Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Learning what "American" means.

Written as an introduction to my gifted writing class (the example for them so they can write their own introductions--the last time I did this, I wrote about taekwondo):

"Americans all eat hamburgers every day."

Actually, I'm a vegetarian.

"Americans are Christian. They believe in God."

Although I celebrate Christmas, I wouldn't really call myself Christian. As for whether I believe in God, that's a long story for another time.

"Americans are all white."

Tell that to my black, adopted sister. Or to the other foreign English teacher at Taegu Foreign Language High School, a Chinese-American.

Everyday I hear strange generalizations made by Korean students about natives from my country, the U.S.A. Although these misunderstandings are easy to correct for my students, other mistaken beliefs are not so easy to explain. Partly because they are based on deep-rooted parts of culture that one has to study intensely over a long period of time to really understand. And partly because it's really hard to see your own culture objectively enough to be able to explain to another person why something is wrong, even if you can see that it is.

Last semester, I found out that TFLHS offered a course called "American Culture" to its second grade students. It was taught by a thoughtful, hard-working woman who had spent only six months in America, even though we had two American citizens teaching English at the school. She struggled to understand things I'd known since birth. She was always asking me questions and seemed overburdened with teaching a subject so out of synch with her experiences.

This arrangement struck me as preposterous, so I suggested to the head of the English department that rather than co-teaching the English Reading second grade class, perhaps I would serve the school better co-teaching the culture class. So this semester, I was excited when I learned I'd been assigned the class with Ms. Lim.

However, I became overwhelmed. Where do you even begin to explain your own culture to another person? How can you help them understand your culture through comparisons with their own when you are only beginning to understand theirs in the most superficial of ways? I was never more grateful than at that moment to be co-teaching with such an intelligent Korean woman.

As we teach the course, most of our planning meetings consist of frank discussions about the differences between American and Korean culture. In this last month I have learned so much about Korean culture through my conversations with her. For example, though I knew Koreans and Americans to both be hard working people, I saw Americans as valuing efficiency more than Koreans did. When I told this to Ms. Lim, she was horrified.

"But Koreans really value efficiency!"

"Then why do they spend so much time at the office being unproductive--taking naps, socializing, goofing off? If they worked more efficiently, then they could leave earlier and spend more time with their families."

She thought about this for a moment. "Koreans don't see it this way. When they are at work, they are part of the company. Their job is to make sure the company works efficiently. If they went home early, and someone needed to talk to them about something, it could cause a problem for the company's efficiency."

A light went off in my head. "I think I get it. Americans direct their efficiency towards individual productivity. Even though they are part of a company, they tend to think in terms of it being my job and my work. It's not that Americans aren't team players, they just don't view the company above their personal tasks."

"I think that's a better way to explain it. We don't want to offend the students."

I laughed a little. "I suppose if we were in America, Koreans would see our work habits as selfish and inconvenient to cooperative efficiency."

I love this kind of cultural exchange. In fact, a big reason that I left the U.S. to teach in Korea was my interest in learning about another culture by living in it. For the last year and a half, I have been trying to make sense of my adopted country, Korea, and usually I must do so by making comparisons with my homeland, America.

I've picked up two hobbies here in Korea--one distinctly Korean that I had planned to try while I was still back home, taekwondo, and one, unexpected, that originated in my own country, swing dance. I find myself paying more attention to American issues than I did when I lived there. It's almost like I'm just now starting to understand what being an American really means.

Ironically, I had to move halfway around the world to figure out what that is!

1 comment:

  1. Just as life is best understood backwards, it is often only from afar that we can understand where we are from.



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