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Cultural differences can enlighten and embarrass

Apr 25. 2018
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By Kim Seong-kon

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Cultural differences are always intriguing and fascinating. Of course, as humans we all tend to feel similar emotions in similar situations. Nevertheless, we often perceive things differently due to cultural differences. That is why cultural understanding is crucial in this rapidly globalising world. 

Sometime, even professors learn from their students due to cultural differences. When I taught at Brigham Young University in Utah two decades ago, I assigned the Korean short story “Kapitan Lee” to my American students and asked them to submit a paper on it.

Unlike Korean readers who condemned the protagonist, Dr Lee, as an opportunist, my American students praised him as a competent man. They wrote in their papers that Dr Lee was an able man who not only survived but also thrived at a time when the government was not capable of doing anything for him. Reading their insightful and provocative papers, I was greatly amused and even inspired. 

The same thing happened in my class a few weeks ago at George Washington University. In his class presentation, a student asserted that Dr Lee was an admirably competent man who had survived all the ordeals and atrocities of recent Korean history. In the eyes of Americans who value practicality and self-reliance, Dr Lee is indeed a truly capable man who demonstrates his ability to flourish even in times of crisis. 

Dr Lee sent his son to Moscow to study when the Soviet Union controlled North Korea and his daughter to the United States during the US military government in South Korea. Korean readers think Dr Lee has lost his two children while pursuing his own personal safety and prosperity. My American students interpreted it differently. They thought it was better for his children because they could live overseas thanks to their thoughtful father at a time when Korea’s future did not look too bright. 

A similar situation occurred when I assigned my students Kim Sowol’s “Azaleas”. Korean readers naturally assume that even though it is written by a man, the narrator of the poem is a woman. In Korean culture, it is not manly to gather an armful of flowers and spread them before a woman’s feet. Few Korean men would do such a “girly” thing.

To my great amusement, however, two of my American students  thought that the narrator was undoubtedly a man because in American culture, it is almost always a man who brings flowers to or spreads them before his girlfriend. No woman would do such a thing in American culture. Indeed, in American society, it is usually a man who pleads with his girlfriend not to leave him, bringing a bouquet of flowers to her. 

Of course, Korean society has changed and these days, perhaps many young Korean people would do exactly what Americans do. When Kim Sowol wrote the celebrated poem, however, it was usually a woman who pleaded with her lover not to leave her. When we introduce Korean poems to the West, therefore, we should anticipate a different reception due to cultural differences.

Cultural differences can be enlightening, but other times embarrassing. For example, foreigners find it weird that Koreans frequently demand a judge overturn his sentence when it does not meet their expectations. In the foreigners’ eyes, threatening a judge for his sentence is like blackmailing the judicial system itself and cannot be tolerated. In fact, it is a serious felony to threaten a judge in other countries. In the eyes of foreigners, we may look like defying the judicial system and demanding a people’s summary court that hands out sentences according to the people’s sentiment instead. 

Foreigners also find it hard to understand why Koreans do not bother to have an English passage proofread by a native speaker and keep using grammatically wrong English. We brazenly use broken English.

 Koreans have a very undesirable attitude: “Who cares? We do it in our own way.” However, when it comes to English, you cannot do it in your own way; you should be precise and correct. Otherwise, you will lose credibility quickly. By the same token, we need to learn other cultures, embrace cultural differences, and follow global standards. Only then can we become truly global citizens living in a truly advanced country.

KIM SEONG-KON is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University

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