Posts Tagged ‘positive change’

I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about Korean ‘Father School.’

“Traditionally, in the Korean family, the father is very authoritarian,” Joon Cho, a program volunteer, told me a few weeks before this session of Father School began. “They’re not emotionally linked with their children or their wife. They’re either workaholics, or they’re busy enjoying their own hobbies or social activities. Family always comes last.”

In 2000, Father School spread from Korea to the United States, and the program — part 12-step recovery, part Christian ministry — was tailored to meet the needs of Korean immigrant fathers dealing with Americanized kids who wondered why their fathers weren’t more like the touchy-feely dads they watched on TV. Since then, Father School has exploded. It now operates out of 57 American cities and has graduated nearly 200,000 men worldwide.

The article goes on to describe how the program uses group testimonies (of a parenting not religious nature), foot washing, and hugging as ways to break down barriers between men and their wives and children. I’ve never heard of this program here, but as I’m not involved in Protestant churches which seem to be the main groups signing up for such schools, it’s very possible that I’m just not moving in the right circles. I did an English language search and found this more in-depth article from 2009 written by a Korean American.

The men are encouraged to discuss these contrasting representations, but getting stoic Korean men to share their feelings is no easy task. A combination of guest speakers and testimonials by Father School volunteers, who are themselves former students, facilitate this effort. A volunteer at one conference I attended, for example, shared with the audience how, in an overzealous attempt to impart the lesson of poverty and the importance of studying, he once left his son on a street corner in a poor neighborhood and shouted in outrage whether he wanted to end up like the people there. With tears, the guest speaker expressed deep regret recalling the tears that had appeared on his son’s face that day. He realized there is a “better way” to impart lessons to a child.

While sitting at the table of 40-year-old fathers, I heard several men raise a number of issues related to generational conflict with their Americanized children. Many expressed frustration over their children’s disrespect for their authority, with one even revealing that his child called the police to report the dad’s use of physical discipline. As I listened to these men, I, the son of a Korean immigrant, started to recall my own dad’s use of “tools” like a pool stick or the pulling of a cheek to reprimand the two boys in the family. The linkage between Korean fatherhood and physical violence is an unfortunate stereotype, but at the same time, corporal punishment was long considered an acceptable practice in Korean society, whether within the family, school or military.

And yet, as I sat with these older men, I observed an uncommon scene: fathers choked up with tears and regrets about their past behavior. ”For several years, I was against the person my daughter loved and caused her considerable pain,” said Woojin, 57. Other dads confessed it was difficult to imagine their fathering role beyond breadwinning and scolding their children.

In my culture class, we’re in the middle of a module on different parenting practices, and a few weeks ago we looked at the Swedish government’s attempt to not only encourage fathers to take paternity leave, but also penalize families who do not make use of subsidizes for fathers. After discussing the NYT article on the topic, I asked students to discuss various questions pertaining to Korea in small groups such as ‘How often does your family eat together during weekdays?’ or ‘How often do you spend quality time with your father?’ I find that when students talk in small groups, they tend to be more honest than answering my questions directly because they don’t feel like they have to hide Korean social problems in front of the foreign professor. One student told her group that her family hadn’t eaten dinner with her father and mother together in ten years. Even on his days off, her father preferred to sleep, hike, or spend time with his friends rather than eat with his family. Another student said she hung out with her father about once a month despite living in the same house. A third said she rarely saw both parents growing up (she was raised by a family member because her parents both worked), and one of the male class members said that he always felt sad as a child because his father never came to any special events such as graduation. Not a single student agreed with the statement ‘I feel closer to my father than my mother.’ I haven’t talked about this issue directly with students since about 2007 when I taught at an adult hogwan, so initially I was hopeful that this younger generation had had more time with their fathers, but it does not seem to be so.

Back in 2007, I had one of those usual end of the month (end of the session), situations where I was sitting in an empty classroom hoping hoping hoping that I was going to get a 2 hour block no show. Alas, a female university student arrived 5 minutes late out of breath and apologizing for being late…until she looked around the room and realized she was the only one in class. I admit, I was a bit pissed off because I really really really wanted that no show! Not to mention the fact that the student was normally quite quiet and low level, so I really did not relish trying to pry 2 hours of conversation out of her by myself. But then we went to get coffee, started talking about her life…and she let slip that her father was a taxi driver. I say ‘let slip’ because what she was really telling me was that she was lower class, and as the conversation progressed, she admitted that sometimes other people made fun of her because her family didn’t have a lot of money. I told her that my father had been a blue collar worker, and asked her what the benefits were of a taxi driver father. She thought about it for a few minutes and replied that he was home far more than other fathers she knew because he did a lot of driving at night. He and her mother did all their errands together, he was always available to come to school events, they had father-daughter conversations as he drove her to school in the mornings, and he understood her very well because he spent time with his family. I have forgotten a lot of conversations with the thousands of students I have had over the years, but this one line will forever stick out in my mind because it was said with such joy on her face: ‘There is a lot of laughter in my house.’

Having a school for fathers seems a bit silly from a Canadian perspective, but as Koreans have come to rely on ‘academies’ or hogwans for almost everything these days, including how to get a date or how to smile like a flight attendant, and especially since it is hogwans that are actually one of the reasons why families do not have time to spend together, it seems actually pretty reasonable that a hogwan like program could be used as a culturally appropriate way to educate fathers and bring generations together. Confucianism, military culture, and the patriarchy have all contributed to this culture of absent fathers, but the biggest problem is that fathers do not have time, or do not think they need to make time to build a relationship with their children. On one level jung is supposed to be something that holds Koreans together based on their very Koreanness, and in the case of the family based on their blood relationship. However, when it comes to companies, employers recognize that jung does not happen naturally, but rather has to be cultivated through shared meal time, activities, and bonding time. Father School legitimizes time spent between parents, spouses, and children, as well as provides a safe place to share feelings which family members have not been able to share simply because they have not made the time and space to share in their own homes. It would be interesting to know if many non-Christian groups have Father Schools because I think this format also makes more sense from a Protestant sense by using public testimonies, utilizing cell group style structure, and emphasizing confession and forgiveness.  It would be interesting to see how a Buddhist, strictly Confucian, or avowedly secular group approached such issues.

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On Being a Seoulite

I first saw this sign a few weeks ago in the 동대문 subway station, and it stopped me in my commuter tracks.  It might be in many other subway stations??  Personally, I myself am a bus girl and avoid the subway if I can, so maybe it’s nothing new to others, but every time I infrequently pass this sign, it gives me hope.

A lot of people reject this term ‘foreigner.’  It means less as a means to group and identify people than many other terms.  Dutch tourists are foreigners.  Moroccan restaurant owners are foreigners.  Third generation ethnic Chinese (but born in Korea) are foreigners.  Bangladeshi factory workers are foreigners.  American diplomats are foreigners.  Vietnamese wives who speak fluent English are foreigners.  Children born in Korea but adopted abroad are sometimes foreigners.  Biracial children with Mongolian mothers are kind of foreigners. Korean Americans who are caught selling drugs are foreigners, but they are called Koreans on the street.  Sometimes…  All of these people are ‘similar’ in that they hold a passport from another country or ‘look’ (or speak) different from the common understanding of what a Korean looks like, but there the similarities end. 

I wrote a post about different kinds of ‘foreigners’ a while back with the main idea being that different groups have different roles, responsibilities, and concerns in this country.  However, unfortunately this label ‘foreigner’ is applied to all and implies not only an otherness, but also a refusal to accept the reality that there are settled, country-contributing ‘others’ living among Koreans in the here and now.  Part of this problem is the popular understanding of what it means to be Korean, and part of the problem is linguistic.  I think this sign addresses both of these issues in a positive way.

Yes, I do have a foreign passport and I am a foreign national, and in that way I am a foreigner,  but I’m also a resident here.  I live in a neighbourhood, I teach at a Korean institution of higher learning, am part of a Korean family, (unwillingly) drive on Korean roads in a Korean made vehicle, and I move in the rush of human bodies that is dynamic and ever-moving Seoul.  I am a foreigner by birth and citizenship, but I am a Seoulite by choice and marriage, and thus I should have certain rights AND responsibilities as a Seoulite.  I think both of these issues – rights and responsibilities have been overlooked in this country because the concept of others living beside us as co-citizens (on a wide scale) is so new.  I may look different, but I share many of the same concerns and feelings and the people I live and work beside because we share the same space.  We collectively are Seoulites.

Therefore I see this poster as a good sign, and a great reminder to born and raised Seoulites, newer Seoulities, and historically marginalized Seoulites about how important it is for us to become connected with our community in every way that we can.

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What right does a ‘foreigner’ have to critique another culture?

This question is often asked here by ‘foreigners’ and Koreans alike. It’s something hotly debated in online forums and more subtly in our workplaces and classrooms. I have been told by foreigners and Koreans alike that if outsiders don’t like something, they should just go home.


Let me start by saying I was educated in the field of Religious Studies, a discipline which seeks to observe, record, dissect, and understand religious communities and traditions. It’s more like anthropology than theology. The reason I want to make this clear is that I am educated in how to approach different cultures in a sensitive but academically critical way. I have two well earmarked copies of Orientalism. I did the post-colonial lit classes, and I grew up in a milieu of radical diversity and a national discourse of multiculturalism. I ‘know’ that all cultures are to be respected; differences preserved; that cultural logic should be investigated and understood on the basis of its own logic.

This was all very clear to me before I moved to Korea.

However, this background and worldview was based on the concept of always being an outsider. As an outsider observing and researching cultural assumptions and rituals, I needed to respect and understand the gulfs between people and ways of life. However, when you not only observe the people…but start to participate in the life…and then find your life bound to the culture you thought you were an outsider of…things get a bit more complicated.

I think there are different kinds of ‘foreigners.’
1) The foreigner who visits a country for a short time. They are the tourists who see the major historic sites, indulge in the food, sometimes go off the beaten track and experience life outside of Seoul and Busan.

2) The short term or repeat term foreigner. This group lives in Korea for a specific length of time but have an exit date in mind. They experience certain parts of regular life: living in a Korean neighbourhood, working for a Korean company, or making a group of Korean friends. They are usually English teachers, sometimes business people or military, and they sometimes even have a Korean spouse. They are part of Korea for a time, but they also have a plan to leave within a certain time frame. They are concerned about the hear-and-now more than their future in the country.

3) The long term no-ties foreigner. I’ve met some people who have been here for 10-20 years. They have long term experiences here – have had multiple employers – lived in a multitude of places – and have seen long term changes in the country. However, they also live on the periphery of Korean family life, are able to leave without familiar ties and have the ability to disassociate themselves from many issues by virtue of ‘foreignness.’

4) The long term ‘tied’ foreigner. This group has or plans on staying in Korea for an extended period, and they live…or are expected to live more or less within Korean cultural standards or expectations.

Some would say that ‘foreigners’ never have the right to critique another culture. They should always respect the cultural milieu, the differentness, the assumptions, and the social issues ‘warts and all.’ They are expected to feel ‘lucky’ to live in another place and should only meditate on the goodness of their new home.

I used to think I believed this. I now know I don’t anymore.

The first group of foreigners might have less to say about Korea. This group does not stay long enough to acquire a nuanced position on the culture or the lifestyle. They tend to see the most beautiful and the most stunning, and go to places where people are used to foreigners. They experience things for the first time, and have that beautiful wonder of encountering newness. However, of course, although they do not have as much time and experience to make a sound judgement of the nation, they are the people the government – who is avidly for increasing tourist dollars to Korea – needs to court and keep happy if it wants to keep these goals. They are also awesome spokespeople for the country. Their short term experiences are carried back to their respective countries with either positive or negative effect.

The next two groups are trickier. In many cases they can leave the country if they are unhappy, but teachers, investors, and skilled/unskilled labourers are courted by companies. For the most part, they increase the GNP, they develop industries, they spend inside the Korean economy, and in the case of migrant factory workers, they do the jobs most Koreans would never do at a fraction of the price. These groups have often encountered workplace discrimination or major management differences from their home countries. They live in neighbourhoods and are thus concerned with crime rates. They work the long hours of Korean citizens or are charged with motivating and educating the exhausted elementary school students who experience extreme fatigue because of long hours spent in ‘schools.’ They are recruited from abroad only to be told on arrival that they have to find another teaching job or pay their own way home because their employer didn’t realize they were black. These foreigners might have less to say about elder abuse, apartment development, or political ranglings, but it seems strange to assert that a person cannot have an opinion about what they are experiencing simply because they don’t hold citizenship in that country. How can a teacher wipe from her mind the fact that her student will get beaten if he doesn’t get a good test mark, or ignore a child’s panic attack because she is 8 and has to do homework until midnight every night? How can a migrant factory worker not be concerned about safety when he, not the citizens of Korea, face the dangers imposed on him by his stingy-let’s-do-this-in-the-fastest-and-cheapest-way-possible-damn-the-consequences employers everyday?

The last group…the one I am part of…is a whole other mess of blurred lines. My foreign friends who are males planning on leaving Korea after a few years will never have to deal with worries they might be fired if they decide to have a baby. They don’t have to worry about their children facing discrimination because they are bi-racial in public schools, or wonder if they will be denied a bank loan for a house because they are a foreigner and therefore a ‘risky borrower.’ Those of us with Korean partners, half-Korean children, and Korean families could leave and never look back. We could forget about our Korean ties and focus on the social issues facing the countries we left long ago….but doesn’t it make sense that we are engaged in the social issues around us?

In fact, I would argue that often ‘foreigners’ or to use the more pc ‘immigrants’ or ‘newcomers’ or ‘long term residents’ may have more to say about certain issues than citizens. A white Canadian-born citizen with a plain Anglo name has less to say about racial profiling at the Canadian airport than a dark skinned person with a beard because they will never experience that kind of discrimination in that kind of way. Likewise, an ethnically Korean citizen will find it difficult to fully understand the bizarro land which is Korean immigration with its shape shifting rules because they will never have to go through the process.

However, even if people are not directly involved in something doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I don’t own a car, but I still care about road safety because I am a pedestrian with a higher chance of being hit and a bus passenger with a higher chance of being involved in a bus accident when the rules of the road are not followed.

A woman whose husband works late every night – in part because he is ordered by his boss to participate in mandatory drinking sessions – can still have an opinion on working hours, the Korean drinking culture, and management styles. She is also impacted by her husband’s health, his time (or lack thereof) spent at home, and the stress he is under. To say that this woman has no say in this matter is just as strange as a man being told he shouldn’t care about sexual predators of minors because he is no longer a child.

It makes no sense to me that people who work, pay taxes, walk on the roads, live in apartment complexes, send their kids to public schools, shop in stores, live in the shadow of the DMZ should have no opinions on the matters at hand. It would be a sad world if every time we not only saw, but experienced injustice, misery, and untapped potential, that we shrugged our shoulders and refused to get involved.

Now I certainly see the difference between complaints and critique…between bashing and meaningful conversations to discuss how to enact positive change. I am certainly at fault for being a complainer and a negative critiquer…I’m a very cynical person after all. I also fear. I fear being too vocal – even among foreign teachers who would sometimes separate themselves from foreigners with less social standing in Korea to preserve their more elevated space. I fear the wrath of Korean management and administrators who all too easily dismiss concerns voiced by ‘selfish’ foreigners when they complain of an injustice. And I also fear myself…and the lack of positive options that I see before me…that all my thoughts will come to nothingness without the opportunity for action.

But even with these fears and these opposing opinions, I still assert that to say that foreigners have no right to an opinion about their lives – and that they have no responsibility for others in less fortunate and more discriminatory positions than themselves – is incomprehensible.

The reason why Koreans have been successful in North America – why some have become politicians – others lawyers and doctors – others franchise and small business owners – and others – happily settled people living in a quiet community they fully engage in – is because Koreans stood up and worked for positive change. And the Koreans worked with and stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. And the work that past generations have done will set a framework for newcomers.

Our Southeast Asian mail order brides…our Arab restaurant owners…our Bangladeshi factory workers…our college professors from abroad…our ethnic Koreans from China…must all have the right to voice, dissect, and debate legitimate concerns about their own lives. And their voices must be heard as a way to forge positive developments in society that affect all those living within the boarders. Through this process Koreans can learn about newcomers, and newcomers can come to understand Korean methods and viewpoints at a deeper level. Community is formed through participation not apathy. We all have the right…and just as importantly-the responsibility to be part of this community.

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