Sometimes it’s really difficult not to think of Koreans as children.
Even though my students seem so young. It would be better if I could blame it on the make-up the girls wear or the boyish style popular for men right now. Surely that plays a part—that and their healthy diet of kimchi making their skin positively glow with youthfulness.
I wish I were judging on appearances because it’s easy to know how wrong that is. Instead I often judge on social norms:
Girls scream in the hallways, giggle in the classroom, shuffle around cute boys like they’ve never yet conceived the idea of talking to them like human beings instead of shrieking at or hitting them as a form of flirtation. Boys whine and skulk and rarely make friends with girls.
No one has a car; most still live with their parents. Students seem to have no long-range processing abilities, taking very little initiative in their education or future. They can’t problem-solve and only a very few understand why that might be useful. Students tend to have a flat, naïve view of alcohol and smoking and their views on politics are usually centered on what everyone else thinks. Everyone is scared to raise their hand, think for themselves, or act alone. Pimples are the devil.
In short, Korea is horribly reminiscent of American middle school. Koreans bear a harsh resemblance to the hesitant, wariness I remember marked the lives of my classmates and I ten years ago.
I have to fight not to treat my students like the age they act. I can’t condescend, because their actions—the giggling, the interdependence, the lack of originality—are not indicators of immaturity. Maturity is a completely different matter here than in the states. Individual responsibility and ingenuity are not prized—why would my students try to attain Western ideals when their culture breathes their antithesis? Duty is important here, not creativity. Respect not pride. Concentration, not passion.
MoonSung, my tutee, said a middle school student recently asked her why he should study.
“What did you say?” I asked her.
“I said—” she pointed her finger imperiously. “You just do it. We say when you get to college, your agony will be ended.”
I did my best not to look horrified, but in my head I was doing a small tarantella of concern. Just do it? Mindlessly? Hopelessly? Without passion or enjoyment? With nothing but the intangible promise that someday the agony will be over—but, unless you are incredibly successful—a new agony, one of guilt and shame and disappointed dreams and, finally, resignation to a lower-level life, will begin? I see the shame that weighs around my students’ shoulders when they all explain why they entered Kosin University. “I messed up,” they say. “My tests were not good. I played too much when I was younger.” In short: “I enjoyed life too much, coveted freedom and did not do my duty.” These are the regrets of kids in their early twenties!
I’ve heard that this is the crux of all differences between Western and Eastern education. Westerners want students to start with passion—a love for their subject that will fuel them to perform well. Passion, we believe, will instill in us a blindness to hard work so much so that we don’t even notice the hours, days, and years of difficulty because to us, it isn’t a chore, but a blissful labor of love.
In the East, it’s flipped. Just do it, they say, and the passion will follow. Tiger Moms are mothers who force their children to study, practice, perfect a million different skills and subjects in order to drive their offspring to future glory. The world is terrified of Tiger Moms (many of whom are Asian) partly because they’re insane, but partly because they get shit done without any of that “enjoy your life” nonsense.
Do it, they tell their children. You don’t like it now—it’s hell to work hard while your friends aren’t—but when you’re older and you can speak three languages, play Gershwin and Tchaikovsky like a piano pro, and enter the top university in the country, you’ll love it. Tiger Moms are the hard-core image of all that Eastern education encourages.
Where Westerners say “Find your passion,” the Easterners declare, “Passion follows practice.” In the West we say, “When you’ve matured, we’ll listen to you,” and the Easterners laugh. “If you are younger, you will never be listened to.”
In the West we have millions of kids who, since their only passion is playing video games and even that isn’t much more than lack of apathy, don’t pursue anything at all. Or maybe they pursue something for a year or two, but when the passion fades, they divorce him or quit that or simply shrug and “follow their heart” for the next however long until their heart changes once again and they look around years later with nothing that lasts. On the other hand, the people that do find their passion, excel and become innovators, hard workers, and happy, functioning members of society.
In the East, millions of kids pursue exactly what their parents tell them to pursue, and after the rigors of high school and middle school, their childhood lost, they have also lost the ability to think for themselves and enjoy the interests they may have once had. Some commit suicide, but most resign themselves to lives of “quiet desperation” in which they could never identify the bitter longing for something they’ve never had. On the other hand, those that achieved everything their parents hoped they would attain honor and happiness and become rich and powerful functioning members of society.
Which is better? Or worse? Can they be melded together? How is it that I see the benefits of both, but despise the idea of the one I didn’t grow up with? How can my cultural inclinations be plasticized that I might truly seek after something great rather than something ingrained?
I find it almost impossible to see the benefits of what appears to be immaturity until I look at the Bible. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3)
There are many aspects of Christianity I like to wrinkle my nose at—tradition, submission, and humility for instance—but I like this mandate perhaps least of all. God tells us to have faith like a child, to see the world simply. He asks us to believe in him, to know the world is beautiful and that we are safe and loved and that, ultimately, someone else is in charge and that is actually where our joy and the beauty of this world come from.
There are some things about Koreans that I love, but their ability to believe in authority and to unquestioningly carry the torch of traditional thought like children accepting everything their elders say is most definitely not one of them.
In Helplessness Blues, a song by one of my new favorite bands Fleet Foxes, it says, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique. Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.” I’m special and my individual thoughts and criticisms are important; they are what make me worthwhile, someone to listen to, a mature adult.
But maybe the Bible agrees more with the Korean way of humbly accepting the wisdom of those older, putting their heads down and doing as God has designed. “I was raised up believing,” Helplessness Blues says, “that I was somehow unique. Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
I think that’s what I’m supposed to want, but I’m not Korean and maybe—just like when I can’t speak the language or when I have to get my visa renewed or fight for my pension—that holds me back. It would be better, perhaps, if I reverted in some ways back to my middle school self, or even earlier. It would be better if I didn’t believe I was quite so important to the world. After all:
All people are like grass and
All their glory is like the flowers in the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall because
The breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely all people are like grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall
But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40)
So where does that leave me? If Eastern culture is right in this instance (an if nearly impossible for me to accept), surely Western culture has some major facet going for it. Right?
Still I like my culture better. Sorry Asia, but America does a lot of things better. (Dessert, for instance. Also, driving. And feminism.) I like questioning authority, arguing, criticizing, analyzing. They are my strengths and they are so useful in today’s world of scientific improvement where logic wins at all costs. But in the moral sphere, in the type of growth that God calls us toward, I can’t really think of any inherent superiority the West has over the East. Discernment? Crafty as serpents? Anyone have any ideas?