Saturday, October 20, 2007

How my students see Americans

Hi all,

I've had some revealing glimpses into how Korean teenagers see America and Americans recently. In my 9th grade class, they were taking a test on the play 12 Angry Men and were given quotes that they had to identify who said the quote, the context of the quote, and what the author was trying to say was right and/or wrong with America through the character. One of the characters in the play, Juror #11, is an immigrant from Europe who moved to the US in 1941 to escape persecution. The quote I had on the test from #11 that they had to identify was "This is the reason I came here. I wanted to have the right to disagree.” One of my students said, "This is wrong to American society because people have the right to speak, but it makes the US look bad to other foreigners, because they think that its natural and okay to always have unpopular opinions." I thought this was a really interesting take on freedom of speech. At first I thought, "wait a minute, how in the world can she say freedom of speech is bad?" But then when I got to the end of the sentence, I could see where she was coming from, especially given Bush, the Iraq War, etc. I don't agree with her 100% (well, I do agree with her on Bush and Iraq!), but it is curious how something that I think most Americans consider super important can be seen as a huge negative to others.

Then, the other day I was using this new technique I learned called Chalk Talk (for you teachers out there, here's how it works. You put an open-ended question on the board. Give the kids a few minutes to think about it [I used the same question as their warm-up question] and then they start Chalk Talk. Basically, for 10 minutes, kids respond to the question only through writing on the board. The room should be silent during this because everyone is "talking" through writing. I put 4 markers up there so only 4 kids could come up at a time and let them go. It was awesome! At times, there was literally a line of kids waiting to come up and write. You end up with this multi-colored web of thoughts, opinions, questions, responses, etc up there. And, when I saw there were holes or things I really wanted to make sure were pointed out, I just went up and started jotting stuff down. The teacher who taught me Chalk Talk said that she has one student who will not speak in class ever, but she'll do Chalk Talk!). Anywho, the question was, "Besides someone who lives in America, what is an American?" Some of the responses were really interesting. One kid said that an American is someone who believes in freedom, but will not die for it. I asked him about that and he said that during WWII, Americans were willing to die for their country, but not now, which he's totally right about. Then another kid had just written "manners" on the board, so I asked him what he meant...were those good manners and bad manners? A bunch of kids ended up answering at the same time and some said Americans have good manners and some said they have bad manners! I asked them what kinds of things were good and they said that if you bump into someone in the US, the person you bumbed into will apologize to you. That's really different from here where you get bumped and shoved and pushed and knocked into all the time (rarely on purpose though) and there's hardly ever any sort of acknowledgment or apology or anything...there are just so many people here! So that got us on a conversation about bubbles and how Americans like their space! I didn't hear too many specifics about Americans' bad manners (maybe that were worried they'd offend me?), but loudness came up.

Speaking of being seen as rude, a few weeks ago I was riding the subway with another SIS teacher and we were talking, but not loudly, and this woman was so disgusted with us that she scolded us in front of everyone, looked at us like we were the most digusting thing she'd ever seen, and told us that she was going to have to change subway cars because we were so disruptive! As I've told a few other people, I try to be really conscious of not being the ugly American when I travel, but in this case, she was so obviously prejudiced against us because we were white and speaking English, that I didn't even feel guilty. There is some definite racism against Westerners here, especially Americans. I've noticed it mostly among the older people. It's not uncommon for there to be an empty seat next to me on the subway and have it be the absolute last one taken, I'm assuming because people don't want to sit next to someone who's white/foreign. I've heard from other teachers that they've been yelled at by bus and taxi drivers for speaking English. So far I haven't been too offended by it though. Korea is a country that's been taken over time and again by outside forces, so it makes some sense that they'd have negative views towards foreigners. It is interesting though... But then, I've also had Koreans be absolutely wonderful to me as well. When we first got here, a group of us went to a restaurant/bar with a band and the table next to us had a woman's who was celebrating her birthday. The band sang her happy birthday, so we sang along and then when her little cake came out, she gave our table 2/3 of it and thanked us profusely for helping her celebrate her birthday! And last week when I went hiking on the mountain, a Korean man and his father-in-law made sure that we were having a good time, seeing good stuff, etc. So, just like anywhere, you have your good and your bad!

All right, I'm off to the vegetable market. Have a great week!

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