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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.

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