I lived in Korea for over 20 years, and that culture and society gave me much. I am constantly trying to pay it back, and know I never will, so great is the debt. And one of the ways I can “pay it back” is by speaking as truly and frankly about aspects of their human-tohuman treatment which are sub-optimal, at best, and often quite brutal.
One of the first things I noticed, as I developed friendships there after first visiting in 1990, was the extremely harsh working conditions of pretty much everyone. There was no such thing as a Saturday off for everyone I knew, and some 70% of them even needed to put in a few hours on Sundays — without any bonus or extra pay. There was no overtime pay for workers who rarely returned home before 9 or 10 p.m., and I believe that that largely remains so (except for the large American and European companies based there, all who run things by more enlightened labor standards.) I remember seeing, with great horror, clumps of middle- and high school-aged children slumped in bus stops and on subway steps on the streets of Seoul at 10 pm, sometimes even at midnight on a school night, all uniformed up from the classroom, finishing their six-days-a-week regimen of after-class “cram schools” that determine one’s ranking on a national test that determines your entire economic future, right down to the people who will marry you in that intensely upward-mobile society.
Of course, anyone who understands with even a smidgeon of Korea’s history will know how much of this frenzied grow-at-all-costs madness was the efforts of a small nation never to be conquered again, as it had experienced so many times with Imperial China and Imperial Japan — “a shrimp between two fighting whales”, the Koreans describe their geopolitical position. Anyone who loves Korea and her deep traditions — I have sometimes described my first, most inspired years of practice there “a love story” — feels the bitter ground of these soul-killing mentalities.
This recent documentary on Al Jazeera knocked my socks off: The overworking of delivery workers who serve South Korea’s explosive use of home-delivery services for everything they need, all of it delivered on a tight clock through vast canyons of high-rise apartments — literally squeezes the life out of workers who are delayed even a few minutes by traffic. When a worker cannot complete all of the deliveries required of him, and tracked real-time by a central computer, if due to traffic or congestion the package arrives at the destination even ONE minute passed the advertised 9 p.m. delivery deadline, the worker has dedicated from pay the monetary value of the ordered goods! And they are paid a mere pennies, maybe one dollar, for every delivery through every apartment building they are directed.
The dark underbelly of something we all take for granted, this documentary is essential viewing to see better the worlds of pain we are creating to serve our own convenience and safety:
I can imagine the situation might not be much better in Japan.
For years, I have encouraged our Zen Center members to be kind and generous to the people who deliver our packages. I have asked people to be sure to give at least a banana, a fresh unopened bag of nuts, but especially a few Euros, at least two or three if they are around. We have no elevator in our building on Weißbräuhausgasse, and often trudge up the full three storeys if someone doesn’t run down fast enough to catch them (another thing we encourage). I make sure to remember their names (a failing achievement), and I know about the long-term relationship of one of our delivery guys, an immigrant from Tunisia, who says he is happy when he hears that I am away in Greece because “You will bring back nice nuts for me.”