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.

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.

No matter how much we want to be polite guests, and neutral observers, we can't be. In a world so remote from our own, some things delight us and some things appall us. Some amuse, amaze, horrify, or fascinate us.

What delighted me in Korea? The old Buddhist temples tucked away in the mountains; the brilliant colors and beautiful embroidery of the traditional costumes worn by women and elderly men; the old swoop-roofed, courtyard houses; the beautiful children; the great affection shown openly among the young; the faculty bus where professors rose to bow deeply to one another; the strong, lithe, graceful people of great energy, in Western suits, their hands clasped behind them.

What appalled? Probably the single most upsetting habit was that of spitting - a phenomenon of males only but apparently of all classes and educational levels. One author explains that the ancient Chinese believed that the spit god resided in the throat and was constantly trying to choke the man who wasn't careful to clear him out. Curiously enough, spitting, is a legal misdemeanor in Korea but the law seemed to have no effect whatsoever.

Another thing that forced me to recognize that our reactions cannot be culturally neutral is the fact that Koreans bump, push, and smack into one another without taking notice or giving excuse. Theirs is an extremely crowded existence, so some touching and jostling is unavoidable, but no one seemed at all interested in avoiding collision. Walking on the street, we try to judge which way to move to get through. Young children, those not lugged about on their mothers' backs, seemed to position themselves behind little bent grandmothers and push - using them as wedges through crowds.

Not having a grandmother along, I sometimes followed directly behind my husband to cut down on the bruising. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed as though more people walked between us than around us when I was holding his arm.

One day, a colleague who shared an office marched in elatedly claiming, ``I've finally figured it out - I know the pattern. They don't walk on the right as we do, nor on the left like the Japanese who ruled here for so long, they alternate,'' he explained. American patterns of behavior were sometimes futile there, as well as strange. I often stepped back at the head of the narrow staircase at the university to allow students to emerge before I started down. Once, in the spirit of research, I counted and 86 emerged before I gave up and shouldered into the mass myself.

What amused? Small children, recognizing from blocks away that we're Ameri- cans, shouted ``hello'' and when we answered, they followed us in mobs, calling us meguk; hanguk is Korea, meguk America. Bicycles were loaded beyond belief - I've seen some carrying three washing machines, or 10 cases of soft drink balanced on the back. It's usual to see cases of dishes, or toilet tissue, or milk bottles piled up and strapped on 10 more feet high. Apparently, huge hogs are transported to market the same way, tranquilized by the local rice wine.

What amazed? A February university graduation ceremony held outdoors in drenching winter rain. The faculty and officials sat in leather chairs, carefully dried by janitors, on a platform, while the students stood with their caps, gowns, and flowers, in the freezing mud. No classroom, at any educational level has heat; there are no radiators. When I began teaching in early March, I said without thinking as I entered a dank, freezing classroom. ``Why is it so cold in here?'' A student explained patiently to the dense foreigner, ``Because it's cold outside.'' Obviously.

What fascinated? Music, everywhere. Every fifth entryway in any alley, lane, or pathway seemed to be a piano studio. I sang once through ``April Showers,'' shakily, for my conversation students. They returned it, 64 strong, in four part harmony beautifully.

I've also tried to find out what there is about American culture that delights, appalls, amuses, amazes, horrifies, and fascinates Koreans. It's a full-time occupation and because some of the information is difficult to get from polite people (who are very respectful to the aged), I've resorted to sneaky composition assignments and a great deal of varied reading and conversation.

To Koreans, one of our most appalling habits is the barbaric one of piercing our food, attacking it with blade and prong at the table instead of holding it gently between chopsticks as civilized people do. Related to this barbarism is our disgusting habit of eating on the street, and touching food with our hands. Here, in the markets and bakeries, food is lifted to the mouth by tongs (shared by everyone without washing) or it's held in a napkin.

The biggest complaint my student essayists had is that Americans don't respect or care for the old. Many complained about our divorce rate, our racial tensions, and the lack of formality in our language. The first question asked there, always, was ``How old are you?'' In each class, after I explained schedules, texts, and exams and asked, ``Are there any questions?'' the first question and apparently the only important one was, ``How old are you?'' (I told them I was 200). It's not only curiosity but necessary from their point of view; they needed to know exactly how much respect I was owed and what form of honorific in speech was required. At least six different levels of language are in common use.

The list of other complaints was long and fun. The strongest complaint was about ``young disorder of sex.'' American kiss is ``unsanitary and disgusting.'' The strangest complaint, to me, was about America ``having big bombs,'' not strange in itself, but the reason was that so ``no one will be allowed to commit aggression anywhere.''

Fortunately, there was also a long list of items that the students thought they liked about us. The most often mentioned was that Americans have a sense of order, keep their word, and come on time. (One paper said ``Korean time is very bashfulness.'') We're also seen as good-humored, good-mannered, positive, cheerful, honest, active, jolly, spiritual, decent, practical, independent, dynamic, enthusiastic, witty, many-gestured, and responsive. They like our do-it-your-self attitude and pioneer spirit. Some were pleased that Western brides smile at weddings. Neither bride nor groom dare smile here or they would be ``doomed'' to have daughters.

Quite a few think ``pop music is enchanting.'' We are rated highly for taking ``careful use of public things.'' The most surprising is that seven mentioned that Americans are ``frugal'' and ``dress simply.'' At first I thought it was a comment about my wardrobe, but then I realized that the few Americans they've seen are schoolteachers, missionaries, or perhaps off-duty soldiers. ``When they dress, they do not care a bit about others' eyes.''

Fourteen of my students approved of our ``individualism'' but 12 complained about it: ``It makes that I can't feel warm in the heart.''

Students continually trooped into the office of an elegant, black American woman to say, ``We feel so sorry for you. We have seen `Roots.''' They, like us, will continue to form opinions from movies and TV shows until they encounter a few live human beings. One student changed her mind about Americans because ``Our an American instructor, who is much humorous....''

It was a marvelous adventure, and I'd like to write forever, but as my students would say, ``because of the feeling of lating to school, I must be hurry.'' Like them (and maybe Beowulf) I'll say, ``I stride, side-street along.''

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