Human beings and salmon – what the news says about a country

Feeling somewhat cut-off from what has been going on around us (a symptom of living in a small village where no one speaks English!) we decided in our infinite wisdom to subscribe to the Korea Times – a newspaper for English speakers.

As well as the sheer delight of being connected a bit easier with the wider world, we thought this would also be a great way to find out more about the ins-and-outs of Korea as well as to get a bit of perspective on what outside news makes it through the Korea radar.  This is something we became particularly fascinated by when living in the Cayman Islands – around the time of the historic election where President Obama became victorious, the local rag, The CayCompass, featured more about the costumes that people would be wearing to the upcoming Pirate Festival than they did about the presidential race and election.  This somewhat opened our eyes to the fact that what we percieve as important and newsworthy might not be universal…

The Korea Times is now delivered straight to the internal front door of our apartment – much like being in a hotel!  No walking to the letterbox for us – we can simply open the front door in a state of undress and pick up our link to the wider world.  Luxury.

Being a Seoul based newspaper, there are a lot of fabulous events, exhibitions and gigis advertised that are far ourside our reach.  But The Korea Times more than makes up for this with some of its other inclusions…

Which brings us to some particularly fascinating articles that have made us sit down and write this blog.  We feel they are worth sharing for a number of reasons and give a great insight into a number of things.

Firstly, anything with the words ‘New Zealand’ in it is bound to capture our attention.  Now, South Korea makes it into the Kiwi papers with some regularity.  Recent articles back home have been about serious issues such as the proposed free trade agreement between the two countries, alliegiance when it comes to North Korea’s flouting of international laws, the state of Korean fishing ships (and their labour laws) within New Zealand waters and environmental issues with regards to over-fishing.  Pretty important stuff, we think.

In the couple of months we have been subscribers of The Korean Times, New Zealand has popped its head up at this end…with an extremely newsworthy article about – wait for it – hiring military tanks for a joy ride.  Now don’t get us wrong – crushing cars with an army tank sounds pretty damn fun.  But the ‘relevance’ of this pieces of news left a little bewildered.  And made us giggle.

On a different note, a recent article about the ozone really struck us as “enlightening” especially in light of previous observations (and posts) we have made about the environment where we live here.  When talking about earlier preconceptions about the damage the ozone hole could cause:

“It sounded as if everyone was going to die of skin cancer because the ozone layer was no longer going to be there to protect us.  Do we talk about the ozone layer now?  Did a majority of the Earth’s population get skin cancer?  Not by a long shot.”

Yes Korea Times, while YOU might not think its a rather passe issue that’s because your country still has an ozone layer protecting its precious shores – ah, the irony of that!.  Gorgeous little (mostly) non-polluted New Zealand, however, has a significant ozone depletion nearby (centred over Antartica, if we are not mistaken), a burn time of approximately 12 minutes in summer and the highest incidence of sun-related skin cancer in the world.  You can be sure as hell that SOME people are still speaking about it.

What else has caught our eye, you may ask?  Well, glad you asked.  An absolute stand-out article appeared at the end of March 2012, entitled Human Beings and Salmon.  We have reproduced it in its entirety for you to read as it reveals SO much about the Korean psyche and puts some things into, well, perspective (?) on what we experience here.  So, without further ado:

Human Beings and Salmon

By Oh Jung-hun

“The Kingdom of Animal” has become one of my favorite TV programs.

The documentary on the life cycle of salmon still remains fresh in my memory. They instinctively swim upstream to lay eggs. They try to climb, but like the stone of Sisyphus, they are dragged back by the current. They repeat this trial without stopping until they reach the spawning ground.

A large number of salmon end up exhausted amid a pitiful drifting on the torrid tide. Only a few are successful. The rest are washed away by the force of the cascade. Their life tragically ends with their corpse floating away. It is the life of a salmon.

The life cycle of the salmon seems to be similar to that of human lives. Drifting has something to do with the human destiny to survive.

People, like salmon, resist heading downstream to their fate so that dreams come true. The stronger the current becomes, the more they resist. However, most of us fall in the face of harsh tribulation. Some may wait for another opportunity to go upstream but others give up.

Our doom seems to be predestined no matter how many times we try. After such a failure, we begin a process of drifting for survival.

In Korea, we encounter many unavoidable occasions that keep us drifting. Therefore, most of the mediocre try to cling to neutrality.

However, it is far more difficult than standing at the polarized edge of either black or white. Some hawks may criticize those drifting along the fluctuating current as being an opportunist. When they utter something progressive, they face a counterattack from ultra-conservatives and vice versa.

In meetings, Korean workers keep silent for fear of being judged. I have also acquired this social strategy not to be rejected. Though our idea is enough to be justifiable under any circumstance, keeping our mouth shut is evidently more preferable than opening it.

As we get older, our physical and mental energy withers. Aging makes us drift wisely but pitifully. We should keep rowing against the invisible undercurrent. The submerged tide makes it much harder to drift at random because it determines another anchorage.

In this digital age, the survival within an organization is becoming submerged with each mouth locked.

We can estimate how deep the river is, but the depth of colleagues’ minds is unfathomable. They may leave no stone unturned for survival in order not to be shipwrecked. Because we don’t know which crutches will help our survival, drifting naturally begins.

Breaking a promise to go drinking after work may make drifters suffer from ostracism from colleagues. Some might lose their orientation. Others suffer from ulcers as seriously as they feel stomachaches.

They are apt to drink again because of the nagging requirement of their superiors. Worse, any attempt to resist against this current arouses intense anxiety and drifters feel they are being thrown into the ocean without knowing where to swim.

Therefore, we desperately search for crutches to lean on. Grouping in an organization plays a crucial role to buttress the weakness of an individual. According to an older colleague’s advice, if one does not have a friendly inner circle to back one’s own survival, drifting by the group is better than rowing by solitary willingness.

“Don’t make enemies by uttering some mistaken words. Once you make the mistake, it is no use crying over spilt milk. It is irrevocable,” he said. Theological knowledge acquired through books seems to be obsolete in real life.

The elite, who were once used to honestly paddling at school, are likely to drown under the current. In Korea, those who successfully manage to take a position are accustomed to drifting and watching others.

My retired father gave me a piece of golden advice, “Keep drifting with your mouth shut no matter what it is.”

Its implicit meaning is to grasp the sleeve of mine whenever I may be outspoken. Unlike in my prime years, it seems that I have become an exhausted salmon drifting on the current. But drifters are not losers.

The writer is a high school teacher in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.

No matter how hard you try and get into the minds of Koreans here, as a foreigner its difficult.  Their actions and expressions often seem impossible to understand from the outside.  This article, sadly, sums up a lot of what we see going on and, we guess, offers some insight into WHY things happen…or don’t happen, as the case may be.

We’re a bit lost for words on this.  It comes across as such a fatalistic approach to life and its not uncommon here.  At the end of the day, we got what we asked for – some insight into the country we’re currently calling home and the people that live here.

On a lighter, though pretty scary note, we’ll leave a recent highlight.  Entitled Fallacy on the English Divide, and written by the no less than the Executive Managing Director of the Korea Times, this article served to debate the findings that have been hitting the media lately that proficiency in English amongst Korean people can be directly attributed to how much income a family has.  In a nutshell, lots of money = better education, better resources and expensive cram schools = good English.

But no, says Lee Chang-Sup.  This is a fallacy.  He does make some excellent and relevant points; that policy makers need to think outside the box and not just stick to academic English for their testing; that language learning requires curiosity and patience; and that there are numerous (mainly online) resources that are widely available at no cost.  But it was his final conclusion that had us amused.

“Smartphone, not money, is a solution to upgrading English proficiency. Children of both rich and poor parents can master English at little cost, only if they have curiosity to do so.”

We get the feeling that Mr Lee has never had to fight the daily battle of a teacher in Korea that is the extrication of Smartphones from the hands of distracted, surly, over-exhausted teenagers.  Who, we might add, are NOT using them for learning English and in fact would turn up their lips in disgust at the mere thought of sullying their precious screens with study.  Curious?  Yes.  Gullible?  No…unfortunately!
Only in Korea 😉
Categories: Korea, News, Teaching, TravelTags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. Sometimes Korea can be so frustrating, it can be hard to reconcile what we see each day with our culture and the way we think. That salmon article is sad, but like you said, pretty insightful. Sometimes I feel the whole country has its priorities mixed up….but really, who am I to say that? America is pretty messed up it its own ways too. Anyway, good read, thanks!

    • No country is perfect, eh…and we love the way that newspapers can provide such a reflection of this. Its also really interesting for us as non-Korean speakers as it at least offers us some insight into the Korean mindset which we just don’t get face-to-face.

      New Zealand has its share of wacky reporting too. My favourite article this year was about a truckload of hollandaise sauce leaking on a highway and causing havoc, haha.

  2. Only in Korea as you say! We have an English language newspaper here and (although I read and talk Spanish fluently) I look at it mainly for the entertainment value it offers 😉

  3. Hmm, what happens if you’re not a Salmon? What if you’re more like a mackerel or Blue fin Tuna? Or maybe there’s folks out there who think they’re blue fin Tuna but they’re just really whiting?

    Lol, I actually think that article was trying to get somewhere important but now I’m just thinking about smoked salmon bagels!

    Love you work 😉

  4. Woot! Keep on making a hoot about the ozone, please! I am serious. I had almost forgotten about it. I’ve been refraining form using my air conditioner this summer. Hopefully it helps if even in the slightest. 🙂

    Interesting article about the salmon. It’s a little bit familiar on this side of the pond, too. Somehow different though. Can’t put my finger on it, but it’s familiar.

    • We fry every summer in New Zealand (seriously, ten minutes in the hot sun and you start to get burnt!) so we’re used to having it drummed into our consciousness. To give Korea some credit, it does have some interesting initiatives around climate change – for instance, the ‘cool office’ policy, in which certain companies allow their employees to wear shorts and t-shirts during the hottest months in order to use less air conditioning! So like what you’re doing on a big scale 🙂
      The salmon article was a little disturbing…but interesting for sure!

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