A month into my Deerfield career, I met a new classmate. We’d said hi a few times before, but this was my first time really talking to her, face-to-face. But when I said that I was from South Korea, her face suddenly darkened as if I’d just delivered some horrible news. She then launched into an interrogation, questioning me about North Korea, the nuclear bomb threat, and Kim Jong-Un.
This unbelievable chain of questions followed me throughout the next few weeks. When I talked about South Korea, this friend disregarded my story and flipped the topic to North Korea. She asked questions like, “So…are you guys still at war or something?” or, “But how do we know what he (Kim Jong Un) is thinking?” All I could do at that moment was to concede and explain to her that we were still technically at war. The last conflict between the two Koreas was in 1953, when we entered an armistice to cease the fighting – causing the war to be considered as ongoing only due to the lack of a formal peace treaty. When I told her about the DMZ — the “demilitarized” zone dividing North Korea from South Korea — it was clear that she couldn’t believe such a thing still existed in the world.
America’s blissful ignorance to the world beyond headlines is, frankly, frustrating, and I was at a loss of words when my classmate painted a chimerical picture of an apocalyptic Korea in her head, and tried to describe what my home was like to me.
Many people here believe that I live in constant fear of North Korea; they take the largest, most sensationalized issue about Korea and they equate it to the country, its culture, and the Korean experience as a whole. Although a North Korean nuclear threat is certainly a major global security issue, it does not define my entire life or my identity as a Korean. South Korea is the hotspot of fast WiFi and food delivery, and the home of globally loved K-Pop and breathtaking skylines. When I’m at home, I watch movies with my family, shop in department stores and lay on the beach; I do not constantly think about whether my life is on the line. My memories of Korea are filled with nothing but idyllic happiness and peace. The North is merely a small part of the everyday lives of South Koreans, aside from occasional empty threats; it does not influence our daily lifestyle, nor become a persistent source of anxiety.
Although I appreciated the attention and curiosity my friends showed towards North Korea, I was often seen as an outsider, as if I was some refugee from a war-torn country. I, and the majority of South Koreans, most definitely do not live our everyday lives fearing North Korea or mulling over whether Kim Jong Un will drop a nuclear bomb on us. It’s frustrating to think that, no matter how much time passes and the world progresses, Korea is still seen as a land fraught with dangers.
This toxic cultural exposure is not an aberrant phenomenon, despite Deerfield’s policy of cultural acceptance. In fact, it’s quite commonplace. My friend from Hong Kong also raised concerns when people would ask her about the protests. She did not really want to talk about it, and despite the wide international publicity they were drawing, the Hong Kong protests didn’t have an all-consuming influence on her day-to-day life. She even found that she disagreed with some of the ideals that protesters were espousing. But it was hard to express her story in a foreign country, especially when people simply accepted reports by mainstream media as the absolute truth about Hong Kong.
The problem is that when we are introduced to new cultures or countries, we focus on the predominantly reported issue — whether that be nuclear threats, K-Pop, or protests — and blindly build assumptions based on popular media coverage. The way the U.S. and South Korea cover North Korea on the news are very different. South Korean media outlets like Hankyoreh News do publish occasional articles on the nuclear threat that North Korea poses, but it has much more on the pain of separation, prospects of reunification, and Korean leaders who work towards bringing about peace and fostering love on the peninsula. US outlets like the New York Times have none of that; all of their articles are focused on North Korea’s new missiles, shootings, and propaganda. Kim Jong-Un is highly sensationalized in the U.S. news, which excessively hangs onto his every word, and even goes to the extent of attempting to analyze his physical and mental conditions as seen earlier this year.
When limited to such a narrow outlook of North Korea, many students here do not venture out of their scopes of understanding to broaden their knowledge by actually listening to people from those cultures or countries. This negative mindset is one that the Deerfield community at large could, and should improve upon.
Some informal changes could start from a shift in the nature of intercultural conversations between friends or in class settings. In my own discussion with my friend, I would have appreciated it more if she had asked more open-ended questions first, like “What is Korea like?”, “What was your childhood like?” or “How is it different from here?” instead of approaching the subject in a rather one-sided way. Respecting the answers that are given, and trusting that people are experts of their own truths, are also important.
There are many possible solutions the administration can undertake to help facilitate intercultural understanding and fruitful, civilized discussions. This may include introducing a mandatory course on cultural awareness and media, which focus on the often pernicious nature of news reporting of global affairs. Students or teachers who live in countries that face these issues could share their own anecdotes with the school community. Out of the D-Term journey options, courses like “Propaganda & Politics: A look inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and “Media and the Informed Electorate” will provide great opportunities to explore North Korea, and how media shapes our opinion in the 21st century.
As for in-class solutions, I think that History classes are ideal spaces to discuss these cultural issues. Recently, in my European History class, we delved into the topic of European imperialism. My international peers and I had a chance to talk about how our cultural identities were suppressed in the British educational system, which restricted the use of our mother tongue and celebration of our national holidays. Learning how other countries existed in relation to Europe was a refreshing turn from the decidedly eurocentric lens we were viewing history through. Broadening students’ worldview of historical and present events by taking the time to listen to such personal anecdotes could help improve the attitudes of Deerfield students when interacting with students of different cultures or ethnic backgrounds.
Individually, students could attend club or alliance meetings on current events and take responsibility in keeping updated with global news on a deeper level. Students ought to know that what is broadcasted on the media does not necessarily account for what is happening in other countries.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t dismiss each others’ stories. Everyone has personalized experiences and opinions; as long as Deerfield remains a multicultural campus, it is vital that we respect one another and seek to listen and learn.