Friday, 6 May 2011

Children's Day

Yesterday was Children's Day here in Korea. That's right, they have not just mothers and fathers day to kick you in the teeth, but also a whole day to celebrate children. When I was little, like most people in my office it seems, I said to my parents 'Why is there Mother's Day and Father's Day but no Children's Day?' to which they replied...

'Every day is children's day!'

It's not just a day on the calendar in Korea. Oh no, it's a national holiday and very few people go to work. Very few except me, as my school stayed open so as not to mess up our term schedule. (The same applies to Buddha's Birthday and National Independence Movement Declaration Day or whatever the damn day is called) So while my husband got to swan around all day*, I had to go to work and organise our Children's Day hoopla.

The irony is that in Korea, every day really is children's day. As a culture, on the surface at least, there is little that is more important than having children. Couples who are married but childless are constantly badgered by their families about it. Educated, professional women give up work to stay at home not through choice but because maternity leave is practically non-existent and it is the expected thing to do. Korean parents spend a huge portion of their income on private after school academies (I have heard around 50% but I haven't found any hard evidence of that. I do know it's high because I know what my school charges for 3 hours of tuition a week, and these kids go to 4 or 5 different academies in a week.)

Korea has a crisis in public education and parents have very little faith in the public school system. Rather than pay more taxes to attempt to improve it, parents prefer to push their children through various after school classes every day. Even if you feel your child doesn't need to go to Maths Academy, or, and whisper this very, very quietly, you can't afford it, he still must go because the other children in his class go. If he gets even one page behind them in the text book then his hopes for entering a good university are dashed and you have failed as a parent.

The double irony of this is that the cost of having children, along with crazy long-hours working culture, has pushed the birth rate waaay down. It is now below Japan, and one of the lowest in the world (some studies say the lowest). Over the next ten-twenty years Korea will need more than a million immigrants to fill the upcoming gaps in their workforce. This is perhaps why fertility treatment, including IVF, is relatively affordable (but that's a post for another day... promise.)

Sacrifice for your children is expected, and everyone does it. The basic system of Korean culture is that you sacrifice for your children, and then they will look after you when you are old. I once had a student look at me disgusted because I didn't send money to my parents. The fact that they were both still working at the time, were both department managers and making a lot more than I did was irrelevant. It was my duty to look after them, and send them money every month.

So yesterday was a day to celebrate children. The area I work in was turned into a giant street fayre, and I had to walk past dozens of strollers and babies and small children (I'm not jealous of older children, I teach them and I know what a pain they can be) just to get into the office. But you know, it wasn't so bad. Maybe it's because we're actively pursuing treatment now, maybe because I've only had one failed IUI so far so things still seem hopeful. I don't know why, I just know that it wasn't so bad.

*Actually my husband works incredibly hard and I don't begrudge him his day off, I just wish I could have spent the whole day with him.


Anonymous said...

Wow, talk about pressure on the kids! and parents for having clever ones. Sounds a bit too much in my ears. Interesting how different the cultures are.

Sara said...

UGH! I posted a long comment but it got lost. I hate it when that happens. This will be a shorter version. I hope it still makes sense.

My first thought when I read your post was to feel a little indignant for Korea. I thought their maternity leave policy--three months paid leave for any worker, regardless of duration of employment or citizenship--was fantastic. As an American, I had expected to get at best six weeks, unpaid, as is standard in my country. So, the (generous by comparison) Korean leave policy seemed like a wonderfully enlightened system. Then I realized that you're not American, so your standards are substantially higher, as they should be. It's all relative.

I don't think many Korean mothers leave the workplace because of the leave policies, though. I think it's just impossible for two parents to raise a child while working 12-to-13-hour workdays, and there are few options for working shorter days while still getting a decent salary. The Korean workplace rat race is just so intense!

Regardless of that, I'm sorry you didn't get the day off, but am also glad that it wasn't too painful for you. Hopefully this time next year you'll be celebrating with your own child.

Kat said...

@Sara - I had never thought of the Korean system as generous! It's all relative I guess and I often forget how spoiled we Europeans. It's very interesting to here another cultural perspective. In Britain we get 6 months paid, and then a further 6 months unpaid if wanted.

I've never worked an office job in Korea (when I refer to the 'office' I mean the teacher's room!) so I don't know what the differences are with the language schools, but I have had friends (teachers) who have fallen foul of the Korean maternity leave system. Simply put, their contracts ended, their visas expired, and the company had no obligation to pay maternity leave or extend their contracts. I also had a student who had quit because despite being 6 months pregnant, she was still expected to work a 12-14 hour day as a graphic designer.

The other problem for parents is the lack of funding for public childcare. There are few nursery/day care spaces, and those that exist are incredibly expensive. Unless you have a grandparent who is willing to look after your child for you, you have few options but to leave work.

In fact, many after school classes are taken because they are a form of child care - I definitely know of people who are not so much teachers as babysitters - and no one seems to mind.

Your point about flexible working is completely true! I was asking students if their companies offered job sharing, and they just looked at me blankly.

I also wrote a longer version of this comment and then blogger went all screwy! Bad day for it I guess...

Sara said...

It stinks that your friends didn't get to take advantage of the Korean maternity leave system. If your contract runs out while you are pregnant, your company is under no obligation to rehire you for the next year, and in the case of language schools, where everyone is replaceable, they have very little incentive to do so, knowing that if they do rehire you, they'll soon have to pay you an extra 1/4 of your annual salary to not work. The same is all true in the US, so this seems normal to me also. Is it not true in the UK? It isn't particularly fair to women, and especially infertile women who can't plan their pregnancies around their employment calendar, but there it is.

"The other problem for parents is the lack of funding for public childcare. There are few nursery/day care spaces, and those that exist are incredibly expensive. Unless you have a grandparent who is willing to look after your child for you, you have few options but to leave work." Very true. These things are all true in the United States also. Very poor people can sometimes qualify for a free or subsidized preschool program starting at age 3 or 4, and some communities have free pre-kindergarten (starting at age 4), but mostly you're on your own until your child is 5. Where I live, relatively affordable child care is available, but many of my friends in big cities pay huge amounts of money for day care, private preschool, or a nanny, making it dubious economics to work unless your salary is quite high. Grandparents are a common solution here also.

I actually came back to post this:

I ran into it after reading your post, and thought you might be interested.

Kat said...

@Sara - In the UK it depends on what type of contract you are on. If it is a temporary/short term contract, then there will likely be no maternity pay (anyone in the UK who has otherwise, I'm interested to hear from you!) But most people in the UK are on full time permanent contracts, and so are entitled to 52 weeks maternity leave regardless of how long they have worked for the company, though not all of it will be paid.

Thanks for the link btw - very interesting. It might make a good topic for a class as well (though I'd have to spin it in a way that didn't possibly insult Korean culture.)

Kat said...

Wow! Also I've just discovered that fathers or same sex partners are also entitled to up to 26 weeks paternity leave as well. However I cannot figure out whether/how that is paid.

China Doll said...

Really interesting post.. I've been meaning to mention to you something that my Bloke found in one of his books on Korean culture which is about 'rude questions that people will ask you'.. basically all you said about drilling you on why you don't have children!
Enjoyed learning more about this topic.. thanks! xx