The Positives of Foreign Students Around (And How to Maximize those Benefits in Korea)

I’m in the middle of a pile of essays in my composition class, in which approximately one out of four students is from China, and an incident in class last week came up that I wanted to post about. (I was grading the essay that we discussed in class crit last week, which I’ll discuss in a moment.)

I posted last week about the violence that broke out in Seoul among Chinese students at the Olympic Torch/Free-Tibet rally. As Brian in Jeollanam-do noted, the Korean government’s handling of the situation has been, in some cases, disappointing, for example declining to issue an arrest warrant for a Chinese man who apparently was

…kicking and hitting a 49-year-old Korean protester with a Chinese national flag, and hurling concrete tiles in a clash between Chinese students and anti-Chinese protestors during the Olympic torch relay in Seoul last Sunday.

Not because he didn’t do it, or evidence was lacking, but because “he was repentant over his misdeeds… [and] his chances of fleeing the country or destroying evidence were slim as he lives in a campus dormitory.”

Let alone the double-standard — any white Westerner who engages in open violence, even in self-defense, would get clanged as soon as possible — there’s a certain stupidity to this: failure to crack down as promised will only give the take-home lesson that it’s okay to engage in mass violence in public again whenever Chinese students feel like it.

All that said, I have to add that having students from another culture and ethnic background, from another educational system, and so on is excellent for my Korean students. Not only do these kids not speak or understanding Konglish, but they also raise the bar for courses in a lot of cases. (Actually, my experience suggests Taiwanese students raise the bar even farther!)

Sometimes odd things happen in class, though. Chinese students will suddenly declare that “Taiwan is part of China!” (often out of context), or issues of political difference will leave both sides stunned. (As when a number of Chinese students — all but one — sat around sagely nodding their heads and asserting that Mao Zedong was a great man, period. Korean students were flabbergasted that anyone could still think the same thing, and the Chinese students — all but one, who remained quiet and later confessed it’s easier not to argue about it — expressed surprise when Korean students disagreed.

I’m working on finding a way to tease apart several threads in a Chinese student’s essay:

  • a sensible critique of media bias in recent coverage of China, including a series of mislabeled or totally wrong images in newspapers
  • a less-sensible outcry against the ignorance of “the truth” and ulterior-motive-driven greedy hatefulness in Western media
  • tangents that seem to imply the “real thugs in Tibet” are the Tibetan protestors, and that the soldiers are really very nice, helpful victims of the malicious independence movement
  • a “questionable” claim on truth that implies whatever is pro-China is true, and anti-China is false, which is especially tendentious coming from a society where freedom of the press doesn’t exist and the most intensive system of internet filtering is currently in place

This is a small nightmare for me, really, because on such issues, it’s hard for me to separate myself from my own convictions, yet one misstep and there’s a good change a quarter of the class will be turned off and possible even angry, which can sour a class like nobody’s business! It’s easier on issues where I can sympathize with those who think differently, but it’s hard for me to sympathize with the party line when the party line is simply reversing the argument and calling the Western media the “bad guys.”

Still, to be honest, I think it’s good for my class. Most of the Korean students in this class probably have never had such a difficult challenge in expressing their ideas across a language and culture barrier; of recontextualizing their feelings about colonialism regarding the Korean experience with Japan to another colonized state; of expressing their opinions regarding “the truth.”

I know at least a few of the students will have some very big issues with the claims made in this essay, which is great because one direction I’ve been planning to move toward, and one issue that’s been nagging at me since starting on Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe, is the idea that students should be able to engage in an argument — that is, should be able to consider what people who disagree are going to argue or object to in their own argument. From there, we get clarification, explanation, evidence, and better consideration of one’s audience.

(Which I’ve been charged with not doing enough myself here on this blog, though, well, it’s a blog and not a place for my serious writing, but anyway I’m working on it.)

In any case, this leads me to think that, whatever violence occurred, I don’t think Korean universities should be reticent about taking Chinese students in the future. In fact, nonviolent clashes are inevitable and are a bonus, a great wealth of experience that students — Korean and otherwise — can learn from.

My only thought is that maybe, after an outburst like this, it might be wise to limit foreign student enrollment to women, for say, a few years or more. (This would be a sensible policy anywhere, in fact.) This has the benefit of (a) creating an influx of foreign women who may wish to settle here for various reasons, and (b) drastically reducing the percentage of students who are likely to engage in physical violence. (Since women are, on the whole, much less blessed with testosterone than men.)

Since Korea is going to be taking more and more foreign students in the years to come — among other reasons, it’s the only way to keep the surplus number of universities viable and in the black — it might as well do so in a way that (a) controls violence, (b) addresses Korea’s needs as far as a population of available young women who are willing to have children, and (c) forces other nations to ensure that their students abroad behave in a civilized manner. (Instead of the embassy urging them to turn up en masse for protests and rallies, as I’ve heard Chinese students in Korea and other countries were — I don’t know about the veracity here, but it’s been admitted in Australia, the USA, Canada, and Japan — and here, a former student leader discusses consular involvement in Chinese student societies abroad.)

But Korea will need to be careful, especially in how it allows student groups to form, and what actions they will be allowed to take… though, of course, all of that starts with dealing swiftly and unremittingly with student misbehaviour abroad. Student societies under the grip of the CCP are a problem; but China knows and worries about what Korea hasn’t yet quite figured out: that studies abroad can open minds, and change a society by changing its future leaders. Chinese students being welcomed is a good thing — it will make for a better China, and hopefully a wiser and warier Korea, in the future.

Ah well, yay for capitalism, once in a while. A factory in China was making Free Tibet flags for protestors abroad. That’s what you get, jumping into the globalized economy with one eye blinded and the other eye blinkered.

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