Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Homogenous Societies Do Not Breed Introspection

That was something a lady at the Boston Language Institution told me when I decided to move to Korea. She had just recently returned from numerous years in the "dirty south" as I like to call it. It was one of those lines that someone said to me but I was too busy trying to get out of my own way and focused entirely on the move that it went through the sieve of the moment and caught at the back of my mind's drain. The events of today's class dislodged it with a vengeance over some fantastic fried chicken served with kimshi and rice and good company for dinner.

One of the subjects I teach along with reading and writing is Social Studies to 4th graders. Not only Social Studies but American Social Studies at that. Why, I could not tell you. They are adamant about it however and some of the other teachers from Canada are rather outspokenly flummoxed at the notion of having to teach Koreans about a country they've never even been too or know next to nothing about save popular music and TV shows. I joke, hey, that's all these kids know, you're on an even playing field. Regardless, I'm teaching kids in their second language about a society and it's system of government including ethics and history that has zero emotional relevance with them, and them understanding maybe every seventh word of what I'm saying or they're reading. Challenging to say the least.

That brings us to today's topic: Diversity. A rather hotbutton issue back home and I remember writing a huge article about it for my college newspaper when they instituted the new "diversity on campus" program. Regardless of my feelings on what the phrase might mean in a political context, the word by itself has a rather simple and real definition when distilled to its honest essence- variety. In fact, that is the definition in the Social Studies book. Variety. In a country where everyone has black straight hair, brown eyes, similar height, and the wackiest thing on the menu is maybe some mild curry every other Wednesday instead of the daily serving of rice with kimshi and fish, explaining diversity to these kids was like teaching eskimos how to sow bermuda shorts.

Specific to the lesson was American ancestry and all of the different cultures that have moved to the United States from different areas of the world. To connect the lessons to them in some way or another I always make special handouts that draw parallels to the topics in the book to South Korea. When we talked about immigration I gave them an article I hobbled together about a school here in SK that reeducates North Korea refugee's children to living in a completely different paradigm. In this case, I made a handout about Koreatown, Los Angeles. A place near and dear to my heart that had some of the best parties in LA and the ever interesting Barcade where some hipster made a speakeasy in their apartment filled with old 80's arcade machines. They didn't need to know that stuff. But it is the most diverse neighborhood in the Uniter States with almost 25 different countries immigrants and ancestors being represented in a five square block radius. 18% of the population is Korean, the rest goes down in percentage from there.

Didn't care.

I can't say I blame them, they're in fourth grade, those are concepts that don't really mean anything to a kid, especially when they've never even seen a black person before. [Side Note: I asked the director of my school during a moment of conversation why there aren't many black people around Suji and she said flatly, "because we don't invite them." Hooo-kay, I thought.] These kids are getting their cultural fix from the wacky white guy infiltrating their country teaching them Social Studies. Most of the children here will never leave their town and in this country you do not move out of your parents house until you are married. What was interesting was when we got to the point of discussing generations and ancestors.

I wrote the four countries that I can immediately draw my lineage having originated from when they moved to America and how they beget my parents, which in turn sprung me. They didn't understand it in anyway shape or form. I talked about my grandparents, what my mom's father and mother did, what my father's father and mother did and how their heritages shaped my parent's lives, which in turn shaped mine. So I then turned the questions to them, tell me about your grandparents. Nothing but blank stares. What did they do for jobs? Blank stares. What are their names? Super hard blank stares. What do your parents do for a job? Amazingly hostile bored blank stares. Finally one broke the silence in my 4 o'clock class with, "I don't know, he goes to his office."

Now my kindergartners know what their parents do. They've also been taught English, and by proxy western culture, for three years already by the time they came to me, but they know. The elementary students I teach in the afternoons have not had Western/English kindergarten foundations and subsequently have terrible grammar and speaking skills next to my kinders, but along with that they have no direct connection to the lines of questioning that the children indoctrinated with western thinking can answer. They literally don't think about it. Dad works, Mom cooks, grandpa is old, thats it. What matters is how well they study and what their grades are, not how They fit into the social order. They are coming to an American Social Studies class from a purely communal society standpoint on material that is highly individualistic. It is a fantastic contrast to experience.

Which brings me to my dinner. Another teacher mentioned how homogeneous societies don't breed introspection and like some Manchurian Candidate trigger the memory of my instructor's comment all those months ago in Boston came into perfect context. Things are very regimented here in SK.. A child of 10 years old will get home from school and after school activities by at least 10 o'clock and after homework wake up to start it over again. They study their ass off to get into university and from there, depending on their test scores, they go into their profession and then around mid twenties they take a spouse and start their own family. They don't jump careers like in the west. They don't get married in their thirties. They don't spend huge amounts of willpower on wondering what their "calling" is in that I can see. They do it, and God help you if you don't do it 110%, even if it's obvious you HATE it with every fiber of your being. To see how much different the seven year olds are from the thirteen year olds is fascinating. What is this country going to be like in twenty years when they are coming into control after growing up westernized I wonder..

On a funny note regarding they all have the same hair, one of the things parents do to change their young boys hair up is give them a perm. After a few weeks it relaxes into some nice looking waves but the initial perm is hilarious. One boy in my class just got one over the weekend and he happens to be the class bully. Watching a kid cause people to cry around him while looking like a midget stand in from the Brady Bunch is unintentionally spectacular.

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