Category Archives: culture

The moral dilemmas i go through everyday at school

I made a student cry today.  She didn’t cry in front of me, but her friend later came to me in the office and told me about it.

I know it’s hard for them to ask me questions and admit that they don’t understand things.  It’s just the culture.  But these girls are so economically disadvantaged already that i feel obligated as their teacher to train them so they can become more responsible.  That way, they’ll at least have a chance at getting a job after they graduate.  There is so little disciplinary action in this school; the students are in very bad shape, both in terms of attitude and work ethic.  I don’t know how they are in other classes, but in my classes, they don’t listen.  For some reason, they think that if they can’t understand what i’m saying, they might as well ignore me and chit chat.  The ones who try ask the high-level students to translate, but most give up.  I don’t have a problem with them giving up.  That’s their right, and i can’t force them to learn if they don’t want to.  But when they talk, other students who want to try can’t hear me, and as a result, most of the class gets things wrong and loses points.  And i don’t give second chances, because they should know my rules already.

This student didn’t know my policy of never accepting late work because she either didn’t listen or didn’t understand but neglected to ask for clarification.  When i refused to accept her late timed writing, she quietly walked away.  It would be unfair for me to accept her work, because i’ve been refusing all late submissions.  When her friend came to plead with me to accept it, i took it and told her i’d correct it but that i’d have to give it a zero.  I later caved and gave the student who submitted her work late a letter explaining that i’ll only take 5 points off and that she shouldn’t take it personally, because i can’t veer from my rules if i’m to be fair to everybody.  I had to mull it over for a good hour, but i eventually decided that i’m not being too unfair because this class is a bit behind, and i did accept late work the first few weeks.

I want these kids to succeed.  I really do.  They want so many things in life—they tell me these things in their journals—and if no one helps them now to become responsible citizens, they’re never gonna get those things.  I don’t understand why the teachers here protect them so much.  These girls don’t need protection; they need training.  I feel like everyone here thinks God is the answer to everything.  ‘These girls might be irresponsible and unmotivated but God will somehow help them in the end, so let’s just pray.’  I wish somebody would cooperate with me.

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Filed under culture, korea, teaching

If only one older Korean could prove me wrong…

I try to like most people.  I really do.  Because God knows, i have my flaws, and i should be understanding of other people’s.  But there’s one thing that irks me—probably more than it should—and that’s unsolicited advice.

I went to my grandmother’s yesterday for Chuseok, and she had some unexpected guests:  my mother’s cousin, his wife, his son, and the son’s family.  I don’t remember them from my childhood, but i think i remember the cousin and his wife (now in their late 60’s or early 70’s) from when my grandfather died.  Only i couldn’t point it out with my grandmother there, because my grandfather’s death anniversary just passed and she tends to get emotional about these things.

At several moments of the evening, i noticed the cousin (let’s call him Mr. TOK, or Typical Old Korean) surveying me with a judgmental eye, the way older Koreans always do when meeting a younger Korean for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.  Koreans are always trying to get a read on people.  That makes me uncomfortable.

An hour into their visit, Mr. TOK started dishing out random pieces of advice for me.  I didn’t catch a lot of what he said.  I speak a very particular kind of Korean—my parents’ Korean—because i’ve only ever used Korean with my parents since moving to the States.  Not that my parents’ Korean is any different from your typical educated middle-aged Korean’s Korean, but an individual’s speaking style is colored by his or her personality and way of thinking, and my parents’ particular speaking style is what i grew up on and have heard and used for the past 13 years.  This causes a lot of problems when i communicate with any other Koreans, but i’ve gotten better at opening my ears to other speaking styles since coming here to live.  This man, though—Mr. TOK—didn’t only use convoluted expressions i wasn’t used to, but he also rambled in a haughty and self-righteous manner.  And i tend to immediately tune out such people, no matter what they might be saying and how relevant it might be to my life.

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Filed under culture, korea

Against culturalism

My last post generated a substantial discussion on Facebook (i only wish it would have taken place here), which got me thinking about a phenomenon the Korean at Ask a Korean likes to call culturalism:  “the impulse to explain minority people’s behavior with a ‘cultural difference’, real or imagined.”  A culturalist encounters a clash between him and an individual of another culture and chalks it up to cultural difference.  ‘He’s from a different culture, so this clash is only inevitable.’  But it isn’t so.  It’s not inevitable, because we’re really all the same.  We’re all human, which means we share the same core values.  Isn’t that all that matters?  Why must we break down this commonality into unnecessary and cumbersome classes of ethnicities and nationalities and cultures?

In theory, a unified humanity would be best, but in practice, it doesn’t exist.  We all know this.  Of course it can’t be denied that despite us being one species, different cultures exist, and they clash.  Some of the issues i’ve been dealing with since my arrival here in Seoul are due to exactly that:  cultural difference.  Many advised me before i left the States and continue to advise me now that i’m here to go with the flow and try to assimilate to Korean culture, because i am the visitor after all, and i should respect the Koreans’ ways.  But i can’t do that, because i don’t believe in culturalism.  Like i said, we’re all the same, which means we are capable of working towards the same goal.  It’s because we’re all human that we owe at least one thing to each other:  respect.

When someone takes a culturalist attitude towards me, whatever interpersonal transaction that might transpire is immediately broken or nullified, because, once again, i am not a culturalist.  And when they refuse to drop their culturalist attitude, i continue to be unable to interact with them in any meaningful way.

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This is gonna be hard

It’s only been four days, and i already hate Seoul.  Where do i even start?  I’ll limit this one to the people:

1.  Middle-aged people stare or glare at me for no reason.

2.  No one wants to give directions, and those willing to don’t know how.  It’s like they can’t think like someone who doesn’t know the city very well.  One girl my age gave me the wrong directions.  Intentionally.  But i knew what she was doing, so i called her out, to which she reluctantly mumbled something like, “Oh, i think it’s that way, then….”  She probably hated me for being American.  Fucking bitch.

3.  They lack imagination here.  Either that, or people here are even more conformist and clueless about the rest of the world than i thought.  They can’t imagine that a woman’s favorite color could be grey.  A saleswoman actually questioned me for buying a grey, “men’s color” toothbrush.  I think imagination and diversity go hand in hand.  This country is so startlingly lacking in diversity that you almost can’t blame the people for being so narrow-minded.  Doesn’t mean it isn’t irritating.

4.  People here don’t know how to mind their own business.  Let’s just leave it at that.

5.  Strangers, especially the older ones, blurt out unnecessary and unwarranted comments at you as you walk past.  Ugh, reminds me of Paris.

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Filed under culture, korea, seoul

New Yorkers, this is for you

keithwork01

Recently, i’ve been experiencing NYC in a strangely sentimental way every time i commute into the city for work.  I find myself snapping out of my usual thought-filled daze, looking up from the sidewalk, and just taking everything in, as if i were discovering the city anew.  And i can’t help but assume that i wouldn’t fit in anywhere other than New York.  I have these thoughts regularly, but these days, the conviction is so unshakable.  Sometimes when i ride the subway, i like to stand and hold the pole even if there are empty seats and casually look around and observe the people.  I don’t know what it is about subway trains, but i instantly feel comfortable and content in that sea of strangers who are so absorbed in their own bubbles but also refreshingly friendly, when given a chance to be.  New York friendly is a rare kind of friendly:  not overwhelming, not interfering, and most definitely not forced.  Friendliness in New York is warranted, not expected, but it’s also surprisingly prevalent, if you know how to interact with the people.  It could be in a quick nod or even just a glance.  Wherever you find it, it’s cool, never clingy, and it always brightens up your day, if only for a fleeting moment.  Perhaps “friendliness” is not the right word.  Maybe it’s solidarity.

The bubbles definitely exist, but they’re so clumsy and thin and easily breakable, and not many people realize that everyone needs and wants to break out of them sometimes.  There’s a secret camaraderie among New Yorkers, and i’m not sure how much of that exists—and if it does, what it’s like—in other big cities.  And so this is the question i’m faced with now:  do i leave New York knowing that physically, it’s an unhealthy environment for me, but risking never getting used to a population that behaves differently?  Do i go for the people or the environment?  In a way, i guess they’re one and the same.  What i really wanna know is, what are people in other big cities like?

——
*photo is of street artist Keith Haring and was taken by Chantal Regnault.  found here.

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Filed under culture, new york

On eating meat

When i was leaving Pace Wildenstein on 57th yesterday, i saw a handful of women picketing on the corner of 57th and Park Ave in front of the Korean Consulate General.  They were trying to get people to sign up for a petition to stop dog and cat meat consumption in Korea.  A little research has shown me that demonstrators from the IDA (In Defense of Animals) congregate in front of Korean consulates and embassies across the country every year on the first of the Korean bok days (literally the “hot, dog days of summer”).  Apparently, some Koreans consume more boshintang (dog stew) this time of year to help their bodies fight the summer heat.

I walked closer to the demonstrators to read what their posters said, but i was in a rush to find a bathroom, so all i caught were some images of dogs.  Curiously, though, the lady whose poster i tried to read didn’t approach me or try to get me to sign the petition even though she had been pestering all other passersby.  To tell you the truth, she avoided eye contact with me.  On the way back from the bathroom, i saw a different protestor harassing two Korean (and non-English speaking, it seemed) tourists.  These women didn’t have the guts to confront me (because they would’ve confronted, not asked) about the issue so instead harassed Korean tourists who couldn’t even argue back.  How mature.

I have a couple issues with this protest:

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Filed under culture, ethics, nature, new york

questions on the loo, issue #5: “People who know what they want.”

You see that remark everywhere.  Anywhere from job listings to online personals, people are always seeking those who know what they want.  I never quite understood what this might mean.  How could anyone not know what they want?  I know what i want, and those around me know what they want (assuming they are being honest with me).  You might not know how to get what you want, but how could you not know what you want?  It baffles me, really, and the next time i see that phrase, i am going to email whoever wrote it and ask what they mean by it.  

This is something that has been bugging for quite some time now, but i was prompted to write a post about it because this exact issue came up in my Ethics lecture the other day.  My Ethics professor, my wonderfully brilliant Ethics professor, of all people, used that seemingly meaningless phrase, “some people don’t know what they want.”  In Book I Chapter VII of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the search for a self-sufficient good, a final end, the one thing we aim at.  His assumption is that you could be aiming at something, but not be sure what you’re aiming at.  My question is, if you don’t even see the target, how could you be aiming at it?  That would be like someone handing me a bow and arrow and telling me to shoot at the red circle when there isn’t one.  In any case, the question that naturally follows from Aristotle’s proposition that some people don’t know what they’re after is, how do you tell what you’re really after?  One way is to get it first and then figure out if that’s what you’d been wanting, he says.  The only way to know what you’re after is to blindly go after something, get it, and then see if you’re satisfied with it.  If you are, that’s what you had been wanting.  But if humanity really did function in this primitive trial and error method, we wouldn’t get so far now, would we?  

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Filed under culture, language, philosophy, questions on the loo