Title Korea vs. Canada & America
Name InterKrest Inc.
E-Mail admin@interkrest.com
By Michael Braun

In 2007, I stormed the Korean labor market. As one of a few thousand Western ESL (English as a second language) teachers, I taught local students pronunciation, with speaking, writing, and reading tools that helped them become more fluent with English, improve test scores, qualify for good schools, and compete in the global marketplace.

Results were so positive that new President Lee Myung-bak has called for more Western teachers to join the industry. In an effort to reduce the new band of American outsiders' culture shock, I offer them a glimpse into the Korean way of life.

Sure, it's easy to notice the basic price differences of a steak dinner ($15 in the U.S. or $25 in Korea), a round of golf ($50 in the U.S. or $100 in Korea), or a pair of glasses ($150 in the U.S. or $40 in Korea), but these two nations have vast fundamental differences; particularly regards their communication and culture.

This will all be really interesting and helpful to a new transplant.

While ethnicities vary considerably within America, English is our linking commonality. Its spoken and written understanding is a make or break for assimilation.

Korea is ethnically and linguistically a homogeneous culture rooted firmly in Confucius beliefs. While the distinct language barriers might be hard to grasp at first, Koreans and Americans share a linguistic similarity: improvisation.

Since some words don't have Korean translations, Koreans solves its language limits with Konglish ― a loaning of English words.

Topics like golf and general words like free (service) have Western origin and the same word is adapted into Korea's hangeul. Eventually, it all gets blended and amended. The English word is simply spoken in Korean but by following its limited letters and corresponding sounds.

For example, hamburger is one word of Western origin. Hamburger is spoken in hangeul through adaptation: remove the `r' from hamburger. So, its hangeul pronunciation is hambuger.

Understanding Korean words on loan, lends to an American speaking or understanding modern Korean.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work both ways and learning American English will have unique challenges for Korean students. Americans tend to create expressions for personal vocabulary deficiencies.

Commonly, Americans use expressions rather than exact words for describing a feeling or a situation. Common expressions like `gray area' and `it hurts like hell' don't translate because they are not the literal meaning.

While our nation doesn't have a distinct or clear belief system, it does have obvious regions; north, south, east, and west. We also have a rather lineal ― flattened ― structure within our multicultural nation.

And a person's socialization, values, beliefs and public conduct depend on their demographic region, religion and social class.

Korea's strict Confucian culture elicits a hierarchical structure of respect between many roles. Some of these roles are openly seen between old and young; teacher and student.

For example, it is expected for you to allow an elder to pass you in long queues. While this might not fly back home, elders receive community respect in other forms. Seniors enjoy food, theater and public transportation discounts.

A similar form of respect will be found in the classroom. Unmistakably, the teacher has control. Students give teachers assignments with two hands, complete all assignments, and meticulously follow classroom directions and tasks.

Slackers quickly respond to subtle reminders to stay on task from both the teacher and fellow students. American teachers wish they had this system.

While exemplary students behave similar to Korean students, terrible students regularly curse teachers, argue with other students, and submit partial or no work at all.

As a white, foreign employee in Korea, you could be from one of a number of nations; however, you are usually a teacher or a soldier. And Koreans ask you to identify your nationality and occupation.

Koreans of all ages highly respect Americans and appreciate teachers. Many Koreans perceive teaching as an elite profession. So, if you have a teaching role in Korea, you are perceived as a competent, intelligent, and respectable individual.

However, Koreans also assume you are clueless with regards to their culture, language, and general assimilation in Korea.

While a few Koreans want to keep it that way, many others lovingly help foreigners in every way imaginable. And that assistance comes without unforeseeable limitations or expectations.

Older Koreans do not unconditionally accept foreigners, especially, foreigners who date Koreans. After all, Korea had been plagued with wars and international torment. Koreans fought hard to rid itself of countries conquering it from outside and within.

And these historical disputes hardened many Koreans. So a foreigner's national acceptance among older people has its limitations.

Schools stress hangeul education. Korean diets require kimchi and rice with every meal. And Korea seems independent and self-sufficient; it produces many foreign products, innovations, and technologies nationally.

While Lee Myung-bak's education initiative has opened the doors to growing English education and commerce, hopefully this information closes the communications gap between the two cultures.


(Michael Elliot Braun is an ESL teacher in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province.)
2009-08-24 06:55:55