[Letter to the editor]Families, Buddha and teachersFor a foreigner living in Korea, each classroom encounter brings the unique opportunity to learn about Korean culture. This has enabled me to make a number of observations that the average traveler could not have made as easily.
One of the social norms that set Korean students apart from their American peers is their casual attitude about asking personal questions. Most ESL instructors often encourage their students to do just that. But questions like “How old are you?” “Are you married?” and “Do you have a lover?” are sure to catch a new teacher off guard. One question that I can always count on being asked is “How tall are you?”
In most classrooms there’s usually a would-be comedian who seems intent on inciting laughter whenever the lesson gets too serious. Because all my lessons are usually followed by a question and answer session, I can count on this aspiring comic to raise his hand, saying, “I have a question,” only to see him get up and ask, “Sir! Have you ever eaten boshintang?”
Occasionally, my students do ask a few questions I don’t mind answering. For example, “Mr. Forbes, which is your favorite month of the year?” To this, I usually respond, “December.” This almost always is followed with, “Why?”
First, I explain that I like December because it is the last month of the year. It is the month most Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, and it’s my birth month as well.
Most people look forward to at least one month with eager anticipation. Believing there’s a month among the 12 that most Koreans regard with fondness, I often return the question. “Which is your favorite month of the year?”
Like me, some students also prefer their own birth month. But a good number report that May is their favorite, because it is the only month dedicated to family. There’s Children’s Day (May 5) and Parents’ Day (May 8), and May 11 is a day Westerners call Mother’s Day. And about a week after that, there’s the holiday that brings most of Asia to a virtual standstill: the birthday of Gautama Buddha ― the founder of Buddhism.
Some may be tempted to ask a few probing questions. Why is Buddha’s birthday grouped with all the other days honoring the family? Was he the leader of a great family? Was he an exemplary family man? Was he the kind of role model that all family men should look up to? If you answer yes to all of the above, then you can consider yourself a well-informed citizen.
History tells us Siddhartha Gautama was born in the year 636 B.C., in the south of Nepal. His noble father Suddhodana raised his heir in the lap of luxury. No doubt, Siddhartha was destined to be the ruler king of his father’s cast. But at age 29, Siddhartha discovered more than half of his father’s subjects were living in poverty, suffering from all kinds of maladies or struggling under a heavy load.
The young ruler wanted to help his people but couldn’t meet the practical needs of so many. So he gave up the privileges his father’s position afforded him, the comforts of his mansion and the right to rule in his father’s stead, hoping to find a cure that would put an end to human suffering. After six years of hermitic wandering, it is said that he found “enlightenment.” Hence the title Buddha ― enlightened one.
The rest of Siddhartha’s life was devoted to teaching his disciples how to live moral and fulfilling lives. He promoted many theories on how to relieve the burdens of the less fortunate and improve the human family.
As the heir-apparent and future commander, Gautama could have assembled a committee to study the problem of human suffering and find a solution. But he thought it best to do it himself. This is why he is remembered as an exemplary member of the human family.
This brings to mind another day worth mentioning: Teacher’s Day, a day dedicated to the members of my profession. It’s good to know the founders of this nation thought so highly of teachers to set aside a day in their honor. They didn’t have8O?do it, but I’m glad they did.
Carlton U. Forbes, English teacher in Daejeon