Going global means being global: The Korea Herald columnist

Samsung apartment buildings are seen before the city skyline of Seoul, on Aug 25, 2017.
Samsung apartment buildings are seen before the city skyline of Seoul, on Aug 25, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Today, Korea is well known and Koreans are popular overseas thanks to Hallyu and cutting-edge technology represented by Samsung, LG and Hyundai.

Nevertheless, sometimes Koreans are not welcomed by the international community due to their ignorance of and indifference to global standards. In the eyes of foreigners, Koreans tend to stubbornly stick to their own standards, closing their eyes to radical changes taking place in the world.

For example, we persistently keep using the wrong expression "Korea passing," instead of "Korea has been passed over," turning a deaf ear to friendly advice from other countries that it sounds awkward.

We bluntly mutter, "Never mind. We'll do it our way."

We also chant, "Urisiguro" or "in our own way" and "Urikkiri" or "we flock together."

But we do not exist alone; we live in a global village now and should follow global standards.

Our prejudice against foreigners and outsiders, too, does not fit global standards. So does our bias against physically challenged people.

Our antagonism toward those who are different from us or our violence toward those who are weaker than us is a shame. Yet many of us exhibit hostility toward "the others" and discriminate against them.

Foreigners often lament the lack of public etiquette in Korean society.

Recently, a foreigner wrote me, "If Koreans trusted each other to be more considerate, Koreans would give each other a higher quality of life." For example, not taking two seats on a crowded bus or subway because others would not do that or not blocking the intersection at red lights because others wouldn't do that either.

According to global standards, Koreans appear selfish and Korean drivers are notorious. But we assume it is all right, for we believe we behave in accordance with Korean standards. However, we will lose respect from foreigners if we keep ignoring global standards.

Foreigners also point out that in Korea there are too many rules and regulations, and yet law is not enforced strictly.

Naturally, Koreans tend not to be law-abiding.

Indeed, who is afraid of the law if it is not enforced properly? Likewise, the above-mentioned foreign reader continued, "If there were a national police campaign to respect red lights, and yellow lines for parking, fines would cause people to change their behaviour."

Foreigners also point out that Koreans tend to be impetuous, impulsive, and easily get emotional. Indeed, it is undeniable that we are more hot-tempered than calm and more emotional than rational.

Even grown-ups, including our political leaders, frequently shed tears in public. Human beings receive education in order to suppress their emotions. In the case of the Koreans, however, their instinct almost always overrides their education. Or our education revolves only around acquiring skills to pass exams and getting good grades at exams.

If you are impetuous and impulsive, and act accordingly, you may look immature and rude, especially in the eyes of foreigners. But Koreans do not seem to realise it partly because they do not attach stigma to being emotional and partly because they mistake being horrendous and yelling at others as manly behaviour.

However, being too emotional is undeniably a flaw and exposes one's immaturity in global standards.

Recently, I attended an international conference held in a local city and had an embarrassing experience. I was in a session where poets read their own poems and foreign translators read it in their own languages.

When a poet was reading his poem, someone from the floor shouted, "The poem is too long!" When the poet ignored him, he yelled again, "How come the poem is so long?"

I was as embarrassed as I could be. He was shameless and did not have any respect or courtesy for the invited poet, and yet he seemed to think of himself as manly.

When a poetess read one of her poems, suddenly, another man bluntly protested to the poetess, "You have insulted my hometown in your poem!"

I was appalled at this incredible rudeness and despaired at the unbearable shallowness of the person.

The rude man did not seem to understand the underlying theme of the poem which was about the agonies of writing in this shallow age.

The poem had nothing to do with insulting a place. Besides, the poetess was writing about her own hometown, which means she had the right to be critical about the city, if necessary. It was quite an embarrassing moment in front of foreign translators and an international audience.

Korea is no longer an invisible country. Our economy is the 12th or 13th largest in the world and our trade ranking is eighth.

In order to truly become an advanced county and a member of the global village, Korea should follow global standards.

If we are stuck on Korean standards only, we will be isolated and passed over in the international community and even bullied by our neighbouring countries.

Surely that is not what we want or deserve.


The writer is professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.