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Saturday, March 04, 2006

A week in Seoul....

It has been a full and busy week in Seoul for me – lectures each night at the University of Oklahoma Yongsan program, a presentation at Yonsei University on Tuesday, and another at Seoul National University on Friday. In the meantime I conducted an online exam for my classes back in New Hampshire, and that proved to be a reasonably successful experience – although we will wait to see what the students have to say about it when I return this week.

The students in the OU course were (as usual) an interesting bunch, and they endure quite a long week when attending a course like mine. It is especially interesting to teach about bureaucracy and bureaucratic politics to a group that is engaged in subject in real time each day. Although they are very tired after a long day at work, most find the energy to stay awake while someone like me drones on and on and on….

Seoul is an interesting city – I was here ten years ago at a time when the economy was in terrible shape. At the moment that is not the case – the dynamic of growth and expansion can be seen everywhere in the skyline of the city, which one of my former students (a Rutgers PhD from Korea who has been playing host to me at times) claims has a population of well over ten million. If the number of skyscraping cranes is any indication, they are reaching to the sky to house that many and them some.

The traffic, however, is a problem. It often takes half an hour to go just a mile or two from my hotel to the post gate, and if you dare cross town you might as well count on a very long trip time wise. It seems that everyone is in their cars, and this despite the fact that the mass transit system here (subways and busses) are supposedly quite good.

Most fascinating is the obvious formality of the Korean culture – there is lots of bowing, and clearly this probably makes for strained relationships between Americans and their hosts. I sought out some insight on this on the web, and the best analysis was provided by someone who giving advice to those who might be coming to Korea to teach (see http://www2.ald.net/~roden/korea/pages/culture.htm). The point made about bowing seemed especially true for what I observed:

“A Korean bow is sometimes not much more than a bob of the head, but how deeply you should bow depends on the status of the other person (this is one reason Koreans ask so many questions when they first meet you). When it's a shopkeeper, taxi driver, or other service provider, just duck your head and shoulders a little. Bow more from the waist for older people and rich business people. Elderly men get the deepest bows -- if you ever meet a Korean friend's grandfather, you might want to hit the floor. Seriously.”


When I was on the campuses, it was clear that the status factor was in full play. My hosts at both Yonsei and SNU were very senior professors, and each time we approached any students there was definitely a deep bow in order. The same held true as we approached younger professors, and from many yards away they would start bowing – not as deeply as the students, but certainly with great respect. At one point, as we were walking on the Yonsei campus, my host (the very senior professor) himself was engaging in a very deep bowing effort as a small group of well dressed men approached – and it was clear that this was the president of the University.

When I finished my talk at Seoul National, I engaged a number of faculty and students in a discussion of the points I was making, and that continued in the office of the head of the School of Public Administration where several more junior colleagues sat quietly while I continued a heated but friendly exchange with a very senior professor. At one point he smiled and spoke in Korean to the dean who was sitting across from us and said (I was later told) it was interesting that we were talking as if we were old friends – and given the context and culture I know that it was an important compliment.

Tonight my former students from Rutgers are going to take me to dinner at the Korea House which is located near Nam San park – and I am told by my American students that this will quite a nice experience. I will report back on the experience….



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