25 July 2008

Student Annalog: 우리 IS Family

Today in Korean class, we got around to talking about how the Korean education system is in an unhealthy state right now. My classmate, a Japanese woman who is seven months pregnant, looked a little disheartened at the thought of raising her child in such an intense system. She jokingly said that she and her Korean husband were going to immigrate as soon as possible. I added that she could home-school her kid. My Korean teacher promptly shot that idea down, explaining that in Korea, a kid that was taught at home would be branded an outcast. Yes, that's right. Even if you are able to offer your child a superior education, in Korea, your poor kid will be labeled a wangta. Home school your kid, and people will immediately think that something was wrong with the child. The idea that you would not want your child to be with other children is nearly incomprehensible.

As my teacher noted, in Korea it's all about 우리 (uri). The idea that one would want to keep themselves from others (e.g. not go to a dinner with a group of friends) is thought to be strange. In Korea, isolation seems to be a form of punishment, not a personal choice.

Uri is the Korean equivalent of the plural pronoun "we." As all students will first learn in Korean 101, Koreans place greater emphasis on the collective (as opposed to the individual). For example, you would say "In our country (uri nara), we do this..." instead of "In my country (nae nara), we do this..." I have known this fact for awhile now, but the importance of the collective over the individual suddenly solidified in mind today.

As my teacher explained, this notion of "uri" is why Koreans dress alike or why Koreans will drag themselves through three rounds of drinking just because their co-workers are doing the same. From an American perspective, it'd be easy to pass such behavior off as the result of social pressures, but I think it goes deeper. I think this desire to do as others do is rooted in an intrinsic desire for oneness. Americans can undoubtedly be patriotic when the time arises, but in America we tend to think of ourselves as the sum of its parts, whereas in Korea, they're just a single integer: 1.

Since kindergarten, I've been told to "be free to be me," to "march to the beat of my own drum." I wonder if Korean children receive any such messages, or if they're simply told to make their families proud, and ultimately, make their country proud.

This reminder of the importance of uri in the Motherland has made me realize that though internally I may be a hyphenated-American, externally I'm Korean. I am the "i" in uri. Perhaps this why taxi drivers feel like they have the right to lecture me. We are one in the same. We are family. 우리가 가족입니다.

I guess this means that whenever I get unwanted advice or the next time some tries to pressure me hang out when I want to be a hermit for the day, I'll do what I do with some of my more overbearing relatives, just smile and nod, then ignore everything they said. ㅋㅋㅋ


db said...

Yes, just last week in my Korean class, we went over the idea of "uri" versus "my." One of "our" Kenyan classmates just could not wrap his head around it. I think the only reason I could begin to understand was because "our" boyfriend is Korean. I think there is a balance to be found here. I think American could use a bit more 우리 and maybe Koreans could use a bit less.

And I totally agree with you about why Koreans seem to stick together in... well almost everything. I think it is fulfilling and honorable for them to see themselves as part of something bigger, something more meaningful than just one single human existence. In America, we tend to overplay the significance of the individual and forget the role of community.

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

lunalil said...

I have a lot of wangta students.

I know that the Korean way is to pound the nail that sticks out, and to emphasize group harmony over individualism. But I see a lot of my students suffering because of this.

As a public middle school teacher I have lots of students who Americans would see as just being "different" or a little odd.

Here not only are they wangta but the are seen as "mentally disturbed" because they are wangta. They are just kids who don't fit into the accepted social roles exactly... But they're talked about as though they have an illness. The teachers talk more crap about these students than the students with diagnosed mental problems/diseases/disorders.

Actual behavioral disorders, learning disorders and mental disorders are viewed badly as well they just aren't talked about as much (unless they result in very serious behavioral problems).

Retardation is not talked about at all.

I think it's easier on my students with physical differences or disabilities because their peers and teachers don't view them as having made a conscious choice to be different, so they are ostracized less.

It's frustrating for me because I used to work in a disability services office in college. I know quite a lot about the subject and had a lot of friends with various physical/mental/learning disabilities. Often I'm not told which students have problems, or what kind of problems.

The teachers spend more time complaining to me about the social outcasts instead of telling me that a student is deaf in one ear.

I've given up trying to figure out the logic behind all this. It's too frustrating. I'm not sure if it's a lack of ability to communicate exactly what's going on because of language, if it's a cultural difference, or if my teachers just don't have time to give me all the information.

Regardless I give my wangta/outcast students a lot of attention. Maybe I can make up for the lack of attention/disregard they get from some of their other teachers.

Eep sorry about the LOOONG post. *jumps off soap box*

Richard said...

While I dont live in Korea nor was I raised in Korea. But I know my good friends in Korea moved to Hong Kong primarily because of the problems with the Korean education system. They didnt want their children to have to go through that system with the stress.

The thing is they put such a huge emphasis on elementary - highschool that university is a cake walk...the real challenge in Korean education is to get into University.

At the same time however, can you really fault them? The Korean system is producing students who are far superior to what we have in the US. Koreans' drive to excel and to be better and to contineously be better has led to the type of education system they have...is it a bad thing, this build of immense competition in the education system? I sometimes wonder if we (outsiders) look down on it because its alien to us?

I think the US education system is doing the exact opposite. I think the US education system is failing..and failing miserably. Id much rather the education system be in a state similar to Korea's then the US's.

annalog said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. They quickness with which students rally against a wangta can be quite alarming. After reading and discussing about novels like Speak or Lord of the Flies, students are able to gain greater sympathy for the alienated characters, but I don't think it's done much to change their attitudes in real life.

I do agree that the Korean educational system has its merits, but I think overall the system seems to focus on short term goals like grades, standardized test scores, college admissions, without exploring what it means to learn, explore, and grow as a student. As flawed as the American system may be, I think the Homeland has a broader definition of education and recognizes that there are different means and experiences of learning. Just my 20 won.

Richard said...

lol..i love your "20 won" comment...that was clever.

I like how you refer to Korea as Motherland and the US as Homeland...I had a big discussion/argument with someone at work who called me a traitor because I called Korea my motherland. He apparently (and still doesnt) didnt know the definition of Motherland.

BTW. were you born in Korea? or just have Koraen parents and were born in the US?

annalog said...

Made in the USA. Born and raised in Hawaii :) I grew up hearing a smattering of Korean, but spoke English at home.