Jin is one of the first friends I made in the company I was working for. What brought us together was our difference. We both left our home country and had to reinvent ourselves in a new culture with tough codes. But while I was coming from a European country and presumably passing through an easier change, for her the shift was huge.
Jin is born and raised in Korea. Just after graduation, she joined a big corporation where she spent 6 years before being asked to work for its Headquarter in France. She had to rebuild her life in a completely new context and she really made it! She made new friends, she bought a house, she has fallen in love. And she also made an astonishingly beautiful bride when the day came. I was there to admire her.
After the marriage, the baby announced his arrival. All by the book! She went to deliver in Korea and decided to stop working for her employer. She started her own business and developed it until one of her biggest clients asked her to open a subsidiary in Singapore. She accepted the challenge, showing once again what she was capable of.
One year later she went back to Paris.
This is the short version of Jin’s fairy tale. But when reading between the lines, there is a lot more to grasp.
Jin, how do you feel after all those adventures?
Since I came back in Paris as a new me 12 months ago, I feel happy.
What do you mean by new me?
Well, I can get up in the morning, spend time with my son, take him to school, have a cafe latte before reading my emails and setting my own work priority. None of those things were possible before… I was too busy. After being workaholic for so many years, I am a new person now.
I spent my life in an office and when I was getting home at midnight I was still ruminating about work. My sleep was never calm even though I was very tired. For two decades I have suffered of insomnia, I had digestion problems, difficulties of breathing, anxiety, and work/family issues… I used to run after job titles. But all those symptoms disappeared when I changed my life.
What made you change so dramatically?
I’ve started questioning myself. Are you happy? No. Why? Because of the stress, anxiety, because of the lack of serenity. It’s been 3 years since I asked myself this question. Not before. I had no time. And I didn’t know what happiness was…
You don’t learn that at school. We are soldiers. We learn how to be a hard-working citizen. But who teaches you how to be yourself? No one. I didn’t know how to feel happy, how not being anxious, how to do things not by obligations. Without excluding the responsibility, of course.
What is the definition of happiness in your home country?
The Korean recipe for happiness is good food, stable financial situation and harmonious family. It is more of a survival mode due to the recent history of my country which profoundly impacted the society on all its dimensions.
Could you please explain how the recent history impacted people and, by the same occasion, their vision?
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Korea was occupied by the Japanese for 35 years. We had freedom after Hiroshima bombing at the end of the World War II. During that time, we got the US Army in the country which exposed Korea to the world. It was very closed before, and there was no trade except for with China and Japan. After the Korean War, part of the World War Two, many people died of hunger. The country was one of the poorest in the world.
Today Korea is one of the economic powers in the world. In 60 years, from dying of hunger, we have one of the highest internet networks, technology and an extremely modern society. The generation of my parents is born during the occupation. 1,5 generations earlier, people died of hunger.
This is why, in my country, eating is very important. One of the first things that most foreigners learn when arrived in Korea is the sentence 밥 먹었어요? (bap meogeoseoyo?) which would best be translated as Did you eat the rice? It is an expression equivalent to How are you? and with the sense I care if you have eaten. It is anchored in the tragic history of the country. Even between colleagues we say it. It is part of the language and of the legacy. For Korean people we still value what we eat. When receiving people at home, mothers show their respect and love by preparing 30 different kinds of dishes. It is their way to say I love you so much! It is really important to eat very well. And we eat all the time. We have developed an obsession with food.
The second dimension of the definition that I gave you is the stable financial situation. In order to eat well you also have to have a stable financial situation which, in Korea, is very linked to the career. Succeeding for us is not invading but working hard. It is our revenge towards recent history. This is the explanation of such a development in such a short period of time. What in Europe may have taken hundreds of years, in Korea took only 60 years to rebuild the country and transform it to an authentically economic power. And one of the secrets is education. The biggest spending in the family is education.
Is education that expensive?
Not only the tuition are very high, but private courses are very expensive. Every child has at least 2-3 private courses beside the regular curriculum. They go to school from 8 to 18, then they go in private institutes and come back home between 9 pm and midnight. One of the consequences of this obsession with education is that there is no money left for travel. In Korea, you never go in holidays like in Europe, you are not escaping with family and friends. Or maybe one day, but you don’t actually have the opportunity to enjoy the family. It took away the authentic happiness. Kids are not happy; parents are not happy either even if they are happy to invest…
But it means that those kids have no life if they are always at school!
It is one of the most significant side effects of this economic accelerated growth. Many school kids go in extreme ways, and commit suicide. Korea is one of the highest rated in terms of suicide. This is the dark side. And the problem is that Korean people don’t know other types of life. This is the only model. It is true that this kind of education allowed me to speak 4 languages, to do an MBA, to come to Paris and have a global career. But it comes with an outrageous price. Everybody has fallen into this new competition. At some stage we did it to get out of the misery. But when we get in, we always want to go higher.
And then there is another social stereotype nobody wants to talk about. The marriage. We are taught that If you have this or that, you will get married well, you will have higher chances to meet the person you want to spend your life with. Regular notion of happiness… The competition continues. For girls, appearance is part of their assets. The prettier they are, the bigger are chances for them to get a better job and a good marriage.
I know that Korea has the most complex beauty ritual in the world and that an active woman is using in average 20-30 beauty products in the morning. How is it possible?
In Korea, being pretty means self or self-satisfaction but it is still linked to this competition. It is about social success. Heavy subject. But before the World War Two, make up was only for nobles. The others died in poverty. Products were too expensive. Make up became a tradition after the war.
Then how were those rituals transmitted?
At my time, the source of inspiration for the looks was the magazines. Now it is easy to get tutorials on YouTube, on blogs or TV shows. It is more of self learning. Girls are very connected and follow the trends. But here again, Koreans are pushing it to the extreme. In Korea, you need to stay ‘in line’ thus to melt in the “mass”. Therefore, an emerging trend can become quickly a dominating one in Korea. They are following more and less same channels or TV shows and they try to ‘look’ the similar rather than to stand out…
You know what the ultimate gift for the girls, before the entrance in university, is? Their parents pay to them aesthetic surgery… Or you may call it another ticket for the competition.
There is also this specificity that we are not mixed with other nations. There is only one type of person in school. We were taught: one single people, one nation, one color. And we were proud of it. The sense of belonging is very strong. We value to stay in the line. Not to be different. But it also comes with side effects and with an extreme meaning.
I give you another example: last winter, there was this actress, a Hollywood star, wearing a very heavy, long until the ankle parka. She showed up in a TV show one day and the day after, this model of parka was sold out in stores in Korea. All the girls were wearing it… And it is the same for the make-up, for the hair.
I was so surprised when I first arrived in Paris and I saw so much diversity. Nobody was looking like the others while in my country everybody looked exactly the same. It is neither good, or bad. It’s just the way it is. It’s like Do in Rome as Romans do translated in Do in Korea as Koreans do.
So, do you do like Korean do?
Not for everything…. Before, I did it. And I earned a high salary but I was never happy. I always compared myself with girls having or achieving even more, and it made me unhappy. I realized that anything that encourages to comparison is the beginning of unhappiness.
In your opinion, how much of your happiness is linked to the external circumstances of your life?
Before it was more than 70%. Or that what I thought. Today, the external factor is 20%. In the scale of happiness, I’ve decided to avoid negativity. Today I have less money, but more happiness. I am no more stressed and sick, not looking obsessively at my watch anymore. I don’t need a five stars hotel in Bahamas anymore, which was my standard before. It was a mere consolation for being so stressed. I was having a high paid job but I felt emptiness inside. Now I am satisfied with all the small pleasures and I authentically enjoy my life as it is.
I felt guilty for not being a good mother for my son. Now the guilt disappeared. I spend so much more time with him and, God, how important it is for me to prepare fresh food for him and not any freeze products bought in a supermarket. I can set the table with no more worries and I simply enjoy small moments. I am not running anymore.
What would be your advice for somebody who experiences the same that you did before?
I would encourage this person to focus on trying to be him/herself. Find out what makes you really happy!
As far as I am concerned, I am still finding my way. But one thing is clear: I’ve decided to take care of my life. I am a free woman and now I live for what I believe in. Because I’m happy…