[VIEWPOINT]A different sort of educationWhen Mi-seon got married immediately after she graduated from college 10 years ago, she relocated to the United States with her husband’s family. On the New Year’s holiday, she came to see me to exchange season’s greetings with her daughter, a second-grader.
Nowadays, many Korean parents wish to take their children abroad for a better education, but Mi-seon’s family was a reverse case. Her husbands’ parents wanted to spend their later years back home, so her husband found a job in Korea and returned for good.
Her daughter, Se-yeong, was born in the United States. Mi-seon, who had taught her how to speak, write and read Korean, thought Se-yeong would have no trouble going to school here.
However, she didn’t consider a challenge bigger than the language barrier ― cultural shock.
Days after returning to Korea, Se-yeong told her mother she didn’t like going to school. Mi-seon asked whether her classmates teased Se-yeong for her strange accent or whether she could not follow what the teacher was saying. But Se-yeong said no. Instead, she said that whenever the teacher posed a question to the class, the other students stood up from their chairs, crying out, “Me, me!” and competed to answer the question.
She found this frightening. Se-yeong, who would cover her parents’ lips for raising their voices even a little, is called the “little pacifist” at home.
Se-yeong likes to draw. In addition to still lifes of a flower vase and portraits, she would draw her own version of a whale or a cockroach. Her art teachers in the United States used to comment on how fun her pieces were and compliment her for her creativity.
But her new teacher in Korea told Mi-seon in a worried voice that even though Se-yeong is a second-grader, she still paints “outside the lines.”
When I sat down with Mi-seon, she told me what she thought about the differences between educational concepts in Korea and the United States.
“Korean education seems to focus on ‘how to stay in the lines,’ ” she said. The teachers set the boundary for the students and reprimand and exclude anyone who steps outside the line. If you are different from the majority in any way, you’re called an oddball and left out from the circle.
In the United States, differences are more tolerated. In her other school, Se-yeong had an assignment to find two different socks and wear the mismatched pair to school. Mi-seon thought the education in the United States focused on acknowledging how each person is different and understanding and tolerating diversity.
Mi-seon’s comment reminded me of what a foreign friend told me. He said he found it strange that the words “different” and “wrong” could be sometimes used as synonyms in Korean.
“Different” means dissimilar or distinct, and “wrong” means incorrect or erroneous. But he would hear Koreans say, “Your opinion is wrong compared to mine” instead of “your opinion is different from mine.”
He speculated that the concept that considers anything that is “different from mine” as “wrong” might have fueled the tradition of protest in Korea.
While he said the culture of protest has greatly evolved in Korea, it is hardly a compliment. As recently as last year, we saw an endless series of violent demonstrations. According to the police statistics, the Seoul Police Agency’s riot police squad was called out more than 130 times last year to rallies where more than 1,000 protesters gathered.
“May I tell you a funny story?” said Mi-seon. When demonstrators gathered in Buan to protest the proposed construction of a nuclear waste treatment facility in the area, they staged a seemingly peaceful candlelight vigil. The protesters sang songs together, waving their fists up and down in time with their voices.
To many Koreans, the scene was nothing out of the ordinary. But Se-yeong asked Mi-seon, “Mom, why are those people waving their fists when they sing? I don’t like the fist.”
Mi-seon still has a house in the United States. Sometimes she thinks it might be better for her daughter to return to the United States and their education system. But the United States is not a society without problems either.
She also does not want to take her daughter away from the rest of the family. Mi-seon hopes that in the new year, Se-yeong might find ways to adjust to Korean society better.
With a smile of resignation, Mi-seon said she still wishes that a society that resorts to violent means to solve its problems would take a lesson from her daughter’s pacifism.
* The writer is a professor of English literature at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chang Young-hee