There are cultural divides that we sometimes have a hard time wrapping our heads around. A good example of this is the American vs. Korean understanding of slavery. Slavery is a defining aspect of American culture, and we learn at a very young age about the dangers of slavery and the effect it has had on African American communities (primarily). That is, at least, my experience with slavery. Meanwhile, the Korean children we are teaching have seemingly little to no comprehension of slavery.
The other new instructor at our school is teaching a class on “Spies of the American Civil War” and during his class he had to explain what the word slavery meant. He told me that he asked the class if slaves could leave at any time…they said yes…he said no. He asked if slaves were paid…they said yes…he said no. They weren’t sure what it meant to be a slave, and that could be because they are unfamiliar with the English word, but we are also teaching a group of people who are young, very wealthy, and don’t discuss the topic of slavery in their daily lives like we do as Americans.
For the South Koreas, slavery isn’t a particularly racial issue. It wasn’t something one race forced upon another in the same culture at a point in recent memory. When the instructor asked his class if Korea ever had slaves and they replied with a confident no, they were probably both right and wrong. South Korea likely didn’t have the American version of slaves, but it does have forms of slavery (like the US) today.
There is a certain animosity many South Koreans hold toward Japan that largely stems from World War II, and I’m not completely sure how many of the children in our classes understand exactly why. A statue of a young girl sits across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul, and old women protest outside the building regularly…because of slavery. The Japanese would take “Comfort Women” from the local populations to have sex with Japanese soldiers. The women were not paid, they couldn’t leave when they wanted to, and they were definitely slaves.
Today, sex trafficking is the most common form of slavery across the world. There is sex trafficking in the USA and there is sex trafficking in South Korea. This isn’t really a topic I feel we could bring up to the kids. It’s kind of adult. I would be happy to talk to children about it, but I’m not confident their parents would find it appropriate – “I sent Billy to your school to learn about English, not sex trafficking.” You could probably get away with it in the highest level classes, provided it related to the topic, of course.
Frankly though, I don’t think these kids care that much about slavery or sex trafficking. They’re rich middle-schoolers in South Korea. The material we teach is interesting and surprisingly deep, but it’s really just meant to help them learn English. We teach words, pattern recognition, and skimming, not sociology. But I never imagined it would be hard to explain slavery to a student, even in another language. “What’s wrong with you, Billy? Ain’t ‘chu’ever seen Roots?!”