Saturday, December 11, 2004

Stereotypes 101

Here's a little treat from one Kim Mi Kyung I found in the Korea Times.  Allow her to introduce her topic:

I teach a course on global, cross-cultural skills at a local college in Portland, Ore. To my surprise, I’m discovering that the first task in this class is the mind-bending job of teaching Americans some elementary truths about who they are.

What great expert in American studies is this Miss Kim (may we call you Professor?) who is up to this "mind-bending job" of teaching "elementary truths" about who Americans are? Let's read on.

My surprise stems from the undeniable fact that, at an important level, I certainly don’t know enough about American society to dare to teach Americans who they are. For example, my class itself knows that I mistakenly thought Lewis and Clark were Bonnie and Clyde when I went to the Oregon History Museum.

Don't feel too bad about being confused about famous people. A lot of us ex-pats here in Korea aren't sure if Noh Mu-hyun or Kim Jeong-il is the President of South Korea. All the same, allow me to politely withdraw the suggestion of calling you a "Professor."

So, you admit you don't know much about Americans "at an important level" yet you are writing an article about teaching Americans about Americans? Cool. When Americans do something like that people call us ignorant and arrogant. What words should we use for you?

Despite such wild treatments of the details, I find that not only can I teach my class what the rest of the world thinks of the country, but I must. Americans, I’m learning, have a serious aversion to basic empirical self-analysis.

Hold on a second. Let me replace the word "Americans" with "Koreans" and see how that paragraph works...hey! It fits perfectly!

One question: I thought the class was called "cross-cultural skills," not "Why the World Hates America." Getting a little off the subject, aren't you?

My first contact with this fact came on the very first day of my class, when I jotted down the most commonly observed American values. Americans, I chalked on the board, are widely supposed (or perceived) to be individualistic, competitive, self-absorbed, materialistic, obsessed with time and not overly concerned with nature. As I dashed down the list, I could hear the students gasping for air.

Wow! What a great teaching technique! On the very first day of class, go into the classroom and write a bunch of mostly negative stereotypes of your students' nationality. Excellent! You certainly have proved to us that you are qualified to teach a class on "cross-cultural skills."

All you teachers in Korea, why not give this a try? On the first day of class tell your students that Koreans are perceived as overly-emotional, competitive, materialistic, and usually drunk on soju. They'll love you for it! Don't worry about the fact that you might not actually know much about Korea. Miss Kim doesn't need actual first-hand knowledge of Americans to do it, so why should you actually need to know about Koreans before teaching them how they are?

By the way Miss Kim, are you sure that "serious aversion to basic empirical self-analysis" is not really serious aversion to some stranger labeling them with stereotypes? Think about it for a while, I'm sure you can come up with the answer.

Back to the fun!

Once the items were outlined, one of the students raised his hand and asked me, ``Are you telling me that I am individualistic and greedy?’’ He seemed genuinely perturbed. A female student jumped in telling me that ``I have read some materials on altruism and I agree with what they believe in. I don’t believe I am very self-absorbed.’’ Despite my quick caveats about the limitations of simplification and generalization, the points I’d assumed to be common knowledge seemed to be genuinely new and shocking to thoughtful residents of their land of application. what exactly are these "limitations of simplification and generalization" that you mentioned? Judging by how you decided to begin this course, I'm not sure you really understand what those words mean.

I know you are the "cross-cultural" expert and everything, but can I give you a little advice? Use of generalizations and oversimplification (which you admittedly did do, by the way) to describe another's culture the very first time you meet that person is something most cross-cultural skills experts probably would suggest one NOT do. 

Lovely irony though. I almost wish I could have been there!

Then, I flashed back to something one of my colleagues had warned me about. ``We, Americans,’’ the colleague had said, ``do not want to be described. We are not a very analytical people. If you tell us who we are, we get offended.’’

Wow! Another generalization! Perhaps you should rename your class "cross-cultural stereotypes."

Anyway, I doubt that was an American who said that because if he really were an American he would have been completely incapable of such an analytical insight.

Do go on, Miss Kim.

Being a Korean who thrives on others’ perceptions of me and/or us as a group, I had a moment of epiphany.

Word choice suggestion: change "thrives on" to "is obsessed with" and you'd be more accurate.

The class and I had a moment of culture clash. It felt refreshing.

Yeah, I bet it did. I would have loved to see the "refreshed" look on your face when you realized you had insulted and lost the respect of the students from day one of the class. Probably as "refreshed" as you feel right now reading this, huh? :)

Ok, sarcasm off, let me give some real advice to Miss Kim. It's painfully obvious that your first class didn't go so well and you are struggling to save face and justify what and how you taught. I get the feeling the article you wrote was done primarily out of a desperate need to convince yourself that you did a good job and the students, not you, are the ones to blame. You must be a moderately intelligent woman, and I'm sure a part of you deep down realizes that in a course called "cross-cultural skills" you, the teacher, displayed none of them.

But I'm here to help. If for some reason the school entrusts you with another class, try the following (seriously):

1. Start by asking the class what THEY think people from other countries think of Americans. You'll be shocked (hell, it might even be another "epiphany" for you) just how much they already know.

2. Next, ask them just how much they think the stereotypes are true. Be prepared for another epiphany when they start to criticize themselves. I know you don't know much about America, but you are in Oregon and you'll be surprised how many people there are ready to criticize Americans when approached the right way. That's the way Socrates would have done it (Socratic Method, look it up).

But most importantly, you need to clarify what your course is about and what your true aims are. Are you really trying to help them gain cross cultural skills, or do you feel some urge to make them see themselves as you do? You admit that you don't know Americans, is it not possible that some of YOUR perceptions might be a bit askew? Maybe you and the class BOTH have some learning to do.

That's what cross cultural experiences are all about, right?

You quoted Socrates later in your article ("Know thyself"). Perhaps the first thing you need to do is take that mirror you are so anxiously trying to thrust in the faces of your students and turn it around and look at yourself. Refreshing epiphanies are sure to follow.

Her email address is on the article, so being the kind and concerned citizen that I am, I emailed this post in its entirety to her. If I read Miss Kim correctly, a lengthy and angry reply is sure to follow.

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