[OUTLOOK]Embrace Korea’s uniqueness

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[OUTLOOK]Embrace Korea’s uniqueness

The other day, I met one of my students at a cafe in front of the school early in the morning. She was carrying a case which seemed to contain a violin.
I first met her one year ago, when she was preparing to go to the United States to study. She had received good grades in school and high scores on an English test. She knew that a recommendation letter is very important to get into a graduate school in America, so she sked me to write a recommendation for her. She probably chose me among many professors in the department because she knew that I had studied in the States and because she thought I must know a lot of people.
She was a very confident girl indeed. However, I said that I did not write recommendations for students who had not taken any of my classes because I couldn’t know them very well. I instead invited her to a study group I had formed, “Studying the History of Music in English.”
I did not expect her to show up at the meeting, however, because I had refused to write her a recommendation. She also seemed like a very practical person who wouldn’t bother doing something if nothing concrete came out of it. To my surprise, she came to the meeting and showed us what she had to offer.
She asked me questions about studying abroad and I told her how things were when I studied in the United States. At one point, I asked about her music compositions. As an ambitious student, she had written complex and large-scale pieces using modern composition techniques to submit along with her application letters.
I told her a story about my first lecture at Harvard University. I went there to learn Western music but in my first class the professors asked me to give a presentation about pansori, a Korean form of vocal and percussional music. Although I was born in the country of pansori, I grew up listening only to Bach and Beethoven. However, they wanted to hear about pansori from me, instead of Western music.
I went to the United States in the early 1980s. American academic fields then had started to see the problems of their studies of other cultures, which focused mostly on the Western world. They started to realize that there were limits to their studies on non-western cultures because they could not overcome the lack of insight into different cultures.
Music is not just an arbitrary phenomenon of sounds, but a cultural product that can never be understood without an understanding of the culture that created that certain type of music.
In the early 1990s, a prestigious university in Michigan opened a department of Korean studies and was looking for a new faculty member to teach Korean culture and music. One man who had completed his doctoral degree at Harvard University applied for the job.
A short Korean woman with a charming Korean accent applied for the job as well. She had studied the gayageum, a traditional Korean string instrument, in Korea, and studied music further in the United States. Surprisingly, the latter was liked best by the students.
That news came as a shock to me because I had been trying hard to speak as perfect English as possible and to enter the mainstream of American culture ― in short, to minimize the differences that I had. While Americans wanted to treat us as major “insiders” of our culture, I did not even have pride in my culture.
Going back to the story about my student, what she had inside the box was not a violin, but a haegeum, a traditional Korean string instrument, with two strings, resembling a fiddle. The student was better than me in all aspects. While conversing with me a year ago, she had realized the importance of differentiating oneself.
As she was already a good violin player, she decided to learn to play the haegeum because it was similar to the violin, and she had practiced hard. She did more than try to add a Korean flavor on top of her music. She was trying to represent the sound of the haeguem through the violin.
As students are fully exposed to all kinds of information these days, they keenly feel the trend of globalization, unlike older generations that have prejudices againt other cultures. I keep feeling frustrated with this fact. I cannot show students the world that I have seen and experienced myself as much as I want to in Korea’s music education system and environment, which is almost impossible to change.
However, as long as I have students who are not ashamed of their differences but ready to embrace them as a part of themselves, I can dream of a better future.

* The writer is a professor of music composition at Ewha University.

by Chae Hyun-gyung
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