South End 'culture broker' turns focus toward Korea

Texas represents her beginnings, Seattle her introduction to diversity, France her 25-year love affair with its life-style, but recently Korea and its little understood culture has literally taken possession of the fascinating and multifaceted Laura Nelson of Rainier Valley. She is absolutely besotted with the food, the people and their crazy work hard/play hard mentality.

Nelson is never one to do things halfheartedly, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Her life's work has been dedicated to educating people, by learning a foreign language, to become a better world citizen.

Foreign language. Is it foreign because we don't understand? Or foreign because it is unknown and uncomfortable? When we do not understand a person's words, but they come from the mouth of a someone who principally looks like us and acts like us, we are not intimidated. But when the leap requires not only understanding the language but also the person's culture, the divide becomes an abyss.

Breaking down barriers

Nelson has taught French to Americans and English to foreigners, both here and abroad, and she has taught intermittently at the Seattle Language Academy since its inception in 1996.

A few years ago she began coaching a small group of business executives from the SK Corporation, currently one of Korea's biggest companies, who typically come for four months to immerse themselves in American culture and language. Five and half hours are dedicated daily to the classroom and then rounded out with organized activities such as a visit to local wineries, participation in Seattle's Earth Day celebrations, but best loved by all are the family visits, said Nelson. A meal with an American family gives the Koreans a glimpse into the real America and is a treasured experience.

It is interesting to note that SK pays entirely for their employee's stay in Seattle. The intimate knowledge gained about the American character, language and work ethic is viewed as a valuable resource by the Koreans. It is rare for an American corporation to send executives in depth study of another culture purely to have a better understanding. Consequently one can only imagine the terrible blunders we must make doing business or diplomacy when we have no concept of their day-to-day challenges and social dictates.

Ice breaking

Learning a foreign language can be the first small step to broadening our cultural awareness, and Seattle offers many opportunities. A good language instructor is less of a translator and more of an interpreter - a "cultural broker" is how Nelson prefers to see the role. Without such guidance we're apt to make social faux pas such as direct eye contact (uncomfortable for Koreans and many Asian cultures) or skipping such niceties, as "How are you Have you had lunch yet?" The question is always asked and does not imply a lunch date, but does necessitate the formal response, "Yes, how about you?" It is just a greeting.

Americans tend to be very direct in their speech, but Koreans use the collective "we" instead of "I" in a self effacing manner and couch their opinions in the more humble "As for me, I think..."

There are varying degrees of formality, depending on familiarity or difference of age, and respect for age is paramount. Gingerly a conversation might begin with "How old are you?" It's a neutral, formal greeting (as between work colleagues and acquaintances, but not friends) that immediately establishes a mutual understanding and determines the appropriate formality. Even if the person is only one year older, there will be a certain way of addressing him or her. The next question will be, "Are you married?" and after that, "How many children do you have?"

Imagine if these same questions were posed in an American social setting. We would find it very off-putting.

A Korean's day

The average middle management executive in Korea starts the workday at 8 a.m. and would never dream of leaving the office before his or her boss. Office politics also includes after work socialization, which consists of dinner in one place, singing and drinking in another followed by a nightcap at a third. Korean rush hour is at 11 p.m.

Their children go to school between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to then go on to an after-school program, which starts at 5 p.m. and finishes at 11 p.m.

Nelson says that a popular saying amongst mothers, who are deeply invested in their child's education, is "Five hours of sleep, you fail. Four hours of sleep, you pass."

Beyond differences

Hierarchy is often perceived as negative in America, but Korean culture is layered in it. Age determines hierarchy and its purpose is to underline obligations. Nelson notes that the young owe the elders deference, and the seniors owe the young protection.

So, language is only part of the puzzle. We can settle for a set of CD's and accept the symbolic, twice weekly language lessons currently taught in our schools as enough.

Or we can start thinking about the bigger picture. That is, how American culture and values fit with the rest of the world and try to learn more about their culture and language. We could blithely roll along as we do now and continue to ask why when other cultures make it patently clear that they resent us, or we could look at life from their worldview.

To begin to understand the Korean's view of self and their place and importance in life, American's need look no further than a mailed letter: An American envelope address starts with name, neighborhood, state, and then country. But a Korean envelope address begins with country fist, followed by state and neighborhood and, lastly, an individual's name.

Mount Baker writer Jacqui James may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]