Monday, August 2, 2010

Summer Research in South Korea

Justin Collier
MA Candidate (2010)

It is an exciting time to study Asia! If you are able to actually study in Asia you should consider yourself most fortunate. Thanks to George Washington University’s Sigur Center’s Field Research Grant, I was one of those lucky people. I was afforded the opportunity to conduct my research in South Korea this summer (2010). I will get to my research a little later first I want to take the time to make a quick plug for studying in Asia. On average about 250,000 American students study abroad every year, which is astounding considering that this number has quadrupled in the past 20 years. Interestingly, despite consistent annual increases in study abroad in Asia, notably China, American students still overwhelming prefer to study in Europe. In fact, nearly half of the students that study abroad, study in Western Europe. The rest of the students are divided up between Latin America, Australia and Asia (mostly China and Japan). By contrast, the largest numbers of international students, studying in the US, overwhelmingly come from Asia. In fact according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report, of the top 5 countries who study abroad in the US are:
1 India
2 China
3 South Korea
4 Canada
5 Japan
(with Taiwan running a not so distant 6th)
This is significant because the world’s economic power is rapidly shifting to Asia. For the fast-growing countries of East Asia and South Asia, there is a continuing opportunity for rapid growth. Some economic calculations suggest that, under sensible assumptions, Asia’s share in world GDP could grow to more than half of the world economy over the next thirty years. In layman’s terms the party is going to be in Asia and if this is indeed a globalized world it would be in the US’ best interests to have a working knowledge of the histories, cultures, politics and languages of this dynamic region. For now, sadly, it is a one way street, with Asian students, in large numbers, studying in the US and learning English (sometimes with great difficulty) and American students often choosing the comfortable and the culturally familiar.
So to future study abroad students, try Asia! Sure learning Korean is not the easiest language you can choose, (although it is not as difficult as you might think). Sure, the Thai climate, especially in summer, may leave you a sweaty mess. It may be a new and uncomfortable experience to be the only person that looks like you on the subway car in Taipei. Living in Tokyo may be more difficult than living in London particularly for an American. However, should you choose to go to Asia, I guarantee it will change your life forever.
(Steps down from soapbox)
I went to South Korea for two months this summer to conduct my research on Asian Regional Community. I am interested in whether or not shared socio-cultural factors can serve to create an economic and political union in Asia similar to the European Union. I tried to understand such daunting questions as: “What is Asia?”or “Who are considered to be Asians?” I chose South Korea for many reasons, none the least of which being its strong sense of national pride and unity. I figure, perhaps rather naively, that if the idea of regional community has legs in South Korea then conceivably it may in other countries as well. This was not my first trip to South Korea. I worked as an English instructor in Pusan, South Korea’s 2nd largest city. Pusan is located in the peninsula’s southeast tip, it is a city divided by mountains with roughly 4 million inhabitants. With all the sunshine and numerous beaches it isn’t hard to figure out why so many Koreans holiday there. People often try to draw some comparison between Pusan and LA or Miami but it really isn’t fair to do so. For risk of sounding cliché, Pusan really is a very unique piece of Korea. Don’t get me wrong, Seoul is an extraordinary city and it is a true testament to the South Korean economic miracle and any visitor to South Korea should try to spend significant time there. With its numerous skyscrapers, copious palaces and temples, hip, cosmopolitan citizens, and (of course) the infamous demilitarized zone, Seoul is often the destination of choice for most visitors. It is the seat of government and culture for South Korea, after all. Walking around one of the trendy, fashion conscious, pristine, upscale districts of Gangnam like Apkujongdong (or even across the Han river at City Hall and Myeongdong) you can quickly forget that you are in Korea at all. However, I chose Pusan because it is not cosmopolitan (people openly gawk at foreigners on the street), it doesn’t have all the skyscrapers or a DMZ but nowhere in its sprawling streets will you ever forget that you are in Korea. Pusan is just different. It is a city settled and designed by the Japanese, Pusan people speak a special dialect which is much different from what is heard in Seoul and politically they have very distinct political views and have proven to be influential throughout Korean political history. In short Pusan in not Seoul and may therefore (I hope) provide my research with some regional diversity of thought.
If you want to survey South Korean people it is important to factor in the regional differences. So, although I was based in Pusan, I traveled to Seoul and also to Kwangju (in Jeolla province and is unique in its own right) surveying university students in each city. Needless to say during summer it is not easy to find students on any college campus in the world and Korea was no different. Nevertheless, I was able survey nearly 70 Korean students. I, also, interviewed some faculty and journalist, not only about my research topic but international relations, gender issues and Korean nationalism. Speaking of nationalism, the World Cup in South Africa had just kicked off when I arrived and Korea was a wash in a sea of red, red being the color of the Korean men’s national soccer team. Every store and street kiosk was draped in red and the Korean flag was EVERYWHERE! You could hardly turn on the TV without seeing some actor or singers singing national soccer fight songs and cheering on their team. On game day everyone (well almost everyone) was wearing red and chanting: “Daehan Minguk!!!” or other songs to cheer on their team, affectionately known as the “Red Devils”. This was particularly impressive since the games usually were broadcast in the early hours of the morning. Visiting Korea during a World Cup is an experience unto itself and once you have experienced it you will have a little “Red Devil” in you.
All in all I enjoy myself when I visit South Korea. This isn’t to say everything in Korea is great. The suicide rate is high, nationalism can be extreme bordering on intimidating, people work too hard, binge drinking and chain smoking is a ubiquitous way of life and women are still struggling to be on equal footing with men. Nevertheless, all countries have their issues and these things should not dissuade anyone from visiting. Nestled between two giants and a short train ride away from its mortal enemy it is the perfect place for the aspiring Asia scholar to study politics business and culture. As I said before, the party is going to be in Asia and Korea is right in the thick of it. So, go to Korea, bring your open mind and you will leave a part of yourself. What you will get in exchange is a piece of Korea.

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