Due to some strange timing, during every presidental election in which I have been an eligible voter, I have been living out of the country. In 2008, I was living in London for my semester abroad and I was seriously worried to go outdoors if Obama was not elected. There would have been rioting in the streets. Americans were not safe. (Okay, that is maybe a little dramatic, but England was seriously pro-Obama.) The morning after he was elected, one of the papers read "The Day America Got a Little Bit Cooler."
But the world, and my world, has changed a bit since 2008. Here we are again, on the brink of a presidental election, and I again have the opportunity to see how the rest of the world views this particular American occasion. Being in England during the last election was unique because of the close relationship between Britain and America. Britains were very well informed and quite passionate about the results because they were to be directly affected by the decision in so many ways. Now, here in Korea, I am having a completely different experience learning about the election through the eyes the Korean people.
(Now, I completely understand that everyone has their own opinion about this topic and that topic in American politics. I hope no one is offended or annoyed. This is simply my story of what I have experienced in my own little corner of Korea. Politics can bring out the best and the worst in people, I have quite often found. If you agree, great. If you disagree, great. That's what America is all about. )
So, my story begins about two weeks ago. A new semester began at the hagwon I teach at in Gwangju. If I haven't properly explained this already, please let me do so now. A hagwon is a private academy that Korean students attend after their regular Korean school during the morning hours. My hagwon operates from about 2:00 in the afternoon until around 10:00 at night. The day begins with young, kindergarten-age students and ends with high-school-age students, so as a teacher, we see them all everyday. The foreign teachers tend to be more focused on one age group, but we all teach a little of everything. Most of the time I work with young kids, but this semester I was giving a class of students that are Nokjiwon level- meaning the highest ability level. These students are pretty-well fluent. And they are bright. They are, by far, the smartest students at the academy.
The class I was assigned to teach is a current events and global issues class. The class material: Time Magazine. Basically what we do in the class is discuss the global topics that are presented in each issue. They read the articles, I create worksheets to accompany the articles, and they occasionally write essays or give speeches. Then, during class, we discuss. And the students are loving it. It is the first semester they have included this particular class in the curriculum, and so far it is definitely so good.
The current issue of Time Magazine is the GOP issue. Mitt is on the cover, there is an interview with Paul Ryan, etc. Now, while these are the best and brightest students in the school, that doesn't necessarily mean they have a complete understanding of the United States political system and it's parties (Heck, neither do I), so the last few classes have focused on Democrats versus Republicans. As an assignment, they were told to research the US political parties, and then write an essay about which party they felt they agreed with the most. And SHOCKER: Every single student sided with the Democratic party. The biggest and most identified with topic was the taxation policies for each party. They students frequently argued against a flat tax rate, stating that the wealthy should have to pay higher taxes to help support those with less. One student even said that a flat tax rate only causes "the rich to stay rich and the poor to stay poor."
Now, before anyone gets upset or clicks the X on the top-right corner of their screen, let's be reminded of the situation. I didn't interview Lee Myung-Bak. I asked a group of 14-17 year-olds their opinion. AND I asked a group of 14-17 year-olds their opinion after spending two weeks discussing American politics with a teacher that (SHOCKER) leans a bit left of center. So we can take these facts and figures with a grain of salt, or two.
What is interesting are the comparisons the students have begun making between the differences in the US party system and the Korean politcal world. As we discussed all the hot-button topics in America: abortion, gay marriage, military spending and force, taxes, the death penalty, etc, the students have been enlightening me on Korean policy and thinking about some of these same topics. Some examples: Abortion is illegal in Korea. Homosexuality exists (obviously) but it is hush-hush and certainly not a legal marriage right. Korean men are mandated to serve in the military and are not financial rewarded for doing so. It is a duty, not a job. While I've been teaching them, they have been teaching me a whole lot as well.
I have this class through the month of December, so as the students are more and more informed, it will be interesting to see how their opinions develop and if they change. The next issue of Time Magazine is the Democratic issue (I think....). On election day in the States, we are having our own mock election. If their first essays are any indicator of the outcome, I think it will be a landslide. Although it is my goal in the coming weeks before the real election to show the students both sides of the story more thoroughly. I hope that they know all of the facts before picking a side or a candidate.
What I, personally, have learned so far through teaching this class is just how influential the United States election is internationally. As Americans, we sometimes forget how much the world is watching us. Through the other foreigners I have met here-whether they be from Canada, the UK, or even other Koreans- I have found they are so much more informed and aware of international news and politics than most Americans. How many American school children can name the Prime Minister of Britain? or the Prime Minister of Canada? How many of you knew who Lee Myung-Bak is when I mentioned him earlier? Not many I imagine. But I can confirm to you that every single child I have met in Korea knows exactly who Barack Obama is, and most of them are well aware of who Mitt Romney is.
I am as guilty as anyone, but I have made it a personal goal of mine to improve on this front. I want everyone, myself included, to work towards being a global citizen. Don't let the American citizen stamp on your birth certificate make you arrogant or ignorant- and there is a fine line between the two. Whatever conclusions your draw are your own. Watch the news, read the paper, and pay attention to the international community. Because, believe me, they are paying attention to you.
"May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young" ~Bob Dylan:)