Global: What It Really Means in Korea

In Korea today, one of the great buzzwords is “global”: you hear about “inbound globalization” at educational institutions, you hear about “global marketing,” you hear about “global outreach.” The word “global,” has attained a kind of buzzword status but as one of my students pointed out last semester in a public speaking exam — he gave a speech on the subject — global almost always really means, “Anglo-American.”

(Note: by this I mean, English-language of the American subtype. I don’t mean in the sense some Americans seem to mean when they say “Anglo-American”, ie. British American or something.)

There’s an amusing cartoon up on Naver webtoon that satirizes this tendency, here. It’s an installment of the “Cheap Cheonli Mart” comic, a toon that satirizes mainstream Korean business by sticking a managment type who has been exiled from a big company to a tiny little neighborhood grocery store. He keeps trying to get the people on board with how big businesses operate, and constantly the small market operators get things “wrong” in a way that both works out, but also satirizes the silliness of big business.

In the installment I’ve linked, the guy tries to convince the staff that everyone should have “global names” which, in fact, they take at face value… not translating “global” to mean “white American English-speaking” in their heads, they adopted Japanese and Chinese names; migrant workers adopt Korean names; and the manager of the tiny mart dresses up in a turban and vest, and takes a Muslim name. Luckily, a Muslim businessman (who is around looking for big companies in which to invest, and happens to be in the neighborhood) happens upon the place, and after they exchange Arabic pleasantries, the businessman decides to invest an insane amount of money into the tiny mart.

The joke is silly, of course, but the point is very accurate. It reminds me of my student’s question, “Why do we call a lounge ‘global’ when the only language we are allowed to speak there is English? Why are all of our official, campus-wide public speaking contests in English only?” He’s quite correct to ask these questions, though I would hasten to add that educational policies and programs don’t take form in a vacuum: it’s a reflection of Korean society’s enduring observance of American hegemony.

Which raises the question, what would it take for the United States, and white Anglophones, to be unseated from the priority of place in the global hierarchy as Koreans understand it? This musing struck me almost at the same time as an idle question along the lines of, “With all the radiation being bled out into the Pacific, how long will it be before restaurants stop putting shellfish into stews?” (Sadly, I think it will be longer than is wise.)

I suppose the turn of events in this game would do send American tumbling from its place of prominence in the Korean imagination–and thanks to a frequent commenter who may wish to remain unnamed here for showing me the link–but I’m more interested in likelier scenarios.

The thought of likely scenarios returns me to two musings. One is the thought I’ve had of making Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (or at least parts of the book) required reading for any class that wants to discuss why so many contemporary Americans are so very aware of, and interested in, Japan, while often being unable to find Korea on a map. (I mean aware of Japan prior to its becoming the site of the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl–interested in Japan’s culture and art, pop culture and music, fashion and history, and so on.) Benfey’s book traces the century-and-a-half of constant cultural interchange, intellectual/literary and economic exchange, and more that all stretch back to the moment when modern America and modern Japan were really taking shape in those places where literature, art, and culture were being generated that would form the basis of the modern canon. (We’re talking about Moby Dick here, for example, and the Meiji restoration.)

I think the book would, of course, drive home the fact that, no, Japan’s not more famous simply because its current publicity and advertising are better; that Korea’s getting a really good catchphrase or making better ads wouldn’t somehow magically make Korea a subject of interest to comparable numbers of Americans.

But more importantly, I think the book would also suggest that, if Korea wants to attain a prominence similar to that enjoyed by Japan, it would be wisest to consider it a long-term project, and to look elsewhere–to whoever is imagined likely to take the seat of global power when the American nation, like the British before it, has swept into unarguable decline, whenever indeed that happens (if it hasn’t already begun, that is). Perhaps it is India, or maybe China; perhaps Korea could play some part in which nation is likelier to prevail, or perhaps Korea might benefit from interchanges with both.

What will have to change first, though, is what the word “global” is taken to mean in everyday Korean discussions of the present and the future.

4 thoughts on “Global: What It Really Means in Korea

  1. I can’t even begin to speculate what will happen when the Americans get knocked off their perch, as it were, but my theory is that in any event, English is perhaps almost permanently entrenched as the worlds global language. It is arguably more flexible than other European languages with the seamless integration of loan words and the simplicity with which new compound words are constructed, and it is technology-friendly unlike languages such as Japanese or Chinese, which are more inconvenient to use with computers or mobile phones due to their pictographical nature. Then there is the fact that so much of the world’s combined intellectual knowledge – theses, medical and scientific journals etc – exists in English, in many cases exclusively. And perhaps most importantly, I think that English was simply in the right place at the right time; it was the language of the world’s global power when globalization became truly feasible.

    So I think that, rather unfortunately for my poor Korean friends and students, English is going to kick on long after the Chinese and the Indians have assumed control and divided the world up between them.

  2. baekgom84,

    All of that makes sense. I’m not exactly suggesting Koreans should start studying Hindi, since anyway, a lot of international business involving Indians and Chinese is conducted in English.

    But language aside, I think it’s an interesting point to consider, as I kind of consider some Koreans’ apparent desire for Korea to loom as large in the American imagination to be yet another case of fighting the wrong fight… kind of like how this whole ongoing push for tourism is pretty odd when you consider how costly flying could potentially become in, oh, twenty years or so. (Unless we get very efficient at extracting deep oil reserves, ban cars, or start flying nuclear planes or cheapo zeppelins… or discover free energy, which I doubt.)

  3. I particularly liked the link to the NYTimes writeup of “Homefront.” What a hilarious scenario (but credible all the same)that Koreans would elect Kim Jeongun president of a unified Korea and then invade Japan and the U.S…

    Credible because the video game’s scenario is based on an internal implosion of American political and economic power, coupled with waning influence over the mideast and its crucial energy resources. And that is quite arguably what we are seeing occur right now in 2011.

    Also credible because of the “swing” effect…if the next president of South Korea is Park Geunhae, the subsequent swing to the “left” might swing as far as Kim Jongeun…

    …meanwhile America would swing from the “left” (Obama) to the “right” (Palin) in the next election…

    I suppose to avert disaster we must somehow get these two countries synchronized in their political swings!

    At the same time, the scenario seemed to require an invasion of Korean commies to unleash copious fallout from Japan’s nuclear power plants but reality has proven that no such invasion is required.

    On the other hand, there are clear signs of Korea’s nascent linguistic imperialism. Koreans are positively ecstatic that Hangeul was chosen as the script of the Indonesian minority language Cia.

    Anyway, I love John Milius, I loved “Red Dawn” back in the 80s when it came out and I owned it on VHS format for awhile. “Red Dawn” sure did make me PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN.

    1. Bradley,

      I didn’t find the scenario very credible at all… amusing, yes, but credible, no. Then again, Red Dawn also seemed pretty incredible (in the sense of not-credible) to me, as far as I remember. You’re right, though, that we don’t need DPRK thugs to cause a nuclear disaster in Japan. An earthquake-prone country with all of its reactors on the coast, which are run by businessmen? I am beginning to suspect it was only a matter of time, to be honest.

      As for Korea’s political scene, I have very little positive to say about that except that it is quite reminiscent of the American system to me–which always reminded me of a football game where the winner gets to be boss of the school till the next game–except with even less free speech, even less tolerance, and it’s even more dependent on a broken education system staying broken. But, ha, “nascent linguistic imperialism.” Hahaha. The whole Cia adoption of Hangeul is just what it is, but the fact that some people were so pleased about it suggests Korea’s complex about its own recognition and significance in the world (or, at least, the Korean media’s complex about it) hasn’t improved much.

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