During my first year in Korea, I was taken aback by the intensity of the national pride that exists here.
I struggled (and continue to struggle) with being stared at, singled out, and being the centre of attention simply because of my foreign appearance. I experienced (and continue to experience) negative treatment because I am not Korean. I was shocked to discover how little the children (and even many adults) know about other countries and cultures, and how little desire they have to ever leave Korea, even for a holiday. And most of all, I have become more and more uncomfortable with the animosity that exists here towards Korea’s arch enemy, Japan: my boss even implied that the Japanese people deserved what they were going through when the devastating tsunami hit last year, and my colleague told me today that he has been receiving stony silence from every single Korean teacher when he talks excitedly about how much he enjoyed his recent trip there, and what a beautiful country it is (which it is).
Today, we went on a field trip to the National Cemetery in Daejeon, the final resting place of so many South Korean soldiers. It’s a beautiful place, with some pretty impressive memorials and statues, and the poignant sight of hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands, I’m terrible at judging numbers) of graves, many adorned with flowers. The children were given a talk by a soldier before they were taken for a moment of silence and bowing in front of a monument. As far as I could gather, it was a moment of remembrance and a bow of respect and gratitude. Nothing wrong there.
Then, however, they were shown an animated movie which I ignored at first as it was obviously all in Korean, and I was hot and sleepy. My attention was gradually drawn to the screen, though, as the images became more and more disturbing. Crying, wailing, gunfire, bombing, death, fighting. Ghosts of dead soldiers. A battle between good (Korea) and evil (the world). Just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it’s light-hearted! I switched my brain on and listened intently, trying to follow the dialogue… and I can’t be 100% sure, but it seemed awfully like those little 5 and 6 year olds were being bombarded with xenophobic propaganda of the kind you’d be more likely to associate with the North. Foreigners are dangerous. Don’t trust them. We fought hard for this country, and you will do the same. Keep outsiders out. Defend our land. We are the best. No one else compares. They all want to destroy us.
I chatted to a couple of my brighter kindergarteners on the bus journey, asking them what they thought about their country. Their passion for Korea at such a young age was startling to me, even with my previous experience of Korea’s national pride. David, aged 6, told me that he couldn’t wait to grow up and be a soldier. Not so that he could protect his country from danger, but so that he could kill all the people who’ve been “bad” to Korea. Mainly the Japanese, although he has a few plans up his sleeve for the North Koreans, too. You want to kill people? I asked cautiously. He grinned from ear to ear. Japan peoples is bad, he said, his eyes gleaming. They die! I kill! I get the Japan for Korea! Helplessly, I turned to sweet little Rachel, who loves hamsters and nursery rhymes and teddy bears. Isn’t David scary?! I asked lightly, nudging her. He wants to kill people! She looked at me in surprise. No, he wants to kill Japan people! she said simply, as if this was completely different. Together, in their innocent, broken, baby English, they explained to me that Japanese people don’t deserve to live, and that a tsunami was sent from God to punish them, and that all Korean people would train to be the best soldiers in the world so that the Japanese would one day be wiped out.
I nearly cried.
Trying to be patient and understanding, I talked to them in the simplest possible terms about tolerance and peace. I asked them what they thought about little Japanese boys and girls, living just like them, with families and friends and toys and schools. Did they deserve to die? Rachel hesitated, and then shook her head. So who, then? Their mothers and fathers? Again, she looked torn, and shook her head, clearly confused by this way of thinking she’d never heard before. David, however, was adamant. All Japan peoples is bad, he insisted, glaring at me. They kill Korea. I kill them. I kill allllllll other countries and then Korea is king! Rachel nodded, relieved. I love Korea. I hate Japan.
The worst part in all this was catching my director listening to me as I was trying to teach peace and love to these little patriots. In the rearview mirror, I saw the disapproval in her eyes. I even saw her open her mouth to speak at one point, when I was telling them that people from all around the world should be friends and live in peace, whatever has happened in the past.
She wanted to stop me. She was scared I was going to change their minds.
With a sick feeling in my stomach, I went up to my classroom after lunch to prepare my three elementary school lessons, and the first thing I saw was my copy of Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches“. If you don’t know this story, by the way, please read it and share it with any children in your life. I’ve used it before in classes on bullying, but the author originally wrote it as a satire of racial and cultural discrimination – in particular, antisemitism. In all honesty, the conversations I’ve had with various children today has put genuine fear into my heart that something like Auschwitz could actually happen over here if xenophobia and intolerance continue to be preached with such intensity.
I found the animated version of The Sneetches on YouTube, and watched it three times in a row with my three classes. Please watch it – it’s cute, funny, and has a great message for kids and adults alike.
We discussed how people are all different, but that in the end, “sneetches are sneetches”. We talked about living in peace. We talked about history, and the causes of war. We talked about humanity, forgiveness, and love for fellow human beings. And you know what?
They did not get it.
They could just about understand the Sneetches’ eventual realisation that they were all the same except for a bunch of meaningless stars painted on their tummies. But Japanese people and Korean people? Absolutely no comparison. My oldest class (aged 11) even went as far to explain to me that foreigners in general pose a threat to Korea, and that Korea needs to stop letting so many of us in. Korea is for Koreans, you see. The rest of the world is dangerous, evil, and corrupt. Korea is beautiful, pure, and innocent.
By the end of the final class, I actually had to turn my back on them for a minute to hide the tears in my eyes. I was absolutely livid with those children for the poisonous words of hatred and bigotry coming out of their mouths, and yet I know that they’re too young to be fully aware of what they’re saying. It’s the older generations I want to scream at for this, for the damage they’re doing to their sweet, bright, intelligent children – and to any hope of a peaceful future. Multiculturalism is a dirty word to them. Foreign = dangerous. Korea is superior to the rest of the world.
As I said at the start of this post, I’ve been aware of and uncomfortable with Korea’s fierce national pride and tendency towards xenophobia since I first arrived here. My unease and concerns have grown over the past few years. Today, however, I left work almost in tears, feeling sick to my stomach. Yes, I may be a John Lennon loving, peace-and-love preaching, war protesting hippie… but this level of hatred and intolerance is dangerous, surely? I feel as if all it would take would be an evil but charismatic nutjob like Hitler or Kim Jong Il to come into power, and South Korea’s carefully indoctrinated, passionate, well-meaning young people would follow him faithfully into whatever atrocities he commanded them to carry out. My students, who I love dearly, truly believe that human life is not as valuable if it’s not Korean.
I am sad, and frustrated, and disgusted.
But mostly, I’m angry.
Who fills kids’ minds with poison like this? What is the future for this country?
I have tried all night to get the wording of this post right, but I am aware that it could obviously be seen as offensive. I am not passing judgement on all Koreans, but I am drawing conclusions based on what I have seen, heard, and experienced firsthand over the past three years of living here. I am not saying that Koreans are monsters, or worse than all other countries – I come from Northern Ireland, so I am no stranger to prejudice, bitterness, and bigotry. However, this is something about which I care deeply, and which I truly believe is wrong, worrying, and dangerous. I can only write from my heart and apologise for any offence caused. I welcome any feedback, thoughts, or alternative opinions.