13 September 2009

Corporal Punishment, or What Does Korea Have to Do with Star Trek? (Year 3, Day 19)

Every time I write one of these, I'm tempted to start, "Captain's Log, Stardate ..."

I have been watching far too much Star Trek. I would give you precise information as to shows, seasons, and episodes completed, but suffice it to say I have finished all of "Enterprise," most of "Voyager," and nearly a full-season of "The Next Generation" since the beginning of the year. I am tempted to make it a goal to finish all of the Star Trek television series by the end of my contract, but at 45 minutes per episode, about 26 episodes per season, and between 3 and 7 seasons per show, it represents a considerable time commitment--about 528 hours, in fact, or 22 full days, if I've calculated it correctly.*

I have far better things to do with my time here in Korea.

For better or worse, I have my parents to thank for my interest in this indulgence. "Star Trek-The Next Generation" was one of two shows I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch, the other being Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Why my parents chose these two shows in particular, I do not quite understand, but I will say this about having watched Star Trek. It has shaped me in significant ways.

For one thing, I'm still a little afraid of the dark. I actually don't recall being scared of the dark before watching a certain Star Trek episode, season four's "Identity Crisis," although I'm sure I was since I remember having a nightlight before seeing it. In this episode, Geordi transforms into an alien creature that has extremely high photo sensitivity. In layman's terms, it hates light. The night I saw this episode, I had a dream that I too turned into such a creature in my own back patio. Every night since then, I get the nagging feeling that either A) something in the dark is watching me or B) two pairs of digits on each hand will fuse together leaving me with six fingers and I'll suddenly have huge veins sticking out all over my body. Awesome if you're a body builder. Not so awesome if you're an eight year old kid. Like I said, I'm pretty sure I was scared of the dark before this. It was just this episode in particular that continued that fear into my adult years, if only the littlest bit.

More importantly though, I find that those years of watching Star Trek have prepared me for where I find myself today--in an alien country with an alien culture. That sounds absurd, but in re-viewing these episodes, I find myself struck at how much of that Trekkie culture has actually been a boon to me in Korea.

The impression one gets from the Star Trek movie series is that Star Trek is an action packed, sci-fi thrill ride. In reality, the television episodes that are the foundation for those epic confrontations are more often than not social commentaries on interactions between different groups and how our assumptions can hinder our understanding of other cultures; indeed, the episodes do not always agree and serve as a forum for discussion.

Take for instance "Suddenly Human" in The Next Generation. The Enterprise crew rescues a human boy raised by a warrior alien race from a stranded space ship. They wish to return the boy to his biological family immediately, but the boy's alien adoptive father is willing to start a war to prevent this. When they find that the boy shows evidence of recent broken ribs and internal bleeding, they are even more loathe to return him even though the boy insists that he is happier with his alien brothers than he is with the humans on ship. The father explains that with the rigorous training their youths go through, every child is bound to have a few broken bones by the time they are adolescents. However, the doctor on ship thinks that the boy is suffering from Stockholm syndrome, a psychological condition whereby captives identify with their captors even if abused. Eventually, the captain decides to let the boy return in respect and deference to cultural sensitivity even after the boy attempts to murder him!

On the other hand, there is Voyager's "Initiation" wherein a very similar situation unfolds, but instead of allowing the youth (this time an alien native to the antagonist culture) to return back to his violent warrior race, the Federation-trained crew attempts to rescue him from his "persecutors" who are putting him through a training exercise--albeit a violent one--so that he can reach adulthood.

On the one hand, it would seem that cultural relativism rules the day; on the other hand, universal dictates for raising children. This is made even more complex by the fact that in "Suddenly Human," the main voice of the cultural doctrine is the character least likely to be conciliatory when the laws are on the line, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and in "Initiation" it is the character who is most likely to be so, Commander Chicote.

So, what does this have to do with Korea? In fact, I've been faced with almost the exact same conundrum over where my responsibilities lie with regard to corporal punishment in schools. In Korea, it is perfectly legal for a teacher to strike a student, and violently, in school as a form of discipline. Infractions may be as simple as showing up late or falling asleep or as serious as starting fights behind the main building.

The first time I heard this happen it was outside of the main teachers' office room. Let me here emphasize that I heard the rod coming down on the students. I did not see it. I remember being mentally jarred from the lesson plan I was writing. I remember staring through the screen as I realized what was happening on just the other side of the wall. I remember the look of disappointment on the teacher's face when they re-entered the office. I remember seeing, through the doorway, the students scurry back to their classes seemingly no more the worse for wear. And I remember thinking, Just what exactly is my role here?

In the states, teachers are encouraged to refrain from even touching their students for fear of abuse or sexual harassment law suits against the school, much less hitting them with a bamboo switch or sword. I was raised to believe that the only people who should ever administer corporal punishment on a child were the child's parents, and then only sparingly. To see--and believe me, in my two years here, I've had the opportunity to see as well as hear--such a thing at a publicly funded school shocked me to my core. Shouldn't I do something? I thought. Can I really let this pass?

That day I did, but the question became even more poignant for me in Taekwondo class one day when I myself was involved in the problem that led to the discipline. A child had been continuously saying, "Fuck you!" to my face for no other apparent reason than to show off the new English "bad word" he'd just learned that day. I told him not to several times, and eventually began ignoring the student entirely. When the sabeomnim heard that the student had been saying such disrespectful words to a fellow trainee, he made everyone assemble in lines and rank and gave the student a dressing down in front of everyone. The student, already in tears for shame, was made to go into a kind of bridge position, arms and legs straight, his body forming a 90-degree angle as the sabeomnim called for one of the bamboo swords from the back. The child was hit a number of times, I don't remember how many, but he was sore when it was over and had trouble walking without wincing. I remember screaming at myself, in my head, You must stop this! I tried to speak up, but the sabeomnim told me to keep quiet. Apparently, a lesson in respect had to be learned.

Another English teacher here asked me recently, "What do you do about corporal punishment in schools?" I'll admit, my feelings on it are mixed.

On the one hand, I don't think corporal punishment is an effective discipline in school. The reason for this is that discipline of this kind will never happen in the real world except under extraordinary circumstances, e.g. torture, and if you find yourself in those circumstances, no amount of "reasonable" force in school is going to prepare you for them. In fact, in some cases I've observed, what happens here is abuse. There is no qualification I can give for that. Look the word up in the dictionary if you want to know what I mean.

On the other hand, we've taken our loathing of corporal punishment to an entirely different extreme in America. When I worked as a camp counselor, I was told to be wary of touching the children or giving them hugs for fear of calling a law suit down on the camp from an over protective parent. In Korea, on the other hand, I can pat my kids on the back, playfully punch them in the shoulder, and, on the rare occasion, even give a hug without fear of reproach. When I volunteered as a Vacation Bible School instructor last summer in the United States, having grown accustomed to the more congenial attitude in Korea, I gave one of my students a light bump on the chest both to get his attention and to say, lightly chiding, "Hey, pay attention up front!" Both the kid and I were a bit shocked at this--I, when I realized too late the cultural boundary I had crossed--and I resolved to keep my actions in check from then on.

So, in Korea, should I follow Captain Picard's dictates or Commander Chicote's? Are our cultural norms as regard disciplining children relative or universal?

I don't have an answer for that. I do think that corporal punishment should be the reserve of parents, especially in the states where we all raise our children so differently.

But this here is not my culture. Here, it is not my place to make a public outcry. In the future, I will continue to be a passive observer.

However, I do know that, on that day, cultural considerations be damned, I should have stopped my sabeomnim.

*For the Trekkies who are thinking, "Wait a second! He's missing a full 22 episodes in that calculation," relax. I cannot bring myself to watch the Animated Series for whatever reason. I will, however, entertain arguments for its worth.


I should note that according to Wikipedia, "In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in Ingraham v. Wright (1977) that school corporal punishment is exempt from the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments." 20 states in the USA still allow corporal punishment in public schools. Of the 30 states that prohibit it, two have extended the prohibition to private schools as well. Wikipedia also has a map though I can't help but notice that the corporal punishment states are Republican Red and the states against it are Democrat Blue.

14 September 2009

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