Teaching tolerance early

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Teaching tolerance early


Jeong Jae-seung

The curriculum in American schools is designed to teach children cultural diversity from an early age. In elementary school, children learn numbers in many languages and celebrate traditional holidays of various nations to share the customs and food of their students’ cultural backgrounds. A student from a Chinese family helps his or her classmates with pronunciations during China Day in social science class. A student from an Italian background stands in front of the class to tell a little about Italian food before everyone chips in to make their own pizza.

For the last three years, the United States, being the most ethnically diverse nation, has endeavored to create a learning environment and curriculum to make both students and teachers respectful of different backgrounds and perspectives to combat prejudice and intolerance in a multicultural and multiethnic society.

In recent years, Korea, which for centuries was racially homogenous, has seen a sharp growth in its foreign population. On average, more than 30,000 couples a year get married to create mixed-race families, bringing the number of such families in the country to about 200,000. Children from mixed-race families now total 150,000. According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the multiracial population could reach 2.16 million by 2050.

But our society is far from being ready to fully embrace people with different skin colors and appearances despite these fast changes. In one recent survey, 41.3 percent of mixed-race individuals said they felt discriminated against while living here. Unless taught from early days that a person’s skin color should not matter, a homogenous group tends to stick together and can act hostile toward people with different appearances from outside its community. The Korean race, because of its deep-rooted pride in its race and heritage, has never entirely grown out of the Hermit Kingdom syndrome. Coupled with the self-consciousness of a small, peripheral country, Korea’s society is one of the most difficult places to live for foreigners.

Overall social awareness and emphasis of tolerance and disdain for discrimination have grown, but still people of multiethnic backgrounds are not fully embraced. A society’s justness can be defined by its level of compassion and tolerance. We should all be more respectful toward our neighbors who struggle because they look different and have a different heritage. Understanding of the need for cultural diversity should be the basic demeanor of a citizen of the global community.

Mixed-race couples hope their children will get along with their friends at Korean schools. They also hope their children will remember “the other” part of their identities and respect the culture of their immigrant moms or dads. A Vietnamese woman married to a Korean man wishes to teach her children the language and culture of her mother country. A man from Cambodia hopes his son or daughter maintains a Cambodian identity. This is precisely how the Korean identity was kept alive in Japan and the United States by our emigrants. A mature society should not demand a naturalized citizen fit into the same cookie-cutter mold of a Korean. These children should be able to grow up with the benefits of belonging to different worlds of their parents.

The online portal Daum - through its nonprofit Daum Foundation - has been running a website offering illustrated children’s books and stories of various countries for free in various languages. The service, www.ollybolly.org, provides stories in their original languages and translated Korean versions. The service has even expanded offline by opening Ollybolly sections in community libraries in Incheon, Hwaseong, Jecheon and Namyangju, where multiethnic families are common.

The website features children’s stories from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Iran, Tibet, Palestine and Lebanon. About 20 to 30 new stories are introduced every year and the list has grown to 100. The program has become indispensable for Vietnamese mothers hoping to teach their children the mother tongue. At the same time, a child can also read Vietnamese children’s stories in Korean. Last year the multicultural program won the presidential Sejong cultural award.

These stories should not be restricted to multiethnic families. Koreans children should also share them to better understand the different cultures of our neighbors. Children growing up sharing stories of various cultures will better function in a multiethnic environment with fewer prejudices. People with memories of childhood reading limited to European or Disney-themed stories won’t be as adaptive and tolerant in a global community.

The Ollybolly project should be shared in all public school classrooms. Teachers should share books from various cultures to teach children the vast and intriguing world beyond our society. Childhood reading should be balanced in a truly universal context. The early generations of Korean migrants in America, Japan and Germany suffered a great deal. We must not make people of foreign origin go through the same painful experiences on our soil. Cultural diversity is a value we must teach and build in our future generations.

Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 22, Page 31

*The author is a professor at the Department of Bio and Brain Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

By Jeong Jae-seung
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