Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Koreans-- my own people-- sometimes baffle me. I'm thinking right now of the Korean tendency to do things together, to allow one's individuality to dissolve into the group,* which is often contradicted by an opposing tendency to be competitive and mistrustful of others in an academic environment.**

This is problematic whenever I assign, say, a group project or a team seminar presentation: many students will simply do their own part of the project without seeking synergy (a word that is, ironically, overused in Korean culture); they rarely feel a need to hone their presentation by bouncing ideas off their teammates.

I'm a bit worried about this right now because I'm teaching a Current Events English class in a seminar format, and judging by the sign-up sheet I passed around yesterday, the students all prefer to lone-wolf it. Since many of the presentation days have been left blank, I'm probably going to oblige the students to do team presentations on those days.

We'll see how it goes.

*This isn't unknown to Americans, of course: you can see a similar dissolution in the culture of our military, where a person is keenly aware that s/he is part of a chain of command; you can also see this happening at events like football games, where a mass of shirtless, painted, drunken, tubby guys will all act obnoxious in the same way, slaves to the gridiron ritual.

**I can guess at why this is so, but it's just a guess. I might, for example, conjecture that the East Asian notion of "circles of loyalty" helps foster competition: Koreans are very loyal to their own families first; they're also loyal to friends, and so it goes with ever-expanding (and, arguably, weakening) circles of loyalty. As a result, Koreans are often quite good at ignoring each other on the street: "I don't know you, so I owe you nothing." I might also conjecture that the Korean education system is set up in such a way that competition is inevitable, and that Korean notions of "face" will help focus competition on, for example, obtaining a spot at an elite university; such accomplishments result in prestige dividends that can last a lifetime (e.g., saying "I'm a Seoul National University alum" never gets old and will always open doors for you). As I said, though: just a guess.


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