“Official” Definitions of Culture, The Deviations of Reality, and Linguistic Imperialism (In and Out of the ESL Classroom)

Apologies for the title. Sometimes you just cannot do better.

You know, it’s funny how I came to think about all of this.

Chapter Three of the textbook I’m teaching to the majority of my students is about living situations—where people live, landmarks near their homes, who they live with, how they like it. Really simple stuff, so I ham it up a bit and give a couple of hints as to cultural difference.

For example, to the amusement of some students I explained why a man perhaps oughtn’t ask a lady he doesn’t know well a question like, “Do you live alone?” unless he wants to go to her house. (Or get slapped.) Students giggled and snorted and a couple of them said things like “바람동이 칠문이다!” (It’s a playboy’s question!) Of course, sometimes it’s okay to ask a lady if she lives alone, but sometimes it’s not, and hey, I take the laughs where I can get ’em.

But what I found really funny was when we got to the question of “Who do you live with?”

Actually, we worked on phrasing the question in the Yes/No Question form, in other words as a “Do you…” question. To be able to formulate the question in this way, it’s helpful to have in mind different people that your conversation partner could be living with.

What kind of people go in a list like that?

  • you parents
  • your family
  • a cousin
  • your aunt
  • your uncle
  • your friend

And then, of course, there’s

  • your boyfriend/girlfriend

Now, from last week, students know that this term means a romantic partner, and not just a friend of the opposite sex.

Well, my students were all shocked when this last example came up on a list of people someone might live with. It’s funny, really.

Is this actually a cultural difference?

It depends on your definition of culture, I suppose. The official party line about Korean culture is that unmarried couples living together is not normal, or at least not acknowledged as normal (though some people will overlook it if the couple is engaged). This, of course, is asserted because, uh… well, I’m not exactly sure. Maybe it’s unacceptable because of the fact that most couples who live together, sleep together.

(How amusing, to compare the stories of married people and their sexual woes, their not sleeping together, to the ideas that float around about how young couples living together will behave. Something in me suspects the elders of nothing more than green envy at the thought of their juniors having better sex lives than themselves…)

And then there’s the other assumption that is inherent in the term “cultural difference”, which is that in North America it’s universally accepted that unmarried couples will live together, sleep together, and so forth. Is that North American culture? Well, it’d be hard to find someone to disagree that it’s “officially” unobjectionable in North American culture, but you will find a lot of people who reject the “official” version of liberal North American sexual values nonetheless… members of certain religious sects, polygamists, and so forth all have their various disagreements with the popular definition of culture.

The obvious question that will emerge, if you think about this kind of thing for more than a couple of minutes, well, it’s “What is culture?” Is culture a fixed thing? Is culture the official definition of a society? Is it exclusive or inclusive? I know Korean people who think cohabitation with a partner outside of marriage is not abnormal, is totally acceptable, is a good idea in fact, as a kind of trial marriage. (Interestingly, this elevates the importance of marriage.)

I know that here in Jeonju, in Jeonbuk, traditional morals dominate, or at least lip-service to traditional morals dominate. And I know that this is a Christian school I’m teaching at. But even setting aide the radical Christians I know, who think that mainstream church teaching on sexuality is skewed or wrong, or elevated to far too much importance, I think it’s a mistake to think that therefore, teaching people how to express a certain concept is wrong. (For reasons I’ll get into below.) In any case, I know that Jeonbuk morality isn’t universal across the country. I know that in Seoul, an unmarried couple cohabiting may be not even deemed worthy of comment among their peers, though of course sometimes they have to hide the fact from one or the other partners’ parents. The cultural average is more conservative on this subject than the average North American, but this hardly means all people feel this way. So does this truly reveal a cultural difference?

If you take an ossifying, exclusivist view of culture, written about so intelligently by anthropologist James Clifford, then yes, this is a cultural difference. The problem is that the official definition of culture is what’s in the textbooks, what’s already hardened in stone. Culture is not what we say it is… culture is always changing, moving, variegating. Culture is alive. Therefore culture is never, ever simple and clear-cut. Korean culture, now, is in such a stage of transition that it’s probably possible to argue that just about anything is “Korean culture” for some Korean out there. It includes wife-swappers; it includes fanatical evangelical movements vandalizing Buddhist temples; it includes middle school girls writing homoerotic fantasies about feminine young male popstar idols and posting them to the internet. Maybe these things are more common in Seoul, but they’re not unheard of here in Jeonbuk, either. Hell, a friend of mine in Iksan taught a girl whose nickname was “Big Lez”, short for lesbian, who was the leader of a self-styled “lesbian gang” in a middle school. (Lord knows what that means, but the fact it was widely known in a middle school suggests any narrow definition of Korean culture is necessarily excluding a lot of the reality.)

And North American culture, while it includes a lot of comparably similar things, also includes some rather Puritanical worldviews, some extremely conservative social views, and even some middle-of-the-road positions. For example, while I am a modern North-American, my family has rather conservative values. Therefore, when I was a teenager the idea of boyfriend and girlfriend living together unmarried was shocking to my parents. So where does cultural difference come in? If this is a case of cultural difference, then I have cultural differences with my parents, and at least some and, perhaps, quietly, many of my students have cultural differences with their parents.

So to chalk this kind of thing up to cultural difference doesn’t necessarily make sense. Hell, I’d wager that my students each have at least one friend who is living with someone, or at least know someone who is doing so semi-openly. (Even if it’s not publicly acknowledged.)

Why do I think this? Well, for one thing, at a recent workshop on campus, I heard a statistic put forward that something like 30% of students living off-campus in one-room apartments were cohabiting with a member of the opposite sex—a boyfriend or girlfriend. Brimming with brimstone (I couldn’t resist, sorry!), the minister who claimed this—a bit naively, it seemed to me—said with serious disdain, “And they’re having sex! And drinking!” as if this is so very unusual. Of course they’re having sex. Newsflash: many, many young couples have sex. Many young couples always have, and many always will, regardless of where they live…

It’s hilarious when someone fits the locus of sexual activity in cohabitation, really. I mean, it’s basically excessively unrealistic to think that couples refrain from sex until they move in together. The number of love hotels, and the fact that they’re all still in business; the cinematic depictions of nice, sweet couples who end up in them (while we should be careful not to read cinema as realistic—Hollywood sex is far from the reality of most Westerners, too—it can be argued, at the very least, be propagandizing or reinforcing a kind of less-strict sexual morality among the young); the fact that DVD-rooms and video-rooms are gigglingly synonymous for many with “a private place for couples to fool around or have sex” all suggest to me that sex and cohabitation are not likely to be anywhere as connected as all of that.

But, no, the naive claim is that couples living together “are having sex”. This, in turn, asserts that living together is bad, because it leads to sex. The disconnect is that it doesn’t; if anything, I’d suggest that sex leads to living together; in fact, if you follow the “better to marry than to burn” argument, the desire for sex, and the likelihood of having it, lead directly to the need for an officially endorsed avenue for sex, and what follows is a officially endorsed form of cohabitation (ie. marriage). This is a not uncommon assertion, by the way.

What disturbs me about all of this is the drive to officialize a definition of culture—a definition that excludes whatever elements which, while they too are extant within a culture, are found to be objectionable. Why should this be disturbing?

The obvious response to this question is: why should the definition of culture be officialized? Or, rather, why would anyone seek to officialize a certain definition of culture? And the answer is: power. If a naive definition sexuality within culture is officialized, then the reality can be ignored. The fact that sex is for sale all over the country, that many unmarried young couples are happily and eagerly doing what evolution has spent millions of years programming them to do—having a lot of sex with one another—can be overlooked. The fact can be comfortably overlooked that premarital sex need not (with a little education and information) be linked to the spread of disease or to unplanned pregnancies. If a young woman gets pregnant, it does not exist, and therefore the abortion she gets illegally also does not exist. It need not be confronted.

Hush, hush. Official definitions of culture—usually, conservative ones, though not always—carry with them open secrets, big gaping realities. Nobody sufficiently invested in an official definition of culture is willing to directly look at these bleeding, seeping open secrets. When confronted with one, the standard retreat is back into rhetoric: moralizing, or blame, or the implication that this is an aberration, an exception, something far from the norm.

Which suggests something about the language of these open secrets. It’s not just an observation that “deviants” or “rebels”—those who reject official definitions of culture—tend to have their own subcultural language. This is true, of course, but then again, there is special language for those who live within much more socially conservative circles, as well. What’s more interesting is that, while in many ways the assertions bandied about among academics about how language determines culture are basically hogwash, in the context of talking about defining culture (for the purposes of, say, formulating curriculum) they’re absolutely right: language creates worldview, and the control of acceptable, “official” discourse via language does translate into a kind of cultural power. (How else would one define a force that can, for example, continue to consider unplanned pregnancies out of wedlock an aberrant occurence, and “officially” deny the existence of a rather busy abortion industry? And of course, yes, the same issues come up in terms of politics in America, in Europe, and probably to varying degrees within any society… I’m writing about “official” Korean society because, as a foreigner, the disconnect between the official “truth claim” and the reality is more obvious to me than in cultures I’m wholly unfamilar with, or within my own culture where the still-extant bogus truth claims and the strategies for ignoring them are all so internalized within me that I don’t see them clearly at all.)

Something fascinating happens when a mass number of people are influenced by a mass media from another society. Young women I’ve known in Korea have admitted to me that, after a strongly conservative upbringing, it was Hollywood movies, Hollywood depictions of sexuality and love, that convinced them sex before marriage, sex linked in fact explicitly with love rather than as a duty of marriage, was a possibility. Similarly, I find that in the study of language (and the implicit study of the culture or cultures inherent in that language), a lot of identity-experimentation goes on. I don’t fall under the illusion that Korea is saturated with English—if it were, I’m not sure I’d have a job here—but South Korea is indeed saturated with Western media, with snippets of Western culture, messages of rebellion and deviance and just plain different, all contending that something is possible outside of the “official” definition of culture. And doubtless, there was, even during periods of extreme cultural isolation, a large subbasement of dissent, deviance, and rebellion against the “official” version of Korean culture, as there has always been within any culture. Fueled by Western media, by Western cultural input, it seems to me that there’s two worlds in Korea—Seoul, and the rest of the country. Economic and political differences aside, the social differences relate to how fragmented the “official” definition of culture is seen to have become, and how acceptable it is to live outside of that “official” definition. The definition still seems to exist, but many people simply refuse to obey it. This seems to me to be a part of the process of modernisation, of postmodernisation perhaps; perhaps, worse, it is part of the process of eradicating all cultures and replacing them with a single consumerist monoculture. I don’t know.

But I do know that I’m not personally interested in taking a side in the battle over definition of culture. The thing is, I don’t believe that teaching someone how to express some idea that isn’t acceptable within their culture actually a form of taking sides. After all, Koreans can express very easily, in their native language, the notion of living in with a girlfriend/boyfriend. This doesn’t somehow melt their culture to pieces. And further, in denying the excluded reality of cultural diversities of which they don’t approve, those who wish to realise the “officialized” definitions of “culture” endanger the realization of their definitions as desperately as those who flount the “official” version of their culture, who deviate, rebel, or simply quietly differ. Refusing to admit the existence of something that already exists is no way to actually oppose it. In teaching people how to express an idea, I am not telling them whether or not to endorse it, but rather how to state the idea; they are, of course, free to hold or express any opinion about that idea that they like, and I’ll do my best to help them express that idea, even when I disagree with it; I may state an opposing viewpoint for balance (and I try do so, fairly), but I will not tell anyone not to express themselves about something they care about.

For the example I mentioned, those who honestly, truly oppose premarital cohabitation would stand a much better chance of convincing those who live with their girlfriends or boyfriends to stop doing it, if they were able to discuss the question as a reality. Those who think that there’s nothing wrong with it also stand a much better chance of not having to hide the reality of their lives, if they are able at least to say that they disagree—even if they choose not to do so.

It’s a complicated matter, though, this avoiding imperialism in the classroom; especially when you believe that imperialism doesn’t always come from barbarian invaders… sometimes, I think imperialism is perpetrated upon one’s own immediate descendants younger fellow countrymen even more effectively and insidiously than is ever perpetrated across lines of foreign culture. No culture is ever monolithic, and the notion that a culture is, whether promoted from within the culture or without, is inherently imperialistic. For me, the solution is open discussion, the honest expression of ideas. Language, after all, is for this. If we do not use language for this, for the expression of reality, of our beliefs, of what we think, then we don’t any of us deserve to have language at all.

Ah well. It so rarely comes up in the classroom, on the one hand; it’s just a random moment I excavated from my teaching load today. And yet, maybe if I look closely, the issue arises again and again, in ways I never see. And perhaps, the question itself is just fascinating to me, in itself. I shall have to think about this some more, perhaps, slowly, over time… and maybe over a few beer.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, however, Dear Reader.

UPDATE: It strikes me that the difference between the two positions I describe neatly fits in with the idea of descriptivist and prescriptivist approaches to grammar. I’m not against having an opinion about how the society in which one lives ought to be; I’m just against passing one’s opinion off as representative of how a society actually is.

5 thoughts on ““Official” Definitions of Culture, The Deviations of Reality, and Linguistic Imperialism (In and Out of the ESL Classroom)

  1. I’m going to display my postmodern/postcolonial naivete. What does “imperialism in the classroom” mean in this context? Or, for that matter, practicing imperialism on one’s descendents?

  2. Good questions.

    I take “imperialism” to mean the manipulation of certain understandings of one culture across a culture divide, usually for some explicit or implicit purpose or purposes. I suppose that one could make a connection to Edward Said in Culture & Imperialism or Orientalism, but really I’m speaking more with regard to the fact of a foreign teacher in a classroom, in a position of relative power, teaching to students of another culture, and one of the pitfalls that they may encounter.

    “Imperialism in the classroom”, specifically a concept called “linguistic imperialism” I’ve run across when talking with or reading ESL-related commentators, is when a teacher “imposes” upon students a cultural or value system under the guide of language.

    While this can be a much bigger issue in, say, the ESL classroom—the classroom where foreign students living in an English-speaking country—where teachers can promote an idea that one’s original culture ought to be left at the door because “now you’re in Canada” or whatever, it sometimes comes up as an issue in the EFL classroom (the classroom where students learn English as a foreign language, while living in a non-Englsh-speaking culture, usually their home country).

    For example, there is a difference between telling students that in North American culture, we tend not to pay as much attention to the age of a “friend” as in A Confucian culture (say, Korean). So telling a student that in English, talking of one’s “senior” or “junior” is not common, because we use the word “friend” to apply to people older and younger than us toward whom we feel warmly and convivially and somewhat close to.

    This is different from telling a Korean student that he or she ought never to say “my junior” or “my senior”, despite the apparent awkwardness that exists when using such terms with North American speakers. It’s also different from offhandedly dismissing students’ desire to differentiate this way when speaking, and telling them just to use the word “friend”.

    I’ve known a number of teachers’ whose thinking is that English language and Western culture are the same thing, and that teaching English is the same as teaching Western culture. You run into such an idea surprisingly often.

    It’s erroneous, I believe. English is a language, and of course it bears the marks of the culture which uses it most, but English can be used to express a lot of concepts alien to it. When a concept is alien to a native speaker, but not alien to a group of ESL speakers, is it right for a teacher to dismiss the concept?

    To the degree that what a teacher does actually matters—it can matter a lot in some classroom situations, and less in others—the position of teacher is a position of potential power in the classroom. The teacher can use that power to impose his or her own personal opinion of culture onto students—or an Administrator’s personal opinion of culture, or a religious organization’s official take on culture—or the teacher can instead transfer that power to the students and let them express the ideas they want to express as coherently as possible.

    Language and culture are intensely bound together, and I don’t dispute the claim that people who learn a foreign language undergo personal change—they relate to their first culture rather differently, depending on how deeply they accept or integrate the lessons of the foreign culture inherent in the language they learn. Unlike some people who declare they’re never learned a foreign language, or gone abroad—”I’m a Pure Korean!” is a nonsensical statement I’ve heard before—I don’t think this is a bad thing at all! It’s not that I wish to change the culture, especially not personally; but I do not have a problem with individuals or groups of people within the culture working for change. Hell, that’s how all progress happens in any culture.

    However, and this is the trap many teachers fall into: a lot of white foreign teachers come to Korea with a missionary zeal. They’re teaching English, but fancy themselves ambassadors of good sense, reason, and functionality. They’re gonna teach Koreans how to do things right, how to think correctly, and how to fix their culture. Many such teachers don’t know very much about Korea at all, and just form opinions based on a few bad toilet experiences, a few bad bar experiences, and maybe a couple of unhappy brushes with authority.

    When the teacher comes into the classroom with the idea that he or she is going to “fix” the culture, or actively seek to change it, it’s an example of imperialism in the classroom.

    As for what “practicing imperialism on one’s descendants” means, well… okay, descendants is probably not a great word. One’s “younger fellow nationals” might be a better phrase.

    It’s like this: I want to be sensitive to whether or not I’m being imperialistic in the classroom, and resist it. In other words, I’m interested in avoiding prescriptivist cultural assumptions in my language teaching. (As a side note, in my experience, students with strong cultural-prescriptivist tendencies tend to self-limit their linguistic experimentation and learn much more slowly, enjoy the language less, and so on.)

    But I also come to the classroom knowing I’m not the only person who could potentially impose prescriptivist definitions of culture on students, with the aim solidify social control over them, to exclude what some of them might think normal, and so on. One example is University Administrators, who (I think it’s safe to say) officially find the notion of young unmarried couples a bad thing; they might even admit to preferring the idea not be mentioned as a possibility in the classroom.

    In other words, because I’m an outsider whose culture is different from my students, I should be careful in how I handle the treatment of their culture whilst I go about teaching them my language. I should be careful of prescriptivist approaches to their culture.

    But at the same time, this doesn’t mean that I should toe the line with, say, Administrators whose “official definition” of culture is also to some degree different from my students; to the degree that Administrators might seek to impose such definitions in curricula, they too are practicing a form of educational imperialism.

    And in the end, as I argue, avoiding subjects that deviate from the descriptivists’ “official” definitions of a culturee hardly equip people to actually defend and promote that vision, so in some ways it even serves as a way for conservatives to shoot themselves in the foot. Well, perhaps not, since the bulk of the discussion may well happen in the mother tongue…

    I should also note that no prescriptivist has mentioned the issue to me, nor would it be likely to arise in discussion if I didn’t bring it up. It’s a minor point, and the example I drew upon came and went within ten seconds of classroom time; probably the students just accepted my explanation that, at least in Canada, it’s not really strange or rare for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together. Even if I did bring it up, unless I claimed to have endorsed it as a good idea—which I didn’t!—it would probably not garner any major comment.

    I suspect, though, if I unpacked it to the Campus Ministry office, they’re probably be pretty uncomfortable with the idea of a descriptivist approach to culture, if it weren’t also accompanied by a prescriptivist formula for “fixing” it.

    And perhaps, to some degree, I am responding to the very common pattern I have noted among enterprising young students who energetically present the “official” version of Korean culture to their teachers. When you have lived here a while and know a little more than they think you know, then it can be quite amusing to hear such explanations. I’m far from an expert on contemporary Korean culture but I do know that some of the things I hear people say about Korea here in backwater Jeonbuk are far from true in some of the bigger cities, or, even, quietly, here in Jeonju itself.

  3. That makes sense in a technical kind of way. I was having a hard time seeing you wield sufficient power, under the circumstances, to be “imperial.” The image of educational imperialism that floats before my eyes involves things like the US gov’t kidnapping Native American children & teaching them English & Christianity while forbidding them to learn their own culture. I was having trouble crossing the gulf between that and, by contrast, expressing one’s opinion as the local minority in a classroom. But as you’ve explained it I can see a matter of professional ethics (and maybe self-preservation) being served by avoiding cultural prescriptivism.

  4. Hahaha, by the way, the grandiose image of me imagining myself “imperial” in the classroom has come to me several times and it’s been worth a chuckle. Thanks for asking a question that allowed me to clarify I have no such grandiose understanding of my position. I’ll extend it by reaffirming that I think, in the vast majority of situations, the kind of example I was commenting on is probably unimportant. But the attitude, I think, is important, and the question worth examining.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *