This morning, a student came into my office and asked for my help editing a speech that she wrote. She is a nice student and she occasionally participates in class (which is exceptionally rare), so I was happy to help. I took one look at what she wrote and realized that it needed a lot of work. No problem, we’ll go over it line-by-line and get it fixed. About three lines into the editing, during which we totally re-wrote all three lines, she told me that she had to go. “Please hurry to finish, I return later.”
I turned to give her my “REALLY?” face, but she was already gone. Before I finished formulating my tirade, one of my colleagues told me that I should hurry and finish the speech soon. Final drafts of students’ speeches for the annual speech contest are due by lunch time today. I was speechless (temporarily).
My colleague explained that it is vital that I correct her speech in time. She has been pre-selected to win, so it must be edited well. I was sure that the teacher simply didn’t understand the meaning of “pre-selected.” I explained that pre-selected means that she was chosen as the winner before the contest, which is obviously not the case…because it’s a contest. But no…I heard right. If I understood the rest of our conversation correctly, it appears that this student’s father is a major donor to the school, and he decided that his child will be the winner this year.
This is one of those occasional situations when two cultures are at odds. The Koreans couldn’t understand why this was so surprising to me. Though this type of thing exists to some degree in every culture, I was taken aback by the fact that it was so openly discussed.
Though I want to learn Korean culture, and have no desire to force my ideals on my Korean colleagues, I also couldn’t compromise my personal ethics. I decided to meet the student (and my colleagues) in the middle. I agreed to continue helping her with the speech, but I refused to simply do it for her and hand it over. I sent an email to the girl’s homeroom teacher explaining that I will be happy to work with her to edit the speech, and that the student may come to my office when she is ready to get to work. Hopefully this paper trail will help me cover my ass if she doesn’t show up and daddy gets upset.
It is important to note that I am sharing this story not because I am upset, but because I think it is an excellent example of a culture clash. Once I understood the dynamics of the situation, it didn’t bother me. If this is OK in Korean culture, then I see no reason to get on my soapbox and try to impose my cultural beliefs on others in a totally Korean situation.
Until next time.