Dispatch from South Korea: National pride and culture

November 03, 2008

Editor's Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from Luke Zeller, who graduated in June with a bachelor of science in secondary education (English and communications) from the College of Education. A Schreyer Scholar, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English as a foreign language in South Korea. He arrived in early July, and spent the first six weeks in an intensive Korean language and culture orientation at Kangwon University in Chuncheon. Afterwards, he was placed with a host family to begin his teaching at a community school until July 2009.

Oct. 31

A Phillies Phan, in South Korea

Yes! After 28 years, the Philadelphia Phillies have won a World Series!  And, I am in South Korea. As a Philly sports fan, this has been a time to miss home since we have been waiting for this kind of success for so long. I suppose, this is part of the trade off for traveling, one of the sacrifices that you pay. 

The scene for me to watch the World Series was, to say the least, different. First off, South Korea is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in America; therefore, it was the morning, and I was at school when the games came on. Graciously, my vice principal turned on the flat screen that we have in the teacher's room to watch the game that was being shown live on a Korean sports network. The environment probably could not have compared to an evening at a sports bar or at home with some family and friends to cap a day at work. I was just beginning my day with classes to prepare for, and I was literally the only one in the room who actually cared. Some teachers did express some interest, but often, they were rooting for Tampa Bay.

There were two interesting reasons for this. First, Philadelphia was known to have many very big contracts while Tampa Bay has small contracts. I tried to explain how Tampa Bay was so bad for so long, therefore, their stars were all young draft picks that they did not need to pay big money to yet, but this seemed like a moot point. The other reason was that Koreans were upset that the Phillies had knocked out the Dodgers. The Dodgers happen to have one Korean player, Chan Ho Park.  Everybody in Korea knows Chan Ho Park, and their support for him is absolute. 

This absolute national support was something I had not thought about before; taking for granted the pride I have in the success that America enjoys on the international stage. We won the most number of medals at the Olympics and have sports events that are shown around the world. How would it feel if suddenly the number of medals won by the United States suddenly dropped off or if the basketball league in Italy became internationally renowned as the premier league?  I actually think a lot of people would be upset; it can hurt our national pride. This issue of national pride and of assuming such distinct differences between "us" and "them" is an interesting phenomenon. And, like I said, I am a passionate Philly sports fan, and I will certainly support the American curling team at the 2010 Winter Olympics, but it is also interesting not to take this unquestioned support I have for granted. 

For a quick update on teaching, it really is getting better each week. My weeks of teaching have consisted of reflection and adjustment as I learn more about my students and the students learn more about me. The biggest part of my adaption has been to revaluate my perspective on my objectives and my teaching position at the school. The school seems to assume that just exposing the students to me will make them better English speakers. I have not been pressured with any questions about pedagogic approach. Foreign English teachers in South Korea seem to be known as the school gamers or school English clowns. My class is supposed to be a fun alternative space for the students, while the other periods are the serious time where they prepare for the test. I had a sense of this reality the first week I was here when I asked the students what they would like to learn with me, and they all said, "Game!"  However, it took some time for it to really register with me and to understand why my class was not always being taken seriously.  It has also taken some time for the students to understand that I actually take my teaching seriously.

 I have realized my identity was not something that I was in complete control of. The students saw in me all of the past foreign English teachers that they have had and saw my class like all of the other foreign-run English classes they have had. This is how I see my class as inherently being a class on culture, as two cultures seek to understand each other in this classroom context. I'd rather not just be a token foreigner in South Korea ready to play some English games, so each week is an attempt to avoid that fate as I continue to teach and be taught with my students.  

  • Theater in Pusan, South Korea

    IMAGE: Luke Zeller

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Last Updated November 18, 2010