Simple Equations

Last week, our school took the second graders on a three-day trip to Seoul and back. We did the standard route with a few twists: Namsan Tower (fig. 1), Changdeokgung Palace (this is an “ATM machine” kind of title, by the way), a full day at the Lotte World amusement park, a play, and visits to a few science museums on the return trip.

I’m being somewhat vague for the sake of our students’ safety, since the school takes a similar trip every year. I’m always surprised by Korean notions of safety and personal privacy. Many people who wish to show off their sensitivity to cultural differences will voice simple equations like, “Americans value privacy, whereas Koreans value sharing.” To be sure, there are areas where that’s true: For example, before we could depart on our trip, we had to call a police officer and have him breathalyze both bus drivers; this is a standard safety precaution in Korea, but I can imagine many Americans taking umbrage. (As far as I can tell, only New York has considered a similar policy.)

On the other hand, Koreans in general are much more protective than Americans when it comes to sharing photographs. It’s very common, when posting photos to Korean social media, to blur out (or stick a cute animal on top of) the faces of your friends, since you don’t have their consent to post it. Even my students, after we went on a roller coaster together, asked my permission before sending my photo to their homeroom teacher. And when we ended up picnicking alongside a group of elementary schoolers at one of the museums, our school’s homeroom teachers reminded the students to angle their photos so that no kids would appear in them.

A slightly less clear-cut example occurred when it came time to search the students’ bags. We had all the students leave their bags in the hotel lobby and line up outside as the student council checked for contraband. The reasoning was that it would be an invasion of students’ privacy for teachers to do the bag searches themselves—a moot point, because if anything suspect turned up, the first question the teachers asked was, “What bag is that?” Still, letting students serve as their own auditors strikes me as a significant trade of safety for privacy.

As the foreign teacher, it felt truly special to be invited to join in this trip, since the supervisory duties are technically beyond my qualifications. But most of the places we visited had several staff on standby to welcome our group; they took care of all the wrangling, leaving us teachers to grab coffee and gossip. That made this trip a welcome chance to get to know my coteachers in a relaxed atmosphere. Many of them have taken circuitous routes into teaching, and hearing how they settled on middle-school boys as their target demographic reminded me that despite how exhausting it is to deal with shouting students, other groups present other problems. And now that most of the faculty know that I’ve applied to extend my grant for another year, I’ve sensed a greater willingness let me assist with student discipline and help me understand the layout of our school’s bureaucratic plumbing.

On the bus, I got to talk at length with my vice principal, who just started at our school this semester. A former English teacher himself, he had lots of questions I couldn’t answer about the American school system and differences in cultural attitudes toward education and work. Probably the most useful sentence I have in such cases is, “America is very regionally diverse,” which is really a euphemism for, “I honestly have no idea what it’s like in red states.” We found common ground in our love of Yuval Noah Harari, whose 21 Lessons for the 21st Century my vice principal was reading in translation. “People get so hypnotized by technology,” says my VP, “but I have some doubts. It’s important to learn to be patient.”

I told him my hobby nowadays is sitting at the park and counting frog croaks. He seemed impressed.