In the Classrooms of Korea
The author, who teaches English and directed writing competency programs at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., spent 1988 as an exchange professor at Yeungnam University in Taegu, South Korea.Skip to next paragraph
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LAND of the morning calm. This traditional name for Korea always amused me because the morning calm in our apartment house was broken before dawn every day by a determined rooster - I never knew which apartment he lived in - and next, by a garbage truck that plays electronically and loudly, ``Home, Sweet Home,'' Good-Humor style.
From the boys' high school across the street came the whoops and shrieks of scuffling, interrupted by silent bows to arriving teachers. (Classes seemed to be held 15 hours a day, seven days a week.) Uniformed little ones were out on the street, jostling off to school with huge backpacks of books and lunch parcels in both hands.
The nearby parking lot was full of men and women dusting off automobiles. Dust was constant (as in Illinois during plowing season) because Taegu City is in a bowl surrounded by mountains and suffers often from drought. The cars so lovingly tended usually had white, lace-edged covers on the seats, embroidered cushions, and bowls of fruit and baskets of flowers in the rear.
Later in the morning, the cacophony of taxi horns and hucksters' calls blended with the dull roar of recitation from the wide-open windows of the high school.
An Irish friend of mine in Korea asserted that when you drop a small child into water, he will come up swimming, but if you drop a boy into Korea, he will surface blowing a horn.
Horn-blowing did seem to be evidence of a totally different philosophy of driving. Taxis screeched and lurched down narrow streets and alleys, drivers frantically blowing their horns. Pedestrians calmly ignored them and continued strolling on whatever section of the road they happened to be occupying. The cabs braked abruptly, squeezed through or rocketed around without anyone getting the least ruffled. Cabs, motorcycles, and bikes all navigated the densely packed markets. No one paid any attention, but they got through somehow.
Taegu covers about the same area as Muncie, Ind. - home of 80,000 people and the university where I taught, Ball State - but has a population of well over 2 million. Taegu has over 40 large high schools - as compared to Muncie's three - and they are all sex-segregated according to Confucian principles.
A good pedagogical principle for those who teach composition is that a teacher should complete all the assignments he or she gives students. By extension, teachers of English as a foreign language should put themselves through the experience of many of their students by going to live, without a translator, where they can't make themselves understood, can't read road signs or store names, can't ask simple questions or understand the answers, and where the alphabet, the gestures, the food, the manners, and the bus system are all equally incomprehensible.
That's what I did in Korea.
Living in a new culture, we like to think we are unprejudiced, neutral observers, especially we staid middle-aged museum goers and enthusiastic tourists. But we are never neutral observers - we are always examples of our own culture, history, philosophy, and upbringing. As we can only think in and report in our own language, so we can only see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears those things that we have been conditioned to perceive.
In South Korea, where I was the stranger and very much a museum specimen, it was the custom to stare directly and at length at anything curious or startling. American friends there who returned for home visits spoke of feeling disconcerted in American airports because no one was staring, children weren't hiding openmouthed behind their mothers, strangers weren't coming up to finger in friendly curiosity their hair, clothes, eyeglasses, or jewelry.