I made a small tactical error. I let my best writing class — which is one of my Elementary Writing courses, by the way, not the Advanced course — suggest topics, and hastily I chose the most controversial ones. Of course, this included “Dog Soup” and “The Yellow Dust from China” and a few more very commonplace topics. Commonplace if you’ve taught free-talking or writing courses in Korea before, anyway.
The interesting thing is how diverse the views were on certain topics, such as the Yellow Dust phenomenon, and how shockingly homogenous the arguments were about a topic like Dog Soup. Given the fact that around 50% of Koreans don’t eat dog, and a significant number of that group also disapprove of it being practiced by others, I would have expected at least one essay that was a simple, funny explanation that, “Hey, I might be Korean, but I don’t eat dog.” Nope. I found that almost every essay on the topic seemed to follow something close to the same train of thought. And given that there was so much homogeneity in the argument, I began to get the sense that someone on the faculty is teaching a very clear, direct, and specific argument with regards to this subject; I saw it unfold too many times this evening not to believe that someone recently lectured on this subject. That, or there’s been some kind of move in education or the media recently to promote a specific argument in the defense of dog-eating, because the specific argument was almost universal, even among students who I am 100% did not prepare together for the exam.
The gist of it was as follows: it began with a simple and straightforward assertion that not all Koreans like dogs. Some people then moved on to the question of whether dogs are slaughtered brutally or not. Most of the time, they asserted that, yeah, dogs may be slaughtered in inhumane ways, but then again, describe bullfighting or your average chicken farm without using the word “inhumane” and you’re a liar. One girl, though, claimed that nobody ever slaughters dogs inhumanely, and I took the risk of responding to her that, despite the fact I actually enjoy dog soup when I (these days only very occasionally) have it, I don’t believe her claim that dogs aren’t slaughtered in inhumane ways — because I know people who’ve actually seen it themselves, and not just once.
How did the argument proceed from there? Let’s see… ah, yes. Culture is relative, anyway. We cannot judge a culture as good or bad, or a cultural practice as good or bad. I responded to some statements to this effect that it was perhaps an overtstatement of the fact that some cultural differences are not a matter of good or bad, but just difference. For one student — the same one who claimed dogs aren’t slaughtered inhumanely — I responded that I suspected we could probably find some cultural practices in cultures foreign to both of us which we would agree were wrong; such as cannibalism, perhaps, or witch-burning.
There were two shocks. One was when a student, who of course shall remain nameless, ended a beautiful if somewhat logically shaky tirade on the subject of dog meat soup with the prediction, “Korea will not remain separate.” She’d just been explaining how people from outside Korea ought not to just, but to respect foreign culture — something that I agree with, to the degree that respect is warranted — I refuse to respect a witch-burning society in withc-burning mode, or a colonizing society’s colonizing mode, or whatever — and then she ended with a brief, and to me completely opaque, pronouncement on the necessity of reunification of Korea.
I sat staring at the page, dumbfounded. I had no idea what to respond to that, except, “I’m sorry, but I see no connection between this and the essay that came before it. Could you explain?” Was it just a kind of reflexive regurgitation of some other hammered-away-at lesson of yore that flopped out onto the page on the tail of the well-rehearsed argument about Dog Soup? Was there some kind of cryptic Utopian idealism founded on the mistaken idea that, if only the rest of the world respected Korea, then North and South would finally reunify? I have no idea.
(And, of course, the other essay that this same young woman wrote was a brilliant environmentalist piece that didn’t rant, but read almost like an occasionally clumsy, brokenhearted dirge to the planet on its deathbed.)
There was one other thing that came up; it was the caricatured foreigner. This was something that was hard for me to read. It was not a universal figure, thank goodness; several students wrote wonderful essays on racism and their own experience of it, their own feelings about racism in Korean society, a notion that only a generation ago probably wouldn’t have been clearly parseable to most people here, I think. One guy wrote an essay warning his classmates not to assume that the only racism in the world existed in Western countries, and discussed his own sense of racism in Korea. But there was that caricature in some students’ essays; it would pop up sometimes as a mad Frenchwoman (maybe it was Brigitte Bardot, but nobody named her directly, unlike students a half a decade older than they are, who normally remember the identity of the Frenchwoman who made pronouncements about the barbarity of Korean dog-eating). At other times, it was a more generalized kind of “the outside world”. One student claimed that Korean dog-eating is a hot topic abroad. I responded, “I hate to burst your bubble, but most people outside Korea, even if they don’t feel comfortable with the idea of dog-eating, don’t discuss Korean’s dietary habits as a ‘hot topic’. Most people don’t care about what people on the other side of the world are eating.”
All I can say is that I hope the fact that I noted that I in fact have eaten dog and don’t have a problem with dog consumption helps some of the people to whose essays I responded honestly see that I’m not a judgmental foreigner looking down on them, but rather a serious teacher trying to probe at the received argument that they’re offering to see just how strong and valid it actually is. But once again, I am aware of just how weighted and freighted the issue of race sometimes is in my life, by necessity. My questioning the form of these arguments as a white foreign man is completely different from the significance that would arise if a Korean professor questioned them, at least I suspect that’s the case for the majority of my students.
And that reminds me of some thoughts about that novel concept “Poppy”, of which I have drafted the first fifty pages or so, and a small installment of which I plan on working on at Clarion West this summer (in a form that will make it at once a workable installment and a saleable short story, if possible), and about the limitations of using a white male protagonist in a story that deals head-on with race and the political ramifications of race. But more about that tomorrow, once I’ve actually finished my marking and am free to read, relax a little, and do some more story prep.