Just to show my students (hopefully) the power of revision, I took a chisel to yesterday's post. Check out the new version. What do you think? Does it read better?
An American in Korea (take 2)
"Americans 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 white. They have blond hair and blue eyes."
Tell that to my black, adopted sister. And my hair is red, thankyouverymuch.
Every day I hear strange generalizations made by Korean students about natives from my country. Although many of these misunderstandings are easy to correct for my students, other mistaken beliefs—that Americans are selfish, materialistic, rude, dangerous, or lazy--are not so easy to contradict. Partly because they are based on deep-rooted cultural differences. And partly because it's really hard to see your own culture objectively enough to be able to explain to another person why a stereotype is wrong, even if you can see that it is.
This semester, I was excited when I learned I'd been assigned to teach an American Cultures class with Ms. Lim. However, I quickly 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 both Koreans and Americans to 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. I have immersed myself in everything Korean: I try all the spicy food; I practice taekwondo; I study the language; I visit the temples; I make friends with the people. 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.
Although I thought I was coming here to learn about the world and another way of life, I find myself paying more attention to American issues than I did when I lived there. Unexpectedly, Ive discovered a hobby here in Korea that originated in my own land, swing dance. Suddenly, things that used to bother me about America (like our overly competitive society and eagerness to pretend there are no class differences at birth) are starting to make sense. I’m finding more and more that Edward T. Hall, a well-known anthropologist, was right when he said, “The real job is not to understand foreign culture, but to understand our own.”
Ironically, I had to move halfway around the world to begin to do just that.