When I was younger, tales about how France hated Americans, news of impending wars, the realization of terrorist organizations trying to tear us down, and a general feeling that you had to be careful if ever traveling to not go somewhere that was dangerous for Americans. I just never could understand why that was.
This morning sitting in a uppity suburban Starbucks, I overheard a conversation that gave me the answer.
The two upper middle class white Christian mom’s were sipping lattes and talking about their churches foreign exchange program with Korea. The comments they made caused me to feel just a little embarrassed at also being a white middle class mom sipping a latte in an uppity suburban Starbucks.
They were talking about the program and the struggles that it created for the students to assimilate into American culture. They were complaining that the students were allowed to speak Korean in school and in the host family homes. Comments about being able to speak to their family at home more than once a week were made but what really got to me were the following three things, in no particular order.
1. There was a comment made by one of the women that, on the whole, Koreans think they are better than everyone else. That they are the supreme/ultimate being. I am going to be honest and tell you I don’t know a ton of Koreans … or at least I don’t know if I do, if I consider you a friend and you are Korean, please don’t be offended that I don’t identify you as Korean. I think a person’s value is in the interaction I have with them, not the history of their family or color of their skin. That being said I don’t know if it is a cultural norm that those living in Korea actually believe they are better than others or not but what got to me was this quote from the woman in the coffee shop – ‘We are Christian Americans, we are the best Americans there are’.
I don’t tend to go big on religion but if I had to pick one that most mirrored my faith/beliefs it would be Christianity. I grew up in the Lutheran faith and the thing that has always struck me is this little part of the bible that says the only person allowed to judge humanity is God. And yet here are these Christian women judging all of America as less than them. That sort of entitlement gives us a bad rap.
2. The conversation they were having about education – specifically math – just irritated me. I actually almost interrupted. The conversation was about how the Korean students don’t show their work in math and from a young age are forced to memorize all of these things. I don’t know about you but I remember having to memorize my times tables. Regardless, that is just part of education. At any rate that isn’t what bothered me the most. I don’t know if this actually applies to Korean students but I know that in many Asian cultures the numbering system is such that it makes sense and lends itself to easy manipulation for quick mathematics. It seemed to me when I learned this that maybe they just don’t need to show work because it would be like showing work for 2+2.
True or not I don’t know because I am not an expert but to assume that its ‘wrong’ that they don’t show their work is absurd. Unfortunately, this conversation didn’t stop at math, but continued on to work ethic, opportunities, and general school expectations. The conversation brought up the fact that it’s ‘sad that the parents of these students just don’t know what opportunities they have here’ and how ‘heartbreaking it is that the students work so hard and go to school so much in Korea and that the parents have such high expectations’. I am not sure I understand why that is sad. Our country and culture is different from others in the world. That doesn’t mean right or wrong – that means different. As a country we are lazy … we have a vacuum that will roam around your house on its own, we have an industry specifically to come and clean your house for you, and we have an item that you can ‘clap on, clap off’ your lights. How is that faltering. We are even too lazy to get out of our cars to walk into the pharmacy or to get off our lazy butts and be healthy. But yes it’s sad that they have to work hard.
My daughter hasn’t started school yet, but when she does – I expect A’s, because she is smart and has the resources to learn if she doesn’t get it. I expect that she works hard and I expect her to not be self entitled. How sad.
3. My last point – and maybe the most personally striking is the comment about the exchange student who’s mother was a stay at home mom who ‘went to the fitness club and kept having babies until she had a boy’. My biggest point – you are two married definitely middle to upper class white women sitting in Starbucks at 10am on a weekday … not sure I need to say more to demonstrate the irony in this, but I will. Everyone has their own thing going on and their own reasons for things. Maybe, like me, they took a vacation day to enjoy a little down time. Based on the conversation I doubt it. My guess is that on the agenda today for at least one (or both) of them may not include the gym but probably a trip to the massage parlor. And yet it is so sad that the Korean mother stays home and is ‘unvalued’.
Culturally in the US it seems to be a norm that the ‘dream’ is for mom to be able to stay home, but a mother in Korea staying home and going to the gym while the youngest is in school is sad and assumed to be unvalued.
Maybe my rant is uncalled for and makes me no better than those women but I think the real problem here is not that Korea has it all half ass backwards but that American’s are so ready to assume we are right and they are wrong. We are so ready to say ‘we are the great and mighty America, do as we do’. I don’t really know what conditions are like in Korea, I know they are not amazing. But I also know first hand that conditions in Tanzania aren’t amazing either on the whole but it is not a country without opportunity and it does not need to be blindly pitied and and rescued.
Yes, there are real problems in this world and no we should stand by and watch when someone is systematically putting an end to whole populations, but maybe we should seek to understand that culture, its benefits, value, and role in the world before we try to Americanize the entire world.
One of my most favorite experiences in Tanzania was the Masai tribe we interacted with. They are the closest to tribesmen that we saw. Sure everyone belongs to a tribe but are mostly living ‘modern’ (at least for Tanzania) lives. The Masai still dress, speak, and live in the traditional way. You actually need a translator to translate from the Masai language to Kiswahili and then to English because they don’t speak the official language. After meeting them, I could never pity them. Their beautiful culture, language, dress, and lives bring a value unlike that of other tribes and they have found away to bring that value to the greater society.
Putting everyone in our little comfortable box because we are afraid of differences and because we don’t want to learn a different way of doing things, and because we don’t want to see that maybe we are wrong or that maybe there are several ways to do the same thing is just plain wrong.
Please, today practice just a little tolerance.