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Custom Cultural Diversity in Korea.

Cultural diversity is something that makes the world as multifaceted and unique as it is. We often hear how Western countries praise and promote diversity in their work places, religious, and educational establishments. The concept of cultural diversity often implies that people of different cultural and national minorities peacefully live together and their views are equally valued, and listened to by the mainstream population. However, when these ideas of cultural diversity are exported to other countries, they often meet certain opposition from the local population. In countries with less diverse and more homogenous populations, the process of adopting diversity, i.e., new patterns of behavior exhibited by foreigners, may take some time. In the light of this, it comes as no surprise that some ESL teachers from Western countries face difficulties when using their culturally accepted approach to schooling in Asian countries, with Korea being no exception. This study argues that Christian ESL teachers in Korea need to make sure they understand Korean culture and, at the same time, exercise the schooling approach that makes them effective in the eyes of their students and Christ, who tasked them with this important educational mission. 

The present article attempts to shed more light on the most frequently occurring classroom issues between Western ESL teachers and Korean students. It draws on the results of personal observations of the Western teachers’ manner of conducting a class and Korean students’ reactions to it. Some of these issues include characteristics of classroom discussion, attitudes to student’s personal opinion, and social status of students, and teachers. We are going to analyze each important observation in terms of its cultural roots in Korea, and its importance for the ESL learning process. In the discussion section, we use Christian wisdom to better reflect upon these issues in relation to God’s will, as well as furnish a working suggestion for ESL teachers to follow, when working with Korean and other Asian students.

The Project

Last semester, 267 students from various DLE classes were asked to complete a 7-questions survey, in which they were to provide answers to open-ended questions regarding what they liked and disliked about their foreign teachers. Students were encouraged to respond in either English or Korean. Usually, surveys are so written that they do not require much effort on the part of the students to complete. Such surveys are weak, because the answers may or may not be an accurate reflection of the student’s experience. However, this survey was administered, so as to elicit extensive and reflective answers. Many students were interested in sharing their opinions and demonstrated diligence while filling out the survey.

On reading the surveys from the point of view of the teacher, a number of interesting observations emerged. However, only five of them will be elaborated on here:

  1. It is difficult to get students to participate in class discussions or answer questions.
  2. Students feel uncomfortable when foreigners of a different age want to be their friend.
  3. Teachers get frustrated when students are unable to answer basic questions or come to simple conclusions.
  4. Students get irritated by a foreigner’s enthusiastic speech and / or emotional expressions.
  5. Students think foreign teachers lack generosity in terms of giving grades, accepting late assignments, and / or accepting excuses.

Observation Elaborations and Recommendations

Korean students do not communicate with teachers in the classroom; it is difficult to get them to participate in discussions or answer questions.

 Although, some students in the survey alluded to this problem, 40 students specifically mentioned that this cultural difference could lead to misunderstandings in communication (See responses to question #4).

To understand the root of this problem, one has to be aware of two ingrained, but interrelated aspects of Korean thinking: the significance of status and the need to demonstrate politeness. Koreans assume that each person is not only unique, but also is not equal to anyone of a different age. They regard this as an agreed upon condition and even have developed a hierarchy to determine a person’s status. There are two ways to do this. The first is to consider the person’s class, i.e., what social niche he or she represents. The present class system, although modernized, derives from the traditional Confucian class system, which divides the society into low-, middle-, and high-class categories based on a person’s profession. The second factor for determining status is age; for example, an elderly person merits respect in the Korean society, whereas the opinions of the youth go largely ignored. Thus, each member of the society knows precisely what kind of relationship he or she may have with any other person.

There are many benefits of possessing a high status, but one very important benefit is that the opinions of the high-class members are valued more than those of people who have a lower status. Thus, according to the traditional system, teachers have a higher status than students, and the students’ opinions are not considered to be valuable. Consequently, if the students’ opinions are not valued, no time is invested in teaching the students how to develop their own opinions. Students do not assume the role of creative thinkers; instead, they must respect the information disseminated by the teacher. The student’s job is to absorb information and to listen to someone else’s analysis of that information, taking that analysis at face value. This legacy also has implications for Korean students’ unwillingness to show critical thinking, which will be discussed later, in this study. However, it is the difference in social status that mainly accounts for communication barriers between ESL teachers and students in Korea.

According to Kohls (2001), “In Korea, nothing signifies one’s high status more surely than one’s dress and one’s polite way of acting in every situation” (p.113). Person’s status is directly related to the demonstration of polite behavior in the classroom, i.e., the quiet and humble acceptance of what the teacher says. Even though teachers may welcome questions, students never ask them, because such behavior would not be culturally acceptable. There are times when students do respond to a question, but this generally happens if the student confidently knows the answer. Since, listening to the teacher is considered polite behavior, and a sign of good manners. Students may hesitate to answer questions, since they do not want to lose face. They are taught that good students should always answer correctly. If they answer incorrectly, they are considered foolish and can be ridiculed by their classmates. To avoid such ridicule, it is easier for them not to answer and to maintain self-respect, as well as respect for the teacher.

Western teachers in Korea often feel frustrated, because they are not accustomed to this passive demonstration of politeness. Interestingly, some Korean students are aware of their passive behavior and are irritated when foreign teachers are uninformed about Korean culture even though they are living in Korea. One student was very specific in stating his irritation when foreigners failed to realize that this “passive” manner was related to a cultural and social norm. These behaviors, indeed, seem desirable for Korean students until they reach the university level, where, for the first time, they have to enter a class taught by a foreign professor who assumes that, because they are educated, they are now ready to begin a more advanced dialog in their subject of interest or major. This perhaps unconscious and well-intended assumption often becomes a culprit in such a cross-cultural dialogue. As the matter of fact, most Western students and teachers are not bound by the idea of inequality among the members of society and are, thus, not required to respect or be condescending towards others solely because of their social status. Hence, the opinions of the youngest members of Western societies matter enough, making the teachers think in terms what they should do to help such students develop faster and communicate better. Moreover, this “programming” does not begin when the student reaches an institute of higher learning, but long before, in their middle- and high-school years. Although, the most of Western educators are aware of these cultural differences, they are often lost as to how to respond in practical and Christian ways.

If they attempt to understand their students’ silence and still have them participate in language practice interactions, they need to create activities that will make the Korean students comfortable about talking. In such a way, the dynamics of the student-teacher traditional style posture will likely change. For discussion, students can be put in small groups where they work face-to-face with their peers. It is necessary to prepare in advance the questions that they are required to talk over among themselves. The teacher can also ask the students to stand up and respond after they are given time to prepare their answers, as well as assign related homework. In this case, the students would not be so ashamed of talking in front of their peers, who are the people from the same age group, even though they happen to answer incorrectly. In addition, all activities should be planned in a way that it is clear when the teacher should talk and when it is time for the student to respond.

Students feel uncomfortable when they feel that a foreigner of a different age wants to be their friend.

Question 5 of the survey asked students to describe an odd moment in the classroom or in the professor’s office. There were a few responses that showed how uncomfortable students felt when they realized that their professor wanted to be their friend or when they did not know how to respond to a professor, who was acting more informally than they expected. In question 7 of the survey, on the other hand, there were positive comments about how students liked the fact that there did not seem to be any binding “age rules.”

This lack of an overarching age rule seems to be a double-edged sword in terms of student reactions to their teacher’s informal attitude. Some students like the freedom of interacting differently with the foreign members of their society, who do not fit into the culturally accepted codes. On the other hand, some students also feel uncomfortable in such situations – without any social boundaries, they do not know how to react.

Koreans have a concept of friendship different from that of Westerners, particularly Americans. Robert Kohls does a good job describing concepts of friendship, when he explains the Korean idea of insiders vs. outsiders. In both Eastern and Western cultures, friends are included in the category of insiders. However, that is about the only commonality in defining friendship between Koreans and Westerners. Generally, if asked, Koreans will only claim one or two friends, because when one is “considered to be a friend …no request is too expensive or too impossible to ask”.  Korean close friend is a person who is willing to share time, feelings, and even material possessions completely. There is a deep sense of obligation in having a friend; therefore, Koreans do not have a large number of friends. They know that if they add someone to their number of friends, they must also be “willing and prepared to handle such requests.”

As previously mentioned, Koreans also have a system of class hierarchy dependent upon age. If the person is older or younger than someone, these persons normally cannot be friends. Therefore, if the Western teacher asks the students to develop a relationship based on a “fabricated” equality instead of a vertical kind of relationship, the students will lose their sense of identity in such an awkward social situation and will not know where the boundaries of that relationship really are. At the same time, Koreans will not want to reject their teacher’s request or desire of friendship so as not to appear impolite, and that is why they often end up in an uncomfortable situation.

One suggestion for teachers would be not to develop a traditional Western friendship with students. Whenever possible, they should develop mutually enjoyable and intimate relationships within healthy, culturally sensitive boundaries. If the teacher has a close relationship with a student, such teacher may at first be considered in more professional light, but over time the student may start treating him or her as an older brother or sister. This is the ultimate sign of intimacy, and such loyalty can even be better than the conventional Western understanding of friendship. However, teachers should be mindful of the student’s perceptions of their friendship. They should not immediately behave informally with a student or expect him or her to be their friend, as if they were people of their own age. However, gradually, the teacher will realize just how flexible the student can be in terms of adjusting to such a cultural difference.

Therefore, to avoid misunderstandings, Western teachers should try to engage Korean students in a conversation about this issue and ask their permission to behave in this informal way. Some students are very open to this kind of behavior, while others may not appreciate it. However, the process of getting used to the Western style of instruction may take some time and effort. The more students are around foreigners, the more comfortable they become with the Western ways of relating to others. 

Teachers often get frustrated when students are unable to answer basic questions or reach simple conclusions. Unfortunately, teachers equate this inability to respond to an inability to think critically.

Recently, a non-Korean guest at a lecture given by a Westerner was shocked at a Korean student’s response to the speaker’s question: “What is your definition of leadership?” The student, sitting directly in front of her, had their computer on the desk taking notes and immediately began searching for a definition of leadership. The guest later relayed this information to a colleague, because she felt that that action defeated her purpose, i.e., to engage the audience in conversation. This and the similar scenarios lead Western teachers to complain about their student’s inability to think. To the Westerner, this student was just being lazy, but this is not what was going on.

In reality, the student was demonstrating an approach to thinking and learning very different from Western expectations. Koreans are programmed to deal with details without being concerned about how this information fits into a larger context; they are aware of details, but do not try to analyze them. They spend time being good listeners, noticing sequential details, or making cause and effect relationships between them (Kohls.76). Koreans are expected to accept information, which is generally given by an authority, and then to elaborate on it with personal examples and illustrations. This ability to enlarge upon the information received will directly affect what others think of them.

This culturally motivated behavior often manifests itself in the widespread phenomenon of plagiarism in this country. Many Koreans do not consider plagiarism as an act of stealing, but instead, see it as a natural consequence of acquiring information. Therefore, some of them are shocked to find out that plagiarism is illegal and are surprised by punishments for copying ideas in the West, when in fact there are no new ideas under the sun. Another manifestation of the Korean way of dealing with information is the emphasis on rote learning in education. Rote learning helps develop memorization of large blocks of information and then recite it correctly. One negative consequence of rote learning is the fact that students have little opportunity to develop a questioning inner voice. An inquisitive mind is essential for a person to become a truly self-motivated learner. Such learners not only ask questions of teachers, but also have the confidence to answer the non-rhetorical questions Western teachers often ask.

Western teachers have been trained to interrelate all incoming information and make personal projections, they have also been educated to look at information in terms of sequential details and apply this to pertinent situations. The foreigner will neither blindly accept all the information that a presenter prepares nor will be interested in just listening to the information that is given. Rather, he would be engaged with the presenter who can lead the listener into the process of discovering the relevance of the information for him. The question, therefore, is how to reconcile these differences in learning style and turn them to the benefit of learners.

In What’s So Good about Korea, Maarten?, the author’s daughter, Renee Meijer, describes her experience as a foreigner attending a Korean school. She shows how difficult it was for her to keep up in her mainstream classes, so she attended an educational academy after school. Even though, she did not like the monotonous daily routine there, and the lack of free time. She realized how much this helped her with her studies and how much she learned about Korean pop culture by interacting with her classmates. She also made a unique observation: “At times something that seems like common sense to me is actually unknown to the Korean kids, like some fact, and they marvel at me for knowing such things. Then, I have to try to keep my surprise and shock at their naïveté to myself”.

Similarly, it is wrong to assume that everyone has the same “common sense”. Common sense varies from culture to culture since the way people think is “programmed” by the way they are taught to organize their thinking. Thus, to avoid being frustrated with their students, Western teachers should try to understand the way their audience is programmed to think. There is an advantage to think in someone else’s way: such teachers will learn to appreciate or, at least, tolerate the other person’s type of thinking by being open-minded. Students can learn the Western patterns of thought from a patient and understanding teacher who values her students.

Custom Cultural Diversity in Korea.

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