opens the doors to people (mostly men) correcting me, which I hate — I acknowledge it’s a character flaw). I say that my Korean is not 100% fluent and I’m studying to become fluent and they inevitably say either “it’s so wonderful that you can communicate in Korean” or “I wish I could speak English as well as you can speak Korean.”

And I know, now, why I’m so upset. Because these two clueless governmental employees reducing my Korean to “inability” OR “lack” made me feel like all of the Korean language study I’ve been doing lately… was worthless.

But I remind myself that they are big fish in a small-tiny-teeny-tiny pond. Frogs inside a well, thinking they have everything they need — and maybe they do, from my Buddhist side — but their lack of empathy made me feel like my studying Korean was pointless.

And I won’t succumb! The fault of poor communication lies not with me (for example, I was not the one who “translated” lack of fluency into complete inability) but with you and your tiny bubbles inside tiny wells.

And that’s the other side of it, too. The Koreans who call Koreans “frogs inside wells” are those who have traveled outside of Korea, who have felt what it’s like to not be the majority, who have faced difficulty in communicating, who have faced racism, who have been challenged in their behaviors. But government employees from the US rarely travel and so I understand if government employees from Korea also rarely travel.

My parents would say it’s because the naysayers are uneducated, but I think it’s because they are ignorant and lacking in empathy or the ability to imagine a world different from the one they grew up in. They haven’t been challenged. It’s not about education, because 93% of Koreans nowadays graduate from college. It’s about being pushed to consider ways of existing that are outside your society’s norms. And Korea is cruel to that (I mean, in general, Korea is cruel to Koreans so it’s just an additional layer).

So to those two government employees, I wish you well… and I never want to see you again.

* My main area of volunteer focus in Korea is the elderly poor. There are many news articles on how the system has failed them and many believe that they will work until they die. Here are two articles:
https://koreaexpose.com/no-country-for-old-people/: also has links to further articles; they all made me tear up
http://says.com/my/news/granny-prostitutes-in-south-korea-elderly-live-in-poverty: please no sex-shaming; sometimes all that is left to sell in super-capitalist Korea is the body

In fact, the last (super awkward) dude I went on a date with — he told me that he wasn’t close with his family, that his mother and father live apart, and that his mother depends on what he and his siblings can send to her to support her. I asked why he didn’t bring her to live with him, and his excuse was that then he’d have to get an apartment with two bedrooms and that that was too expensive. And I thought, “You’re being so selfish. You work for fucking LG in Seoul.”

And maybe — since my Buddhist self wants to see the other side, the potential good in people — he sends a lot to his mother to compensate. But it didn’t feel like it. The way he said it, it felt like he and his siblings send small amounts after they take care of themselves in the manner/status that they want and that they say it’s because they don’t want their father to find out they’re helping their mother (he used the term 살짝).

Anyway, volunteering in Korea I want to help the elderly poor, the ones who have been forsaken and forgotten by their children, who the existing social and governmental structure does not help enough. This bright and clean senior citizens’ center, in the middle of a rich neighborhood, did not hit the parts that ache in my heart. So I wouldn’t have gone back; it’s just that the behavior of the government employees made that decision even more firm. (I should probably say that in the hierarchy of government jobs, theirs ranks towards the bottom. And this two-faced-ness in Korea drives me crazy. But it’s not for me to resolve — it’s not my lane, so all I can do is help where I want to help.)

Also, in case you are curious, I volunteer to distribute food to the homeless too. My reason for seeking out other volunteer opportunities is twofold:
1.Distributing food to the homeless requires a lot of walking and sometimes my knee isn’t up to it if I have gone running that same day (I go to a running meetup sometimes and they are always on the same day).
2.More importantly, I want to help people before they become homeless. There is a minimal social safety net here (most of it runs on family which can be great but then can be awful if your children are selfish like my super-awkward date)… so once you are homeless, climbing out of that situation is almost impossible. There’s a reason why the elderly poor hold on to their W50,000 per month tiny rooms (more like hovels) for as long as they can. Sometimes they can pay for those rooms by selling cardboard recycling but that too is fraught with turf scuffles and also it’s incredibly awful physical labor for seniors who are weaker and slower (omg about to cry).

** For one summer, I was a Law Clerk for the U.S. government. I hated it. I especially did not like how the force of The System made me become racist and see vulnerable people as exploiting the system. I didn’t like how I started to see that behavior as “wrong.” But that’s what The System does — it actively works to strip you of your humanity by slicing your empathy away, away, away.

I hated it and I use this story a lot when talking with people who are thinking of going to law school because they “want to change the system from within.” NO. The System changes YOU; The System has the weight and pressure of generations and the force of all of the people through those generations. Sure, maybe you are the special one who can change it from within. But that too is a trope and statistically you are so much more likely to end up someone you despise. I certainly did and that is why I will never work for a government again.

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