What Freedom Means in America vs. Korea

4th of July in Korea

This year marks the first time I’ve ever celebrated Independence Day outside of the US of A. Luckily, there are quite a few Americans here that were equally as excited to show their American pride.

We cleaned out the stock of Budweiser and roman candles at our local shops, barbequed a plethora of hot dogs, set off fireworks on the roof (shouting various Harry Potter spells, of course, whilst holding our wand-like roman candles that shot out sparks – “Lumos!” “Avada Kedavra!” “EXPECTO PATRONUM!”), paraded around in red, white and blue clothes and American-flag-capes, all while singing along to the non-stop patriotic/country jams we blasted.

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I did a lesson on the 4th of July for my after school class and talked about our traditions in America – barbeques, fireworks, family time, etc. After going over the basic festivities, I talked about why we celebrate the 4th of July. Not the original reason – becoming independent from Great Britain, but why we have national pride – and what national pride is.

I had a slide entitled “National Pride” and I asked “What does being American mean to me? What does being Korean mean to you?” I didn’t really think about it while I was planning the lesson but when I talked about it with the class, I gained a better understanding of my answer. Being American means that I have the freedom of speech, freedom of self expression and a whole lot of other “freedom of’s”. Sure, it’s limited to a point and many Americans will even argue that the government is slowly taking away certain rights, but we have way more freedoms than most countries.

Take DOMA/Prop 8 for example, people are livid because they feel like voting doesn’t matter anymore. California voted on Prop 8 in 2008 and it passed. It got appealed and went to the Supreme Court where it was overturned. So people are claiming that our right to vote is pretty much just bullshit. I can see why people are upset – because I’d be just as upset if it were the opposite – and the only thing left to blame or be angry with is the System.

Regardless, my point is that we have this government in place which, although it may have its flaws, is still a pretty damn good system. An example I gave my kids is to pretend we were in North Korea. If you said “I hate Kim Jong Eun“, what would happened? My students’ eyes bulged and one girl slid her pointer-finger across her neck. Exactly.

If I was in America and told everybody I hated Obama (which wouldn’t be uncommon for some), then what would happen? “Nothing!” my students shouted.

Yes, comparing the US to North Korea is kind of a ridiculous example, but we often take our rights for granted and comparing it to a communist country might give you a little bit of perspective. We’re so lucky that we are able to be a part of the law-making in America. If those couples hadn’t sued, gay marriage would still be illegal in California. We are given so many freedoms that not every country can say they have.

My 4th of July lesson was an intro to a project I’m doing with my kids called “Korean Students Speak“. (I’ve posted a few pictures from this project on another post – “I’m Suffering Now”) Basically, the project is to promote self expression from these kids who rarely show or say how they feel. They write about different topics, like school, family, war, etc, and then pose with their poster, which then goes onto the website.

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Not only do we have the freedom of self expression in the US, but it’s encouraged. We’re not just allowed to be individuals – America fosters individualism and having pride in who you are. People in South Korea may have freedom of speech as well (although I’m sure it’s a bit more limited), but they aren’t encouraged to apply this freedom to expressing themselves as individuals.

I’ve only started this project with my after school class but I’ll be doing it with the rest of my 800 students starting next week. It was a hard concept for them to grasp at first, but I’m hoping at least some of them will be able to benefit from the project.

I’ve said it a hundred times and I’m sure I’ll say it a few hundred times more – but being away from America really makes me appreciate it so much more. As Americans, we were essentially born privileged and so we grow up having this sense of entitlement. We expect things to work a certain way. We expect our employers to be fair because it’s “the law”. We expect to be treated without discrimination or prejudice because of the 14th amendment. We expect the businesses we walk into to operate properly and efficiently and for every employee to be exceptionally helpful and kind. We expect our servers at restaurants to be competent or else we’ll complain to the manager. We expect a lot. And aside from a few experiences every now and then, our expectations are met.

In other countries (ahem*Korea*ahem), your employer might screw you over and do something against your contract, but the higher ups will side with them. You might not be able to go into clubs because of your race. You might go into a restaurant and receive the wrong food but are forced to pay for it anyway. And people here don’t mind because that’s just how it is. They don’t have the same expectations we do.

On one hand, this means that people are a lot nicer here because they don’t go complaining to managers just because their lemonade doesn’t have enough ice in it. On the other hand, not having expectations means that there aren’t standards to meet, which means things don’t necessarily improve.

My apologies if this post is sounding a bit ethnocentric. I guess it’s just that ‘Murican pride ;). I’m still adjusting to this culture and it’s fascinating observing the differences and seeing why cultures are the way they are. You also gain better insight on why your own country is the way it is too.

We make the mistake of comparing everything to our own country – “well in America, if the server brings us the wrong food, we wouldn’t have to pay for it and we’d probably get a free meal out of it too!”. That is the definition of “ethnocentrism” after all: judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture.

Like I said, I’m still learning. I do miss my country but I wouldn’t appreciate it nearly as much if I wasn’t looking at it all the way from here in Korea :).

‘Merica!!!

(fuck yeah!)

Oh and sorry for the longest post everrr.

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  1. Ceri says: Reply

    I think we all definitely take a lot for granted and living in a country that’s completely different really opens our eyes to everything. Another country’s way of doing things isn’t wrong, it’s just different, and I think way too many people are still so quick to judge.

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