Notes from the Library

Thu, 27 Nov 2014

This is the fourth post in a series. First post; Next post

It is often said that various east Asian cultures emphasise the good of the group over the good of the individual to a greater extent than we do in the West. In the Korean case this turns out to be an in-group, out-group culture that means less respect and more selfishness all round. Certain Western values, that I believe make life better for everyone living in English-speaking cultures, get applied much more narrowly by the average Korean.

If one is perceived by a Korean as being in their group, one gets treated very well. People make big sacrifices for their families, and make efforts to maintain ties with old friends. But if one is not in a Korean's group, standards are lower. In particular, the fact that strangers too are individuals trying to lead their lives gets trampled on. It's also the case that in-groups are often defined by societal expectations rather than genuine interpersonal ties and bonds.

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Wed, 26 Nov 2014

This is the third post in a series. First post; Next post

I've written before about how age is important to Koreans, and it affects the language one uses to speak to someone who is merely one year older or younger than oneself. Most of this stuff is a quaint custom, and it's often very sweet to hear younger students refer to older students as "older brother" and "older sister", without thereby according them any more respect than they might get in a British primary school.

When it comes to discussing the problems that this cultural phenomenon creates among adults, we can discuss simultaneously the attitude taken towards a difference in age and the attitude taken towards a difference in position in an institution's hierarchy. In a Korean hierarchy, it is accepted that the interests of those further up will take precedence over the interests of those further down—and these interests can be petty, as we will see in my examples. In our school, the same manipulation that teachers employ to keep our pupils in line gets applied to the teachers themselves by those higher up in the hierarchy: respect flows upwards, but there is no respect for those lower down as being, again, autonomous human beings trying to do their jobs and also live their lives.

An elementary school is a particularly conservative environment, and I believe the relationship between the principal and vice-principal and the rest of the teaching staff of my school is a paradigm case of how bad things can get. I will give several examples which are common to schools across the country.

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In a recent post I used the idea of humility with regard to our imprisoning of our pupils in school to generate some ideas about how to frame punishment in relation to reward in the classroom. I've another example of this from Korean schools to note. This will be quite rough.

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Sun, 23 Nov 2014

This is the second post in a series. First post; Next post

I'll discuss some aspects of the country that Koreans have built for themselves in the past fifty years that stand out to me as worthwhile, and very much lacking in the West.

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I haven't read any books on Korean sociology, politics or history. However, I've been living here for a year, have had plenty of different Korean friends including a girlfriend, and I've spent time engaging with other expats and Koreans about the things I'm about to discuss. A big place where I've done the latter is, a discussion board for foreigners in Korea, particularly English teachers. This board is divided between the sharing of teaching materials, practical discussions about where to get a credit card, how best to book a holiday from Korea to Thailand and the like, and discussions of Korean culture and sociology (politics is limited due to the language barrier). A lot of the posts on are just disgruntled expats venting their culture shock over and over again. However, there are also insightful posters who comment intelligently on the culture they are living in. And the repetitive disgruntled posts are a way of determining some patterns.

That's my credentials and my data, such as it is. I intend to first describe some things about Korean contemporary culture that the English-speaking world might learn from. Then I will talk about Korea's problems. Unfortunately, the latter list will be longer. It's risky to say, given my situation as an expat who still experiences culture shock from time to time, with no academic experience in sociology. But I cannot escape my judgement that South Korea is in so many ways totally insane, as compared with the English-speaking world.

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