Friday, December 13, 2013

Chalk It up to Cultural Differences

Once or twice a week, my school's small English department gets together for what I like to think of as teatime. We eat snacks, drink tea, and talk about an opinion or news article that we have all read. There are three Koreans and me in this group, and I've really enjoyed the discussions that we've had over the past year.

I've found that our views rarely align on most social issues, but on the bright side, this makes for lively debate and forces me to think very critically about my own opinions. Only if I'm feeling lazy do I simply ascribe the lack of unanimity to "cultural differences". It's true, there is a cultural difference, as well as an age difference and a disparity in life experience. However, I try my best to understand where they are coming from as people, not as representatives of any particular social category.

Recently, we've disagreed about the effect of media violence on a person's actions, the inclusive education of special-needs students, the welfare system for disadvantaged minorities (such as American Indians who live on reservations), approaches to immigration reform and cultural assimilation, and the benefits and drawbacks of stereotyping. Tough topics, all of them. I'm lucky to be surrounded by English teachers who think critically about issues like these.

Today, we didn't discuss an article, but rather, a student named JD. He had come into the office to ask a teacher, SK, about a very specific and convoluted grammar point. The question was one of those 따지는, nitpicky grammatical queries: if "almost" is an adverb, how come it can modify a noun, as in "almost everyone had arrived"?*

JD continued to ask a lot of difficult questions; I was glad he was directed them at SK, since I definitely wouldn't have been able to answer them. When he had finally left, SK remarked that the level of English grammar he was trying to learn was a bit high. This began a discussion on the merits of focusing on studying proper grammar versus maximizing exposure by listening and reading when trying to learn a second language. I sided with SH, who felt like our student was wasting his time on questions beyond his level that weren't really important for proper language use anyway. SK insisted that his curiosity and drive to understand difficult concepts was good, and that grammar was the better method for our students, since they aren't in a total-immersion environment, anyway.

I wasn't surprised at the difference in opinion, but I was surprised at what followed. The focus was retrained on the question of whether Korea values a clever, vocal, and highly inquisitive mind like JD's. It was a good thing he's at our school and not a normal high school, SH explained, because at a normal high school he wouldn't be accepted. SK sharply disagreed, saying that she saw a bit of herself in him, that his analytic personality was a trait that should be encouraged, since his creativity was bound to be met with success in the future. "Yes," SH replied, "but students and teachers are different now." Most teachers simply didn't like JD's outspokenness, she said, especially in math and science classes, because he's really just full of hot air. "He thinks too much. He has all of these ideas and he talks for a long time, but there's no point to what he says. He does not actually ask questions, only thinks of his own answers." SH reasoned that he was a bright student but lacked social intelligence; he needed to learn how to listen. I hesitantly agreed, offering that I really appreciated JD's presence in my class because he was refreshingly different and always spoke his mind, but that he did sometimes dominate discussions for his own gain. I was thinking all the while that we were talking a bit too much about one student, and wondered if I could change the subject.

But before I could, things started to become personal. SK argued that schools were losing respect for student self-expression. She said that outside of Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, education was too conservative and people weren't learning how to express themselves clearly. This was when JJ finally chimed in; he said apologetically that that was wrong. Schools in Seoul are just as bad at promoting self-expression, he said. But SK fired back that her own experience as a person from Seoul was really telling about the difference between the capital and Gyeongsang Province. She lived in Seoul for decades, but it was only after she left that she realized why Seoul people are called "서울 깍쟁이" (city slickers). In the same way, having come to Gyeongsang as an outsider, she had to live and observe from the sidelines for fifteen years before understanding why Gyeongsang people are called "진국" -- sincere and authentic, but only after you take the time to get to know them, because when you first meet them, boy, do they have trouble saying what they really mean. SH's voice stiffened. "Yes, but I don't think it's true about everyone." She has lived in this province her whole life. "At least we're more open than Chungcheong people."

I began to feel very uncomfortable about the conversation and turned to my computer to work. All four of us were at our desks, separated by cubicle walls, but SK had stood up. Right, she said to SH, you're actually one of the most blunt people I know. And, well, I don't know anything about Chungcheong people. (JJ, our resident Chungcheong person, mumbled something I didn't catch.) But still, even though it's a stereotype, SK continued, Gyeongsang Province really is conservative. There is some truth to what I say about the people.

"Yes, but..."

Our lively debate had descended into an argument, and I was embarrassed and extremely anxious. All of this, I remind you, was being played out in English, so I understood every word. But I couldn't think of what to say to contribute, or to dampen the sparks that were beginning to fly.

Fortunately, the comment about Chungcheong Province people seemed to diffuse the tension a bit, and SK remarked that it was dangerous for her to be talking about regional stereotypes in this manner. Edging away from the abyss, we went back to talking about JD and his educational prospects. He is definitely a bright student, and I agreed with SK that he would be very successful if he studied in a more open educational environment, such as an American or European university. I also thought he could be successful anywhere if he put his mind to it, but I didn't say anything more, because I was just about done with the discussion.

And with that, the bell rang and teatime was over. The 분위기 lightened considerably. A year ago, this was an hour when SK and SH would commiserate together about problems in Korean society, such as gender inequality, corruption in education, and school inefficiency, and I would politely listen. But today was a different beast altogether. We didn't have any tea, but things were still quite "heated".

The good thing is that I am learning a heck of a lot about Korea and Korean domestic issues by osmosis.

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