Kids and Cultures: An Awakening"What do you know about Cameroon?" asked the tall, dark visitor through an interpreter. He stood before a classroom of 30 fourth-graders. After a moment of hesitation, a young boy volunteered, "It's famous for soccer!" The class then fell into an uncomfortable silence.
Chesibe William, 36, from Cameroon, began to introduce his country by explaining that Africa is not a country, but a continent of great diversity. "For example, people in the North have a paler complexion while those in the East have more Arabic features. Those from Central and West Africa, like myself, are dark-skinned," he elaborated.
Mr. William was talking to the children about Cameroon as part of the Korean National Commission for UNESCO's Cross Cultural Awareness Program (CCAP). For this class at Jamsin Elementary School in Jamsil, Seoul, having a foreigner come to class to talk about faraway lands and people is something they are still getting used to, but also something they clearly enjoy.
Mr. William, who has just completed his studies at a Korean seminary and holds a degree in public law, has been a CCAP cultural exchange volunteer for the past year and has visited more than 40 elementary, middle and high schools here. He plans his lessons using guidelines provided by UNESCO, but he is free to come up with his own topics. "I always try to add something new to each presentation and relate personal stories," he said.
For the presentation at Jamsin, he brought colorful tribal costumes, including one that is more than 100 years old and has been handed down for generations in his family. His 80-minute presentation highlighted the cultural diversity of the African continent, but focused on Cameroon. "Although English and French are the official languages, there are 200 tribes which all speak different languages," Mr. William told the class. At the mention of 200 tribes, the children exclaimed, "Wow!" For Korean children, who are taught they are a homogeneous people, it is difficult to imagine that a country could have 200 different tongues.
Promoting awareness of diversity around the world is a primary goal of the CCAP, a UNESCO program that is unique to Korea. In a country that was once referred to as the "Hermit Kingdom," opportunities for ordinary people to interact with other cultures is still limited, and thus there is heightened value in the program. "For many students, particularly those in rural areas, cultural exchange volunteers are often the only foreigners they ever get to meet," says Kang Dai-gun, assistant secretary-general at the Korean National Commission for UNESCO.
Although the students are exposed to other cultures through television and movies, they do not always offer balanced insights and may not accurately reflect the realities of day-to-day living. "The kids know a lot about the United States, but sometimes I need to dispel the Hollywood stereotype," said Lee Vincent Wilbur, 24, an American Fulbright scholar who has spent two years in Korea. Mr. Wilbur tries various methods to reach the students. At an elementary school in Ansan, for example, he spent the better half of his allotted time playing steal-the-bacon, a popular game enjoyed by American kids, with the students. "What is important is that we got to interact and realize that we are not very different," he said.
"Imparting knowledge is not important. The most important thing is that the program serves as an opportunity to interact with people from different cultures," said Jeon Jin-sung, program officer at Korea UNESCO Cultural Exchange Services. Korea is still not an open society for foreigners, Mr. Jeon believes, and CCAP aims to serve as a bridge between Korea and other cultures.
People involved in the program all agree on one thing. "When it comes to exposing children to foreign cultures, earlier the better," said Park Hyo-jeong, the Jamsin Elementary School teacher who applied in February to have her class participate in the program. This year, the Ministry of Education, which funds the program, selected about 120 schools to participate. "The children in this low-income neighborhood have limited interaction with the outside world, and I thought introducing them to different cultures would be a way to teach them about diversity," said Ms. Park. Although the children were reluctant to ask questions at first, she has noticed a change over the course of the semester. "Now, all the children do preparatory research, which is not a requirement, and ask specific questions," she said, adding that they eagerly anticipate the next lesson.
About 100 volunteers from 35 countries and 100 Korean interpreters, who specialize in English, German, Chinese, Japanese, French and Spanish, currently participate in the program. If you are interested in volunteering, visit the CCAP Web site at http://kuces.unesco.or.kr for more details.
by Kim Hoo-ran