I recently had to complete an online pre-orientation course for my teaching job in Korea. The first part of the course was a little dull, but it got more interesting and I really enjoyed the later stages. I wanted to share here a few screenshots and some quotations which I find very interesting, when thinking about what it says about Korean culture that the Korean authors of the course wrote what they did about their own country.

As a quick intro this is how the course worked: video lectures of between fifteen and twenty minutes followed by a review of the lecture (basically the same thing in a different voice) then a quiz. Shown here is the part of the course I found dull: you can’t interestingly cover all the stuff on the right side of the screen in twenty minutes, and this slide is not all of the lecture’s content.

Here we have the official executive summary of the West versus the East…

I don’t think this is at all fair on the West. The points they want to emphasise, rightly, are that Korea is extremely Confucian and this manifests itself most obivously in (i) the hierarchy and respect for age, and (ii) collectivism rather than individualism, (though this last could mean a lot of things as stated).

You can make these points without setting up a dichotomy with Western christianity. Korea has a lot of Christians in it now (apparently thanks to British missionaries). Perhaps this is what gives the impression that the West’s major export is Christianity.

Here’s a shot from their discussion of individualism versus collectivism, and some quotations (the first is transcribed from audio so I may have made a mistake):

Koreans would rather follow fashion than their own considerations of style.

Korean culture emphasises the collective power of groups, so people tend not to accept others who are different.

The above quotations are not in the least bit equivicatory. To my Western ears, the course here paints adult Koreans as schoolchildren. If I were advertising Korea’s collectivism I would have written about the more positive side: it encourages people to put aside personal glory and success for the benefit of others etc.etc., but instead they go for the thing that will look worst to a Westener: it is precisely contrary to the way we are all brought up, believing that it is bad to do things just because others are doing them (even if we then just go ahead and do that anyway)

I think that one of two things are going on here. This could just be something lost in translation: the authors of the course don’t realise just how negative this is. This is unlikely, though, since the statements are made with simple English which it is hard to imagine someone with the grasp of English that the authors of the course clearly have misunderstanding. So the only remaining possibility is that here we have a direct West-and-East conflict: apparently irreconcilably different values. I’m not sure what to make of this.

The course also contained some very cute Konglish :)

”Why don’t you enjoy the Korean cell phone culture?”

”For Koreans a cell phone … is as important as life itself” [said with all seriousness]

”You may be surprised at the splended designs and layouts of Korean Internet sites.”

The last is ironic since they only work in Internet Explorer, which the country is stuck on for frustrating historical reasons, so they don’t have splendid layout on any other browser…