Saturday, November 13, 2010

How Korea sees its neighbors, through the eyes of a teenager, as viewed by a foreigner

At the beginning of my class with two teenage girls, I usually just encourage them to talk to each other, to me and say what’s on their mind. I have found that this leads to interesting discoveries about my students, as people, and also creates a more natural environment in which to speak English.

During one of these warm-ups, one of the girls drew a cartoonish map of Korea (north and south together), with Japan along side. Anyone who has looked at a map of Asia, will recognize that Korea and Japan are fairly comparable in size, though some of the northern islands of Japan actually make Japan larger. My student’s map of Korea made Japan look tiny in comparison, so I joked with my teenager about it.

“Wow! Japan is tiny!”

“Yes. I don’t like Japan …”

She went on to explain to me that despite how cool Japanimation is, the Japanese are jerks. She told me that the Japanese changed the spelling of Corea to Korea for the Olympics, so Japan would come before Korea at the opening ceremony. This is the first I had ever heard of this alternate spelling, and a quick Google search will come up with various reasons for the different spellings. After mentioning spelling, my students wrote Corea and Korea on the map, with Korea crossed out. Then they labeled the East Sea, and I mentioned that the rest of the world knows this as the Sea of Japan. Of course neither of my students approved of this renaming and said Japan only thought of itself, but I also pointed out that the East Sea is west of Japan, so it doesn’t make sense for them to call it east.

The map my student drew not only begged the question about how Japan is viewed, because it presented both North and South together as Korea, it begged the question of how my students see the division between the two halves. The rest of the world sees Korea as split into North Korea and South Korea, but as evidenced by this map, the idea doesn’t hold much weight in Korea. Part of the issue is that many Koreans have family in the North. Family they haven’t seen for a couple generations, but family, none-the-less. South Koreans seem to desperately want reunification, and really, who wouldn’t if some of their family lived across a border that not many people can cross.

This short conversation regarding the countries drawn, segued into a conversation about Korea’s other neighbor, China, which was only added to the map when I mentioned it. It seems that just about everything that goes wrong in Korea can somehow be blamed on China. While things like crappy weather and a lot of pollution really do come from China on occasion, other things like, “I got food poisoning, this food must have come from China,” seem a bit exaggerated. From many students’ points of view, China is dirty, cheap, a land where they eat weird things, and part of the reason the North and South have not been reunified.

From this single window of conversation which arose because of a simple drawing, it may seem that Korea has a fairly cool relationship with its neighbors, but it is actually quite common for my students to have visited Japan or China, though they may prefer their own Jeju Island.


  1. You've got a point there! Which reminds me of Harry Nilsson's "The Point". Isn't it interesting the things we can learn through conversation that are never written in "history books" or revealed in the news?!!! That leads me to ponder even more...what is the "reality" of this "crazy world" we call home? Can there be a "world reality" when each person, community, group, religion, state, country, etc., has its own "reality perspective"? Just as two individuals in the same family can each have a his or her unique perspective which identifies "family", so to do larger entities have their own perspectives - their own "realities".
    "It all depends on your point of view." That's an adage we'd all be better off to embrace! Think of the possibilities! Ah - now I move on to the topic of Utopia...

  2. Interestingly when I was there, from my conversations the young adult Koreans were not too jazzed about reunification. I think ultimately they want it. But they know there would be a lot more to it than emotional reunions.

  3. The "Sea of Japan" vs. "East Sea" concept shouldn't be brought up either, and don't even get people started on who "owns" all the islands between Corea and Japan.

    America is patriotic, but we haven't changed the name of the Gulf of Mexico.