Sunday, February 04, 2007

SAVING FACE

Gather ten to fifteen Korean kids. Ages nine to sixteen, roughly. Add a daily dose of their morning chocolate and Coke. Stand in front of the room. Mention Japan. Anything about Japan.

Then wait.

Call me crazy, but hearing nine-year olds spout political propoganda about how Japan is terrible, the Japanese people are terrible, the country itself is horrible because it's trying to overtake and eradicate Korea itself kind of gets on my nerves.

Irritating, not necessarily because they have negative opinions about Japan; after all, Korea was a colony of Japan for thirty-six years, so how could these kids not have absorbed some anti-Japanese sentiments from their parents and educators?

No, what kind of pisses me off is hearing any political opinions from nine year olds.

When I was nine, I was watching Back To The Future (repeatedly) and Diff'rent Strokes and reading The Fantastic Four (delivered to my house on a monthly basis, wrapped in snug brown paper, and oh how I can still remember its smell, its texture, its possibilities). These kids are telling me about World War II atrocities and how Korea's future depends on Japan not buying up Korean businesses.

Living in Asia for the past, gulp, eight years has been quite an education. Namely, an education in how most Asian countries are deeply fearful, distrustful and downright hostile towards one another. Put bluntly: They fucking hate each other, alright? Especially China, Korea and Japan. The animosity displayed between these three nations on a somewhat regular basis is astonishing in its intensity. Nobody trusts each other. Each is using the other for their own individual ascendancy. And noone is backing down.

The point, for me, is that kids are being fed political propoganda by their teachers and their societies that has no real balance, perspective or objectivity. The issues raised by my Korean students' clear hostility to anything and everything Japanese point to a larger issue: how do we teach the past? How do we tell kids that countries did bad things, horrible things in the past, but we have to move on and reach out and learn from each other now, in the present, and not focus so intensely and violently on what has transpired before?

In Asia, though, the past always informs the present. Hell, it overwhelms it. China and Japan and Korea have all added and subtracted from each other's civilizations over the past few thousand years, in art, language, music and culture. The past one hundred years, though, have been a little, well, rough. (To say the least.) Japan's WWII behavior was, let's just say, not exactly, how do I put it, humane. And memories last a long, long time in the Far East.

But it's not about history, I don't think. It's not about what Japan did then, in World War II. It's not about the colonization, the prisoner-of-war-camps, the Rape of Nanking. These days, today, in Korea and Japan and China, it's about face. Saving face. An essential component of Asian culture. Not losing one's dignity. Not bowing before the might of others. Not giving in, or giving up, or admitting that you were wrong.

So you essentially have three major world civilizations that will not concede anything to each other. Korea will not forgive Japan for its WWII transgressions because it's not politically beneficially now to do so. China, today, would rather bring up that awful war today, repeatedly, because it prevents any significant examination of their current humans rights abuses. Japanese prime ministers continue to visit Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, at which certified war criminals are buried, in order to appease the nationalist sentiments of the Japanese right wing.

And on and on and on.

How do we teach kids the negative points of our own countries? How do we maintain our perspective on the past, yet head forwards into the future? How do we move past grudges the bear the bloodstains of millions of lost lives?

I don't know.

But I try to tell my students that it's perfectly fine to disagree with a country's government, but don't take a swipe at the people themselves. The world is too big and small for that.

And who knows?

Perhaps times are changing.

A lot of my Korean students are actually learning Japanese. Despite what their parents and educators say, WWII was a long, long time ago, and has little relevance to their lives now. One of my students even lived in Japan for most of his childhood, the best time of his life, he said. Japanese women are going ga-ga over Korean soap operas and movies with their romantic, sensitive storylines. The Chinese language is forcing salarymen in Japan and Korean to bone up on their Mandarin skills.

My hope is that not that each country forgets and forgives each other's past atrocities and current altercations. My desire is that each country can at least pretend to be civil with each other, and judge each other, if they must, on an individual basis.

Not likely, I know.

Naive, certainly.

But still.

When you're a kid you believe what you're told, for the most part, and I hate to see kids of any ethnicity blindly swallowing the nationalistic kool-aid their schools are pouring down their throats. I'd rather the students go to these countries themselves, and read each others histories themselves, and meet each other's citizens themselves. Then, go nuts -- believe what you want to believe. But base it on first-hand reading, experience and intuition.

Because I mean hey, at age nine, I think it's far, far more important to have your mind stretched by The Fantastic Four than it is to know exactly when and where colonization began and ended.

Then again, that's just me. I'm Canadian. I've never been colonized, or had to think about any of these issues in any real depth until my mid-twenties. I've never had the luxury of cultural indifference.

Which might mean something, come to think of it.

Or even everything.

1 comment:

Noi said...

"Because I mean hey, at age nine, I think it's far, far more important to have your mind stretched by The Fantastic Four than it is to know exactly when and where colonization began and ended."

I agree completely.