Archive for April, 2008

Membership Training (MT)

American Studies Seminar ParticipantsThe first time a student asked if I had heard about “Emtee” I was baffled.  What was this odd sounding Korean word?  But “MT” is a student and corporate employee tradition that mixes bonding exercises, motivational talks and late night drinking.   In some cases the drinking has overshadowed the rest of the point, so much so that Pyeongtaek University actually discontinued MT this year.   So I approached our unofficial “department seminar” this past weekend with excitement and trepidation.

What struck me first and foremost was that this retreat was organized by and for the students.  They chose the date, raised the money, hired the bus, rented the retreat center, organized all the activities, designated leaders for every conceivable purpose, and mostly remembered to keep the faculty informed of the plan.  We were honored guests.

Getting to Know You GroupsSecond, I was struck by the amazing graciousness of the students, because we were guests.  When other students failed to show up on time, at least 20 students apologized to me for our late departure.  When we arrived, a student leader tried to keep everyone on the bus for 10 minutes waiting for a car to come drive me up the steep 300 yards to the retreat center.  (After two hours on the bus, I was grateful to walk, though it took some careful wording to make this clear to the student).  I never lacked for a cup of water or a student willing to translate.  To be fair, I did only get 3 days notice that they needed me to give a 20 minute lecture - and one faculty member got 10 minutes notice! 

Team 7 BannerWhat did we do?  We sat in groups, chose team titles, and created banners.  We drew portraits of people in our group, gave them nicknames (mine was “Grace Woman”), and interviewed them so we could introduce them to others.  The students played bonding games and held competitions.  My favorite was “Guess which student is eating a wasabi sandwich and which is just faking it.”  Late in the evening people floated from group to group, this one playing drinking games, that one debating soccer teams, another talking about their English linguistics homework due tomorrow.  Students cooked ramen noodles, kimchee stew and other traditional student foods at 11 pm and most stayed up until 3.  I conked out at 2.

I did give my lecture.  I used my engagement ring as a material object through which we could study international trade, American culture, migration, oral history, and personal biography.  My point was the interdisciplinary nature of American Studies, and the power of curiosity and background knowledge.  The American Studies program here tries to give students the latter.  If they bring a willingness to ask questions, ordinary objects are windows to the world.

Seniors, Professors and AlumniAt 11 pm, I was suddenly informed it was time for me to sing.  Had anybody mentioned this earlier?  Billy Joel to the rescue!  I belted out his “Uptown Girl,” which amazingly almost every student knew.  Nothing makes you feel like a rock star like 70 screaming, cheering, singing, dancing students egging you on.  I also helped to judge the Miss Santa Maria contest.  By tradition, each group dressed up one freshman male in women’s clothing.  The men then competed in song and dance routines.  You have not lived until you have seen your male students in jury-rigged miniskirts doing a pole dance - with an elderly coat rack.

MT required only two things of me - partial surrender of control and temporary suspension of cultural judgment.  That pretty much defines my experience of Korea.  Taking risks, trying new things, and postponing judgment have given me space to have experiences I never would have thought to try.  Supportive students and colleagues have made that process feel safe.  This weekend, I was surprised to discover I really am a valued “member” of the team.  It is an honor, though it makes the reality of leaving even more bittersweet.         

(There are more pictures in the MT set at[email protected]/sets/72157604409909881/ . I will add more as I get them from the students.  Hopefully no one took any photographs of me singing!)

1 comment April 7, 2008

Democracy in Korea

Democracy in Korea is only 21 years old.    The contrast between a thousand years of monarchy, 40 years of colonial control, 20 years of dictatorship and 20 years of democracy was made vividly real for me this week.

First, I went to a presentation on the Gwangju uprisings in 1980.  In 1979 Korea’s second President and first dictator was assassinated.  Hopes for democratic change swept the country and were rapidly put down by the third President Chun Doo-hwan, a military general.  Students in southern Korea refused to stop protesting for greater democracy and the army massacred an unknown number of people.  Students, women, children, bystanders, the elderly - everyone was a target, and therefore most people joined the protests.  Eventually the town was placed under army rule.  Since all of this was done with the knowledge, if not permission, of American authorities, residents of Gwangju remain actively anti-American.  They had hoped for support for a new democracy and did not receive it.

Gyeongbokgung Royal RoadSecond, I went to one of Seoul’s many palaces.  The English language tour guide regularly reminded us that Korea is now a democracy.  “Here we are walking on the royal road,” she told us.  “In the Joseon dynasty, only the king could walk on the central part.  Commoners had to walk on the sides.  However, we are now a democracy, so you can walk on the central part since in Korea the people are kings.”  Later we came to a doorway called “doorway of prayers for long life.” The guide informed us that “Once this doorway was used only by royalty.  That is why it is so tall, since only royalty did not need to bow before entering.  However, in a democracy no one bows so you can all walk through the tall doorway and pray for your own long life.”  What a vivid reminder of the power of the people in a democracy!

Third, Korea is in the middle of its Parliamentary election campaigning.  The election is April 9.  This is a hotly watched contest since originally the GNP (the President’s party) was expected to win easily, but now the opposition party has a good chance to prevent a sweep.  Yet most of the people I know are remarkably indifferent about the elections.  Voter turnout is expected to hit an all-time low.  A sense that politicians are corrupt, that they do not represent the average voter, that only the wealthy can really run, that candidates are out of touch with daily reality, that there is no “good” candidate to vote for - all of these seem to be depressing voters and voter turnout. 

In thirty years, Korea has gone from literally battling for democracy to being proud of having it to being disillusioned by its less than perfect form.  I have asked dozens of people whether they think President Lee Myung-bak (criticized by some for being too authoritarian) could lead a slide back to dictatorship.  Everyone agrees: “No, democracy is too entrenched here now.”  But democracy requires an active, educated, engaged citizenship, vigilant in keeping an eye on its own best interests.  I am struck by how quickly Korea has reached America’s levels of disenchantment, frustration, and unwillingness to participate.  Perhaps we will be able to learn from however they deal with the isssue. 

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