As some of you may know, I am attempting to learn Korean in Korea.
I thought my program would be filled with students like me, American-Born Koreans wholly incapable of putting Korean sentences together without looking like a fool. Nonetheless, I’ve realized the program is quite diverse as there are a ton of Japanese/Chinese/Other Asian people, as well as the rare few from other nations. I’ve broken down some of the different people I’ve come across.
1) Studious Japanese Girl
This girl will kick your ass if you are in a class with her. Don’t let the cute demeanor, Hello Kitty pencil case or deferential nature fool you; this girl probably speaks Korean better than my aunt in Seoul. When she smiles, says an impeccable “Anyonghasaeyo” and gives you the peace sign, run, don’t walk, and beg to be put in a different class. She will bow and apologize to the teacher for coming in two minutes early.
Note-taking is hurried but impeccably neat, bad jokes by the teacher are politely giggled at (one hand covering mouth, other hand covering skirt), and rote memorization of data is done at a pace that rivals your latest PC computer. She is the praying mantis of exchange students, except after she eats you up in reading, writing and speaking she’ll bow dutifully and say “arigato goizaimasu” to you as you lay there stunned and defeated. There are no atheists in a classroom with the SJG. She is an unstoppable force of academic might and is probably the reason why you lazily watch football on a crystal clear Sony, cruise comfortably in a Honda Accord and why you have sudden subliminal urges to to obey Lord Hirohito and destroy Westerners.
2) The WTF are you wearing.
(I know he’s Korean……)
Usually from Japan/China, this guy has pants that are tighter than those of your girlfriend. His hair is a different style everyday and always has a streak of coloring. Most of this guys time is spent either borrowing his friends mirror or in the bathroom making sure every strand of hair is is perfectly in place. Wearing of non-flamboyant shirts seem impossible as some combination of swooping V-necks, tight pink, jean shirts are in place. Belt buckle is extremely ostentatious and this man can accessorize better than your Hannah Montana-watching adolescent girl.
Girls are even more confusing. Glasses larger than the face, black and white striped shirt, yellow colored beret, jean miniskirt over green colored stockings, pink boots. Next day, more ill-matching attire and accessories, which makes even Lady Gaga cry WTF. This phenomena can only be explained if you were to tell me her daily attire is randomly chosen by Andrea Bocelli at a Salvation Army outlet. Rule of thumb seems to be, if it matches, don’t wear it together.
3) Freakin’ White guy
(Forgive me, I know the pic shows a Japanese flag)
Most are from the US. No real reason for them to be here. I see around 50 white dudes and 2 white girls. If the businesses they worked for really needed their employees to learn Korean, I am sure they don’t need only their male employees to learn the language. For this, I am highly suspicious of their motives. Most of them when asked why they are here give your token, “I enjoy Korean culture and cuisine” and smile. This is of course a lie, for he could kill two dogs, i mean, birds with one stone by eating bosintang.
Realistically, his presence is a natural response to the economic phenomena known as “Supply and Demand”. Korea provides an endless supply of Korean women that he demands. Thus his countenance rivals that of an unneutered bulldog at the Westminster Dog Show and is essentially walking around with a sign that says, “I have U.S. citizenship”. Korean aptitude is surprisingly strong for a “gringo” though not at all surprising once your realize this gentleman was also a chairmen of his respective school’s KSA.
4) American-born Korean tough guy
(I have no idea who this guy is, poor dude)
If any of you live in an area that has more than a few Koreans, you know who I am talking about as they have probably picked fights with your parents, baby sister or wheelchair-bound grandmother. For those who don’t know, the only way I can describe it is if you took the personalities of the guys on the Jersey Shore and put them in the bodies of skinny Korean kids who are trying too hard. Smoking cigarettes and saying the word “Fuck” seems to be their form of sustenance as only this can seem to explain why both are done with such frequency and conviction. For some, Korea seems to be their last outlet for redemption. Living in America for all their life seems not to be a sufficient condition for them to learn proper English. Thus they are in desperate search for job qualifications other than demeaning women and picking fights with people. Others, are here chilling out and looking for a party every night hoping that this program is actually the “Loveboat” their friends (who attended in the past) told them about. This second variety though is rare this time around, as most come during the summer after the semester is over at school. Korean aptitude is usually poor and nonfunctional except in a setting when ordering drinks or asking a girl for her number.
As I have told a couple of my friends, the Korean formula for success in school has been remarkably simple: Hagwon and Beatdowns. Rote learning and repetition followed with discipline if anyone gets out of hand. Screw the carrot, just stick please. The second part is self-explanatory on why it works, lets go back to the first.
Koreans are notorious for their obsession with after-school school, otherwise known as hagwon. The premise is simple: as long as I give my child enough of a leg up against the competition he will be able to differentiate himself from the pack and emerge victorious.
Except not so fast, you see this is what we call a prisoner’s dilemma…..(I actually did really poorly in game theory, so this could be total bull$#!t)
Ok quick prisoner’s dilemma lesson per Wiki:
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?
|Prisoner B Stays Silent||Prisoner B Rats|
|Prisoner A Stays Silent||Each serves 6 months||Prisoner A: 10 years
Prisoner B: goes free
|Prisoner A Rats||Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 10 years
|Each serves 5 years|
The prisoners should of course both stay quiet and get their 6 months before they commit more crimes again. Unfortunately, each has an incentive to rat on the other guy. To put it simply, regardless of the other prisoner’s behavior one’s own individual utility is maximized by ratting on the other guy. If he rats, I can rat and get 5 or I can stay silent and get 10. If he doesnt rat, I can rat and go free or I can stay silent and get 6 months. Thus the expected outcome of this game or “Nash Equilibrium” is for both to rat on the other. (Notice how this fares the prisoners a worse outcome than if they both stayed quiet)
Now of course this “game” is not that problematic if we are actually talking about two felons here. But what if they are innocent? Both have incentives to rat on the other. It becomes rather unfortunate when this dilemma rears its ugly head elsewhere too. Let’s rephrase this scenario a bit:
Two Asian mothers are trying their best to get their kid into a top-tier school. Each parent has discussed the notion of increasing their child’s workload at a hagwon. If one tutors (defects from the other) and the other chills out a bit (cooperates with the other), the tutored kid will get a leg up on the other kid. If both remain silent, both moms will have saved a lot of money. If both choose to tutor, each will lose a lot of money. Each mom must choose to tutor or chill out. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the tutoring before they sign up. How should the mother’s act?
|Mom B chills out||Mom B tutors|
|Mom A chills out||Kids maintain relative performance||Kid B gets a leg up
Kid A plays catch up
|Mom A tutors||Kid A gets a leg up
Kid B plays catch up
|Kids maintain relative performance
Mom’s lose a whole bunch of cash
OK, this model is not perfect, (for one, this is a much larger game with more than two players, the payoffs might also differ in a few ways) but it should serve as a starting point in this debate. We can discuss the nitty-gritty later.
Within the context of this game, each mom has the incentive to tutor their kid no matter what the other mom does. As long as mom’s are more obsessed with making sure their kid can get a leg up on the other, the strategy of tutoring your kid will be always be played. This of course leads to a Nash equilibrium of a lot of Asian moms just wasting a bunch of cash.
How can I say this, doesn’t this affect everyone’s kids? Well yes and no, the important thing to remember is how Asian students are viewed within the context of college admissions. This is not a post on the merits/problems of affirmative action, nor do I want it to deviate into one. On the basis of scores alone, Asian students would fill nearly four out of every five places in the admitted class not taken by African-American and Hispanic students. Again, I don’t care about arguing affirmative action right now (dont think removing AA would change this game either, nor do I think it should necessarily be removed), I am more concerned about the decision making of parents within the context of this game. In this case, since relative performance within race matters, this scenario is more painful to watch. Whether we examine SAT scores, GPAs or number of AP’s taken, if the median benchmark for Asians is simply shifting higher no one ends up at a better place than before.
Well, you could argue, “BDK, its better for these kids anyways since they are getting smarter, so it’s not a waste of cash”. I beg to differ. One concerned mother told me about the dilemma she has for her kid. She stated that her 8th grade son Mikey needed to take summer geometry course before he took geometry. The last time when he took algebra II, everyone else at his school had already taken algebra II in the summer. Mikey said himself, “everyone else was sleeping through class, while I was struggling to follow the teacher.” I would argue that these other parents are doing a disservice to their kids in the future by not providing proper study habits. Nobody needed to take this summer class, but again it gave a leg up. This is also an epidemic with parents who find their kids “struggling”. Instead of teaching their kids to hash it out on their own for better or for worse, a grade lower than a A automatically prompts a tutor.
Per this Atlantic article on How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America:
“The ability to persevere and keep going” is “a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem.” She (Jean Twenge) worries that many young people might be inclined to simply give up in this job market. “You’d think if people are more individualistic, they’d be more independent,” she told me. “But it’s not really true. There’s an element of entitlement—they expect people to figure things out for them.”
Over-tutoring prevents kids from really reaching out and finding any sort of entrepreneurial spirit. The formula has been simple, do everything mom says and you’ll go to a good school. But whats next? It should make parents wonder why so many SAT camps boast of tutors with 1500+ (now 2300+) SAT scores. I am sure the thinking is not: I wil send my kid to get tutored and pay thousands of dollars so he could eventually become an SAT tutor? Or write a really dumb blog?
The article continues:
They’re used to checklists, he (Ron Alsop) says, and “don’t excel at leadership or independent problem solving.” Alsop interviewed dozens of employers for his book, and concluded that unlike previous generations, Millennials, as a group, “need almost constant direction” in the workplace. “Many flounder without precise guidelines but thrive in structured situations that provide clearly defined rules.”
Dare I say this might be the reason Asians find it difficult to rise to the top of management positions? I want to be careful here and overreach so I won’t necessarily conclude that. But certainly such controlled environments lead to more passive receivers of work rather than the movers and shakers in the corporate world.
I also want to be careful here about my own views on education. I respect and admire my own culture’s inclination to focus on education. Perhaps its the Confucius philosophy or it stems historically from of preparing wholeheartedly for the Civil Service Exam. I just think the educational emphasis needs to be there without the fallback of tutoring every single time.
Well, whats the solution BDK? I don’t really have one. Games like this are usually solved with a commitment mechanism.For instance in the nuclear arms race, the US told the Soviets that if they ever picked up a missile fired by the Soviets on radar, US computers would already be programmed to launch a full, retaliatory arsenal back at the Soviets. I doubt a commitment mechanism to kill other parents for reneging on a deal not to tutor their kids is an optimal one.
Let me offer a different avenue (though incomplete solution). As one who played football and was pushed by a coach who believed in more probably more than I did in myself, I learned a lot more about overcoming obstacles; probably more so than solving a math problem I found easier than most else. As a scrawny kid surrounded by kids who were superior in every aspect of the game, I first recoiled a bit but then eventually attacked my weaknesses and became stronger both physically and mentally. While I am sure now every Korean kid has his sports, along with his orchestra and community service, I think allowing your kid to actually struggle in a sport that he really likes might end up serving him better in the long run. Perhaps this is why we see many successful athletes also rise to the prominent positions of power. Not because of raw smarts but because of an ability to persevere and keep going.