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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Changing Lifestyles : How Three Asian Families Work, Play, Learn and Pray : Meet the Chis of Seoul, South Korea . . .

May 21, 1991|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FATHER: Chi Ki Hong, 50, executive director of Unix Electronics, a small appliance manufacturing firm.

MOTHER: Kim Yong Ho, 45, a homemaker who hopes to return to the work force. (All Korean wives retain their maiden names.)

CHILDREN: Son Chi Jong Eun, 20, a college freshman majoring in German literature and hoping to become a television producer.

Son Chi Chang Eun, 18, a high school senior and the center of his family's life as he prepares for college entrance exams.

LIFESTYLE: Chi Ki Hong's salary, quivalent to about $22,200, puts his family firmly in the South Korean middle class. They live in a spacious, six-room, 1,728-square-foot apartment in a massive bedroom community on the outskirts of the capital. They also own an even larger house bought for the equivalent of $100,000 eight years ago, which Chi said "would be worth three times that now." The house has no central heating and is "too cold," he added, but he is able to rent it for enough to cover the rent of their apartment.

Unlike most Koreans, Chi owns a car--his company pays the expenses for running it. He uses it to commute six days a week to his office in downtown Seoul.

ON WORK AND LEISURE: Chi's official hours are 8:30 a.m. until 7 p.m., but he usually arrives before 8 and never gets home before 9 at night.

Unix, which employs 600 people, produced $28 million worth of small electrical appliances such as hair dryers and battery-operated body massagers last year. It is being squeezed by skyrocketing wages rising raw material costs and tougher competition from China and Southeast Asian firms.

"This year, there will be only a small increase, or no increase at all, in sales," Chi said. "But in five years we'll be doing all right. We've been investing in the development of new products and have been coming up with good ideas."

Chi's longest vacation comes when Unix shuts down all of its six factories to give employees a week off in the summer. The only other breaks are two days at Jan. 1, four more for the lunar New Year and four at Chusok, the traditional autumn harvest festival.

Until two years ago, the family used to go to beaches on the east coast during their summer break, but "we stopped that because of Chang Eun studying for college," Chi said.

ON EDUCATION: "Our ancestors would sell their cows, their oxen and even their paddies, if necessary, to pay for an education for their children. And it was the best investment they ever made," Chi said.

More than 40% of the South Korean students who enter high school go on to college, a significantly higher rate than in Japan and rivaling the U.S. experience.

"Education is directly linked to your livelihood," commented Chi. "You can't live a good life without education." To ensure that Chang Eun gets a good one, the whole family sacrifices.

Mother Kim Yong Ho, for example, had a secretarial job for two years before she was married but has postponed her dream of going back to work until Chang Eun is admitted. "I can't leave a student at home alone who is trying to get into college," she said, as if that should be obvious to anyone.

The family spends $4,200 a year--nearly 20% of its income--for college and high school tuition.

Chi is up by 6 so he can drop off his younger son at school on his way to the office. Even Jong Eun, a music lover, has stopped playing the piano in his room during the hours his brother is studying.

Because Chang Eun has set his sights on Seoul National University--the Harvard and Yale combined of South Korea-- studying seems to be about all the teen-ager does. He has been preparing for the all-important college entrance examination since he entered the seventh grade.

He takes 10 classes, each 50 minutes in length, starting at 7:30 a.m. six days a week. Then he stays at high school for special study sessions until 11 at night.

What will he do if he passes the entrance examination? Without hesitation the youth, who wants to be a mechanical engineer, replied: "Sleep! Sleep as long as I want!"

And if he fails? "Try again."

ON RELIGION: "Koreans, by nature, are a very religious people," Kim Yong Ho said.

Kim was raised as a Roman Catholic, and her husband joined the church in order to marry her. They are among the 25% of Christians in Korea's population--a larger share than in any other Confucian society in Asia.

Even as Christians, however, the Chis maintain some Confucian traditions. They worship paternal ancestors four generations back. And in naming their sons, they followed the Confucian practice of designating the generation of paternal lineage--the "Eun" in both sons' names signifies that they are the 40th generation of the Chi family.

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