Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Last week on Feminist Mormon Housewives’ Ask Mormon Girl column, there was a question that really resonated with me. A reader asked how she could get her convert fiancé, who had never celebrated Christmas – let alone her family’s all embracing Christmas celebrations – to integrate into a family that does “matching pajamas and rhyming, multi-stage treasure hunts and nativity re-enactments and Danish aebleskivers from my great-grandmother’s recipe and grandkids bolting to bed after sighting Rudolph’s nose in the sky and a laundry list of other traditions.” At the same time, from a discussion on a wives forum I am on, I realized that I am not the only Western wife who has radically different ideas about holidays and celebrations than her Korean husband.

I’ve seen big changes over the last seven Chirstmases in Seoul. However, Christmas is above all a dating holiday when couples go to special Christmas concerts, eat ‘Western’ food, and/or go to heavily packed areas like Myeongdong en masse with other dating couples. When I first got here, it was very difficult and highly unusual to find home decorations – because nobody decorated. And if they did, it was just a small tree not the every room + massive outdoor light displays that happen back in Canada. Above all, Christmas is a public friend/couple holiday lasting about two days with a longer Starbucks/Baskin Robbins/Dunkin Donut build up in Korea. Holiday concerts seem to be increasing at nursery schools and Kindergartens if my friends-with-kids’ Facebook status updates are to be believed, but only in the same way that hogwan competition seems to be driving the Halloween party fad among the 2-6 age group. But Christmas is pretty much an outside holiday. It’s something you participate in with the one you love or the kids at school, but it has very little family meaning. And until I came along, my in-laws had never imagined they would do anything remotely Christmas-related at home.

And speaking of family, of course, as you grow older and start your own family, you realize that what you think of as ‘traditions’ are often your own family traditions and not necessarily the traditions of the wider community around you. The Msleetobe family has a lot of traditions. There are certain movies that have to be watched – The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, White Christmas, the 1960’s Rudolph claymation, and now Elf for example (although if you can throw in a few more, that would be best). The times these movies will be shown are carefully noted and schedules may be rearranged in order that everyone can be in their pjs in the family room, each with a bowl of popcorn, so the watching (and singing) can begin on time. When my father was alive, there were always surprise nightly detours on the way home to neighbourhoods never before known so that we could see the outdoor lights of people we had never met as well as trips to well known Christmas display hot spots. There were Christmas baking extravaganzas and cookie exchanges when I was younger, the Christmas concerts my friend L and I used to put on for our families during our elementary school days, and those many many trips to the mall (or malls) to see Santa. There was the White Gift Service, the church Christmas concert, the Toys for Tots and Canadian Tire money drives at school, special breakfast on Christmas morning, Christmas Eve candlelight service, Avon products in our stockings and yearly tool contribution to our individual tool boxes (cause Dad believed in girls using and owning tools yo), and of course, the yearly Christmas gathering traditions with family, friends, neighbours, and social groups. Christmas was a big freaking deal for me growing up – and very little of that big freaking deal had to do with commercialization and presents. Most of it – at least the things that stick out years later – were the memories, the family traditions, and the magical atmosphere. I fully recognize that not everyone in Canada has these experiences or had them growing up, but I do believe that Christmas was and is a magical time for many people far apart from the commercialization.

But why talk about this here? Because my husband did not grow up in this cultural or family environment. And it’s not just Christmas. It’s pretty much all holidays. His family has a low key Chuseok/Seollal which I think is pretty commonplace in Seoul these days. We celebrate his parents’ birthdays. We take some flowers (the standard ones everyone is supposed to take) on Parents’ Day and eat together, and usually we get together with the in-laws for Mr. Lee’s birthday – but not with any of his other siblings. Each occasion is pretty standard – eat a meal or go out to a galbi restaurant, give money or a standard Korean gift set easily purchased out of the gift section of any department store, and … that’s pretty much it. Now, I recognize that this is partly Mr. Lee’s family dynamics and that other families might be more or less traditional, more or less festive, and be more or less creative.. And I also recognize that my family – which has always celebrated major and minor holidays with a flair (I still get St. Patrick’s Day and Ground Hog Day cards from my mum not to mention Valentine’s Day candy and chocolate) is not necessarily the norm, but there does seem to be a cultural difference in addition to a family/individual difference between how people celebrate special events in Korea and Canada.

I had never really thought about this difference until women in my online group started comparing how our Korean husbands understand and celebrate personal milestones and public holidays. A common thread was that most husbands (living in Korea … some living abroad after living in Korea for most of their lives) did not feel the need to mark anniversaries. Birthdays were sort of celebrated…sometimes. But the biggest complaint was Christmas – including the fact that many raised-in-Korea-men did not feel that family Christmas celebrations were attendance-mandatory when living or visiting abroad – or that even spending time as a family was necessary. To your average Western wife…I would say that’s a major gulf.

In some ways I wonder if part of the problem is that because Christmas is kind of celebrated in Korea. I wrote about this earlier in the year in a post about critical thinking. My students were asked to read an article about Canadian Christmas traditions and then brainstorm the differences with Korean Christmas traditions. However, despite their excellent reading comprehension and very detailed information meant to get students thinking about the differences, many students failed to notice any of the differences. They said ‘we have a Santa and A reindeer and we have Christmas trees…in department stores’ without noticing that the article talked about an in-depth Santa myth that is not present in Korea or a multitude of differences in who the time was celebrated with, and where, and what people ate etc. The idea (widespread across all of my classes) was that Koreans had Christmas, and Canadians had Christmas….so they must be the same right? Of course, anyone who has spent a family Christmas in Canada and a date night on the town in central Seoul knows that what constitutes Christmas in each country is very different not necessarily in symbols but rather in meaning, tradition, and atmosphere.

Of course, when you are a single expat in need of others to hang out with during the holiday or a person involved in the dating scene, this distinction doesn’t matter as much. However, when you get married and start wanting to continue your past traditions or start new ones – or especially when you have children and suddenly realize that the traditions you never gave much thought to are important, there can be a disconnect if your partner considers Christmas to be a night to drink with friends or something only young 20-somethings do.

I feel happy in that I started pushing for a more home-centred Christmas long before we got married so that by the time we got to this stage in our lives, there was less controversy. Christmas Eve is a night for church. The end. Christmas Day is a day to spend with family (blood, marriage, or urban). These have long been my two demands and slowly Mr. Lee has started to see how these two days of Christmas celebrations can be helpful in building traditions. Of course, I have to give something too. Mr. Lee just does not understand the Christmas movie thing (and neither it seems does Korean tv which ran ‘Christmas specials’ such as Cars, Bridget Jones Diary: The Edge of Reason, Toy Story etc as their ‘festive movies’). I think I will always watch Elf and sing to The Muppet’s Christmas Carol while he watches Swedish rock videos in his home office. He is also never going to be okay with me blasting Christmas carols in the house from the end of November – but I can listen on my ipod on the way to work. And he is never going to fill a stocking for me…and after years of trying to do stockings for him, I’ve realized that the stocking tradition really does not work unless it’s reciprocal.

At the same time, there are traditions I cannot give up, and I especially want my son to grow up with. I did a big 10.5 hr Christmas cookie extravaganza this year and shared the dozens of cookies with my neighbours and coworkers. I’ve started insisting that we see his parents during Christmas and bring them a gift. They of course are totally thrilled to be getting a gift, and although we’re eating pat juk or bibimbap and not a traditional Canadian Christmas dinner, I think it’s a good tradition for both me and the family. In addition, we’ve had two years now of Skyping present opening with my mum and sis – not the same as the real thing, but for those times when we are not together during the holidays, I’m happy to embrace technology so that we can hang out together during Christmas. And certainly when Dragon is old enough to form his own memories of Christmas, we will stop doing Christmas dinner at a hotel and start making a meal at home, wrapping presents properly, and putting them under a tree (I would have a big tree now, but the cats would climb it…I’m hoping that my Olympiad cat will have lost some of his prowess by the time Dragon can remember a tree so that we can have a proper one), And last but not least, of course we will always have Korean Christmas cake which thank God is so far superior in taste and style than what most native English speakers think about when they hear ‘Christmas cake).

When we were a bit earlier on in our relationship, I used to really struggle with how non-tradition oriented Mr. Lee was during major events and holidays. Did he not care about me? Did he not care about memories? At that point I tried to start making a point out of celebrating more. If he didn’t want to go out for his birthday with his friends – because none of his friends ever did friend things for their birthdays – that was fine. But I was going to do something to make his birthday special. And now several years later, I do think he looks forward to having a ‘Mr. Lee Day’ even though he did not grow up with that kind of experience. And now, slowly over the years, I think I’ve been able to show him another way of celebrating, and where we are now is somewhere sort of in the middle where I realize that I can’t have everything my way and he recognizes that he married someone from a different family and culture who is going to celebrate a little (lot) differently. I’ve also come to realize that what I thought of as ‘traditions’ did at one time have an origin in our family, and that they only became tradition between my parents, or our church, or school, or my dance teacher, or someone decided to make them a tradition. And thus, if I want my child to grow up with Christmas traditions, then it is really my responsibility – not the culture I am in – or the family I married into – or the people who surround me – but my responsibility to make these memories for this child.

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Someone on another forum linked this post from Ask a Korean. We’ve just finished celebrating Chuseok, when many people still perform an ancestral memorial ritual which includes preparing, organizing, and offering traditional food and dishes in a prescribed way to the ancestors, and this picture is making the rounds and causing some controversy.


Is it acceptable for the food prescribed by tradition, which is painstakingly prepared by women, sometimes for days, to be altered due to time constraints, life constraints, contemporary culture, or just based on the ancestors’ preferences?

I’ve said before that my husband’s family does not participate in this ritual, and all things considered, they are not a strict Confucian family. I’m also not Korean. So maybe I should keep my mouth shut on this issue. But I do have two degrees in religious studies – one relating to death rituals, have travelled to countless religious sites throughout Asia, joined a ritual-loving church after realizing I heart ritual, and have had personal experiences with death rituals in my family…so based on those credentials, I’m going to offer my opinion.

One phrase I truly hate is ‘preserving tradition.’ We preserve dead things. When a cucumber is plucked from the ground, we stuff it in a jar, add all sorts of preserving agents, seal up the jar and put it on the shelf until we are ready to consume it. My grandmother was a great canner when she lived on the farm, and I have very vivid memories of shelves and shelves of canned fruits and vegetables in her vast cellar. They are yummy memories, but they are memories of dead fruits and vegetables which need additives because they have been plucked from their life sources.

Tradition lives. Tradition changes. It does. There is no point going into all the various examples now, but those things you truly love – your religious ceremonies, your family Christmas traditions, your traditional forms of clothes, your ‘family values’…all of those things that we label as ‘traditional’ have changed over time. They incorporate many traditions, and times, and personalities, and realities. When we have to preserve tradition, tradition is in trouble. When we live our traditions, and those traditions meet our needs and speak to where we are in our world and our lives, then we are honouring our ancestors, our faith groups, our cultures, and ourselves.

Before getting back to the specific Confucian ritual, I want to share some stories and pictures of my experiences with evolving offerings.

When I was in university, I did some field research at a dharma centre where they had regular rituals, and we were often there for those rituals. Usually, there was some mention of hungry ghosts or preta, probably the saddest beings in the Buddhist worldview. Hungry ghosts are insatiable beings with miniscule mouths, long thin necks, and massive bellies. They epitomize our cravings – the same cravings which prevent us from leaving samsara. One time when it was close to Valentine’s Day, the centre put out cinnamon hearts and gummie bears. These we offered to the hungry ghosts. Of course we did. Of course Canadian hungry ghosts around Valentine’s Day would be desiring our cinnamon hearts. Are hungry ghosts only to be found in Tibet?

But that’s a ‘Western’ example. We Westerners are always trying to mess up tradition right? What are Asians doing?

This picture is from a famous temple in Hong Kong. It is an offering made under a tablet remembering all the ‘unloved and uncared for’ souls in Hong Kong. I’m pretty sure Tiger Beer, being from Singapore and all, was not the usual beverage of the Hong Kong ancestors, but blessings to whomever put out the food and remembered those who have no one to remember them.

This picture is from a temple in Korea…and yes…those are Chupa Chups. Specifically, a bouquet of Chupa Chups!

From Inwangsan, a Shaman hill in central Seoul. These offerings are made for the mountain spirits.

And from a different place on Inwangsan – note the package. Nobody made this specifically for the spirits, but they were bought and offered for those spirits.

From our recent trip to Bali: this is a traditional offering which literally litters the sidewalks, and can be found in front of every tiny roadside shrine. But I don’t want you to notice the packaged candy. I want you to notice the bits of rice and meat being offered. When we made and offered ours after preparing our food at our Balinese cooking school, we offered bits of what we had made and were about to consume. In other words, while this is a ‘traditional’ offering, it is made based on what the family is about eat for the rest of the day. The offering is tightly related to the everyday lives of those making it.

And then the dogs, birds, ants, and creepy crawlers of all kinds come and consume the offerings.

Veering off from food for a moment, these are the mizuko dressed and sitting at the feet of Jizo, the bodhisattva for children in Japan. Yes, children, but more specifically for aborted, stillborn, or miscarried fetuses. There are several rituals for these potential beings in Japan, and part of the rituals is offering small toys like pinwheels. I’ve seen much more contemporary and trendy toys too, but I didn’t take any pictures of those.

And in Singapore’s Chinatown, you can buy all the paper convertibles, iphone, Rolexes, and apple computers to burn for your dead loved ones. In fact, in New York, a storekeeper got in trouble for the paper luxury brand purses he was selling for funeral rites. The authorities were worried about copyright infringement you see.

And not offering but image related, there’s a beautiful church called Saenamteo in Seoul that everyone should visit if they like to pilgrimage. Not only is the altar space decorated in a stone Koreanized rendering of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, but also, when I was there in 2007, they had a biracial rendering of the Holy Family. Alas, when I went back in 2008, the Holy Family was decidedly white, but maybe it has changed now. Anyway, Jesus doesn’t need to be white, and Jesus doesn’t need to be 1st century Middle Eastern looking either.

Finally, when it came to my own father’s funeral, cremation, and internment, we had a very lovely funeral director. He gave us the urn options, and then turned to us and said, ‘But really…most people choose to forgo the cost of an urn unless they plan to display the ashes in their home. We had one family who chose to bury the ashes in…his coffee thermos.” It seems the man was a coffee addict and would have liked nothing more than to be close to his coffee in death. It was then that it became very clear to us that we would bury dad’s ashes in his tool box. He was a welder at work and a woodworker in his spare time. He did handy work for the church, the farm where we rode, the grandparents. He also had a thing about people not replacing his tools after using them. His coworkers joked at the funeral that after his death they went around and made sure all of his tools were accounted for and in their right place. They didn’t want to be haunted. The neighbourhood knew him as the man who was always outside doing yard work and fixing things. Everyone understood exactly why he went into the ground in his toolbox. And when I carried what remained of him in the box and placed him in the ground, it was an honour, and it was the best way to honour him.

Now you might say, but Msleetobe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Canada are different countries with different cultures. Don’t conflate them. But I’m trying to show the ways in which different cultures and traditions are responding to contemporary life and circumstances. But Msleetobe, Confucianism is a very different – and much more rigid – tradition than Balinese Hinduism, Daoism, mainstream Western Protestantism, or recent Jizo rituals. Yes, it is a unique tradition as all traditions are unique, but it is a tradition, and there are similar patterns between religions, similar impulses, similar meanings, similar yearnings to do similar things. Or, you might argue, maybe the uncared for souls of Hong Kong, or the foreign tourists who died on the beaches of Thailand because of the tsunami, are outside of the regular religious traditions and social systems, but if your dad really loved pizza, would you deny him that when you remember him because it goes against the tradition we currently observe?

Of course there are other issues – did the ancestor in question like pizza? Or is it a quick and easy way to fill the table when you didn’t have enough time, energy, or motivation to make the traditional dishes? Is the pizza placement done out of care or out of carelessness? Only that individual family can know the answer to that question. But in a time when many families are buying the necessary food, are not growing their own fruit because they live in an apartment in the middle of a metropolis, or prepare and perform the ritual with a great deal of han in their hearts because of the sexist aspects of the preparation, family turmoil, or unresolved issues with the family member being honoured, I’m not sure we should be judging. Sure it’s easier to judge the family who chose to buy FOREIGN! food and place it on the table because it is a highly visible sign of evolving tradition, but that doesn’t mean that there are not more subtle and less visible ways tradition is changing, evolving, and in some families, fading away. It will be interesting to see as younger people die who have traveled more, acquired different tastes, married people from other cultures, and grown up in a Korea bursting with food from around the world, how the traditional table continues to evolve and change. But no, in this bloggers’ view, a tradition that speaks to and responds to the needs of the people who are practicing is not a bad tradition. It is in fact, the way of tradition.

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In honour of Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday here, I’m reposting an early post I wrote retelling the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment and the significance for featuring the daughters of Mara on my site’s homepage. 

1 BS his birth

The Buddha for our age is Shakyamuni Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama. His mother, Queen Maya gave birth to him without pain in a sacred grove. It is said that as soon as he was born, he took his first steps, and lotus flowers emerged from his footsteps. However although he was born into a great royal family, it was prophesised that he would either be a great king or a great ascetic. Fearing his son would renounce his earthly birthright for a life of meditation and poverty, his father built an enormous palace devoid of age, sickness, poverty, or unhappiness. The young prince grew up completely oblivious to sufferings of the world, and the king even dyed his own hair to shield his son from the march of time.

1 BS chana
But unbeknownst to his father, the prince yearned to see outside the palace gates, so he took his charioteer Channa to explore the places beyond his paradise.

1 BS sick<

1 BS the last three gates

What he saw that night became known as the “four gates.” Siddhartha saw a frail elderly man, followed by a sick and emaciated man, followed by a corpse. The sheltered prince was horrified by the suffering he saw, but then his eyes fell on an ascetic.

1 BS asthetic
The contrast of this one night to the life of privilege and materialism he had always lived spurred the prince into action. He relinquished his princely life, left his young wife and son, and vowed to work toward the end of such suffering. He became an extreme ascetic, subsisting on a single grain of rice until it is said he was almost translucent. He devoted himself to renunciation with the same abandon he had lived his royal life of luxury.

1 BS sujata
But one day he saw a girl by the river. Named Sujata, she offered him a bowl of rice. Realizing he had been living in extremes, the Buddha ate the rice and vowed to find a middle path to enlightenment.

1 BS the temptress
But even the Middle Way was fraught with dangers. During his meditation, he encountered the demon Mara. At first, Mara sent his beautiful daughters to tempt and distract Siddharta.

But after he managed to overcome the women, Mara revealed himself in his full fury. Siddhartha faced his literal and psychological demon full on, and when he vanquished the great demon, he touched this right hand to the Earth to testify to his Enlightenment.

You may wonder why I have chosen to use the daughters of Mara fresco for my blog.

First, the pictures in today’s blog come from one of my favourite temples in Korea called Wawoojongsa (와우정사). Documenting renderings of the life of the Buddha is one of the many traditions we have when we pilgrimage. And it also reminds me of a particularly lovely day trip I took with Mr. Lee.

But beyond these reasons, it is also one of the most interesting renderings of the daughters that I have ever seen. Not only is the woman shown in her tempting beauty, but she is also revealed as the demon she is in the mirror.

When you experience a great change, such as moving to another country or entering a new life stage, I think you learn a lot about yourself. Your neuroses emerge – your prejudices – your flaws. They are all revealed before you when you see yourself from a new perspective. This has been my experience in Korea…and preparing for marriage…and in writing down my thoughts in this blog.

I also think this is the enormous challenge Canada is charged with every time a new community of immigrants lands on her shores. Every time settled Canadians are confronted with new ideas or customs, their self proclaimed notions of multiculturalism are challenged and hidden prejudices are revealed.

Perhaps even more dramatic is the change Korea is going through. From a relatively homogenous nation periodically subjugated to foreign rulers, Koreans are now traveling extensively, marrying outside their culture, and encountering non-Koreans in their daily lives on Korean soil. This constant interaction with ‘the other’ is holding a gigantic mirror to the Korean consciousness, and revealing a great many troubling things.

And like the Buddha for this age, our role is not be overwhelmed by our own or our culture’s inequities. Rather we must observe, examine, and set aside the horrors we see in the mirror in favour of a different reality.

But I am not a Buddhist. I don’t see the end of suffering as relinquishing desire or quenching the thirst which fuels the suffering. I think we hold this mirror up to our flaws, our inequities, our prejudices, our hidden ugliness, in order to recognize, admit, and change those things which bring suffering to others and ultimately ourselves.
1 us and 2 buddhas

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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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Last Sunday we had the annual Seder in Seoul at my friends’ N&A. This was the third annual Seder meal, but I wasn’t able to go last year due to a schedule conflict. N is an agnostic Jew married to A, an agnostic former Church of England member, but since N’s cousin came to Korea, A has encouraged everyone to celebrate Passover together. So, it was a motley crew of 2 and 3/4 Jews (depending on who is counting), and a wild collection of goyim from Canada, the US, Korea, Japan, and the UK with me, the Orthodox Christian, probably being the most religious of the group. Personally, I think there’s a great moral value in helping others to perform their religious obligations, and that is no better exemplified by the fact that my sister’s Rabbi from Hong Kong (a great many of her exchange friends last year were Jews, so she went along for Shabbat a number of times), sent her gluten-free matzah balls so that she could remember her time at Hillel House Hong Kong while still sticking to her gluten-free Protestant fasting for Lent.

So anyway, I thought I should do a post in case some new-to-Korea Jew, being a bit sad that he or she isn’t home for Pesach next year, Googles ‘Passover in Seoul,’ only to find out that apart from the military base and the Chabad Lubavichers, people do have their own Seder meals here.

My friends live out at the beautiful DMC ville (serviced apartments for short time expats) because in June they will be leaving for their new lives as part owners of a big cat refuge in Ecuador. Therefore, we were able to rent a nice large room in the building, and for the first time in the history of house parties in Seoul, have a nice large space and proper table for 17 people and 3 kids to sit at.

Of course, there was wine – and of course – this was only the beginning. A few people had to go to the 7-11 midway through the meal to purchase more (after 4 mandatory glasses of wine, you get through the bottles pretty quickly).

As I’ve done in years past, I brought a bottle of Passover Kosher wine. Not being uber observant, my friends prefer regular wine to Passover Kosher wine (it’s vile unless you are into sickeningly sweet wine), but it’s good to have it for tradition’s sake. If you want to buy it in the future, I’ve seen it three years in a row now at the grocery store in Itaewon. Go out exit 3, go down the street past the bank and at the small road to the right, there’s a grocery store in the hill/under the bank.

Of course, there was the Seder plate – with a few variations. My friends had a hard time getting a lamb shank, but they had a chicken bone and lamb in a later dish. We used ginseng for the maror or bitter herb, and for some reason unbeknownst to me, we had carrots instead of parsley.

We used the Humanist Haggadah or Passover service. I’m not a fan, but it fits their world view a bit better than some of the more traditional versions. We all took turns reading from the Haggadah and attempting to sing in Hebrew.

Of course, there was the matzah – homemade – and the drops of wine in memory of the plagues.

And the charoset – made by A – another friend and former coworker who also might be moving to Ecuador permanently to live in the jungle and rehabilitate wild animals.

Finally….after we completed the Haggadah and drank more wine on an empty stomach than we should have – we got to the main meal.
Egg and onion

Egg/onion and liver (not my plate)!

Some sort of lamb dish for the meat eaters (and homemade chicken soup and homemade chicken something – but I didn’t get pictures of those)

And the veggie plate version – Moroccan pumpkin, chickpea, and apple stew, tzimmes (baked carrots and prunes), and potato pancake. I guess we were also being Sephardic because we had rice as well.

But no, dinner was not over yet!

Dairy-free chocolate mousse (absolutely to die for – I’ve asked for the recipe), strawberries, and a chocolate macaroon

And then an additional piece of meringue was added after I had already started eating.

Above all, good times, good memories, and a chance to help N&A’s new baby celebrate her first Passover (and the only one she will ever celebrate in Seoul). So, if you are around next year, not able to come to any of the official celebrations celebrated in Seoul, it is possible to host your own with a group of your friends. Lamb shanks are not very easy to come by, nor is Kosher meat (you could have a very merry vegetarian Passover!), but it really is possible to make most of the rest of the meal.

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On Singapore/Kuala Lumpur

Last week I was soaking up the sun and pounding the pavement in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.  I’m not sure what came over me back in December, but I suddenly decided that I just had to go to both places in February.  I have a bit of wanderlust, but it’s the kind that can sit dormant for a while and then suddenly without warning bursts forth in a way that propels me to do things like booking a ticket to a place I’ve never really considered going to in my life.  The other strange (and contradictory) aspect of my wanderlust is that I’m actually quite terrified to try new things – especially trying new things by myself.  Once I’m at a new place – trying a new activity – or arrived at my destination, it usually becomes my new favourite location or thing to do, but getting myself there? Such. A. Trial.  People think I’m such a brave person because I moved to Korea without knowing anyone and started a new life.  The truth of the matter is that I applied for a job here in one of those wanderlust bursts but making the preparations to come scared me shitless.  But I keep forcing myself to get out of my comfort zone because I know I have major hermit-potential in me, and I’m much more terrified that if I don’t force myself, I may one day find I can no longer find the courage to get out of my comfort zone. 

I’ve never really travelled abroad alone.  I’ve travelled to locations by myself to be met by a friend or someone in the know.  And I’ve done some travel in Canada and Korea by myself – but those places are ‘home,’ and I’ve never travelled by myself in either location without them feeling like they were my comfort zone places.  So this was the first time I’ve ever 100% gone alone with only myself as a companion at every step of the way. 

I was terrified 90% of the time…and I loved it.  Every time I got myself to a new place I was like ‘Wohoo, I’m so amazing, look at me! I’m travelling by myself and I can do it!’ … and then 30 minutes later I would realize I had to find my way to the next stop and I would seize up for a moment and redo it all again.  For me, this is a very important way to challenge myself and grow. 

The interesting thing about the whole experience in both places though – was that even though I was in new places, it felt more like I was reconnecting with my past.  You see, while other people head straight to the beach, I’m a pilgrimager.  The more places of worship or sacred spaces I can see in one day, the better. I will never ever get bored by going to one more sacred place. 

 I’ve been to quite a few Buddhist, Christian, and Shaman spots while living here, and there was a time when 90% of dating for us consisted of travelling to sacred sites.  While many Korean women want romantic dates at luxurious restaurants, Mr. Lee kept me happy by finding temple restaurants and graves of saints.  Yeah, I know, I’m weird like that.  But my first love is actually Hindu gods and goddesses, and the only thing that prevents me from giving up everything and moving to an ashram in India is love. 


Hindu scholar Kathleen Erndl has written, ‘”…the reality of the Goddess is not a matter of belief or disbelief but rather an experience, a way of seeing, a way of knowing”-Kathleen Erndl…the reality of the Goddess is not a matter of belief or disbelief but rather an experience, a way of seeing, a way of knowing.’  I spent so much time with Siva, Ganesha, and Kali during my years in university.  They were my constant companions – not just in my thoughts – but in my surroundings.  Erndl’s quote is about darshan – a two way experience with the deity.  Piety in this case is not about what you believe but rather about being in the presence of the divine and having an experience with him/her/them.  Hinduism is not my religion, but Hindu gods and goddesses we part of my life for many years, and our constant interaction expanded my understanding of what the sacred is and how we can interact with the divine/Divine.  Hindu temple pilgrimaging reminded me of all of those lessons and made the trip feel more like a reunion with old friends.


I also went to the Singapore Zoo which is a fantastic place.  Unlike many zoos, it’s an ‘open’ zoo, meaning that wherever possible, animals live in their natural habitat without cages (moats, psychological barriers, etc. keep most animals in a particular area). 


Of course, the open zoo concept means that this can sometimes happen… 

Water monitor lizards wandering into the primate area looking for a free meal.  But the monkeys did a good job of defending their territory by team work, shaking low hanging branches, and screaming and overall, it was a fascinating look at real world interactions between animals. 

And then, wonders of wonders – the trip ended with combining these two favourite things – animals and Hindu deities at the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur.  I’m a sucker for temple animals – so far I’ve experienced temple cats, dogs, pigeons, turtles, bovine, bats, fish, and now I can add monkeys to the list. 


So that was my trip – temples and animals (and a bit of Marks and Spencer shopping thrown in for good measure).  I’m encouraged that I was able to travel for a week by myself, and I hope I’ll be able to have another chance to do it at some point.

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I’m suffering from a bit of food coma right now, but I really want to write about our Christmas this year before I get overwhelmed with other things and forget to write this post…..

Last night, I set off in the bitter cold to attend Christmas Divine Liturgy.  Unfortunately, I totally got the time wrong and arrived with only 50 minutes left in the service.  That might sound like more than enough church time for you, but we Orthodox feel the longer the better, so I felt at a total loss when the service ended so ‘early.’  I also failed to get any pictures of church looking all festive because Mr. Lee took the batteries out of the camera to recharge them…and then I took the camera without knowing there were no batteries in it.  A failed start to Christmas Eve, but anyway, in the end I did manage to celebrate the birth of Jesus in proper liturgical style.

When I got back home, Mr. Lee and his friend were watching Lethal Weapon and digesting the copious amounts of pizza and fried chicken they had consumed.  I made a bit of a fuss about Lethal Weapon not being ‘in the Christmas spirit,’ but we found ourselves at an impasse over deciding on another movie as the boys have no real experience with what we Canadians would term ‘Christmas movies,’ and most of the (in my opinion) ‘proper’ Christmas movies we have don’t have Korean subtitles.  We finally decided on Bridget Jones’ Diary since it begins and ends with Christmas, and we hunkered down with our Christmas cake.  Alas, it wasn’t the animal one I so dearly hoped for, but there weren’t many options at our local BR’s by the time Mr. Lee arrived.

Still a cute one I think.

This morning, we woke up and ate the rest of the Christmas cake before Skype video chatting with my mum and sister.  It was a fantastic hour of opening stockings and discussing nonsense as only a family can do.

We also gave the fur children their presents which were ordered through a fundraising drive from the shelter they came from.  Here’s a stock photo of their cat nip squirrel as it looks quite battered and worse for wear after some heavy-duty plan.

And a picture of Mr. Puck all tired out after an hour of playing with the new feather/fabric toy.

Of course, what they will really play with until they rip it to shreds is the box mum sent our stockings in.  First in, as usual was Puck.

But that was a short-lived occupation.  Look at the determination in her eyes.

And before you know it….Mab takes ownership of the box.

We no longer buy 2 of everything.  If there’s 2, they could care less even if it is the best toy of all time.  They only care about the space, toy, blanket, or cat bed if they are fighting over it.

Next up in the day’s plans was the Universal Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker.  If you want a good couple minutes of ‘are you serious?‘ reading, check out the background to the Universal Ballet and it’s founding.

Anyway, this is the second time we’ve attended a ballet put on by this company, and I’ve been very satisfied both times.  The Nutcracker itself is such a magical story, and it’s been an important tradition in my family for about 20 years, so I’m always partial to this ballet, but I also really liked the roles for even the very small children.  They also seem to be a very family friendly/newcomer to ballet company while still putting on a professional show.

Unfortunately, Mr. Lee is NOT a fan of ballet, and he looked at me with the most beseeching look of all time later in the evening saying ‘PLEASE is this the last one I have to attend???’ but he was a good sport, and I think he did enjoy this one at least a little more than the other two ballets we attended together.

Finally, it was dinner at the Hilton with one of Mr. Lee’s friends.  I ate at the Hilton my very first Christmas in Seoul in 2005 (and incidentally, the only Christmas I have ever spent without my Canadian family).  The food wasn’t stunning, but it was plentiful, and the atmosphere was very festive.  It’s one of the few places I’ve been to in Seoul which is able to really capture the public spirit of the Christmas of my youth.

I don’t think they switch it up that early – I remember pretty much the same displays from when I was there 5 years ago, but they do have a beautiful tree, complex model train display, crèche, and an opportunity to sit on Santa’s lap.

All in all, not a bad Christmas away from Canada if I do say so myself.  When we have kids, I hope our Christmas is more family than public orientated, and I think I would like to be involved in some community service next year if I am in Seoul for Christmas, but overall, I did feel the holiday spirit this year, and it was nice to establish a few Christmas traditions in our little family of 2.

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On Christmas

I feel sorry for Christmas. I really do. In recent years it’s been at the forefront of a number of ‘wars’ – Bill O’Reilly’s fear-fuelled segments about the ‘War on Christmas,’ those ever trendy articles that seem to pop up with ever increasing frequency bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, the frequent expat blog posts about how Christmas has been appropriated and turned into yet another Korean dating holiday…and then there was this campaign (which Woodturtle has so eloquently critiqued).

And some of these critiques hold truth. When I was in high school – a high school in a very white, very Christian (or at least very Christian-holiday celebrating) small town – the teachers couldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas,’ and our Christmas event was called the ‘Holiday Happening Skit’ (with all references to ‘Christmas’ removed). Some people do go into tremendous debt trying to satisfy all those who expect a gift or giving in to the glitz and advertisements which tend to speak louder than all the other family/religious/charity elements which also come with the season. And I must admit that I was quite horrified my first Christmas to see how far removed the Korean celebration was from my own experience with the holiday.

But the thing is, you make Christmas what you want it to be. If you believe Jesus really is the reason for the season, then stop ‘warring’ against ‘secularization’ and surround yourself and your family with the birth story and the potent message the night holds. If you abhor the commercialization, stay out of the malls, get all crafty and make your own homespun gifts or spend the time you would be out shopping on charitable work or devote extra time to family members or friends in need. And if you are an expat craving Christmas – and this is the time of year when homesickness really sets in…then join one of the many Christmas orphan events happening today, give generously to the Salvation Army members ringing their bells in the subway stations, and set up your Skype video to hang out with your family.

It’s always nice when those around us share our values. When everyone is singing ‘Joy to the World’ and really understanding the profundity of that message. When everyone is giving back to the community as much as giving to the department stores. When everyone is visiting their families and eating home cooked food and sharing warm embraces and not passionate kisses under neon lights in Daehangno. But….we can’t depend on the strength of other people to carry through our convictions. If I profess the miracle of Jesus’ birth, I need to live that truth and participate in the rituals which remind us of that event regardless of what the wider community is doing. And if I believe that charity and family are two beautiful elements of this season, then I need do the things that reinforce my views regardless of the context in which I am living. I am responsible for myself, and I am responsible for setting an example for the Christmas that I believe in. So while I understand some critiques of this festive holiday, I think the great message is joy, and thus, I want to be joyful this Christmas and share that joy with other people.

And so with that, I want to wish you all a day filled with love and joy.  A day of warmth – with your family, your friends, your urban family, your dog, your community – whoever it is that you choose to spend this blessed day with.   May you be filled with joy, with peace, and with happiness.  Merry Christmas.

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“South Korea’s military will remain on full alert for a possible North Korean attack as tension grew Tuesday following the lighting up of a giant “Christmas tree” near the border with North Korea for the first time in seven years.

“The military plans to remain on high alert and prepare for an immediate counterattack until the risk of enemy provocations is substantially reduced,” Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said in a National Assembly session.

Kim noted that if the North, which regards religion as a security threat, launches an artillery attack against the Christmas tree, the South Korean military will wipe out the troops responsible for the shelling.”

Or so says the Korea Times which we all know is not the poster child for journalistic integrity and critical thinking in Korea.  However, let’s imagine for a minute that this is the case and that the North could really attack over a CHRISTMAS TREE.  On one hand, the North seems to be using everything these days as a justification for attacks (or threats of attacks – the ratio of threats to actual attacks is thankfully why we’ve seen general peace on this peninsula over the past 60 years).  But if there really is a chance North Korea could use this as a justification, wouldn’t it be prudent to take the freaking tree down?  Is the K-pop/festive spirit ‘propaganda’ war really so important that our government is going to risk innocent lives of our 19 year old conscript boys and villagers along the border?  Madness people.  Just because another country’s leaders act like immature assholes doesn’t mean we should act in kind.

UPDATE:  Here’s the Korea Herald’s version complete with a picture of the ‘tree.’  It’s nice to know that some of my fellow Christians are using the holiday for unnecessary provocation.  Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men indeed.

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The following post is part of a series on teaching strategies in the Korean classroom.

Just a few months after finishing up my MA in reigion in South Asia, I came to Korea and almost immediately began teaching an advanced reading/writing class which was also supposed to deal with critical thinking. My students were very good at answering content questions based on the readings, and could write basic, if problematic essays, but they didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do with anything remotely critical or analytical, mostly because of the issues with the Korean education system I’ve already described at length. I wasn’t really sure how to approach teaching critical thinking and analysis as a newcomer to Korea, and I had absolutely no idea how to teach it in a skill based class instead of a content based class. Thus, I decided to bring content into the class and introduce my students, who were already studying cultural logic and intercultural communication in their textbook, to an issue I had had a lot of experience with. It had to be an activity which involved reading, writing, and critical thinking, and it had to be a controversial issue that my students had little emotional connection to because this was an introductory lesson in critical thinking, so this is what I came up with. I’ve been using it on and off with students from various ages and backgrounds, and in different kinds of classes, and in general, it works pretty well.

I started out by asking them to individually write their opinions to the following questions:

What are your personal opinions about religion? Is religion important in your life? Do you think religion is important for society?

Before the students even know what the topic is, they have to first think about the position they are coming from, and I make them write down their opinion before they speak on it because I noticed pretty quickly that when asked a question, my students tended to all respond in the way the first responder had answered. I tried this experiment for months actually, where I would ask the same question in 8 different classes every day. Over and over again, the majority of each class followed the first responder (also usually the eldest student), even when it was a factual question. Therefore, I wanted students to focus on their own personal views and to understand the bias from which they were individually beginning.

This approach tends to work well. The students each take turns reading what they have written out loud, and we take some time to note similarities or differences in perspectives. I usually have the zealous Protestant Christian who tells everyone that Jesus Christ is his/her Lord and Saviour and that religion (ie. Christianity) should be the basis of moral behaviour in society, the disaffected slightly rebellious younger student who proclaims that religion is the root of all evil, and a student who says that religion isn’t important in his/her own life, but that it can be a positive force in society if used ‘correctly.’ It’s important to orally validate all of these opinions as the students’ personal feelings on the topic, and we discuss the fact that how we personally view religion and the role of religion in society will probably affect our perception of the particular religious marker we are about to discuss.

How are women expected to act and dress in Korea? Are there different expectations for women compared with men? Do women face social restrictions in Korea, or do they have the same freedoms and rights as men?

This is another question the students write their individual responses for before they share their views. The point of this question is to get students thinking about differences between men and women in Korea and to see if students feel the differences they identify are examples of discrimination or not. Again, there is usually a wide range of opinions, and each student has a chance to share their views before we compare the different responses.

At this point, I reveal the topic: various forms of covering among Muslim women. We look at pictures of women in burqa, niqab, and hijab. I make sure to include pictures of women in all different forms of hijab to show diversity in styles and interpretation. We talk briefly about the tradition of covering, and a bit of the religious basis for the practice, but I don’t go into the various reasons why women cover. I want the students to figure out those reasons for themselves.

After viewing the pictures of various forms of Islamic covering, what are your initial thoughts about burqa? niqab? hijab?

I think this is a very important question. It’s important for students to feel safe in sharing their initial personal feelings. Most of them respond that they feel strange which makes sense. Korea is an ever globalizing society, but most of my students have never come into contact with a Muslim let alone a woman wearing niqab. If they go for dinner in Itaewon, they might see a woman wearing hijab, but 99% of them have never had any personal interaction with Muslim women who cover in any form. Many say they are afraid of women who dress in this way, and some have seen news clips on Afghanistan or read books about women in Muslim countries, and so they sometimes say they feel pity for women because they feel they are oppressed. A few say they find it fascinating, mysterious, or beautiful.

At this point I bring up the concept of hermeneutical lenses. We tend to think about issues from the perspective of ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’ with the topic, and in Korea, there is an additional tendency to say ‘we Koreans think.’ The first part of the lesson has been about acknowledging the role of personal or cultural bias in how we think, but now we move to looking at forms of covering from other perspectives. Since my students are all non-Muslims, we start with the ‘insider’ view point.

Brainstorm various reasons why a woman might wear hijab. (We focus on hijab only at this stage as it is far more common than burqa or niqab).

The ideas usually start off fast and furious: fathers make them do it, husbands make them do it, culture makes them do it, the law makes them do it, religious leaders force them to do it. I actually recently showed a picture of wood turtle and her husband on their wedding day in class, and my students said wood turtle wears hijab because her husband looks like ‘a hijab-loving man’ 

And then I show some pictures of women living in Western countries who wear hijab and ask if, as the students initially say, women are forced by law, culture, family, or religious leaders to cover, why women living in countries without such customs, converts and women from non-covering immigrant families still wear hijab.

There’s a bit of quiet, and then some tentative responses: it’s pretty, you don’t have to worry about your hairstyle, you can focus on things over than body and fashion just as public school students here wear uniforms in part to spend more time and energy to focus on studying, because they think that’s what Islamic tradition says, because it’s a way for converts to identify themselves, it’s a physical reminder of religion, it’s a way to hold onto cultural traditions when in a new country, it’s a way to rebel against secular society or non-hijab approving parents, it’s a way to feel community with other wearers, it’s a political statement, not wearing it feels like nakedness in the same way my students feel not wearing pants and a t-shirt is nakedness, it’s comfortable, it’s the equivalent of the ajumma sun visor in Korea.

My all-time favourite response is that hijab is comforting to Muslims in the same way that kimchee is to Koreans.

Some of the responses are elicited with prodding, but once the students put on the ‘insider lens,’ they start pretty quickly to be able to imagine other possible interpretations than their initial personal responses. And the diversity of interpretations is of course the point. There is, no matter how much any insider or outsider contends, one interpretation or reason for anything. There are multiple layers, multiple instincts, multiple reasons for our actions, the food we eat, and the rituals we do. We don’t all ascribe to every reason, but there is usually more than one reason.

We then move to expand the concept of lenses, but this time, we want to think about how various people – Muslims and non Muslims alike – might support or oppose women covering. We mix them up sometimes, and add or subtract certain people:

A feminist
A conservative politician
A person who believes in multiculturalism
A person who believes the Qur’an is the literal word of God
A woman who lives in a country where women do not usually cover their heads
An atheist

Initially for example, students will probably say that feminists would oppose covering because it goes against women’s rights. This is a good interpretation, and they are applauded for this. However, I then challenge them to think about why some feminists support covering. This takes a few moments of silence, but students eventually come up with the idea that if feminism is about choice, then choosing to cover is supported by feminists. They also talk about how if a woman can wear a miniskirt, then maybe feminists think that it’s okay not to wear a mini skirt.

Likewise, they initially say that conservative politicians are against covering because the existence of hijab, niqab, and burqa here are all symbols of Korean/American/Canadian culture changing and thus traditional Korean/American/Canadian culture being in jeopardy. But then, after a period of silence, one or two students also note that if conservative politicians and certain Muslims have similar views on conservative social issues, these politicians might search out ‘visible Muslims’ to help illicit more support for these causes.

These discussions do not always happen smoothly or spontaneously. There is silence. There are confused looks. There are half formed sentences that you may have to help finish because the students are struggling with speaking about something for which they lack language about or even a way to speak. They are so used to saying ‘I think’ or ‘We Koreans think’ that it is linguistically difficult to rephrase from another’s perspective. But if a teacher is comfortable with silence, and allows that silence to be a space for thinking and translating to occur, students really can come to these interpretations by themselves.

Originally when I created this topic, the French hijab-in-school controversy was raging, so we then looked at online comments from a BBC profile on the subject. There are the BBC featured commentator opinions, but the comments regular netizens near the bottom of the page are actually more interesting.

We do discuss if these people agree or disagree in terms of allowing hijab in public schools, but we go further and try to compare the reasons why the commentators feel this way. Two people may be for allowing hijab in school, but for very different reasons. A person can, for example, believe there is an underlying culture which influences a woman to cover which is wrong (‘forcing’), but feel that the greater evil is that girls will be denied an education and be further marginalized from society if they are forced to remove their hijab. On the other side, two people might be against hijab, but one because it symbolizes personal oppression and another because it is seen as damaging to the rights of other women.

More recently in class, we’ve dealt with the Canadian controversies of whether or not a woman accusing men of rape should be forced to take off her niqab in court to testify, or the issue over wearing niqab in a Quebec-government sponsored language class. If I had simply given these topics to students without the initial primer of personal background, bias, and lenses, my students probably would have simply said, ‘I wouldn’t allow it because I think it’s scary.’ Or, ‘I think she should remove niqab because it’s strange to wear it in Korea.’ These statements are fine, but they are more based on personal emotion or particular concepts of normative behavior. This pre-activity is not meant to change the students’ views or to influence them to think a certain way. All viewpoints the students bring up are considered, discussed, and evaluated by the class. Instead, the point is to also consider all the different viewpoints instead of just asserting one’s own view, and to make an argument based on logic not emotion or the students’ initial views of normative behavior.

By the end of the class, the students usually retain their original opinion, but they have a much more nuanced view and defend their position with a more thoughtful analysis. The student who thinks covering is oppressive and against women’s rights is more likely to talk about how the State is just as likely to enforce dress codes on women as certain Muslims are on each other. The student who initially saw it as a personal choice is now interested in making connections between clothing norms in Korean and Muslim communities. The person who was fearful is now more likely to say that when identity or safety is called into question, maybe there is a way to accommodate both the need for security and the wearer’s desire to remain covered. As one student put it last week, ‘maybe there is a middle way.’ Their basic position hasn’t changed, but how they articulate themselves and how they view the other sides is radically altered. (And the idea that there are more than two sides is a radical idea as well).

This is perhaps one of my favourite activities to do with my students. I love taking the journey with them each time. I love the slow process of widening perspectives and of putting on each lens and pretending to be another person to see their viewpoint. I love observing how the students make connections with their own cultural symbols and experiences. Even when the connections are a bit skewed, it’s fascinating to see the thought process behind the links. And most of all, I love how each and every time I do the activity it’s completely different because of how the discussion flows or the personal experiences and backgrounds the students bring with them to class. Korean students are so used to comparing their culture with ‘American’ culture (stands for all Western cultures), or Korea vs. China or Japan, that it is delightful to spend so much time on finding comparisons and connections with a ‘new’ culture.

Certainly replicating the activity with the same topic would probably be difficult without a background in Islamic studies, but I think that the concept of choosing a theme or a controversy and looking at it from a variety of perspectives is something easy to follow. For example, this semester we followed this activity with a lesson on Old Order Amish and Mennonite groups in North America. The activity needs to be tweaked for next semester, but it also focuses on helping students to get into other people’s shoes to see concepts of ethical behaviour, proper education, and cultural values from other perspectives. Again, it’s incorrect to assume that students will be able to analyze opinions or critically think about different perspectives without direction. An education system focused on answering questions correctly to ace a final exam has neither time nor reason to focus on these skills. However, in an ever globalized Korea, in an ever complex and integrated world, understanding other people is a vital skill, and I think this method is helpful for facilitating the process of understanding various angles of a controversial (and ‘foreign’) topic.

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